For 11 days in May, Fatima Shbair hardly slept. When the most recent rounds of fighting in Gaza broke out between Israelis and Palestinians on 10 May, the 24-year-old freelance photographer said goodbye to her mother and left her home to document the stories of her neighbours in Gaza, as their lives were racked by terror.
The conflict featured waves of pre-dawn Israeli air raids and rocket fire from Gazan territory. Palestinians made up the vast majority of more than 250 people killed.
During the day, Shbair photographed scenes of destruction and chaos. Then at night, she would stay up editing her photos and listening to the news on the radio, which dictated where she went the following day. Short naps and adrenaline kept her going.
“At first my mother was calling me every day asking about me, how things were going,” says Shbair. “I asked her not to call me because I was afraid every time she did. I was afraid about [my family]. I didn’t want to hear bad news.”
On 24 May, she went to Beit Hanoun, a town on the north-east edge of the Gaza Strip. She knew entire neighbourhoods there had been destroyed, but that many residents had managed to get out in time. Shbair wanted to photograph people as they returned to their homes.
“Every family was looking at what happened to their house with great sadness,” she remembers. Shbair came across a four-year-old girl, called Raghad, with her father. “She was so shy when I met her. Her dad helped me talk to her.”
Together they went to visit the family’s house. “Raghad was walking with me, carrying her teddy bear. We moved from room to room in a house that only had rubble and broken walls.”
They arrived in what used to be Raghad’s bedroom. “I asked her about the room she slept in,” she says. “She stood in complete silence as if she was remembering everything.”
It was then that Shbair took the award-winning photo of the young girl standing amid rubble in a room with gaping holes in the wall, and looking out at other buildings in a similar state. “This picture sums up the feelings of everyone in the neighbourhood who lost their homes,” she says.
Raghad and her family have since relocated to another area of Gaza and are renting a small house, says Shbair. “I went to see Raghad again. She looks like an angel.
“She doesn’t speak much and her eyes are filled with sadness. She still remembers everything and misses her old house and friends from the neighbourhood.”
Shbair, meanwhile, is on a break from studying journalism at Al-Azhar University in Gaza while she focuses on her photojournalism work. She taught herself photography, posting pictures on social media, where she gained an international following. In 2020, she began to receive assignments from international agencies, including Getty Images, to cover her home town.
Shbair says she faces many challenges as a female photojournalist. The worst, she says, are societal views that dictate women who go to dangerous areas and take photos must be “bad”.
“When you go to an event,” she says, “you find that everyone stares at you and starts making hurtful comments.”
She does not let it affect her too much, though. “Everything around me deserves to be documented,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to make the voices of the people around me heard, and their images visible.” Her portfolio of photos from the 11-day conflict won her this year’s Anja Neidringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award.
While the media spotlight has moved on from Gaza since May, Shbair remains and is determined to carry on sharing people’s stories of sadness and hope.
“I want people to know about real life here. There is an everyday war. We have a blockade, electricity cuts, no water.
“There are so many things people are suffering each day but they find a way to live,” she says. “They just continue.”
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.