Homs: the story behind Mani's extraordinary images from the frontline

French photographer has taken extraordinary steps to avoid being caught by Assad's security forces

Photographs from inside besieged Syrian city - audio slideshow

The Syrian government's violent and bloody crackdown against its own people has been mostly hidden from the eyes of the world. But this set of extraordinary images by French photographer Mani – he is not using his surname to protect his identity – provide a rare insight from the most dangerous frontline of the Arab spring.

The pictures, taken undercover in the Homs area, currently the centre of the uprising, show rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army, night-time demonstrations, the funerals of victims and the anger and defiance of ordinary Syrians facing violent state repression.

Mani had to take extraordinary steps to avoid being caught by the Assad regime's security forces. It was tense enough when he was in the capital, Damascus, but Homs was an altogether riskier story. "It is very complicated to get to these areas," he says. "I managed to get there with the help of people and I managed not to get caught with the help of people," he said. It was a bit tricky because "I couldn't stay more than one night in any place. When I was taking pictures in the street I would use a keffiyeh [headscarf] to cover my face so no informants could photograph me. I was always working with someone known by the people in the district so they would trust me, otherwise they would easily believe that I was working with the security forces."

Mani spent a month in Homs, Rastan and nearby rural areas, learning to avoid the routine hazards of snipers and tank fire. "People stayed in their basements because it was too dangerous to be on the upper floors," he said.

"One morning someone woke me and told me that a body had been dumped overnight outside a mosque in Bayada. The man had disappeared the day before and people said he had been caught by the Shabiha [pro-government militia] and tortured."

It was, he admitted, frightening at times. "I saw so many civilians who were shot just because they were crossing the street, doing some errands, or because there was a demonstration 300 metres away from their house. The threat is always there. And every day they shoot."

Amazingly, this was Mani's first time in a war zone. his knowledge of colloquial Arabic, he said, was vital in allowing him to blend in and avoid being picked up by the secret police. Opposition activists he was travelling with knew that if caught they would be tortured to death. Mani, a freelance, travelled to Syria without a commission and was contacted by Le Monde while there. His work appears there and in Paris Match, as well as the Guardian.

One of the worst situations, said Mani, was that people injured by the security forces must be treated in secret. "When I was in Homs, there were reports that some of the injured had been tortured and executed at the hospital. So, when I met 15-year-old Ahmad receiving basic treatment at his home after being shot in the leg by a sniper I could understand his father when he told me he was too afraid to take him to hospital."

Death and destruction feature prominently in his images, but others show evidence of popular unity in the face of bitter political and religious divisions – slogans calling for a "civil and democratic state" to replace the Assad regime.

"The people I met were very determined, had huge courage and can feel that many of the civilians who live around them are supporting them. They know why they are fighting," Mani said. "Of course they are facing tanks and armoured vehicles and they don't have that kind of weaponry. But still with their rocket-propelled grenades they can really harm the security forces, as I could witness."


Ian Black, Middle East editor

The GuardianTramp

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