After the Fighting Stops: Women and the Unseen Wounds of War | History Hit

After the Fighting Stops: Women and the Unseen Wounds of War

Marissa Roth

08 Mar 2021
During the bombing of Kosovo in 1999, hundreds of Kosovar-Albanians fled to Albania for refuge. Makeshift refugee camps were set up, including one in a former warehouse for books. I met Sebanate Berisha and her sister there, and they told me the harrowing story how one night a bomb fell on their house and all of their children were killed. Her sister walked away, in that instant, this boy just appeared in the scene for a minute, like an apparition, and then he was gone.
Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Sebanate Berisha and a Boy, Tirana, Albania 1999

Storytelling sits at the heart of what it means to be human. It anchors our very existence through shared experiences that are unique and universal, inspiring imagination and the expression of emotions while offering interpretations of the world around us, and when we look up, divining the cosmos.

One Person Crying: Women and War, my global photo essay spanning 35-years of my photography, was born out of two important aspects of my life. The first, working as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, I recognised that the women’s perspective on their experiences wrought by war and conflict was underreported. The second was the reverberations from The Holocaust.

This project, which has been an international travelling exhibition since 2012 and is a forthcoming book, took me on an unexpected journey to 12 countries while I photographed and interviewed over 200 women directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts. It also took me on a personal journey as I accrued more information about my family’s World War Two history.

The pivotal point for commencing the project came while I was working on assignment for the Los Angeles Times in Pakistan in 1988, on a story that addressed the plight of Afghan war widows at the end of the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan – there were 100,000 of them.

At the end of the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, there were 100,000 Afghan war widows, many of them living in refugees camps in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. I had been in Pakistan for a couple of weeks on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, when I heard about the plight of the Afghan women. I decided to go to some of the camps in order to photograph. The story was published on the front page of the paper, and was the first report about this consequence of that war.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Afghan Refugee Women and Children, Thal, Pakistan 1988

After that, I chose my subjects based on my interests in particular places and stories that were out of the news, such as Northern Ireland and Cambodia, or held significant on-going meaning, such as Hiroshima, Japan, where I met Setsuko Iwamoto, who survived the A-Bomb when she a child.

Setsuko Iwamoto

Setsuko Iwamoto was walking to school on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the A-Bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, killing approximately 140,000 people. She was describing to me how everyone was running to the rivers – there are seven of them in Hiroshima – to rinse there faces, and see if they still had a face as so many people were burned. I photographed her in Peace Park.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Setsuko Iwamoto, Hiroshima, Japan 2002

Other destinations included Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2009, I chose to go there on two separate trips, as I felt that I needed that time to unravel the visual story about the Srebrenica massacre, while addressing how rape was used as a tool of war.

Safeta Ajanovic, a Bosnian-Muslim who was raped during the Bosnian War by a Serbian soldier as part of a deliberate campaign to tear apart the culture. For Muslims, if a woman is raped, she can be disowned by her family, or worse. A pregnancy resulted from the rape, and Safeta’s parents forced her to give up the baby, who was raised in an orphanage. She was only able to get him back when he was 15 years old after her parents died.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Safeta Ajanovic Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina 2009

War is personal

We mainly learn about war and conflict through historical facts or current events, in terms of statistics – 37 million civilian and military deaths in World War One; 1-2 million civilian and military deaths in the Vietnam/American War; 1.4 million Cambodians killed in the Khmer Rouge Genocide; 6 million Jews killed in The Holocaust. I strove to show that war and conflict are personal, that they impact human beings one by one, that they are about one woman, one man and one child at a time.

The people who died were loved, had lives, and futures that were erased. Those who survive are irrevocably changed by their tragic experiences, while the ongoing consequences of displacement, the physical wounds and psychological traumas – the unseen wounds – are passed down through generations. As a visual storyteller, and a re-teller of stories that I deliberately sought out to hear, I felt they were critical to document as testaments to historical events. I also wanted to give a voice and show the face of every woman who I met during this photographic odyssey.

When I started the project, the view towards depicting wars was very much the same as it had been for centuries, showing what was happening on the ground in real time, primarily illustrated from the vantage point of the battlefields. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, and through the 20th century, the photographic perspective on war was still mainly focused on immediate events.

After the fighting stops, women are often bereft of men and resources, yet they are the ones who slowly pick up the pieces and rebuild, while trying to maintain some semblance of normal life. The women’s side of the story may be less striking visually, but it is not of lesser importance. It is also about life and death, but marked by time and stillness and the uncertainty that persistently disquiets the aftermath.

Derisa Hodzic, 45 years-old, with her 15 year-old son Osman who was born in 1994 during the siege of Srebrenica. Derisa’s husband Beriz was killed in the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, while she was seven-months pregnant with their second son Bernes. Beriz’s first wife and son were killed in the early days of the war. He met Derisa in an internal refugee camp in 1993 where they fell in love and married.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Derisa Hodzic and her son Osman, Srebrenica Municipality, Bosnia and Herzegovina 2009

This was the story that I wanted to tell – the long view. There is now broader awareness of the aftereffects, evidenced by a global humanitarian effort to rebuild communities and countries by specifically supporting the women, as it’s been shown that it is beneficial to the long-term stability of a particular culture, country, and geographical region.

