Jan 21, 2013

Parting shots

From: The Australian

Don McCullin early in his career.

DON McCullin troubles me. In his strong mind he is 40, maybe 45, but his body is 77 years old. He roars at night in his sleep, the shouts loud but dulled by the bundle of blankets under which he sleeps on a cold stone floor.

I wonder if it is the ghosts of Vietnam or Biafra or Beirut or the Congo that pester his dreams, but when I ask, he says it is "Chelsea buns" that make him shout so. Here in Syria he is my responsibility and I slightly resent this, for that young mind and old body make him difficult, as errant and vulnerable as a young dog by a main road.

I realise that this resentment is there when I seize him one day, roughly, and scrape him hard and fast down the edge of a wall and through a doorway. I am trying to protect him when I do this. But I am also angry with him. Someone is trying to kill us. Two shots from an unseen sniper have just split the air in bullwhip cracks beside us, in an empty street with many ruins, and he doesn't move fast enough because he cannot run, or will not run, and he is right in my way, plodding along in between me and the cover of a doorway, so I grab him hard, shouting in his ear, and propel him forwards. He spins around with shock and twists his leg painfully and I feel bad about it, not as bad as if he had been shot dead, or if I had been shot because he was too slow and in the way, but bad anyway, because he is a hero of mine and it is an uneasy feeling hurting, manhandling and shouting at a hero, while feeling a bit resentful and unkind.

The feelings do not go away so I think about them for a long time. There is respect and admiration for him, and the awareness of being in the company of a real English gentleman - a brave, cultured, well-mannered human being. He is tough and well put together, too, broad shouldered and strong, though his medical history includes a stroke and a bypass. He fought three coppers at once only a few years ago. Yet there is also this resentment. At first I wonder if it is caused by staring into the mirror of another man in war and seeing a foreshadowing of my future. It is simpler than this, though. Eventually, I realise that my unease springs from an unanswered question that shadows my every step with that man in that city.

Why has Don McCullin, an iconic figure among photographers, chosen to return to war 15 years after he left conflict behind? Why has he asked me to lead him to Aleppo - a city that tramples over its old and weak in a careless rush to kill its young, its strong and virile - as an old man, to see war one last time?

At different times he gives different answers. One of his sons is a Royal Marine serving in Afghanistan. Sometimes McCullin says he wants to show solidarity with his boy's risk. At other times he claims to want to photograph what others can't. In unguarded moments he says he is just curious. Once or twice he remarks that he is back in war because he has become bored.

Until I know the answer to that question I cannot feel easy in his company. I did not want to be guide to an old lion-hunter looking for one last shot against the creep of the clock. Syria kills too quickly to mess around there with half-formed musings or vanities. I want it to mean more to him if it is to mean anything to me. McCullin will have to work out his reasons, his legitimacy for being there, if we are to be any more than bell-ringers together, tolling time on dusty memories of yesteryear's wars.

I fear Syria. It would be an easy place to forget one's bones, to leave them behind in an untended olive orchard or the rubble of a MiG-bombed house. The war there once made me weep. It killed a friend of mine. Another is missing. In six assignments to the country since last January I have learnt to double my risk margins, to work fast and leave quickly. At 46, and 20 years into the game, I am at a bad age for war correspondents. Too much of survival is based around the simple laws of chance and probability, so I'm gambling on a bad credit rating, which means I have to play very careful hands of cards.

In September I'd left Aleppo scared, unnerved as much by the insecurity there - the feral fragmentation of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) - as by the shelling and airstrikes of the regime. The FSA unit I was working alongside had lost 20 per cent of its strength in little more than 48 hours. In my last minutes there that northern autumn I'd been pinned into buildings at the edge of the Bab al-Hadid gate of the medina - the old, walled section of the city - by a precise artillery barrage called down upon us by Syrian army observers on the battlements of the gate. An enduring memory is of a young FSA rebel, laughing just seconds earlier, pale with shock and pulling up his stained T-shirt to look at a shrapnel wound to his stomach. How quickly it can all go wrong. I was in no hurry to return.

So when McCullin asked to accompany me to Aleppo when I next went back there, I had mixed feelings. Among them was a sense of privilege. I was in my early teens when I first became aware of McCullin's work. His photographs burnt their way into my mind's eye like the lasting impression of a light bulb on the retina. I can see the images now as I write, having no need to look at any of his work on my study bookshelves to recall the grief of the Cypriot widow; the US soldier throwing the grenade in Hue; the skeletal albino Biafran child; the mandolin player standing triumphant over a dead girl in Beirut.

