Bombs, bunkers and borders

Here is the first of a series of updates on Syria, this one identifying recent work on attacks on hospitals and health care which I’ve been reading while I turn my previous posts into a long-form essay (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘ and ‘The Death of the Clinic‘).

First, some context.  Human Rights Watch has joined a chorus of NGOs documenting attacks on hospitals and health care around the world.  On 24 May HRW issued this bleak statement:

Deadly attacks on hospitals and medical workers in conflicts around the world remain uninvestigated and unpunished a year after the United Nations Security Council called for greater action, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 25, 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to brief the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 2286, which condemned wartime attacks on health facilities and urged governments to act against those responsible. Guterres should commit to alerting the Security Council of all future attacks on healthcare facilities on an ongoing rather than annual basis.

“Attacks on hospitals challenge the very foundation of the laws of war, and are unlikely to stop as long as those responsible for the attacks can get away with them,” said Bruno Stagno-Ugarte, deputy executive director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Attacks on hospitals are especially insidious, because when you destroy a hospital and kill its health workers, you’re also risking the lives of those who will need their care in the future.”

The statement continues:

International humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war, prohibits attacks on health facilities and medical workers. To assess accountability measures undertaken for such attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed 25 major attacks on health facilities between 2013 and 2016 in 10 countries [see map above]. For 20 of the incidents, no publicly available information indicates that investigations took place. In many cases, authorities did not respond to requests for information about the status of investigations. Investigations into the remaining five were seriously flawed…

No one appears to have faced criminal charges for their role in any of these attacks, at least 16 of which may have constituted war crimes. The attacks involved military forces or armed groups from Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and the United States.

More here.

The World Health Organisation reached similar conclusions in its report of 17 May 2017:

Alexandra Sifferlin‘s commentary for Time drew attention to the importance of attacks on medical facilities in Syria:

In a 48-hour period in November, warplanes bombed five hospitals in Syria, leaving Aleppo’s rebel-controlled section without a functioning hospital. The loss of the Aleppo facilities — which had been handling more than 1,500 major surgeries each month — was just one hit in a series of escalating attacks on health care workers in 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Friday.

Violent attacks on hospitals and health workers “continue with alarming frequency,” the WHO said in its new report. In 2016, there were 302 violent attacks, which is about an 18% increase from the prior year, according to new data. The violence — 74% was in the form of bombings — occurred in 20 countries, but it was driven by relentless strikes on health facilities in Syria, which the WHO has previously condemned. Across the globe, the 302 attacks last year resulted in 372 deaths and 491 injuries…

After the spate of attacks on Syrian hospitals last November, the WHO reported that three of the bombed hospitals in Aleppo had been providing over 10,000 consultations every month. Two other bombed hospitals in the city of Idleb were providing similar levels of care, including 600 infant deliveries. One of the two hospitals in Idleb was a primary referral hospital for emergency childbirth care.

“The attack…is an outrage that puts many more lives in danger in Syria and deprives the most vulnerable – including children and pregnant women – of their right to health services, just at the time when they need them most,” the WHO said.

The WHO has also provided a series of reports on attacks on hospitals and health care in Syria; here is its summary for last month:

But the WHO’s role in the conflict in Syria has been sharply criticised by Annie Sparrow, who has accused it of becoming a de facto apologist for the Assad regime.  Writing in Middle East Eye earlier this year, she said:

For years now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been fiddling while Syria burns, bleeds and starves. Despite WHO Syria having spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the conflict began in March 2011, public health in Syria has gone from troubling in 2011 to catastrophic now…

Yet WHO Syria has been anything but an impartial agency serving the needy. As can be seen by a speech made by Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative to Syria, to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 19 November 2016, WHO has prioritised warm relations with the Syrian government over meeting the most acute needs of the Syrian people.

Annie singles out three particularly problematic issues.

  • She claims that the WHO parrots the Assad regime’s claim that before the conflict its vaccination programmes had covered 95 per cent of the population (or better), whereas she insists that vaccinations had been withheld from children ‘in areas considered politically unsympathetic, such as the provinces of Idlib, western Aleppo, and Deir Ezzor.’  On her reading, in consequence, the re-emergence of (for example) polio ‘is consistent with pre-existing low immunisation rates and the vulnerability of Syrian children living in government-shunned areas.’
  • It was not until 2016 that the WHO reported attacks on hospitals at all, and when its representative condemned ‘repeated attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria’ she failed to note that the vast majority of those attacks were carried out by the Syrian Arab Air Force and its Russian ally.  The geography of deprivation was erased: ‘It is only in opposition-held areas that healthcare is compromised because of the damage and destruction resulting from air strikes by pro-government forces.’
  • Those corpo-materialities – an elemental human geography, so to say – did emerge when the WHO accused the Assad regime of of ‘withholding approval for the delivery of surgical and medical supplies to “hard-to-reach” and “besieged” locations.’  But Annie objects to these ‘politically neutral terms’ because they are ‘euphemisms for opposition-controlled territory, and so [avoid] highlighting the political dimension of the aid blockages, or the responsibility of the government for 98 percent of the more than one million people forced to live in an area under siege.’

You can read WHO’s (I think highly selective) response here.

Earlier this month 13 Syrian medical organisations combined with the Syria Campaign to document how attacks on hospitals have driven hospitals and health facilities underground (I described this process – and the attacks on the Cave Hospital and the underground M10 hospital in Aleppo – in ‘Your turn, doctor‘).  In Saving Lives Underground, they write:

Health facilities in Syria are systematically targeted on a scale unprecedented in modern history.

