PhotoSensitive Picture Change : Ismail
Michelle Shephard – National Security Correspondent & author - @shephardm
Over nearly 17 years of journalism at the Star, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and interviewing hundreds of fascinating people, from presidents, to a few fellows on the UN “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list. Many interviews I will likely never forget. One, I know I won’t. It was this story and photo of a Somali brave teenager named Ismail Khalif Abdulle that I chose for the “Picture Change” exhibit – a PhotoSensitive show I was incredibly honoured to be asked to contribute to because I consider myself a reporter with a camera (who’s still learning to be a photographer).
This is the story behind the photo, as adapted from my book, which I dedicate in part to Ismail, “my hero.”
The photo was taken in Mogadishu in January 2010, in a government compound known as “Villa Somalia.” A contact of mine from Toronto had wanted me to meet three teenagers who had had a hand and foot amputated by Al Qaeda’s regional proxy, Al Shabab. My time was tight. I was traveling with African Union peacekeepers and staying on their guarded compound. My convoy wouldn’t travel at night and was leaving with or without me. Ismail, the youngest of the group at 17, and who looked about 13, was the most eager to talk. He said he was punished because the Shabab wanted him to join their group. He wanted to go to school so said, ‘No.’ They kidnapped him, dragged them into a stadium and cut off his right hand before a crowd. As he passed out from the pain, they severed his left foot. He awoke in captivity. They would further torture him before he managed to escape, six months before we met.
Through a Somali translator, I asked him if we could go toward a window, where the light was better. He immediately jumped up, retrieved a red chair, reached down to remove his prosthetic leg and crossed the stump of his left leg across his right knee. His shirt cuff hung loosely over the raw skin where his right hand used to be. I tried to steady the lens but immediately started to cry as he looked directly into the camera, sweating. I only had time to take about a dozen frames. He asked me, “Can you take me back to Canada?”
I saw Ismail looking at a Canadian flag pinned to my bag. I fumbled to take it off, clumsily handing it to him as I ran to catch the convoy. It slipped from his fingers, and he dropped it. As I left the hall, struggling to put on my helmet and flak jacket, I looked over my shoulder to get a last glimpse of Ismail. He was hunched over, digging frantically through the couch cushions with one hand, searching for the stupid pin.
I thought I’d never see him again. Thankfully, I was wrong.
His story mobilized Toronto’s Somali diaspora and one man in particular, former Reuters’ photojournalist and friend, Sahal Abdulle. Sahal was living in Nairobi at the time and vowed to save Ismail. Nine months later I was with him in Nairobi when, after a harrowing and tense trip, Ismail managed to escape Mogadishu. Again, the tears came as I struggled to take their photo in the Nairobi market where they first hugged.
Sahal said he would become Ismail’s adoptive father, until they could find a country to offer refuge. But Norway accepted him quickly on an emergency basis. And in January 2011, one year after we first met, I accompanied Sahal and Ismail to Harstad, Norway, a beautiful city of 23,500, about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, where Ismail now lives happily and goes to school. He has learned to run in the snow and speak Norwegian.
We keep in touch via Facebook. I hope one day he’ll get to Canada, too.
The new exhibition produced by PhotoSensitive, Picture Change, features one photo from over 100 of the top Canadian photographers, including several Toronto Star journalists. The exhibit is a body of work highlighting the way that photography can make a positive change in the world. It might be a photo that inspired action among the public, one that helped bring about a change in law or one that simply forced its viewers to re-think their preconceived ideas. The exhibit opened Tuesday July 16th and will be on display for a couple weeks at the Royal Bank Plaza Terrace, 200 Bay Street, between the tower and the Royal York Hotel. From there the display will move to another location in the city.