Skip to main content

Credit: Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Defenceless in spite of it all

He could have given up. In 2012 the Dutch photojournalist Jeroen Oerlemans was kidnapped by radical Islamists in the north of Syria along with his British colleague John Cantlie. After being severely injured in an attempt to escape, both were freed a week later by fighters from the Free Syrian Army. What might this incident have triggered in the experienced war reporter? And what might have gone on in his mind when he discovered just a few months later that John Cantlie had been abducted again along with another colleague, American photographer James Foley, who just a short time later was decapitated by a fighter of so-called Islamic State?

Two years later, when Jeroen Oerlemans saw Cantlie in IS propaganda videos and had to listen to him justifying the terror of IS, he must have asked himself what the imprisonment, the violence, perhaps even the brainwashing had done to his former fellow captive, who remains at the mercy of IS today. Or indeed what might have happened to himself.

Oerlemans and Cantlie escaped their first abduction with their lives.

And by the skin of their teeth. No one would have considered Oerlemans any less passionate a journalist if he had then sworn off missions to conflict regions for good. If you believe his colleagues, the married father of three small children did not enter into such risky deployments lightly.

“He was no cowboy”, says his colleague Eike den Hertog of photo agency De Beeldunie. “He was prudent and very smart.” Not a daredevil then. He was someone who saw the danger he subjected himself to as a carefully calculated risk that he was willing to enter into in order to give the horror of war a face. In the many war-torn regions he visited, he always directed his gaze towards the people. In one of his pictures a man in the Lebanon stands incredulous, a small fire extinguisher in his hand, amidst the smoking rubble of his house following an Israeli bomb attack on Tyros.

In another, women and girls in Afghanistan peek out of the door of their home in the town of Chora so cautiously, as if none of them can believe it is safe to venture onto the street. In yet another, a peaceful beach on the coast of Libya shows a deceptive idyll, which for many people has become the gate to hell after they believed they had escaped from another.

The beach, located at the city of Zuwara, has been the starting point for many refugees beginning the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hope of finding a better life on faraway shores. It’s true that since the constitution was declared in 2011, Libya has been a republic with parliamentary democracy under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, but in reality, countless groups are still fighting for dominance in the country, including the terror groups Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

Humans rights organisations report arbitrary arrests and torture in prisons. Libya is also considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, who repeatedly find themselves between the fronts of the warring parties, and Reporters Without Borders lists the country 163rd out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index.

For Jeroen Oerlemans this may have been one more reason to turn his attention to the country time and again. He didn’t want to merely scratch the surface. It had most likely been that way ever since Oerlemans, who was born in 1970, studied photojournalism in London after completing a masters in political science in Amsterdam. Time and again, his travels took him to the Middle East, to Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Libya, but also Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

His photos appeared in magazines like Newsweek and Time Magazine and in countless newspapers such as the Guardian or the Sunday Times. In the autumn of 2016 Oerlemans was in the Libyan town of Sirte on behalf of the Belgian magazine Knack, reporting on the offensive of pro-government troops against IS. There was heavy fighting. On 2 October, a Sunday, Oerlemans was accompanying a minesweeping commando. In a district of Sirte that appeared to have already been liberated from the jihadists, Jeroen Oerlemans was shot by an IS sniper.

The shot struck him in the side, at a point where the bulletproof vest he wore was not able to protect him. He died immediately. Jeroen Oerlemans’ Twitter account remains active. His last tweet is from 12 July 2016 and is a reaction to a sign that his former
fellow captive is alive. John Cantlie had appeared in another IS video, which apparently shows him in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Jeroen Oerlemans writes: “I still hope that he will one day return home.”

written by Tanja Brandes, editor at the Berliner Zeitung/Berliner Kurier

  • Credit: Quelle: picture alliance / ANP

    Jeroen Oerlemans

    Jeroen Oerlemans was an ambitious photographer. After his studies in political science he learned reporting-photography in London and got famous through publications in well-known magazines like Times or The Guardian. In 2012 he got kidnapped by radical Islamists and kept captive for one week until the Free Syrian Army freed him. In 2016 he got killed by a IS-sniper’s targeted shot in the Lybian city of Syrte while he was working as a reporter. Even though he was clearly recognizable as a journalist. He leaves behind a wife and three children.