Amman Airport, Christmas Eve 2005 by Jason P. Howe
The airline supervisor peered at me over
the counter as I piled the scales high with over 100 kilos of baggage. If
the airline charged me for the excess I would be in deep trouble. She gave
me a friendly smile and waved it all through at no charge. I sagged with
relief and walked over to the immigration booth and a step nearer to home.
A few days before I had returned from Tal Afar, a town on the
Syrian border that witnessed one of the fiercest battle between U.S. forces
and Al-Qaida in Iraq to take place in the last few months. I was there to
cover the townsfolk voting in the current round of elections.
packed with explosives driven by suicide bombers attacked the Al-Hamra
hotel complex in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. The houses
of local residents were destroyed and at least six were killed and
Jason P. Howe/WpN
The U.S. State Department had organized
visits throughout Iraq for journalists to witness the "democratic process"
in action. Predictably everyone had discussed where most problems were
likely to occur and signed up for those locations. Fallujah, always a
popular dateline, was fully booked; Ramadi, the next most obvious choice,
would be crowded too. I decided to go somewhere I had never been before.
Tal Afar was perfect, topical and in the
middle of nowhere. One issue involved with covering this remote story became
apparent when our small group began travelling north from Baghdad. We
arrived at the airport and proceeded to wait nine hours for an onward flight
to Mosul where, after a short delay, we continued by helicopter to Tal Afar.
A few hours' sleep later we were up and
heading for the polls. Of course, not all was to go to plan: firstly, for
several hours I was denied permission to shoot pictures inside the polling
station and then, once all was over and done, it took 52 hours to get back
to Baghdad, which is only 418KMs (260 miles) to the southeast. Flight after
flight was cancelled or delayed due to poor weather or mechanical problems.
After more that two days and a flight out of Iraq to Kuwait, then back to
Baghdad, the job was over.
The State Department officials had been regularly approaching
our group with trepidation to announce each new delay. To their surprise we
merely shrugged, turned back to our well-thumbed paperbacks or turned over
and went back to sleep. Perhaps the previous month's occurrences helped put
a few hours of delay into perspective.
after the attack on the Al-Hamra hotel complex in Baghdad, Nov. 18,
2005. Local residents run to safety.
Jason P. Howe/WpN
On Nov. 18, two vehicles attempted to
break through the security perimeter of the Al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad to
First, there was a minibus with 400 lbs.
of explosives on board. It pulled up alongside the wall of the hotel and
exploded. It was 8:15 a.m. and I awoke as the windows and doors of the hotel
exploded inwards. Seconds later another huge detonation, this time 1,000
lbs., shook the building, sending more glass, dust and smoke into my room.
This shock wave brought down the suspended ceilings and turned what was left
of the windows into more deadly shrapnel. That explosion was the loudest
noise I had ever experienced and the shock wave shook every bone in my body;
it shook my teeth and seemed almost paralyzing. By now I was on the floor
beside my bed attempting to get under it, though failing.
Still on the floor, I started pulling on
my jeans and boots as gunfire erupted around the compound. I crawled into
the bathroom, the only room with no windows and therefore the safest;
somehow I managed to get my contact lenses in. My cameras and body armour
were already laid out so I grabbed them and after a few stunned moments of
shock I crunched around my room over the shattered glass and wrecked doors
and then squirmed past the wreckage into the hallway.
In truth, I did not really want to leave the relative safety
of my room but I knew why I had come to Iraq and I knew at that moment where
I should be and what I should be doing. Somewhere there were pictures to be
of an explosion caused by suicide bombers in Baghdad on Friday, Nov.
18, 2005. The houses of local residents were destroyed and at least
six people were killed and 40 wounded.
Jason P. Howe/WpN
The hallway was blocked by twisted sheets
of metal and wiring from the ceiling; every door from every room, all blown
from their hinges, cluttered my route out of the building. Water dripped
from the floor above and both the floor and walls were smeared with fresh,
My cell phone rang; it was a friend from
another building in the complex checking to see if I had survived.
