Searching for stories in conflict zones


With a series of gut-wrenching images and videos depicting the brutality of war, Afshin Ismaeli, a photojournalist and war photographer from Norway, narrated his experiences of searching for stories in conflict zones across the Middle East on the concluding day of the 2019 international photography festival.

As a child born in a conflict zone, he remembers waking up to the sounds of bombs and bombings, staring at death every single day in the Iran-Iraq border where he lived. “It was my personal experiences that drove me to seek out the many stories that went untold while also looking for stories of hope in the bleakest of conditions.”

“My experience of the war has impacted the way I see the world, and has shaped my values and beliefs,” he said. However, the risks of being in a war zone, he added, far outweighed “the need to bring these stories to light.”

Stories of children always tugged at his heart strings, he described, as he showed images of 16-year-old Thomas, a Yazidi boy, who was kidnapped at the age of 11 and brainwashed by ISIS to be a suicide bomber. “When we found him he was the sole survivor of a group of 24 kids to survive an air strike,” he said. “Through my photographs, I was able to reunite him with his family, and I visit him every year to check on his progress.”

“His mother says that even a year later, Thomas continues to have nightmares, tends to be aggressive and moody at times,” described Ismaeli. “It is impossible for any of us to imagine the level of trauma these children have experienced; we have lost an entire generation of innocence in these wars.”

Not all stories lead to happy reunions, he said, as he narrated the story of   Sherihan, 16, who was sold 10 times to different owners, was raped, beaten, and also had to witness her mother being killed in front of her eyes. Eynas, another 12-year-old Yazidi girl, was only eight when she was kidnapped by ISIS. “She had been raped and tortured by jihadists,” he said. “When she was rescued, she barely remembered her family members again.”

What was more disturbing, he added, were the babies who were left behind as “Yazidi social norms do not find acceptance for children born out of rape.”

Yet another story that he captured brilliantly was that of the orphaned children of Mosul in Iraq, some as young as 7 and 8 were forced to fend for themselves by collecting and selling scrap metal. “They extracted valuable metals from destroyed buildings but many have lost their lives too when some of these artillery shells accidentally detonated.”   

He closed his talk with positive, uplifting stories of more than 10 children that he helped reunite with their families and now live far away from conflict zones.


The festival, organised by the Sharjah Government Media Bureau (SGMB), attracted 15,000 visitors over the 4-day event.