They fled in the dead of the night, their worldly belongings in black plastic bags. They hid in trucks or crammed into boats, and they ran and ran, past checkpoints and barricades, through rivers and over hilltops.
In search of safety they left home: Bosnia, Somalia, Albania, Iraq, Croatia, Libya, Chechnya, Kosovo, Syria, and beyond. Parents, brothers and wives were left behind, waiting. Many never made it. Many more will forever remain displaced.
For nearly three decades, Reuters photographer Yannis Behrakis has borne witness to the mass movement of people, the oppressed and the tormented, the threatened and beaten, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Balkans and across Europe. His photos stand as evidence of the cyclical nature of conflict and as a reminder that exodus is inevitable in times of war.
“I want my photography to establish a connection and a feeling of shared responsibility for the misfortune of others trapped by events in far off places… I hate war, but want to record the suffering. I want the viewer to feel uncomfortable, warned, and maybe even guilty.” His lens has captured journeys of hope and despair. His pictures tell of the courage and perseverance, the suffering and determination of individuals, often larger than life, of families uprooted by battle, of a mother separated from her child.
In 2015, Europe was confronted with the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Nearly one million people fled war and poverty in their homelands, and made the crossing from Turkey to Greece in their quest for survival and a decent life.
For Behrakis, it became a personal matter. His grandmother was born to a Greek family in Smyrna (modern-day Izmir) on the coast of Turkey, and she had fled as a refugee in 1922 when the great fire swept through the city.
“I remember her stories: how she survived with her little sister, evacuated to Marseille on board a French Navy ship, how she lived in a monastery for years until her parents found her through the Red Cross. “When I saw the refugees making their trip from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands, I wanted to become their voice for my humanitarian values and in memory of my grandmother.”
Over the past year, Behrakis has photographed lives deprived of privacy, but without intruding, seeing their relief at having reached European soil, and the dread in their eyes at the prospect of what might happen next.
“I wanted to be the voice of the persecuted and the eyes of the global audience. Working for Reuters means my audience is the entire planet, and this is a great responsibility on my shoulders. Through my pictures and reports, nobody can now say that they did not know.”