When photographer John Wreford wrote for Roads & Kingdoms in March about going on daily errands in Damascus, his home for the previous decade—and the Assad regime stronghold—his bio included this: “He is not planning to leave Syria anytime soon.”
It was true in March. But war has a way of making a mockery of plans, and when I called John this weekend to talk about his new photos from the Atmeh refugee camp in northern Syria, he was not in Damascus anymore. Rather, he has joined, in his own way, the great flood of refugees throughout the region, having left behind his home and photo gallery in Damascus and moved to Istanbul. He was kind enough to spend an hour with us talking about refugees, international apathy, and the long tail of war.
Roads & Kingdoms: Thanks for taking the time to talk.
John Wreford: No problem. Just bear with me. My Mac died and I have a new computer. I don’t really know what I’m doing with it.
R&K: When did you leave Damascus? Why?
JW: It started just after you published my account. Famous last words: “He is not planning to leave”. And I wasn’t. But I had trouble.
In Syria, being “on the computer” is a euphemism for being wanted by the secret police.
R&K: What kind of trouble?
JW: [It started when] I was about to leave for a short trip for Cairo. I have residency in Syria, and to leave you have to get an exit visa. When I went to the immigration office to do it, I discovered my name was on the computer. In Syria, that’s a euphemism for being wanted by the secret police. I spent the next three months trying to leave.
Eventually, I got permission. It’s ridiculous, these lists. They didn’t tell me what it was. One suspects that they were worried I was working as an undercover journalist. They gave me permission to leave, and according to the stamp in my passport, it allows me to go back. But there’s a big risk. You need little excuse these days to lock someone up. The handful of foreigners still left in Damascus are all having trouble.
R&K: Was it a proper move or did you have to just leave with a few suitcases?
JW: Pretty much the latter. The guy at the immigration office was a little bit soft, and we were paying him for his assistance, he said “you’re supposed to go to the Mukhabarat (the secret service), but my advice is to not go.”
So I went back home and just packed everything. Usually they just detain you at the immigration office, and then you just have 48 hours to leave the country. I had longer, but I still had to leave everything.
I’ve got somebody living in my house, people I know who are refugees from a different part of the city. I feel very much like a refugee.