Abbie Trayler-Smith, Welsh b. 1977. Abbie Trayler-Smith grew up in South Wales before moving to London to study law at Kings College. While studying, she began taking photographs for the student newspaper. Completely self-taught, Abbie began working regularly as a photographer for the Daily Telegraph in 1998 after graduation and was given a full time contract in 2001.
She has completed a huge variety of assignments: from the final burial of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia to the forgotten war in Sudan, the famine crisis in Malawi and anniversaries in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and the Falkland Islands. She covered the tsunami and re-visited Banda Aceh one year and five years on. She reported on the conflict in Darfur, Sudan with the veteran journalist Bill Deedes.
Since September 2006, Abbie has been working as a freelancer for a wide variety of clients and devoting time to personal projects.
The Ladies of Guera
Like much of the Sahel, Chad’s Guera region is experiencing another bout of an all too familiar phenomenon: severe drought, food shortages, hunger and chronic malnutrition. Up to 18 million people across the Sahel are facing a severe food crisis and 1 million children could be affected by severe, acute malnutrition.
Droughts are by no means new in this part of the world and have been occurring cyclically since the 17th century but as Professor Marc Bellemare at Duke University in North Carolina points out “food crises rarely, if ever, occur because of an overall lack of food to go around.” Instead, “poor infrastructure and conflict combine to create the perfect storm of constraints to food imports and food distribution” and a steep increase in population over the past two decades is exacerbating the problem.
When Abbie Trayler-Smith recently went to Chad for the charity Oxfam to document the impending crisis, she was struck by the peculiar landscape of Guera – a flat, arid expanse with boulders jutting out of the landscape. The local driver explained the geological forms with the legend of the Lady of Guera.
From a certain angle, the boulders look like a woman lying down, looking up at the sky and watching over the people. In what is a very male-dominated society, the female character of this mythical persona seems odd but Abbie found much of the determination and courage needed to survive in this harsh climate in the faces of local women who are mainly responsible for feeding their families.
Many of the women she met would walk for miles in the searing heat to dig up an ant heap, looking for grass seeds hidden deep down to give their families something to eat. Few of them had ever seen their own faces as even the better off women would probably share a tiny mirror in a family of 15. As Abbie started to photograph a woman who was receiving help from Oxfam in her home, other women from all over the village suddenly crowded around her, wanting to see the miraculous image on the back of the camera. Very soon, a large gallery of portraits of the Ladies of Guera had developed which gives a human face to the endless statistics of hunger and misery that have become meaningless.
Thailand’s dirty secret
There is another side to the Land of Smiles. In Thailand’s deep south, only 150 miles from its tourist-filled beaches, 1.8 million people are living under martial law. Bombs, disappearances, torture and murder are everyday events. The Thai government now has 65,000 soldiers and militiamen stationed here, locked in a cruel and apparently unwinnable conflict with a network of insurgents. The region’s largely Muslim population is turning against the government and the very notion of being Thai, while civilian casualties are mounting.
By all accounts Imam Masae was an ordinary man, well-liked and no more political than any of his neighbours. We visited the little hamlet of Talok Apoh just four days after he was murdered by militiamen on the steps of his mosque.
When we arrive at his house we climb up the steps to the main room and find a circle of a dozen or so women in headscarves. They are gathered to mourn the imam. His daughter offers us bottles of sticky sweet soda. The human rights group who we hitched a ride with introduce us, and we all sit down on the floor, the heat of a still mid-afternoon enveloping the room.
Gently, Angkhana Neelapaijit coaxes the imam’s wife to tell us exactly how her husband died. The widow, Tuuwae Timoh Masae, is calm and clear, her face set and grave below her cream head scarf. ‘It was 8 o’clock, on Friday. He had just prayed, he came out onto the steps and they killed him with one shot to the heart. He died on the way to the hospital. People saw two men in black, they had hidden behind a water vat, and they ran off towards the army base.
‘We didn’t report the case to the police, we didn’t want to cause further problems. We just buried him.’
The conflict in the three southern provinces turned vicious in 2004. In April the army was accused of executing in cold blood 32 militants who were sheltering in one of the province’s most important mosques. Then in October, at a demonstration, soldiers shot seven unarmed people in the crowd and arrested hundreds of others. Many of these were tied up and stacked like logs in army lorries, seven or eight deep. 78 of them died. Prime Minister Thaksin excused the army and said the dead had succumbed because they were weak from hunger, it being the month of Ramadan. No soldier or officer received any significant punishment.
Since then, violence has taken over the deep south. Radicalised, the various separatist groups started a campaign against anything that smelt of Thai authority, murdering teachers and burning down hundreds of schools. As a result, education has almost ceased. Thai banks are targets, and there is disturbing evidence of ordinary people being shot just because they are Buddhists. But the Thai army now arrests entire villages, just for being Muslim and near the scene of an attack.
Human Rights Watch says there has been a rise in arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings. Deep South Watch, a trusted Thai NGO that tries to collect data on abuses of civilians in the south, told me it had logged 2,295 incidents resulting in death or injury in 2007, and it expected more in 2008.
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