SYRIA: Photos reveal hidden devastation of a years-long drought
On a dusty, rocky plain patches of dried grass try to poke through. A couple of makeshift tents, composed of scraps of material flapping insecurely in the wind, attract the eye while two swaddled figures can be seen talking in the background.
Utterly exposed and barren, a feeling reinforced by the black and white photographer Doha Hassan, it is no place to call home. But for some whose rural livelihoods have been ravaged by a three-year drought in Syria, it is.
They are farmers, herders and business owners who were reliant on the local agricultural economy in the northeastern states of Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
When the crops failed and the grazing land shriveled up, many people -- up to 300,000 of the 1.3 million the United Nations and government estimates to have been affected -- were forced to leave.
Some went to the cities to seek work; others ended up in camps such as the one seen above in a photograph taken by Hassan, who has chronicled the effects of the drought.
"Their plight has gone undocumented," she says. "Many people in this country don't even know how bad the drought was and how many lives have been ruined."
The drought refugees have been in part eclipsed by the Iraqi refugees who flooded into Syria in the wake of the Iraq 2003 war.
This is Hassan's first foray into photography. The roughness of her set of 23 portraits only serve to reinforce the impression of the disjointed and uncomfortable lives the drought victims now lead.
The majority of her shots depict individual or groups of children grubby from outdoor living, with unkempt hair and dressed in sun-faded ripped clothes.
Some look happy, many look wistful; all undoubtedly suffer from their situation.
The pictures have been widely discussed in Damascus, where word travels fast.
Known artists and writers have purchased prints -- the money is being donated to those in Sasa -– and local and Arab media have covered her exhibition last month.
Some of the attention has been unwanted, Hassan says. The drought is a sensitive topic in Syria because many of those affected blame the authorities for exacerbating the situation through water and land use mismanagement. Others are angry at the lack of help they have received in the wake of the crisis.
"I was shocked when I discovered Sasa," she says. "A group of us began to visit to teach the children, who are not currently in school, and to donate materials. Taking pictures was a natural thing to do."
While rainfall has improved this year's crop, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Syria says crop failures are still widespread. Families say they will not return until they know they can once again make a living from the land.
Food handouts have been provided to many remaining in the region but international aid agencies such as the World Food Program are short of funds and have not been able to reach everyone.
Hassan will continue documenting the people of Sasa.
"What has happened to them should not be allowed to go unnoticed," she said.
-- Sarah Birke in Damascus
Photos: Scenes from the Syria's dust bowl. From above, a man and woman converse on a road; unkempt children sit on a field; and laundry flutters in the hot wind. Credit: Doha Hassan