Responsibility was another feeling swilling in the mix. I did not want him to be a liability. He had been out of war for a long time. He claimed he wanted to go to Syria "to produce a strong set of images" that he said he hadn't seen emerge from the conflict so far, but it seemed an impossible aspiration after so long away from war, and I wondered even then why he was really going.

Through the beat of windscreen wipers the roads changed in the rain, which poured unceasing from low drifting banks of sombre grey cloud, the smooth stretch of the Turkish highway giving way to the narrow undulations and ruts of Syria. Low cloud meant no MiGs. Russian air attacks in Chechnya years before had taught me there are no heroes in an airstrike. Grown men dig themselves into the ground with their fingernails to escape the attack run of a MiG or Sukhoi. So let it rain.

McCullin was happy to be going to war again. He said he wasn't, and made noises about the terrible nature of war, but he was. The edgy rush of adrenalin had picked him up and tuned him. He laughed a lot, his voice was full and rich and his eyes twinkled. A few hours passed and the world disappeared by degrees into a slick blur of greys and greens which wrestled behind misted windows. Then the greys picked up and smothered the greens, which meant we were in Aleppo. I took McCullin to his quarters, an empty apartment in a building already hit by artillery, where the rain dribbled through a shell hole in the stairwell roof to run down the stairs. Artillery regularly landed around the building. He looked quite at home.

I took him to the front the next morning. Among the restless heave and throb of Aleppo, a sprawling urban war zone in which two million people still managed to survive - denied electricity, and critically short of fuel and food - the front line meandered in a rough crescent shape that included the medina at its heart. If you ignored the cold and hunger and stood in the city's quieter suburbs, the damage was slight and suggestions of war seemed far away, until the rumble of artillery bounced through the streets or a MiG roared overhead. The closer you got to the front lines, though, the more the evidence of war grew, the rubble and glass and yawning, burnt-out apartments mounting and merging until they were as featureless and ruined as any Grozny or East Mostar, to the point at which you ended up scurrying around the labyrinth of tunnels that connected the cellars beneath buildings, rubbing shoulders in the gloom with the FSA rebels, some of whom wielded pickaxes and lamps to chip out new holes among the debris: the place where men and their great civilisation were reduced to troglodytes among dripping ruins.

In such circumstances, Syrians regarded McCullin's age with wonder. "Were you in World War I as well?" one young FSA fighter asked him. The rebels were fascinated by him. In a culture that respects the status of elders, a few of them seemed quite overawed at the venerable foreign pensioner in their midst. Much later, some people passed verdict on McCullin's appearance in Aleppo on the quality of his photographs. They missed the point. His photos would never be the same as in his heyday, any more than the blows of a comeback boxer could compare to their era as champ. It was his presence that carried the punch.

For Syria's war is characterised most strongly by absence and collective abandonment. Other than the protagonists and victims the arena is almost empty. There is no foreign military intervention. There are no NGOs or aid workers distributing food and blankets. The media is similarly self-exiled: very few broadcasters or newspapers commit journalists regularly, if at all. A handful of freelance photographers work inside the country, but none of the big names. The middle-aged bravehearts of Bosnia and Afghanistan have grown old and too soft for the hardships of Syria, while the economics of journalism have not allowed their replacement generation to prosper. That McCullin, still a prizefighter despite his years, had hauled himself out to that lonely war zone was inspiring in itself, legitimising the work of the few freelancers already there and challenging the absentees.

It seemed entirely fitting that on that first morning in a battered street in the Al Sha'ar neighbourhood, as we sat around a brazier with some fighters trying to warm our hands, three freelance photographers appeared. They comprised probably 50 per cent of the entire foreign media presence in the city, so were used to being alone. In their late 20s and early 30s, by the nature of their profession they would have all been familiar with McCullin's work. And here he was, sitting by a brazier near the front, a statue stepped down from its plinth in flesh and blood and good humour, warming his hands and surveying the destruction as nearby machinegun fire rattled down a street, as easy with the situation as some men would have been with a morning's walk to the station. They were thrilled.

