When people step out of their houses in my hometown, they tell their loved ones: “I hope to see you again” – there’s no guarantee they will make it back.
I was born in Kirkuk, a city of northern Iraq in the Kurdish region of the country. It’s a multicultural place, where Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and foreign workers live together. Back in the day, Saddam Hussein initiated several campaigns to ‘Arabise’ Kirkuk, evicting Kurdish families and giving their homes over to families from the south of Iraq. But when the US-led invasion of 2003 reached my hometown, Kurdish forces worked to reverse this process. The city fell within the so-called disputed areas; responsibility for administration and security was shared between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities.
I started photographing Kirkuk in 2007. Three years later, I moved to Holland and when I came back in 2013, I was hoping to come back to a lively city. What I found was a place in worse shape than I had left it. Sad faces, no cultural activities, no art. I realized that when people hear bad news daily, there is no space left for happiness.
The security situation has been bad since 2003, but it took a turn for the worst with the war against ISIS. It’s very close to the city and people are scared. The economy went down, there are less jobs, people only buy the bare necessities. Arabs are suspicious of the Turkmen and Peshmergas and the other way around. There are still many explosions, executions and kidnappings.
Photographing Kirkuk is difficult for many reasons. Most of the time, officials don’t understand what I’m doing, or don’t trust that I am journalist. People don’t want to be photographed because of security reasons. They’re afraid to open up about their true feelings. I also fear for my personal safety: journalists are big targets for terrorists.
Every character in my photo stories has a different story, a different religion, a different language. They are all important to me. These people used to live together, marry each other. Now, nobody trusts each other.
What I find the most interesting is that people don’t leave Kirkuk. I met a woman who told me she lost her only son in an explosion. She hopes for better times but still won’t leave. Through my photographs, I want to show the world how it is to live here. I try to see the beautiful side of Kirkuk and how strong its people are, how easily they can adapt. People have always found new way of living their lives, constantly aware of the war and that everything can change at any moment.