“I was only sixteen when I saw some small balls on the ground. Curious, I decided to go play with them. It only took two small kicks before I was thrown away by the huge explosion that took my leg. These small objects were land mines, and that realisation came too late,” said 46-year-old Qassem Samalous while describing his life as a resident of one of the cities where mines from the second world war still exist.
It’s been 71 years since the end of World War II, and with no more military forces occupying lands and no more fights over power or control, many people would assume that the war no longer impacts everyday life. However, the 50 million people who died throughout the six-year war were not the last to have lost their lives as a price of the conflict between empires.
History positively remembers the significant role Egypt played in the war with the famous battle at El Alamein, in which German and British forces fought in a battle that would contribute to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. The remains of this long battle, however, are still experiences in the area, taking people’s lives and causing severe injuries to current residents who know nothing about the war beyond the stories they heard from their ancestors.
Mohammed Ali Elden, 31, is an Egyptian photojournalist who decided to explore the lives of individuals affected by these circumstances, and capture the lives of those currently living in El Alamein, Al-Dabaa, and Sidi Barani on the north-west coast of Egypt, where the battles took place.
The soil in these cities still holds several bombs, a few physical remains from the war.
“As a journalist I always read about the number of civilians dying or injured in that area, but for so long they remained just as numbers to me,” Ali Elden said. “Until one day I realised that these people’s lives are being ruined and turned upside-down without anyone knowing it or hearing about their stories. There are millions of people who think of those people the same way I used to.”
It is at this point that he decided to begin the journey of documenting the lives of El Alamein residents. For six months, Ali Elden travelled weekly to that area to learn more about the residents’ untold stories.
“We hear about their numbers, but we never see these people’s dreams, suffering, agony, or hopes. I aim to change people’s perspective of them just being numbers in newspapers to realise they are real human beings, filling in the gap between real life and what’s shown in media portals,” he added.
Throughout his journey, Ali Elden heard stories that seemed to him like they could only happen in the movies. “I met a man who as a newlywed was seriously injured in a bombing. He survived, but due to the damage to his body, his wife divorced him, leaving him single and alone for the rest of his life,” Ali Elden remembered.
It is often understood that those who are injured in incidents such as these usually stay at home and no longer work. But for some, they overcome the expectations and strive for normal careers. One man, Samalous, refused to follow his community’s rules and instead followed his passion to become the first mechanic in the area. “He’s now known as the man who broke the taboo and became Al-Dabaa’s most famous character,” stated Ali Elden.
In 12 black and white photos, Ali Elden features “the war’s legacy”, which shows the consequences of the war that was left for innocent citizens who did not even witness it. “The black and white pictures represent the life of these people. Even though they live in cheerful, colourful houses, their reality is so dark,” he said.
One of the stories he shared was that of 69-year-old Sharifa. The old woman was severely injured by a landmine when she was a little girl, and, due to the social stigma surrounding her, she was determined incapable of carrying out household responsibilities. She never got married and remains a single women with only her dog.
“In a community where very few women can be seen walking on the street or even working, Sharifa is an example of a woman who fights to survive,” Ali Elden explains. “She and her dog go out every day to the main market to sell dresses she made herself: a rare occurrence in the area.”
Even though the landmine took her entire right hand and a few fingers from her left one, she continued working hard to support herself financially.
The pictures in the collection do not only show people’s different injuries, but also provide a close look at the misery suffered by the injured who are trying to adapt to normal life, with the story of each written beneath his picture.
“There is no health care or social support in these areas,” Ali Elden stated. “Beyond the reality that they might face a fatal explosion at any second, these citizens have to be carried for over 150km to the nearest hospital in Alexandria.”
However, Ali Elden was amazed by their ability to adapt to the unfortunate circumstances.
“Most of these families are shippers and they live in a tribal society, so moving out from the places they and their ancestors were born and raised is difficult. They won’t easily fit into another place or community,” Alla Elden explained.