The 11 black-and-white portraits that were part of the “Dawn of Recovery” exhibition Nov. 7-9 at Gallery Ras Aid in Amman, Jordan, showed the tragic faces of war and violence: burned skin and lips, missing fingers and hands, and disfigured faces. Next to each portrait, a colored photo showed the same person after reconstructive surgery — still scarred, but showing at least a glimmer of hope and joy.
“[The surgeries] have given them the opportunity to return to a life that is almost normal,” Faris al-Jawad, the communications manager at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) hospital in Amman, who organized the exhibition, told Al-Monitor.
From Yemen to Syria, from Iraq to Palestine, innocent civilians have consistently borne the brunt of conflicts that have swept through the Middle East. Some of them, such as the 11 people portrayed in the photo exhibition, found their way to the MSF hospital in Amman. The exhibition opened Nov. 7 as part of a belated celebration of the 10th anniversary of the hospital, which was established in May 2006. Its original aim was to help Iraqi war victims who were unable to access needed medical treatments, but with conflicts and wars raging in the Middle East, the hospital has been treating patients ever since.
The color photographs, along with the explanations next to them, show the patients not just as victims but also as living, breathing individuals, doing things such as playing a guitar or riding a bike. The portraits show that the children and adults have regained, at least partially, their lives.
"Patients arrive at the hospital from different conflict zones in the Middle East," Jawad said. He said their injuries are caused by "burns, bullets, shelling and blasts, and patients come [to us] because the health facilities in their countries are unable to provide adequate care.”
Marc Schakal, MSF's head of mission in Amman, believes the high quality of reconstructive surgeries benefit many patients in the region. MSF, the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is known for its emergency response during medical crises, whereas the hospital focuses on dealing with the long-term consequences of war by improving lives, not only saving them.
Schakal said that after patients “have received emergency treatment for their injuries in the [conflict zone], we [MSF branches or doctors in the various countries] refer them to Amman to undergo reconstructive surgery. The objective of the program is to help patients recover functionality, movement and autonomy.”
Because of the complexities of the patients' injuries, doctors with various surgical specialties often continue to work with the same patient and provide orthopedic, maxillofacial and plastic surgery. The treatments last from several months to several years, so the patients travel back and forth to Amman. According to Schakal, the hospital performed 10,332 surgeries on 4,165 patients, with roughly 20% arriving as children, between 2006 and 2016.
Although the hospital specializes in reconstructive surgery, the cornerstone of its work lies in its holistic approach. This includes physiotherapy — helping patients learn to walk, speak and eat again — psychosocial counseling and following up with the patient for a year after the end of the treatment. The follow-up is done by the local MSF doctor who referred the patient for treatment in Amman.
The full treatment expenses are covered by MSF, which also pays for plane tickets to and from Amman, visa expenses and a small allowance for personal expenses during the stay in Jordan.
The photos were taken by photographer Alessio Mamo and the accompanying texts were prepared by journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Marta Bellingreri, who spent several weeks at the MSF hospital in the spring of 2016 and again in the summer of 2017 meeting with patients and listening to their stories.
The black-and-white photographs were taken inside the hospital, while the color photos were taken in a place or during a situation linked with the patient's life. “Since Marta speaks Arabic, it was easy to convey [to the patients] the importance of the project. We asked about the incident that injured the patient, about their work and life before and after the explosions and bombs; we asked them about their daily life at the hospital, and how they imagine their future after all the surgical operations,” Mamo told Al-Monitor.
One of the patients photographed is Yousef (patients are only referred to by their first name in the exhibition), a 17-year old Iraqi who had been set on fire by thieves who stole his motorbike in Baghdad. He arrived at the hospital with “his arms stuck to the side of his body and his chin fused to his chest,” Jawad said. Over the course of six months, Yousef underwent eight plastic surgeries that allowed him to once again use his arms and neck to get dressed and feed himself.
Qatada, one of the people in the portraits, drove over a mine in Aden, Yemen. He was fitted with prosthetic legs and underwent orthopedic surgery on both arms at the MSF hospital in Amman seven months after the accident. After multiple operations, including a nerve transplant, he can now dress himself. When asked how he feels about being interviewed by journalists, he said, "I am very happy."
Physical therapist Aliette Petitjean, who attended the “Dawn of Recovery” exhibition, told Al-Monitor, “In the color photos, they are all smiling. It just represents hope.”