Photographer Constance Proux travelled several times to Akkar, Lebanon’s northernmost district for her documentary project Akkar which soon will be exhibited at the Manifesto Festival in Toulouse and the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam. Her work focuses on the narratives of displaced Syrians living as refugees in this frequently unstable border region. During her last stay in Akkar, she collaborated with her sister Philippine Proux, a Ph.D. student in sociology. They captured portraits of refugees and collected their stories; just like archaeologists, they also archived the ordinary and precious which tell tales of violence and exile.
“They have just arrived from Syria,” says the young woman, replacing the poorly repaired glasses sliding down her nose. Her husband stayed behind; he’s in prison. Suddenly she holds up the strange object she wears around her neck: a bullet threaded on a string.
She comes from Homs. She tells us the story — as the fighting became more intense and the Syrian army regained control of the city — of a particularly violent day. The snipers are everywhere: on the roofs of houses, schools, mosques, hospitals. A tank is posted in front of her house, and she finds herself trapped inside. She goes from room to room, looking for something (she no longer remembers what), and has just enough time to register the pop of an explosion before losing consciousness. Her husband, returning home some time later, wakes her. He shows her the bullet intended for her, stuck in the wooden door that saved her life. With it he makes the necklace. She’s never been without it since.
The family is settled in Mish Mish, in the mountains, at the northern tip of Akkar. In this house live the father, mother, four of their children and one son-in-law. Four other children are still in Syria. The story of their departure is complicated, full of twists, comings and goings between Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. They packed their bags eight months before their departure. These suitcases, filled with clothing, are now stacked in one room of the house and act as a makeshift wardrobe.
They took a while to leave. Sniper fire is terrifying at first; then you get used to it. You work around it. Then come the tanks and missiles; and helicopters, jets, aerial bombardments. Ultimately you get used to them, too. But when they start the looting and systematic arrests — when the soldiers begin to enter homes without warning, at any hour of the day or night — you can no longer work around it. There is no getting used to such things. They rented a car and left under fire at five o’clock in the morning.
As the long hours it has taken to recount their journey draw to a close, the father gets up and leaves the room, returning with an air of mystery and a large plastic bag. He takes out a multitude of small objects carefully packaged in newsprint: coins, medallions, pieces of metal, belt loops… They are artifacts he has collected illegally, through excavation of archaeological sites in Syria. Funerary objects, most likely. Some are more recent and date from the 19th century; others date back to antiquity — to the time of Alexander the Great, he says. They are his treasures, the most precious objects he owns, and he counts on selling them here for a great deal of money.
Hussam, a charismatic thirty-something, is a prominent local figure. With his wife, he runs the store that supplies the camp and oversees the site on its edge where a dozen mud houses are to be built. Hussam is popular, constantly at the center of a crowd. Yet he insists we speak alone; here is a difficult story to tell.
The jacket he wears today is an important – even a good – souvenir he says.
Where he comes from, the winters are harsh. At the beginning of the revolution, in need of a simple, cheap way to face the bitter weather during peaceful demonstrations, all the men in Hussam’s village went in on a bulk order of the same jacket.
The men organized themselves, traveling to Qussair in their matching jackets to participate in mass demonstrations. It’s those early days of the revolution — the momentum, hope and solidarity of those times — that his jacket symbolizes for Hussam today.
But the situation quickly degenerated. Clashes between supporters and opponents of the government descended into violence and the Syrian army began its repression in earnest. In time, the jackets became shrouds, used to collect the limbs of bodies scattered by gunfire and explosions, allowing for their dignified burial.
Hussam kept his jacket. Two years passed. Then, one April 21, the Syrian army and Hezbollah attacked his village. It was a black day; as Hussam and his nephew fled their home, seeking refuge in the forest, he wore the same jacket. During their escape, Hussam was grazed by a bullet. If the wound on his left arm has now healed over, his jacket still bears the trace of the impact.
But Hussam has said enough. What he has seen is beyond imagining; he will never forget it, even if he sometimes comes to doubt whether he really could have lived such a nightmare. But now, one must get on with the business of living. It’s time for tea.
It has been nearly eight months since she arrived at the camp. Death is far away now; there is less need to talk of it. But today, she seems to have changed her mind. She tells us how she left Syria.
Three months prior to their hasty departure, Fatma prepared a large handbag in case they had to leave the country. She filled it with their important papers, passport photos, and a few changes of clothes for herself and her children. After that, the bag never left her side. She left the house with it every day, ready to go at any moment. She had bought the handbag during a pilgrimage to Mecca several years earlier. She also packed a Bic pen and a few sheets of paper, in order to keep a diary of the things they experienced.
And then one day it happened — she did not return home. Her village was bombed; she left with her bag, her husband and her three youngest children.
The bag is here, worn, with holes in some places. The front is emblazoned with stars and, at the back, above the leather strap, an inscription embroidered in English: Home Sweet Home. She still has her treasured Bic pen. When asked about the diary she wrote daily, she just responds with a sigh, an evasive flick of the hand. She lost it long ago, this question is absurd!
Translated from French by Erin O’Halloran.