Four battles in the same war, four zones, four iconic cities, and a multitude of players, local, regional and international, together in the face of one enemy: the “Islamic State.”
The self-proclaimed caliphate came into existence in 2014, in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which had just been taken with little or no resistance. This was the peak of the power of ISIS: the Jihadists had control over an area as large as the United Kingdom, held an arsenal of weapons taken from Iraqi armed forces, and was supported by thousands of volunteers from diverse parts of the world.
The Jihadists moved towards the small city of Kobanî in Syria, near the Turkish border, controlled by pro-PKK Kurds who had come to the fore as the country collapsed, setting up their largely autonomous region of Rojava. Lorenzo Meloni had been there before, and returned to cover the fierce resistance against an implacable enemy. Contrary to all expectations, the Kurds managed to hold their ground; the Jihadists struggled, and then retreated, until finally abandoning Kobanî in January. This was the first major defeat for ISIS since taking Mosul.
They then headed south to Palmyra, the large oasis in the desert, the city of legend, and in May 2015, ISIS took control there. The Syrian regime, with Iran and Russia as allies, embarked on a laborious counter-attack, while the historic archeological site was systematically looted and destroyed with explosives. Lorenzo Meloni was one of the rare free-lance photographers there in 2016, and he saw the recent destruction covering the ancient ruins. The Syrian regime had lost Palmyra, then took it back, but the victory was precarious.
ISIS had moved across borders, and in Libya in 2015, the Jihadists took control of Sirte, Colonel Qaddafi’s stronghold, the city where he was born, which then became the capital for ISIS in Africa. Meloni had known Libya for quite some time, from the borders in the south through to the prisons; he had covered the counter-attack backed by western coalition forces here in a country falling apart and where there was no guarantee of victory.
The toughest resistance was in Iraq, where ISIS had first emerged, in particular in the “mother of all battles” against the Jihadists in Mosul, now standing as the most sustained urban conflict in recent history. After extended fighting to regain control, Iraqi forces reached the gates of Mosul in November 2016. At the time of writing this text, in May 2017, the Jihadists were still fighting.
Lorenzo Meloni’s coverage of all four battles presents a unique view of the same war from four angles, showing the fighting and devastation, the fury and silence, the silence engulfing places already devoid of sound: no voices, no traffic, no radio or television, no telephones ringing.
Life has been driven away by war, and any brief interlude only brings silence, a deafening silence as deep and dark as the night.
It will be a long time before light shines on these lands.
Samuel Forey, special envoy in Iraq for the newspaper Le Figaro
Exhibition co-produced with the Photographic Social Vision Foundation.