On the eve of both International Women’s Day and the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, two events expose the reality of that conflict.
It’s impossible for most of us to imagine how it feels when the 24-hour news cycle sets up shop on your block and doesn’t go home for years. Or when peacekeepers, tanks and gunfire become things that you might encounter on the school run. To understand what it feels like when the presence of these things has ceased to shock you, and has simply become a part of your routine. Or to appreciate the difficulty of rebuilding a society fractured by war, and the effort this asks of every single person in it, no matter how young, how old, how humble.
We depend on journalists to bring that reality home to us. Because they are there with their cameras and their notebooks, that crucial information gets out to the rest of the world and is recorded for history. Because they are there, war becomes more than rhetoric and strategy and polling numbers to us; we can see the shattered lives that result from decisions made by politicians half a world away. Sean Smith, the Guardian’s photographer on the scene, brought us that picture from the Iraq War during stints embedded with the US and British military. The images he shot before, during and after the conflict are on display in a new exhibition at Imperial War Museum North from March, revealing a world where people struggled to carry on their lives while the world fell to pieces around them.
The photos are only half the story: those who lived through the war have their own tales to tell
It is a timely exhibition. The work of journalists who report from war zones has never been more important – or more dangerous. I happen to be writing this on 22 February, one year on from the day when Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were killed while reporting on the bloody conflict in Syria (and the launch of A Day without News, a campaign to stop the targeting of journalists in conflict).
But these photographs are only part of the picture. The people who lived through the war and continue to live with its legacy have an important story to tell, and we’ve got a rare opportunity to hear them tell it: IWM North and The Abundance Lab are running an event that explores the female experience of the Iraq War. On the eve of International Women’s Day, Through the Lens: Women in Iraq Ten Years On gathers together three remarkable women with different perspectives of the events: Houzan Mahmood, a spokesperson for the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq; photographer Eugenie Dolberg, who ran the Open Shutters: Iraq project (now the subject of a wonderful book) which helped Iraqi women use photography to document their own experience of the conflict, and Iraqi musician and activist Zuhal Sultan, who founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq when she was just 17. There’s no better place to learn about the strength and courage seemingly ordinary women have shown in their responses to the Iraq war.