“When I’m reporting, I write everything down,” says Neil Shea. “I fill at least three or four notebooks during every story.” He also takes pictures of everyone he interviews. These chronicles become a way for him to better understand the situations he’s encountering.
An assignment with photographer Randy Olson in northern Kenya for a story on Lake Turkana took these field notes to a whole new level when Shea and Olson decided to join forces, pairing Olson’s photographs with Shea’s words and posting the resulting “word-picture” stories on Instagram. Here, “we could share a range of other of observations, voices, and moments that would never make it into the magazine.” (You can see their series on Instagram #ngwatershedstories.)
“Writing on Instagram has become one of my favorite ways to do nonfiction,” Shea says. “When so much journalism seems to be trending toward the basic presentation of data, these … pieces let us offer something else—not to replace the traditional stuff but to add another dimension. I think that sometimes short stories are a much better way to convey truth.”
Shea has recently continued this collaboration with photographer Yuri Kozyrev for the March 2016 National Geographic magazine story, “Kurds Fight to Preserve ‘The Other Iraq.'” Six photographs—some published in the magazine, others not—became “a visual launching point,” Shea says, for writing short stories exploring the issues unfolding in Iraqi Kurdistan. These vignettes have the effect of bringing us a more intimate look at peoples’ everyday lives, giving voice to stories often lost within the larger narrative.
“I’d hope for these stories to provide a moment of calm in the whirlwind of each day,” he says. “I’d like for our readers to stop for a moment and be transported somewhere, whether it’s deeper into an idea or to a faraway place or into a stranger’s world.”
ne more set before battle. Or after. In between. Black smoke bends over the frontline and lays ash on the bedrolls and bunkhouses of the Kurdish soldiers. In the cook shacks kettles boil, tea is brewed, and out along the edges of camp war dogs roam for scraps with litters of sand-colored pups following.
Cigarettes, bullets, flip-flops, games. All afternoon the cars roll in from Kirkuk, sedans and taxis, dropping soldiers. They bring old weapons and good cheer, big mustaches. Tiny Korans in their pockets. They hug and salute and are quick to give the names of their children, their sons. Their reasons. One man named his boy Muhammad, after the Prophet. Another is called Carbine, after the rifle.
Across the line, little more than one bullet away, ISIS fighters wait in captured houses. Once they might have played too, maybe football, but now they hide during daylight for fear of airstrikes. And anyway such games are probably haram, forbidden, as is joy, save for the savage kind that comes from killing.
I will not pretend there are two sides to this story. I will not say these causes might be variously interpreted. Whoever comes to the desert sees. The ground is scored by treads of tanks and trucks. A great earthen wall keeps ISIS out and behind it men still work the oil fields. Later, middle of night, there will be gunfire. The father of Carbine will hurry past, wide-eyed and carrying an armload of rockets. Farther down the line, eastward, the sky will brighten with bomb-light. For now, there’s a spike, a block, a burst of laughter. Here is war as we know it. A ball spinning away across the sand.—Neil Shea
he day is ending. Warm and quiet. Even the donkeys aren’t complaining and pull the old wood plow with something like patience, no switch at their flanks, nothing but a whistle to drive them as they carve the first furrows of the season. A field-full of spring flowers falls, making way for potatoes, peppers, carrots, tomatoes. You’d never know the war, or the world, was only a couple hours away, until you look up and see, on the ridge top, an Iranian military observation post. Then you know nothing is ever very far away.
Omer, wearing pressed white shirt and immaculate gray coat, guides the plow while his niece, in a long red dress, guides the beasts. The whole family helps, a whole village prepares. Spring a brief sweetness under the mountain wall. In a graveyard below this field large stones loom out of tall grass. Omer says they’re old, Ottoman Turks, dead so long no one remembers their names. But still the Turks come, from time to time, and bomb the valley, for it is a favorite hiding place of Kurdish rebels who, from time to time, bomb Turkey. Omer and his family, caught between, try simply to live. They won’t leave—this middle ground is too good to abandon, and in the house they now have electricity.
Omer kicks at loose clods and says, Perhaps they will not bomb civilians. Inshallah, I reply. His wife brings water on a silver tray while his youngest daughter, Sumaiya, trips through the furrows to her father’s side. Omer plucks her up and heaves her hip-ward and says You are useless, my love. She smiles softly, patiently, as though he is missing the point, and wipes her dirty hands down his coat.—Neil Shea
e agree to be photographed only to confirm our survival. We hide our faces because they won’t help you understand. On this side, my daughter. On the other, the wife of my son. Both were captured, each was forced to marry an ISIS fighter. Later they escaped, and you may say they are fortunate, though some days it is not so easy to agree.
Everything is changed. Our families receive us differently. Men receive us differently. Perhaps for them it was worse, in a way. In some towns the bodies of men and boys are only now uncovered, their bones pierced and broken, bullets buried in ribcages and skulls. There, at least, is a record. An investigation. Little plastic bags for the evidence. No judge can measure suffering but sometimes I think the dead are louder than the living.