Once down in the lobby I saw the wall of
the hotel had been partially destroyed. Through the gap I could see burning
cars, men running with guns and could hear screaming. I scrambled through
the hole and jumped down into the rubble, twisting both of my ankles on
impact. As I hobbled towards the other survivors I realized my arms and
fingers were cut and a big patch of skin was missing from my inner arm.
Still dazed, I began shooting pictures.
Normally the bomb attacks happen some distance away and we arrive on the
scene to be greeted by the blast-shocked victims wandering around looking
for their loved ones and surveying what is left of their homes. This time it
was very different - we were the victims, the attack had been against us and
we had survived due to a tiny margin of error on the part of the bombers.
The first blast had made a hole in the
perimeter for a larger truck to enter and get close enough to our hotel to
collapse it. Fortunately it got stuck in the crater made by the first bomb
and so the driver detonated there. Had he achieved his aim the building I
slept in would be nothing but rubble. Eight people had died (this would
later reach 15) and more than 40 wounded. Several houses had collapsed
entirely, and locals were trapped beneath the debris. What remained of the
suicide bombers was a severed foot laying near the entrance to the hotel and
part of a head floating in the pool.
It was my 360th day in Iraq.
Written by: Jason P. Howe
19th November 2005
Woken by yet
another blast... but this time it is teeth-jarringly closer.
Being woken up by loud explosions is not unusual if you live and work in
Baghdad. Blasts at 8am and 5pm - the start and finish times for workers in
the American-controlled "Green Zone" - have become so commonplace that many
of us call it bomb-o'clock. But this morning's explosions were different.
Closer. Teeth-jarringly closer. The first shock wave punched in the windows
of my hotel room, showering me with broken glass and masonry.
It took a moment to realise what had happened, that this
was not another car bomb at some distant ministry but us, the Hamra Hotel,
that was under attack. Seconds later another, bigger blast, shook the room,
showering more dust. I rolled off the bed away from the window and on to the
shards of glass littering the floor. What now? What was happening? More? I
looked at the gap under the bed and realised I wouldn't fit. I grabbed my
boots and jeans and squirmed into them, still lying beside my bed. All I
knew now was that I had to get to work. With rather shaky hands I managed to
get my contact lenses in - but what next?
I found my bullet-proof vest and cameras, grabbed my
passport and money and pushed my way out through the mangled door frame. The
heavy metal door recently fitted as a security measure lay uselessly in the
hallway. All along the landing I could see caved-in doors like lines of
broken teeth; the ceiling was a tangle of tin sheets and wiring blocking my
way. Somebody had already escaped ahead of me - bloody handprints and
splashes marked the way to the lobby.
Once there I saw that the hotel's outer wall had been
split open and through a gap I could see the devastation: burning cars, men
with guns running to and fro and dazed civilians. I scrambled out and
dropped from the first-floor balcony into the rubble. A woman in a
wheelchair was being carried away; a family stood stunned, looking at what
had been their home. The wrecks of vehicles sent dense, oily smoke into the
sky as they burned furiously; dirty water flooded from a ruptured main; and
rubble covered the ground. I lifted my camera and started shooting.
25th February 2004
Shooting from the Hip
During the 1990s Jason Howe gave up his job in a camera
shop to photograph life in South America. He talks to Dawn Sumner about his
ongoing project documenting the war in Columbia.
Jason Howe believes in getting close to his subjects to
document the intensity of conflict and has dodged bullets, got drunk with
FARC rebels and romanced an assassin. Quite a change for an Ipswich man
whose career in photography started with a job in a camera shop. Howe quit
his job and began travelling around Latin America in the early 1990s,
selling travel photographs to a stock agency to fund his journey. He soon
tired of this kind of work, however, spurred on by a desire to get more
involved and tell stories in-depth.
'While it's fun to photograph amazing landscapes and
different cultures it's not enough for me,' he says. 'When I used to pick up
books by the world's greatest photojournalists the subject matter often
brought a lump to my throat. I found myself imagining what it must be like
to witness and photograph those kinds of subjects. I knew I had to go and
find out for myself.'
