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Crisis 04 2

Tom Stoddart pays tribute to extraordinary women

The acclaimed photojournalist and Honorary Fellow explains why he pays homage in his latest book to the women of courage he has photographed across 50 years

‘Bhachau, India’, 2001. A child plays with pigeons among the ruins of Bhachau, India, one of the worst hit towns after the earthquake of 2001 struck the region of Gujarat.

 

Ordinary women are capable of extraordinary things. When a crisis engulfs a community it’s the women who turn to face the challenges head on. Their love of family and never-surrender attitude drives them on to survive the miserable cruelty of conflicts, political persecution, natural disasters and health emergencies.

In April 1987 I saw Haji Achmed Ali sacrifice her life attempting to leave the besieged Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, in a desperate bid to buy food for her starving family. The 22-year-old Palestinian was shot in the face and stomach by Syrian-backed Amal militia gunmen as she walked alone down the ‘Path of Death’. Her courage made a huge impact on me and also on my brave Sunday Times colleague, Marie Colvin, who later became one of the most famous foreign correspondents in the world before also being callously murdered by the hand of Syria.

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'Sarajevo, Bosnia’, 1992. Women run for their lives across ‘Sniper Alley’ under the sights of Serb gunmen during the siege of Sarajevo.

 

Arriving in Sarajevo in 1992 I photographed proud, stylishly dressed women wearing pearls arguing over the price of foraged dock leaves in the marketplace. The women made soup from the leaves and fed their children, menfolk and elderly family members first, then themselves. The lack of food and constant sprinting to avoid mortars and sniper fire caused Sarajevo’s women on average to lose 30lbs in weight. They called it being on the Radovan Karadžić diet, after the Bosnian Serbian leader whose surrounding forces tormented their city from the hills.

In ‘Sniper Alley’ I saw countless acts of courage and humanity by women shielding their children and helping each other across deadly intersections. The heroism was humbling to witness. 

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‘Sarajevo, Bosnia’, 1992. Sedija Katica, who lost both legs after being hit by a grenade, plays with her five-year-old daughter, Amra, near the frontline in Sarajevo.

 

I’ve been privileged to have a ringside view of incredibly joyful times too, such as 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and 27 April 1994, when voters elected Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president. These momentous events gave freedom to millions of strong, modest women, quietly determined to build a better future for themselves and their families.

Sadly a recurring theme in my career has been documenting lines of refugees fleeing ethnic hatred or political barbarism. But again, amid such fear and chaos, it’s the women and girls who protect the weak, bear the weight, build the fires and feed the hungry. Eleanor Roosevelt was so right when she said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.”

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'Chokwe, Mozambique’, 2000. Holding tightly onto her children, a mother looks for the safety of higher ground near Chokwe, Mozambique, during the floods which covered the country in 2000.

 

What must it feel like as a mother to load everything you own on your shoulders and set off to trek miles across deserts or mountains, or to pay a criminal thousands of dollars to transport your terrified children across a sea in a fragile boat to seek asylum in a strange land?

Many images in these pages hold strong memories for me, but the photograph of Meliha Varešanović, walking with her head held high wearing her heels and jewellery through a battle-scarred Sarajevo neighbourhood, has a special place in my heart. In 250th of a second, Meliha’s bravery, defiance, beauty and soul are captured and exposed in one powerful frame and for a photographer it doesn’t get any better than that.

Meliha

‘Sarajevo, Bosnia’, 1995. In the dangerous suburb of Dobrinja, Meliha Varešanović walks proudly and defiantly to work during the siege of Sarajevo.

 

This is an extract from the forward to Extraordinary Women: Images of Courage, Endurance and Defiance, by Tom Stoddart HonFRPS, published by ACC Art Books. An exhibition of 80 images from the book is at Side Gallery, Newcastle, until 13 December.