We are not a Muslim people, and so we are puzzled by this war and also we recognize it. Women know there is always another army coming. Each time a new god leads. Long ago this was a Christian landscape. Sometimes priests still go flapping past, like crows, and their monasteries still cling to the hillsides, though they are empty now. Then, the Muslims arrived and rolled the Christians away, their songs spilling from the minarets, their mosques raised over the old tombs. Now there is ISIS, whose men build nothing and worship death.
Before all, we lived here. Our temples bright with candles, our prayers shaking the holy mountain. The peacock and the flame are our symbols. Water is our way to purification. Maybe you never heard of us but now you will remember: We are Yazidi. Those people without faces. Those women who came back from the dead.—Neil Shea
ere is the enemy, shoeless and sulking, a few hours after his capture. In the interview room he is well-behaved. The air smells of cologne and cigarettes. A policeman places a small plastic table before him, sets a cup of water there. Even ISIS fighters drink water. Sami Hussein is weary. Probably it has been a long night. Otherwise he seems unharmed. Only his thumb is discolored, black-and-blue with the ink used to sign the confession.
The room is full of policemen who tick like clocks. Soon the table and the water, untouched, are removed. One cop shifts his rifle to the other shoulder, another cop begins asking questions. Sami Hussein confirms what we have heard. Many fighters have come from Europe and America, and Yaziidi girls are passed hand to hand for a few worthless moments of so-called marriage. He talks of Islam and car bombs and airstrikes. He says ISIS lured him in with tales of glory. He says he regrets joining. Or does he regret getting caught?
When you left Kirkuk and went out to ISIS, did you imagine, Sami, that heaven was earned with rape and blood? Maybe you’re a dumb kid who made a bad mistake. Maybe you were only a chai boy carrying tea along the front line. But these days no one remembers mercy. You will be executed. You will vanish. A commander says you should be hurried out of the light. I admit to a Kurdish friend that my heart hurts for all of this and he is stunned. Why? he says, almost angry. This guy is ISIS. But really I’m thinking of your mother, Sami. They caught you sneaking home to see her.—Neil Shea
ost of us are new. Only a few thought we would be soldiers. It’s not something most girls grow up wanting. But we change. The world offers a chance, or forces a choice. There is no other way to say it. Some of our sisters are Arabs and came here escaping violent husbands or families who wanted them caged. Others of us are Kurds, and we too fled beatings, adulterers, hypocrites. Of course, some here joined the women’s battalion simply to fight. Defend. Perhaps to kill. Because no woman can look to ISIS and see life. Or happiness. Death is no victory.
The devout ones among us know that justice is not made with men’s hands. So we march and we train, like soldiers everywhere, for a day that may never come. At the firing range that afternoon we practiced with rifles as old as our fathers and dug through crates of ammunition made for an imaginary war.
The brass chipped paint from our fingernails. Our hands shook. We were nervous, unused to the weight of the steel and the cold crescent moon of the trigger. Our first shots flew wide or spitted into the dust. But we learned. Felt recoil. Smelled powder. Hot cartridges bounced off our boot tops. And then, one by one, our rifles began breaking. There were misfires. Stocks fell off and charging handles jammed. Selector switches stuck fast.
Soon, a pile of dead weapons lay at our feet. My commander said, How can we meet ISIS with this? Tell them we need better guns! You held up your hands and laughed, helpless. You knew this fight would last all the rest of our lives.—Neil Shea
riday, and by noon Kirkuk is dreaming. Flat white heat pushes through the crumbling neighborhoods, over the graves of the prophets, and into the mosque’s dim chambers where, now, it is time for the zikir. Musicians slip drums from their cases and begin striking out a rhythm. It rises, falls, repeats. Toom-toom, snap-snap, simple verses, Allah’s name.
Above, on a balcony, boys press their faces to the rail and watch their fathers rise into rapture. Some men spin, arms out, palms up. Eyes shut. They twirl like pinwheels, like prayer wheels, while others remove headscarves and release bands of dark hair which they whip back and forth, God’s headbangers.
This is one of the few places you will find them all—Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni, Shia, Sufi. Together. Beyond anger and ashes. In prayer beyond words. And yet, some say this isn’t Islam. A few miles away, across the frontline, through no-man’s-land, in the charred villages, another Friday unfolds. Over there, ISIS fighters pray, too. No music. No mystery. The ancient dialogues crushed down into small mean rulebooks. It is said that, after prayers, the militants fight harder, but I wonder how long they can run on empty.
Back in the mosque, the men are spent and the zikir is ending. In the center of the room an old dervish comes undone. He’s been spinning in bliss for an hour and his shirt is dark with sweat, his orbit erratic with fatigue. He stumbles. Begins to fall. A friend leaps forward and makes the catch and together they go softly to the floor. At my shoulder there is a sigh, and a boy, quite young, whispers God is great.—Neil Shea
Follow Neil Shea on Instagram @neilshea13.