The stories

Often, there were moments of profound reciprocity where I would glean key insight from a particular woman’s literal experience. In 2005 while I was in Northern Ireland, I met Charlotte Russell, a Protestant, from Londonderry. Her husband, who was a Special Forces policeman, was shot in the head by an IRA sniper and died while she was pregnant with their second child. She said to me,

“I imagine that you are finding that women who survived war are the same everywhere”.

I absorbed what she said and thereafter regarded the project through the window of her wisdom.

Sometimes the stories were almost unbearable to hear, not just because of the wrenching details, but also because of their proximity to my experiences.

Coming of age in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Vietnam War was the ever-present backdrop. It inspired the peace movement while fomenting devastating social unrest, and was in the forefront of the nightly news with daily tallies of dead and wounded servicemen. Shadowing all of this was the real fear that the young men in my school class would be drafted and called to go to war.

I knew that I had to go to Vietnam for the project, and went there in 2012. One of the women I met, Pham Thi Thuan, had survived the My Lai massacre, an attack on unarmed civilians in a small hamlet by US troops in 1968. She told me that she always remembers the massacre, but said,

“It’s a long time ago. Now the US and Vietnam have a good relationship, so I don’t want to be angry anymore. I’ve tried to come over it”.

Pham Thi Thuan, 74, was a farmer with two young daughters when their village of My Lai was raided by American soldiers looking for Vietcong that they believed were being hidden there. Along with other villagers, she was ordered to lie in an irrigation ditch, and then the soldiers put their guns under their arms and opened fire. Somehow, she was able to shield her children and kept them from crying, and they all survived.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Pham Thi Thuan, Son My, Vietnam 2012

I was deeply moved by her willingness to make amends with the past, but as an American, I couldn’t shake the sense of guilt and gripping sorrow that pervaded my thoughts the whole time I was there. Photographing the widows and mothers of US Marines killed in 2005 during the Iraq War, including Sarah Duvall who hugged a portrait of her son Aaron Reed as if he was still alive, also tore at my heart.

Sarah Duvall

Sarah Duvall, holds a portrait of her son Aaron Reed, a marine reservist who died during the Iraq War in August of 2005, and was part of Lima Company, a Marine Reserve Unit out of Columbus that lost 26 men that summer. I photographed her at the farm that her family has owned for 150 years.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Sarah Duvall, Chillicothe, Ohio 2005

Making peace with the past

In sharing my family’s war story as a means of opening a line of trust with many of my subjects, I came to own my personal Holocaust history. I spoke often about my paternal grandmother who was killed in a massacre in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia in 1942, along with her husband, mother and brother. As I spoke her name, Lenke, she became real for me.

I also recognised the sincere need in the women I met, who experienced the traumas and the losses inflicted by war and conflict, to share their stories. Along the way, I came to understand that these women were now part of my story, and I in turn, became part of theirs. This communion of strangers helped me to set my own heart into a more peaceful place.

Often there would be unexpected laughter in these exchanges. While I was in Jordan in 2018 photographing Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, I met Mouna Alnuaime, who was from Damascus. She was hoping to stay in Jordan since the entire part of the city where she came from, including her home, were destroyed. As we were parting, she said to me,

“If I didn’t laugh, I would be dead. We should overcome our challenges, problems, sadness and grief through patience and strength”.

Marissa Roth, right, shares a light moment with Syrian refugee Mouna Alnuaime at a clinic in Irbid, which is 12 miles from the Syrian border. I told her she has beautiful eyes – and she said with a wink, “These eyes have given me trouble!”

Image Credit: ©Iris Schneider - Marissa Roth and Mouna Alnuaime, Irbid, Jordan

Here’s a snapshot of some of the other women featured in Marissa’s project:

Monica Smith is Anne Frank’s second cousin and was one of the last family members to see her alive. A few years older than Anne, Monica was sent to a transit ‘home’ by her parents in 1942.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Monica Smith, New York City, New York 2015

Haneen Alawad

Haneen Alawad, a Syrian refugee, was 14 years old and forced into a marriage with the son of another refugee family for economic reasons. She had a child, but was beaten by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law and fled the marriage. The couple divorced and she lost her son. I photographed her when she was 16 years old.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Haneen Alawad, Zarqa, Jordan 2018

Ilse Kleberger

Ilse Kleberger, photographed at age 87 in the garden of her home, she was born in Potsdam and survived World War II in Berlin with her family. She was raped during the Siege of Berlin immediately following the end of the war and worked in medical clinics during the war helping to tend wounded and ill people even before finishing her medical studies. After the war, she became a prominent physician and the author of 32 children’s books.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth, Ilse Kleberger, Berlin, Germany 2008

During World War Two, the Japanese were very strict about the lives of women who lost their husbands during the war – they were forbidden to remarry out of respect for the dead and their service to the country. Hatsuku’s husband was killed in May of 1945. I think of her as an eternal war widow – she is holding a small photograph of him.

Image Credit: ©Marissa Roth - Hatsuko Suzuki, Kamakura, Japan 2002

Marissa Roth is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. She was part of the Los Angeles Times staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Spot News, for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She is the author of ‘Infinite Light: A Photographic Mediation on Tibet’, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; ‘The Crossing’, a poetic photographic study of the Atlantic Ocean; and ‘Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines’. She is also a curator, lecturer, and teacher, and a Fellow at The Royal Geographical Society in London. Find out details of Marissa’s One Person Crying: Women and War Project and overall work.

Marissa was inspired to write this article for History Hit to mark International Women’s Day 2021, to highlight how throughout history women have been directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts.

Marissa Roth