I was asked if I had heard of West Darfur, a province of Sudan in Africa, and being a little naive I said no, but eagerly accepted an invitation to visit anyway. It wasn't until I'd accepted the offer and searched the location that evening online I began to realise what I was getting myself into.
Sudan sits below the Sahara desert. I learned in my basic research that North Sudan is home to the seat of government, South Sudan is poor but they have a wealth in natural resources, and to the west was Darfur, and I was heading to West Darfur, a region that ithe rest of Sudan didn't want to know about in 2008 when I visited.
The region was in crisis with an ethnic cleansing, or in other words a genocide, underway. I don’t pretend to understand African politics or exactly who was doing what or why but thousands and thousands of people had been murdered and many more were homeless. These people had been run out of their lands and were called Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). They weren't technically refugees, as they hadn't crossed any borders, so cruelly had less rights than refugees. The result of the conflict was a humanitarian crisis. I was there to document part of what was happening, mainly the selfless work of the non-Government organisations who tirelessly cared for thousands of people offering medical and food support.
I spent most of the trip in shock. These people had their villages bombed by aircraft that were said never to exist by the government, then men on horses, known as the Janjaweed, would come in and slaughter the villagers, rape their women, throw dead bodies into the drinking wells rendering them useless and burn the villages to the ground. The traumatised survivors ran into the deserts and group by group they gathered together and settled into camps where groups like the one I was documenting tried to help where they could.
For all that these people had been through, I was amazed to see they were surprisingly happy. I witnessed marriages, birth, kids playing, I sat down with sheiks and listened. I learned these people were happy because they had hope - hope that one day in the future they will have their land back, and in that moment they felt fortunate just to be alive.
There were many moments I wasn't allowed to photograph at all for fear there would be retaliation and where the images might go. One instance was when I was invited into a heavily guarded and war torn building where I sat at a table with a commander of the Sudanese Liberation Movement. Only a small slither of light leaked in from the curtain of a dusty window. It beamed only across his eyes of his towel covered head. I'm sure if I was allowed to photograph him it would have made the front cover of Time magazine - but it is only captured in my memory.
The photos in this collection were all taken spontaneously, nothing was staged. From the portraits of ladies taking time out from assisting the sick, to the young girl smiling and reflecting - I feel these are some of the strongest portraits I've taken. I often look at these images and wonder where they are now and hope their dreams and hopes did come true.
Another of the most extraordinary images I've ever taken is the one of where one of the kids pulled a gun. It was a rare moment we were allowed out of the compound, it was on our last day of the visit. I was walking down the street, flanked by kids laughing and smiling as I clicked away on the camera. Through the viewfinder I saw a sudden flash of silver, and not more then 12 inches away a gun appeared of which the autofocus of the camera locked onto. Sure, the kids in the photo are smiling and I'm sure it was all fun and games, but the kid holding the gun? Well I don't know... Shortly after I returned to the compound I found out a suicide bomb had been denoted in similar of market place I was just in, and it was only 20 miles away.
It was after this project I understood the world was a different place to what I’ve known and it’s a strong reminder of how fortunate I am simply by virtue of where I was born.