On his first visit to Colombia, Howe was touched by the
plight of the people and he became frustrated by the lack of media attention
on the conflict in the country. Fighting has displaced more than two million
people over the last 38 years but, he points out, the conflict has had
little coverage in the Western media. 'I could not believe that there had
been so little coverage,' he says. 'Thousands are killed every year but,
beyond the few images that appear when an individual thought to be of
international interest disappears, there is very little documentation. And
this is a war that Western countries, including the US and UK, are funding.'
Howe has returned to Colombia many times over the last two
years, spending two or three months each time to get close to his subjects
and gain their trust. He says that this approach is invaluable in an area
where one can be killed if trust breaks down. 'In Colombia kidnapping and
assassination are big threats,' he says. 'You can be killed because you have
been seen talking to the wrong people or have photographed something that
one side did not want shown. In recent years more than 100 journalists have
been killed covering the conflict. I think I am careful but it is often a
difficult call. Sometimes difficult to get strong images while following the
advice that dead photographers do not produce anything, good or bad.
'I have backed off in instances when I have felt too
unsafe, preferring to try again when things are calmer. But sometimes you
know things are only going to get harder so you have to seize the chance to
Despite the danger to his own life, Howe feels he must to
understand and record the truth. On one of his many attempts to gain access
to a rebel camp he narrowly escaped a bomb blast, which killed two soldiers
just yards away. 'When the bomb exploded, killing the soldiers I was with,
the dangerous time had actually been in the lead-up to the explosion. I had
just been too naive to realise how serious the situation was. Dangerous
situations have often been and gone before you have had time to assess how
serious they are. But the explosion certainly brought me up to speed fast.
Only 30 seconds and a few meters saved me from being killed along with the
soldiers. Having survived that, I hope that when next faced with danger I
will be more careful.
'The first fire fight I was in only lasted 20 minutes or
so and I was so intent on recording what was happening in front of me that
only when rounds cracked as they passed over my head, or when I saw them
kick up the dirt around me, did I feel any real sense of danger. Just 50cm
this way or that and I could have been dead. These feelings only really hit
home when you are safe and have a chance to run through everything in your
mind again,' he adds.
With patience and a lot of luck Howe has gained access to
some of the most dangerous areas of Columbia. 'Access to the groups involved
has normally come about by turning up in their zones of control looking a
bit lost, explaining my project and not taking no for an answer. I always
take "no" as their opening gambit rather than a definitive answer.'
The FARC rebels told Howe he could not enter or photograph
their camp but, determined to get in, he slept outside for two weeks.
Eventually the rebels got tired of stepping over him and relented. 'In the
end they invited me to their New Year party and got me very drunk,' he
The Colombian government troops offer little official
access, so Howe tries similar tactics with them, arriving at their bases and
trying to talk his way in. By contrast, he has found that the paramilitaries
are very accommodating, concerned that he may be captured or killed by the
rebels. Howe says that he is always completely honest with his subjects,
making it clear that he simply wants to educate outsiders about Colombia's
'I tell them that more access they can provide the better
people will understand their position and this approach has served me well.
All the groups have respected the fact that I travel alone into unsafe areas
to illustrate a situation from which they have no escape,' he says.
Howe could be accused of voyeurism, or of getting a thrill
from danger. He does not deny this, but says it is not his primary interest.
'It's true I am motivated by the experience of getting in and out of
situations that the majority of people only see on TV or in film,' he says.
'But I cannot justify putting myself in harm's way purely for the buzz. I
have to produce something so that someone else benefits.'
Inspired by the work of Gilles Peres, Howe is eager to see
his work published in book form, which he believes would keep Columbia's
problems in the public eye. 'Every time I look at the book Peres made on
Rwanda I am grateful that something exists to remind us what happened,' he
explains. 'With bad news arriving so fast and in such quantities it can be
easy to forget last year's disasters and wars. But for the people living in
these countries, that disaster or war is their whole life. I always want to
remember that and so I must produce a body of work on Colombia that will
inform now and act as a reminder in the future.'
After his first trip to Colombia, Howe took the few
pictures he had to Perpignan. While there he met Seamus Conlan, who
encouraged him to do more work in Colombia. Conlan also offered to represent
Howe, and recently asked him to go to Iraq for three months to photograph
the after-effects of the war.
