The world watched as the Yazidis fled their homes for an Iraqi mountain range. ISIS were slaughtering them, accusing them of 'devil worship'. Kürşat Bayhan tells their story
According to local legend, it was the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Sinjar Mountain is a tall, craggy range of rock in northern Iraq on which the Yazidis – an ethnic minority descending from Iraq and Syria’s most ancient roots – escaped.
Last summer, as the group that call themselves ISIS began to circle, around 130,000 Yazidis of Sinjar district fled their homes. Some made it to the safer enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan, or over the border to Turkey, where they lived in tent cities; the most desperate fled to the mountains near their home.
The terrorist group who call themselves ISIS were sweeping through their land, denouncing, executing and enslaving anyone they found, for the crime of ‘devil worship’.
In what resembled a parable from the Old Testament, the Yazidis began to starve. As August began, a loose coalition of regional powers, led by Turkey, cobbled together a security corridor. Turkey’s Prime Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) began delivering aid packages by Iraqi helicopter, and many of the Yazidi gained safe passage from the ISIS threat.
On the scene, with his camera, was Kürşat Bayhan, a young photojournalist who has worked for Istanbul’s Zaman daily newspaper since 2003. His photographs of the Yazidis’ exile from their homes, and their flight from persecution, has just been recognised by the Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards 2015.
He had been photographing Syrian refugees who had fled ISIS and were now living in an abandoned prison near the Turkey/Syria border. “As soon as possible, I went to the north of Iraq and witnessed the tragedy of Yazidi migration,” he says. “It was over 40 degrees on a summer’s day, and children and old women were trying to cross the border. They were hungry and thirsty; babies were crying from the hunger. They were all shocked and happy to be in a safe place after days of walking through the Shengal Mountains. That was one of the worst humanitarian tragedies I hope I will ever see.”
Bayhan, who featured in BJP’s ‘Ones to Watch’ edition in December 2014, establishing himself with a story about internal migration in his native Turkey of the poor young men from the east of the sprawling country who move to Istabul in search of work, often leaving their wives and children at home.
“You can feel the loneliness, you can feel the struggle,” says Bayhan, showing a picture of a young Turkish migrant hunched against a night-time blizzard, hoping for entrance to a closed and vacant building. The man in the photograph is from Anatolia, the poorer, rural east of the country, but now lives among the migrants of Eminönü and Küçükpazar, districts of central Istanbul.
Bayhan, who was born in Malatya, east Turkey, grew up in Isparta – “the city of roses” – in the west of the country. He started photographing the so-called ‘fourth generation’ of migrants in 2008; his subjects come to the city with only a basic education and with no professional qualifications, living ten people to a single room, with only basic access to water and electricity. “Oftentimes, rooms in houses that lack a kitchen and bathroom are used for cooking and bathing,” Bayhan says.
These young men often express a belief in the good life – a conviction that they can make their fortune in the city. They pick up any work they can and, in between more formal jobs, make money peddling on the streets, finding and dealing junk and scrap metal. In the evenings, they pass the time in cafes, primarily for the space they afford and the break from the cold. The man in the snow, and those like him, make approximately $200 a month. Rent takes a quarter of that, and then the balance of their income is sent to their families back home. “Only a few are able to achieve their goal of a better life and manage to bring their families to Istanbul,” Bayhan says.
This is a story of internal migration, but the images are familiar, echoed in the migrant experience the world over. Collected together as a self-published book, Away From Home reflects a universal experience and makes us spare a thought for those on the fringes. “A photographer must be able to believe in feelings,” says Bayhan.
“Some photographs are overthought and become fictionalised as a result. It’s easy to become a control addict, but the biggest enemy of a photographer is to behave like a professional. You need to ask questions. You shouldn’t know the answers.”
“Kürşat has a gentle character,” says Lebanese-German photographer Frederic Lezmi, who is based in Istanbul and helped Bayhan edit and design his book. “He is a deeply religious person, and his holistic understanding and love for humankind transmits in his photography.”
The series is punctuated by moments of happiness – a smile, a shared joke, a weightless moment. One of Bayhan’s final images is of two young girls posing in white dresses over daily clothes. They are showing us a gift from their father — an unseen influence, love from afar.
As for Bayhan himself, the future holds its own uncertainties. He’s currently working on Roots, a series motivated by his upbringing. “As I revisited the same places, I found myself among images, situations and events that struck me as both familiar and foreign,” he says. “I began to question what they meant to me.”
He is also working, quietly, on pictures of Gezi Park protests, the peaceful uprising in Istanbul violently crushed by the police and army, during which 11 people were killed and more than 8000 were injured. For now, those images are private. “He is torn between his job as a reporter for the newspaper and his will to follow long-term projects on his own,” Lezmi says. “The situation in Turkey for a young artist at the moment is not easy. He thinks a lot about his country and the changes it is going through. He is very troubled.”
To see more of Kürşat’s work, including Away From Home, go here.
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.