Artist Spotlight, Inspiration

War Stories: Documenting Conflict in Syria and Iraq with Marketa Kutilova

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Pond5 artists come from all over the world. Some record at home studios, some shoot on location in media hubs like New York, London, or Los Angeles, and some travel far and wide to report on what matters most — human survival. This is the case for Czech artist Marketa Kutilova.
 

Refugees near Mosul, Iraq in October 2016 by Marketa Kutilova
 
Marketa has spent her career reporting from some of the most underdeveloped and dangerous places on Earth, telling the stories of those without a voice, those only concerned with surviving in the world’s harshest conditions.
 
marketa-with-tripod

Marketa filming in a completely destroyed former town. Photo: Lenka Klicperová
 
Kutilova is a member of the Czech journalist collective known as Femisphera — a group focused on documenting the struggles of life in developing countries and war zones, with an emphasis on women’s issues. She recently returned from her third tour in Syria and Iraq, where she was embedded with resistance fighters struggling for control of their homelands. We caught up with her to discuss her travels and experiences, including how she got started as a journalist.
 

Studies and Training

“My journalism career actually started when I was 17 years old,” recalls Kutilova. “I was a student at secondary school and at that time I was reading the Czech national newspaper. There was a war journalist named Petra Prochazkova who was a reporter from the Chechnyan War. She became my role model. Some people have pop stars or athletes; my idol when I was teenager was this war journalist.”

As Marketa started on her career path, however, she found that it wasn’t so easy to get sent to a foreign hotspot. “I started university and was studying to be a journalist when I started working at the same newspaper as Petra. I was waiting to be sent to some war region to be a reporter, but it didn’t happen, because media here in the Czech Republic they normally don’t send reporters to war zones unless you’re working for Czech television — and even that is very occasional.”

Kutilova realized that if she wanted to work abroad she’d have to be fluent in English, so she went to London to work as an au pair for a year, and upon returning to Prague, she was able to listen to the BBC and read an English newspaper without using a dictionary. She also realized that after working two years at the newspaper without being sent to a war zone, if she wanted go abroad, she’d have to send herself. “I bought a bus ticket and went to Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, all the way to Indian border,” she explains. “That was my first time in a developing country, and I saw massive poverty. That journey changed my life a lot.”
 

Children Playing in Completely Destroyed Buildings by Marketa Kutilova
 

Worldwide Aid Efforts

Marketa went on to work as a humanitarian aid worker in Iran, Sri Lanka, and Haiti, getting her big break as a journalist reporting on the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003.
 
girl behind tank

A girl peeking out from behind a destroyed tank in Iraq
 
“There was a huge earthquake in Bam,” Kutilova remembers. “It was December 26, 2003. It destroyed the city of Bam completely and 40,000 people died there. My coverage was on the front page of my newspaper. I met some people from a Czech NGO called People in Need, and they asked me if I could stay for two weeks and work as a volunteer with them. I pleaded with my chief editor to stay two weeks more in Iran and he said, ‘No way. Are you a journalist, or are you a humanitarian worker? Make your decision.'”

“I came back to Prague, resigned from the newspaper and went back to Iran to work with People in Need,” Marketa continues. “I stayed for a year, working as a humanitarian worker and then came back to Prague. Soon after, the Indian Ocean Tsunami happened, so I went to Sri Lanka, worked there for three years, then went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to report on sexual violence against women. Based on my articles in the Congo, people started to send money for the victims, and I went back there to open a humanitarian mission and stayed two more years.”
 
Syrian Funeral Procession

A funeral procession in Kobani, Syria. Photo: Lenka Klicperová
 
“My last mission as a humanitarian worker was when I went to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010,” says Kutilova. “Since returning from Haiti, I have worked only as a journalist. Some colleagues and I established Femisphera, an agency focused on war regions and female issues around the world. We make documentary movies, photo exhibitions, public presentations, and reports for Czech TV. For the last three years, we’ve been focused on the wars in Syria and Iraq, and have published two books about the war in Syria, both of which became bestsellers in the Czech Republic.”
 

Iraq, October 2016: Refugees Near Mosul by Marketa Kutilova
 

The Sand and the Scenario

Kutilova just returned from her third tour into the war zones in Syria and Iraq, and this time she managed to get into Mosul. “We were some of the first journalists who went to Mosul,” she says. “All we saw in the streets of Mosul was children, a couple of men, and a couple of horses and some cows outside to get some grass, a very small store selling some food, and some children collecting garbage. They were collecting plastic bottles and searching for any food they could find.”
 