When we spoke, Howe had less than a week to prepare
himself for the trip, and seemed overwhelmed by the opportunity to live and
work in Iraq for three months. 'Initially I wasn't too keen on going because
it seems so far removed from my Colombia work,' he says. 'I have enjoyed
working alone, learning the facts first-hand and developing the story
without time constraints. However I am now looking at Iraq as another huge
learning opportunity. I am nervous and excited in equal measure but will
endeavour to work with the same level of energy and enthusiasm that I have
put into Colombia.'
Howe's courage can only be admired, and his photography
reveals truths that the world finds hard to accept. He recounts the story of
a pregnant woman whose stomach was cut open and child ripped out, adding
that murders and beatings are a daily occurrence in Colombia. His pictures
of these horrors are perhaps even more important in the light of the Iraq
war: as the media spotlight remains on Iraq, Colombia will remain far from
Meeting Anti Occupation Resistance Fighters
29th December 2003: 2116h
battered orange and white taxi lurched through a pothole as it crawled down
a dark back street in Rutba near the Jordanian border. For several hours we
had been sitting on the floor of a freezing house huddled around a stove
drinking tea and smoking whilst our local contact negotiated a meeting with
members of the underground resistance. At last just before midnight on
Christmas Eve news came that the rebels would speak with us at a secret
location. The driver made several loops of the town to ensure we were not
being followed before arriving outside the safe house. First I would be
allowed in for just a few minutes to photograph the fighters before we would
change location and conduct an interview.
Beneath the many layers of clothing to fight the bitter
cold and the body armour worn as some kind of insurance against nasty
surprises, my heart clattered in anticipation. ‘Put that over your head’ the
contact told me pointing to the locally purchased scarf I had around my
neck. Secrecy is paramount to any rebel organisation and getting spotted as
a foreigner entering the safe house could spell big trouble for them and me
especially if the US Forces were conducting operations against them.
I was hustled through a doorway stumbling as I tried to
peer through the small gap I had left when wrapping the scarf around my
head. Three guerrillas in long winter coats their face also hidden by
scarves stood in a dimly lit room clutching Kalashnikov assault rifles,
grenades and a copy of the Koran. ‘Hurry, hurry up you must be quick’
the rebels eyes darted around and they gestured for me to stop taking
pictures as a car passed in the street outside, these guys were not
comfortable about being here at all and were keen to move on.
I took maybe 10 pictures before being bundled back outside
and into the car. One fighter climbed into the back alongside the writer and
myself whilst another scrunched into the front seat next to the translator.
Somehow the decrepit old taxi pulled away and the driver began making
cautious forays to the outskirts of town before turning and heading in a
I could see my nervous breath clouding in the frigid air
as thoughts of what might happen if we ran into a US patrol or checkpoint
bounced around my head. With half an ear I listened to the interview in
progress. The rebels declared that they were not loyal to Saddam but were
simply fighting against the occupation and therefore his capture would do
nothing to lessen their resolve. They explained that they were responsible
for attacking US convoys where they targeted the trucks carrying the most
soldiers. They gave some details of their tactics, one rebel estimated he
had killed 25 American soldiers on the missions he had taken part in. It was
made clear that they would be honoured to die for the cause, not good news
when crammed into a car with them and their grenades in the dead of night in
a place no ones heard of!
If we did run into any trouble there would be no getting
away, we certainly could not escape in the clapped out old banger we were
travelling in and the rebels would surely pull the pins from their grenades
blowing us all sky high rather than be captured. I just hoped that their
local intelligence was good enough to know there was no chance of the US
being around tonight, however squinting out from under my headscarf every
blinding set of headlamps glaring through the cracked windshield set my
nerves buzzing like power cables during a storm.
At last the resistance fighters asked us to pull over and
after shaking hands they slipped back into the safety of the darkness. At
first light we edged along the deserted streets towards the highway back to
Baghdad, the last glimpse of Rutba was graffiti sprayed on a house wall in
English and Arabic; ‘Death to the occupation and its followers’.