The Digital Journalist
What We Go Through
For a Story
December 2007

by Véronique de Viguerie

Along with Manon, the journalist I often work with, I was desperate to go somewhere, anywhere. It had been one month since we were stuck in France waiting for an Iranian visa. We were looking at some nice locations, then we found an article about the boom of prostitution in Syria because of the massive arrival of Iraqi refugees. We asked Marie-Claire magazine if it would be interested in this story and the editor said yes. We could not wait for a journalist visa so we applied for a quicker tourist visa.

Vulnerable Iraqi refugee women, alone, abandoned or widows, are queuing at the UNHCR registration center to get some help in Damascus, Syria.
We knew it would be tricky to get pictures and interviews with Iraqi prostitutes. But we were ready to take the challenge.

We arrived in Damascus a few days later. And on the first night, we talked our lady fixer into taking us to casinos where Iraqi girls came to dance in front of hungry men. Our fixer persuaded two male friends of hers to come with us. We had to be low-profile. There was no way that I could bring my big professional cameras; I had to rely on my little tourist one. Like the men, we ordered food and drinks, feeling uncomfortable in this full-of-testosterone environment. The men didn't seem to understand what two blond girls were doing in this dirty casino. One drunken guy followed the journalist to the toilet and tried to grab her to have sex. The waiters brought more and more papers with numbers written on them. They were prices that the men were ready to pay to have sex with us! Not enough, I'm afraid. All eyes were on us and I was told by our companions to not take out my camera. The atmosphere was getting too tense. We had to leave. It was 5 a.m. and I didn't even have one picture.

Sally and her mother are waiting for the "deals." Her mum will choose the best customer, the one who is rich and will pay cash in advance. Sally (19) left Iraq with her family one year ago. She is the only source of money for her parents and her two little brothers. Her parents had no choice but to prostitute her. Every night she goes with her mum to "casinos" in Damascus to dance and sell her body to rich men. She never uses condoms and relies on her mother's provisions to avoid pregnancy.
The night after, we tried another casino. But too suspicious, they did not let us in.

During the day we met desperate Iraqi female refugees who were all crying, remembering their dead loved ones. I did not realize how horrible the situation is for Iraqis in their own country. Many of the women we met had been raped and many had relatives kidnapped or killed by the militias. What they were describing to us was just a living hell. Once in Syria, they had no future, no more dreams. The refugees are not allowed to work which means that they cannot settle in Syria, while there is no way they can go back to Iraq. They are stuck in a country where they are not welcomed anymore and with nowhere to go.

At night we were "going out" to casinos. It was our fourth night in a row, going into these creepy clubs until early morning. We were tired and wanted to get this part of this story over.

We needed to work on our strategy and our cover. We could not go as journalists because the casinos' landlords were reluctant about this kind of publicity: exploiting the refugees' misery, especially sexually, in a conservative Muslim country.

Sally is dancing to raise the interest of the potential customers. She left Iraq with her family one year ago and is the only source of money for her parents and her two little brothers. Every night she goes with her mum to "casinos" like the Al Rawabi in Damascus to dance and sell her body to rich men. On good nights, she can earn $200 and on bad ones she comes back with less than $20.
Our story line now was going be that we were Russian prostitutes looking for a job. At 11 p.m., we left our hotel room with the sexiest clothes we could find and outrageous make-up. The poor receptionist nearly had a heart attack. This time it had to work no matter what. We arrived at the club and ordered food and drinks like the others. We waited and saw what seems to be an Iraqi young girl with her mother. As soon as she went to the toilets, Manon and the fixer followed her. She was happy to talk; I then arrived with my mini-camera and started taking pictures of her. We exchanged lipsticks and became friends. She introduced us to her mother who was really proud of her "Sally" because she was the most beautiful girl in the room. Her mother was sure that her daughter would get the best deal of the night. We discovered that Sally had two small brothers who were at home with their father. The mum told us that she was here to protect her daughter and make sure that she gets the richest man in the room. She did not know about condoms or any other contraception methods.

To keep our cover story real, I had to go and dance sexily with Sally in front of the men. I think I was quite a success and my picture is probably still in many of their mobile phones. Some men, who probably enjoyed the show, sent a bottle of fake champagne to our table. All eyes were on us when the DJ stopped the music to "welcome Russians to Syria." A beautiful moment until he asked us say "hello" in Russian in the microphone. We had no idea, really. We laughed stupidly and gave our best smiles. They clapped. The DJ then welcomed the Iraqis. Sally had a good offer: her mum was happy – the family will be able to pay their rent this month.

To read more of Véronique's previous DJ Dispatches, click on the following links :

© Véronique de Viguerie

French photographer Véronique de Viguerie has produced a wide array of features for World Picture News, including the "Madrassas of Pakistan" and "Afghanistan's Fiercest Policewoman." She covers many types of subjects ranging from hard news to reportage. Based in Afghanistan, de Viguerie narrowly escaped death in 2005 in a Kabul café when caught up in a suicide bomb blast; the man next to her was killed. She has been recognized with awards by the photojournalism community many times. In 2006 she was winner of the Canon Prize for Best Female Photojournalist at Visa Pour l'Image. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, LIFE, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Le Figaro, Le Monde and Libération.

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