Marketa with kids in Syria

Kutilova with two young Syrian children. Photo: Lenka Klicperová
 
“The battle for Mosul will be very long,” she continues. “It will take many months, because the Daesh (ISIS) fighters entrenched there are ready to die there. They are operating mainly in the tunnels beneath Mosul. These tunnels are very clever, because you can’t make air strikes against them. They’re underground, so these fights can take a very, very long time. It’s almost impossible to destroy Daesh fighters in the tunnels unless you go into them yourself. They’re kilometers and kilometers long. Many citizens of Mosul are afraid of not only Daesh, but also very afraid of Shiite Iraqi soldiers. And the Iranian-supported troops alongside the Iraqi troops. It’s a very complicated issue.”
 

A Funeral in Kobani, Syria, February 2016 by Tvision
 
“We made big reports in Manbij, a city in northern Syria that was liberated by Syrian Democratic forces in August. We were covering the victims of mines, because when ISIS left Manbij, they placed thousands of mines in the city, killing many and leaving hundreds of victims handicapped. Many of the victims are children. Foreign journalists are not allowed to go to this region, but we have a very good contact there, so we got there. We were the only foreign journalists who could get there at the time.”
 
Mine victim

A victim of mines left by ISIS in Manbij, Syria
 
“We were in Raqqa when the offensive started,” says Kutilova. “The US is playing the biggest role. They have two airports and 500 special forces in northern Syria. We were working with some refugees from Mosul who were waiting on the Iraqi-Syrian border, covering the stories there. We were also covering stories from Kobani, a city liberated from ISIS two years ago, which we’ve been following for two years.”
 
Soldier with Puppy

A Kurdish fighter with her furry companion
 
Marketa mentions that many of the fighting forces in Syria and Iraq are allied purely out of convenience, with no love lost between them. “You can feel the animosity between them,” she says. “Especially Peshmerga — they don’t want to cooperate with the Iraqi army. And Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi — they don’t want to cooperate with Peshmerga, and the only connecting point for them is the cooperation with USA. Everybody needs the USA in this fight. The USA doesn’t want to lose ground in Iraq and Syria so they try to cooperate with everyone.”
 

YPG fighter Firing a Heavy Machine Gun in Syria by Marketa Kutilova
 
“The most important videos to me are the videos from the Iraqi-Syrian border,” says Kutilova. “There’s a refugee camp in the desert where there are 4,000 people who are fleeing from Mosul. These people are living in a really desperate situation. They’re digging holes in the desert to survive. They have no food, no medicine, no water, and children are dying there.”
 
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A Family in Kobani, Syria. . Photo: Lenka Klicperová
 
“This is the paradox — these people are leaving Iraq and want to go to Syria,” she explains. “100,000 people are leaving Syria and there are other people that are so desperate, that they want to enter Syria.”
 
Kurdish women

Kurdish women in Northern Iraq. Photo: Lenka Klicperová
 
“They have nowhere else to go, because there is Daesh all around them, and the only way out for them is to get to Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan. But the Kurdish people feel threatened because they don’t know who these people are. They don’t want to let them into Syrian Kurdistan, so people are stuck in the desert, living on nothing. Filming in this refugee camp was very impactful for me.”

Two boys sitting on a bomb in Kobani, Syria by Marketa Kutilova
 
“It was also a very strong experience for me to go into the tunnels of Daesh,” says Kutilova. “I visited these tunnels in Ba’ashiqah, and there was still some fresh food which was cooked by ISIS fighters. They had freezers there, and fridges. You can see how they were living in tunnels.”
 

Inside an ISIS tunnel in Mosul.
 

A Brush with Death

“I think the most intense moment was in Syria,” says Marketa. “We were at the Euphrates River and there were huge clashes between the Kurds and Daesh. When we arrived, Daesh started to shoot rockets at our car. When you’re in a car, you can’t do anything when the rockets hit you. The first rocket fell about 100 meters behind the car and the reaction of our driver was to stop. We were in a panic, like, ‘What you are doing? Why did you stop the car? Daesh is shooting rockets at us!’ And he said, ‘These rockets go for heat, and will follow the heat of the engine.’ That’s why he stopped the car. He stopped the engine to make it cold, so that a rocket couldn’t find us. In that moment, you have to make decision in one second, so we told him, ‘Just go,’ because we were sure that before the engine gets cold, we will all be dead. After a dispute, he started to go, and a second rocket landed 50 meters behind the car.”
 

Refugees near Mosul, Iraq by Marketa Kutilova
 

A Very Brief Respite

Kutilova has been navigating the extremely arid landscapes of Syria and Iraq populated by ISIS, Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, Syrian resistance fighters, and Americans, all with shifting strategies and alliances. In the most difficult of situations, however, she has managed to stay upbeat and resolute. She is currently enjoying time at home in Prague with her daughter. “Right now, I think I’ll stay in Prague a couple of days,” she says. “Maybe even a couple of weeks. We are planning to go back to Mosul soon, but I’m not sure when yet exactly.”

See more of Marketa’s incredible footage from Syria and Iraq on Pond5 »

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Top Photo: Lenka Klicperová