The award-winning photographer Nick Danziger speaks to Francine Wolfisz about what it was like to follow the stories of 11 women in conflict zones, 10 years after his first visit
There’s a total limbo, where they are neither dead or alive. It’s the worst space to inhabit, because if they aren’t dead, you can’t grieve.”
In a moving image taken by British photographer Nick Danziger, a young Israeli woman named Efrat stares longingly at a picture of her brother, Benny. He was serving with the Israeli army on the border with Lebanon when he was reported missing, believed kidnapped, in October 2000.
Just months later, award-winning Danziger was commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross to document 11 women in conflict zones around the world, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Columbia, Afghanistan, Gaza, Hebron and Israel.
In 2011, he returned with the hope of discovering what had become of each of their lives and the resulting photographs and short films now form the basis of a new exhibition, Eleven Women Facing War, which runs at the Imperial War Museum London until 24 April.
Upon travelling back to Israel, Danziger learned the family’s agonising wait for news was finally over: they were told in 2004 that Benny had been killed shortly after his abduction. In 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the return of his remains in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian soldiers.
Efrat had moved forward with her life and was now happily married with a daughter. But, as Danziger notes, this was not the case for everyone else in her family.
His photograph taken in 2011 shows the memorial inside her father’s apartment now dedicated to Benny’s memory.
“The way that the father, the mother and the sister were living this was very different. It was even more difficult for the father perhaps, because his brother had also died as a result of the hostilities in 1973,” Danziger explains.
“My sense of this and the other women I met was that men are often looking for revenge, but women are looking for justice. The women of the family have perhaps become more at peace with what has taken place.”
Showing the other side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Danziger also visited Shinaz, a Palestinian nurse at Hebron’s Al Ahli Hospital, in the West Bank.
When Danziger met Shinaz in 2001, she told him that Israeli settlers had laid claim to her home in 1982 and she had since endured harassment. Ten years on, she had been driven out of her home, after it was firebombed, and was married with four children.
When she and Danziger returned to her old property, escorted by Israeli soldiers, the pair found themselves targeted by settlers throwing rubbish and water at them.
Danziger says of his resulting 2011 photograph: “This is tragic. Obviously Hebron is an area of great tension, but the irony of this situation is that the Israeli Defence Forces were protecting her against extremists. That really says something to me. We’ve got to eliminate extreme positions.
“Violence breeds violence. It’s very much like alcoholism. If you are born, unfortunately, into a family with substance abuse problems, the likelihood is that you will suffer substance abuse. That’s where the circle needs to be broken.”
Moving on through the exhibition, we come across photographs of Zakiya, a single mother of seven children living in Gaza. When Danziger first met the family, Zakiya’s husband, a Hamas activist, had been arrested by the IDF. In the colour photograph from 2011, she is seen smiling next to her daughters who, despite their difficult upbringing, have gone on to study at university.
“According to the traditions of her culture, Zakiya’s children should have been taken away and gone to live with in-laws. She battled to keep custody of the children and succeeded. Here is a mother who has done everything to keep her family together and she has brought up three remarkable daughters.”
Zakiya’s sons however, have not fared so well and struggle to make a living, something Danziger partly attributes to an absent father.
“Something like that really impacts on the family,” he explains. “The women are survivors and seem to cope much better in the way they survive their traumas.”
Danziger’s other subjects equally share their stories of heartbreak and inspiration.
Mariatu, from Sierra Leone, was just 13 when rebel fighters of the revolutionary United Front forcibly amputated her hands. A decade later, she had moved to Canada, had published an award-winning book detailing her experiences and was working to promote the rights of women and children in conflict zones.
Of the original 11 women, there was, however, one Danziger was unable to find: Mah Bibi, a 10-year-old orphan from Afghanistan. It is believed she died in 2006.
“I would like to go back and revisit all the women again in another 10 years,” adds Danziger. “They are all really remarkable individuals and survivors, in the truest sense of the word.”
• Nick Danziger: Eleven Women Facing War runs until 24 April at Imperial War Museum London. Details: www.iwm.org.uk