MADRID – The first thing that struck photojournalist Mohammed Badra as he walked into a run-down field hospital in the besieged Eastern Ghouta countryside outside the Syrian capital almost exactly a year ago was a familiar waft of chemicals that conjured up happy memories of swimming pools and of mothers busying away in the kitchen.
But this was a joyless occasion. In here, chlorine clawed at lungs and stole breath indiscriminately. Badra documented the event in a harrowing still image that the World Press Photo jury has selected among its six nominations for the prestigious photo of the year award.
“I can’t forget it, the road from my basement shelter to the hospital after my friend told me there had been a strike and the first thing I could smell when I entered the field hospital was chlorine,” Badra, a 28-year-old Syrian staffer for the european pressphoto agency, said in an interview.
Badra was no stranger to hospitals. He had spent time working as a nurse and, as a photojournalist at the height of the Syrian government’s five-year siege of Eastern Ghouta – which is only a stone’s throw from Damascus – he filed countless unflinching images of bloodied hospital floors and crying children on an almost daily basis.
This time it was different.
“I could see the pain on their faces, but I could see no blood. Everyone talks about the blood, about the smell of blood, but people were dying here with no wounds,” he added.
It was Feb. 25, 2018 – a Sunday, when the alleged chemical attack struck the village of al-Shifunieh. Badra said he could confirm that one child died in the assault. The next day, doctors told him three more had perished. Over a dozen were injured.
Assad’s regime denied using chemical weapons, despite condemnation from the West. Photojournalists on the ground were crucial in the endeavor for truth.
“The child’s body looked so untouched,” Badra said.
Sadly, it was not the first or last time he witnessed alleged chemical usage in the Syrian Civil War, which erupted when anti-government protests were met with a harsh government clampdown in 2011. It has claimed the lives of almost 500,000 people, according to the Syrian Center for Policy and Research. Millions have fled the country. Millions more remain internally displaced.
Human Rights Watch has documented 85 cases of chemical attacks in Syria since 2013. A major attack was reported in Douma in April 2018, just before the end of the siege.
As a photojournalist, Badra said he felt duty-bound not only to document the events of the war but also to gather evidence of possible crimes against humanity for the history books.
The World Press Photo jury selected one of Badra’s images from the alleged chemical attack in al-Shifunieh. It shows four people receiving treatment for injuries; three of those, including a young child, for respiratory problems linked to suspected chlorine gas exposure.
“I see myself in their faces, I imagine what it would be like to be in their position; if I was the victim and they were the photographer,” Badra said.
In the foreground of the image, a young boy wrapped in a blanket sits on a stool as his father places a comforting hand on his back. To his right, a shirtless man is hooked up to a breathing apparatus.
In the background, a man stares in the direction of the photographer.
“He looked like he wanted to say something, to ask me something, but couldn’t. It was as though he was carrying something really heavy on his back,” the photojournalist added.
The older man in the in the far-left corner of the room was injured in a previous airstrike.
For Badra, the assortment of ages demonstrates the indiscriminate nature of war.
He welcomed his World Press Photo recognition as a way to raise global awareness about the plight of the Syrian people and, beyond that, suffering the world over.
Etching such important imagery may help us to avoid repeating history, Badra said.
“It is our right to have our suffering recorded forever,” he said. “But I feel honor and pain at the same time, adding my people’s suffering to the history books.”
“This is not only evidence of crimes against civilians in besieged Eastern Ghouta but it is about what is happening to humanity around the world on a daily basis,” said Badra, who was born in Douma, a population hub in Eastern Ghouta.
“I believe in humanity,” he added. “It makes us ask the question: what kind of world do we want our children to live in? In a state of war? Or in a state of indifference?”
At the onset of war, Badra downed his architecture tools, suspended his degree and briefly became a nurse in his native Douma, where he worked with the growing flow of injured civilians flooding the wards as forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, encircled and bombarded Eastern Ghouta.
He picked up a camera after he was encouraged by a photographer to start documenting the war in his local area. In 2015, he signed as a staffer for epa and by 2016 he had won Time’s Wire Photographer of the Year award.
Badra bore witness to the entire five-year siege of his hometown, its population and the patchwork of rebel groups that held onto its until an evacuation deal in April 2018.
He recorded the hardships, daily life and death, the young, the old, the fighters and the civilians eking out a living against the odds.
War monitors estimate that roughly 12,000 civilians died during the siege.
Assad loyalists have since reclaimed the zone.
Asked whether he would like to return home, Badra said: “I have that wish. I hope to go back to Douma. I want to help rebuild it and document it.”
The World Press Photo 2019 winners are due to be announced on April 11.