A couple of days later we travelled to Moshaat, where a garrison of regime troops was being besieged by rebels. The rain had gone overnight and the skies were unusually blue and clear, curdling my mood. For 20 minutes we weaved across orchards and through crawl-holes knocked in compound walls as we neared the front line. Jets flew overhead, and evidence of their previous depredations lay clearly around us, in buildings crushed by the mighty fists of bombs.

At the front line, a group of rebels took turns to fire through holes in the wall as McCullin photographed them. Then a handful of young hotheads, unable to contain their exuberance, sprinted forward to lob a grenade into the regime's position. McCullin planted himself to photograph the scene, feet widely apart, in a space totally devoid of cover. The youths fell back laughing as the Syrian troops blazed retaliatory fire in their direction. "See that, they are happy now," McCullin said, hooking a thumb towards the rebels as fire cracked over the walls. "So am I. I love this. This noise never bothers me. I feel at home."

I found it a profoundly sad remark to make. His helmet was askew and he was puffing hard beneath the weight of his body armour, but he was smiling fixedly at the sound of the shooting. Was this really what he was after, I wondered humourlessly. A last hit off the action amid the misery of Syria? Was this what awaited me, too? The anger lasted with me throughout the night, and I was haunted by memories of an old Yugoslav who had described to me how Tito, wheelchair-bound and barely coherent, had been trundled to a forest clearing by his cronies to shoot his last bear. It was tethered to the ground by chains.

I was wrong. He was no Tito. There was something much more dignified at stake with McCullin's presence in Syria than the desire for a final shot, just one more composition of someone else's nightmare. He was more complex and introverted than I had imagined, and whatever questions I may have had concerning his reasons for returning to war, his own questions hunted harder. If he could not articulate it, that was simply because he hadn't known the answer when he arrived in Aleppo: he had gone there to ask himself the question "What am I doing here?". It took a few days before the shape formed. It did so in the crump of artillery in a street in the city's north.

It was mid-afternoon and we were in the Al Sha'ar district again when it happened, near a clinic not far from where a hospital had been reduced to an empty wreck by a regime jet a fortnight before. Unusually, we were both in a good mood. McCullin had spent the morning among Aleppo's growing population of poor. He despised the term "war photographer" for its limitations - he has sold more prints of landscapes than of war - and, seeing him work with Syrian refugee families squatting in freezing apartments that stank of shit and burnt nylon, I understood why. The echoes of a damp wartime basement flat in Finsbury Park, north London, were still close. The years may have glamorised and elevated him, but he was relaxed and familiar among those with cracked hands, cold children and worries on their mind: his social chronicling of the war experience seemed much more three-dimensional than his courage in action.

Then came the detonations. A residential area was being targeted. The first vehicles arrived a minute or two later, screeching to a halt outside the clinic. The first was a flatbed pick-up. There were three dead men in the back. Shellfire can really play havoc with a human body. The first man was all guts and tatters and dead beyond doubt, but they hauled him onto a stretcher anyway for the sake of some relatives there. No one bothered moving the other two for some time. They lay motionless and waxen, their blood trickling off the ramp onto the tarmac fast enough to splash a little. More vehicles arrived with casualties. All were civilians.

There is no justification in turning away or retching when you see humans in that state. Those who do are true cowards. You treat the dead, even in ruin, with dignity and stare at their damage face-on. Their tragedy is the essence of war. So McCullin fired off some frames, and we left only when the crowd looked as if it might turn ugly. He must have seen it a thousand times before yet he was silent for the rest of the day, staring listlessly around him and shooting barely another frame. As darkness fell and the cold set in we sat down to eat some chicken. It was our first and only meal of the day, but McCullin could barely touch it. It made him feel sick. He said he felt ashamed.

"I'd never felt like that in the past when I'd seen bodies," he said suddenly, "but today I felt physically sick and turned off and I didn't want to take pictures. I felt ashamed to be there doing what I was doing.

"I think today, this afternoon," he added, choking back tears, "for the first time in my life I was lost for words and I felt really deep shock and deeply hurt ... When I went to take pictures I thought, 'What has this got to do with photography? This has nothing to do with photography.' I hardly think it has anything to do with communication at the end of the day. It shocks you so much you walk away and say, 'I don't need to come here. Why have I come here?' That is my final word on it, really."

We left the next morning. I know he will never go back. He had gone to war again for the best reason there is: to say goodbye.

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