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It was early one morning in May 2008. Very early. The first rays of sunshine were casting a gentle light over the Burmese villagers standing on the riverbank. Everything was quiet and peaceful. The small boat taking me over finally landed after hours traveling through the maze of canals in the Irrawaddy Delta. Men, women and children surrounded the boat, waiting to be given food brought by other villagers. With no help from the government, they were stranded thirty or more kilometers from the nearest road and had to rely on one another to survive. As soon as I landed, I realized just how bleak the situation was. Nothing was left of the village. It had been razed by the tidal wave that struck after the cyclone sweeping everything away. One man was standing in front of what was once his home, smiling. I was amazed. Mr. Saw Htu told me his story. The tidal wave had taken his wife, his children, his parents, his home, his cattle. The rice he had been growing was ruined by the salt water and the crop was lost. But there was still a smile on his weather beaten face. Why, I wondered, and eventually asked him. “The tidal wave took everything I had, everything. I have nothing. So should I also lose my smile when it is the only thing I have left?”

Another morning, it was much colder, but just as sunny. It was January 25, 2009, and I was in Jabalia in Gaza Strip. Khaled Abdrabbo was sitting on what remained of his home, drinking tea. There had been no cyclone here. Looking around, I might have thought that I had landed in a city devastated by an earthquake, but these ruins were the work of humans. Tanks and bulldozers had destroyed everything in their way. The man served tea and shared an orange with me. He too had his story to tell: one week earlier he had heard a noise and gone downstairs to the front door with his two daughters, to find an Israeli tank facing them. Struggling, his voice trembling, he told me how a soldier had got out of the tank, coldly taken aim at his daughters and shot them dead. Khaled was there, sitting on the ruins of a house which had taken a lifetime to build. He is now alone. When, at a loss for something to say, I naively asked how he saw the future, he replied simply: “I want peace with the men who killed my daughters.”

Whether in Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Georgia, Burma or Iran, I have come across the same tragedies of fate, and always found the same dignity, the same courage in the face of horror. Around the world, men and women are struggling to survive, fighting for freedom, enduring a living hell, fully aware that such experiences leave permanent scars. Here are victims – of war, authoritarian regimes or the forces of nature. Some are resigned to their fate, while others are angry and have rebelled. They are all suffering, trapped in their everyday existence.

Olivier Laban-Mattei

Olivier Laban-Mattei

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