There have been over 454 attacks on hospitals in the last six years, with 91% of the attacks perpetrated by the Assad government and Russia. During the last six months of 2016, the rate of attacks on healthcare increased dramatically. Most recently, in April 2017 alone, there were 25 attacks on medical facilities, or one attack every 29 hours.

While the international community fails to protect Syrian medics from systematic aerial attacks on their hospitals, Syrians have developed an entire underground system to help protect patients and medical colleagues as best they can. The fortification of medical facilities is now considered a standard practice in Syria. Field hospitals have been driven underground, into basements, fortified with sandbags and cement walls, and into caves. These facilities have saved the lives of countless health workers and patients, preserved critical donor-funded equipment, and helped prevent displacement by providing communities with emergency care.

But all this comes at a cost:

Donors often see the reinforcement and building of underground medical facilities exclusively as long-term aid, or development work. However, as the Syria crisis is classified as a protracted emergency conflict, medical organizations do not currently have access to such long-term funds.

Budget lines for the emergency funding they receive can include “protection” work, but infrastructure building, even for protective purposes, often falls outside of their mandate. The divide between emergency humanitarian and development funding is creating a gap for projects that bridge the two, like protective measures for hospitals in Syria.

For this reason, as Emma Beals reported in the Guardian, many projects have resorted to crowdfunding:

The latest underground medical project seeking crowdfunding to complete building works is the Avicenna women and children’s hospital in Idlib City, championed by Khaled al-Milaji, head of the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organisation.

Al-Milaji is working to raise money with colleagues from Brown University in the US, where he studied until extreme security vetting – the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” – prevented him re-entering the country after a holiday in Turkey.

He has instead turned his attention to building reinforced underground levels of the hospital, sourcing private donations to meet the shortfall between donor funding and actual costs…

Crowdfunding was an essential part of building the children’s Hope hospital, near Jarabulus in northern Syria. The project is run by doctors from eastern Aleppo, who were evacuated from the city in December after it was besieged for nearly six months amid a heavy military campaign. Doctors worked with the People’s Convoy, which transported vital medical supplies from London to southern Turkey as well as raising funds to build the hospital, which opened in April. More than 4,800 single donations raised the building costs, with enough left over to run the hospital for six months.

Saving Lives Underground distinguishes basement hospitals (the most common response to aerial attack by aircraft or shelling: 66 per cent of fortified hospitals fall into this category; the average cost is usually around $80–175,000, though more elaborate rehabilitation and repurposing can run up to $1 million); cave hospitals (‘the more effective protection model’ – though there are no guarantees – which accounts for around 4 per cent of fortified hospitals and which typically cost around $200–800,000) and purpose-built underground hospitals (two per cent of the total; these can cost from $800,000 to $1,500,000).

It’s chilling to think that hospitals have to be fortified and concealed in these ways: but even more disturbing, the report finds that 47 per cent of hospitals in these vulnerable areas have no fortification at all.

Seriously ill or wounded patients trapped inside besieged areas have few choices: medical facilities are degraded and often makeshift; access to vital medical supplies continues to be capriciously controlled and often denied; and attempts to evacuate them depend on short-lived ceasefires and deals (or bribes).  In Aleppo control of the Castello Road determined whether ambulances could successfully run the gauntlet from eastern Aleppo either west to hospitals in Reyhanli in Turkey or out to the Bab-al Salama Hospital in northern Aleppo and then across the border to state-run hospitals in Kilis: but in the absence of a formal agreement this was often a journey of last resort.

A victim of a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo is helped into a Turkish ambulance on call at the Bab al Salama Hospital near the Turkish border.

In October 2016 there were repeated attempts to broker medical evacuations from eastern Aleppo; eventually an agreement was reached, but the planned evacuations were stalled and then abandoned.  In December a new ‘humanitarian pause’ agreed with Russia and the Syrian government allowed more than 100 ambulances to be deployed by the Red Cross and the Red Crescent from Turkey; 200 critical patients were ferried from eastern Aleppo to hospitals in rural Aleppo, Idlib or Turkey – but the mission was abruptly terminated 24 hours after it had started.

The sick and injured have continued to make precarious journeys to hospitals in Turkey (Bab al-Hawa, Kilis, Reyhanli and other towns along the  border: see here, here and here), and also Jordan (in Ramtha and Amman, and in the Zaatari refugee camp: see here and here), Lebanon (in Beirut, Tripoli and clinics in the Bekaa Valley), and even Israel (trekking across the Golan Heights into Northern Israel: see here, herehere and especially here).

But there are no guarantees; travelling within Syria is dangerous and debilitating for patients, and access to hospitals outside Syria is frequently disrupted by border closures (which in turn can thrust the desperate into the hands of smugglers).  In March 2016, for example, Amnesty International reported:

 Since 2012 Jordan has imposed increasing restrictions on access for Syrians attempting to enter the country through formal and informal border crossings. It has made an exception for Syrians with war-related injuries.  However, Amnesty International has gathered information from humanitarian workers and family members of Syrian refugees with critical injuries being denied entry to Jordan for medical care, suggesting the exceptional criteria for entry on emergency medical grounds is inconsistently applied. This has led to refugees with critical injuries being returned to field hospitals in Syria, which are under attack on a regular basis, and to some people dying at the border.

In June Jordan closed the border, after an IS car bomb killed seven of its soldiers, and by December MSF had been forced to close its clinic at the Zaatari camp, which had provided post-operative care for casualties brought in from Dara’a.

Tens of thousands of refugees are now trapped in a vast, informal encampment (see image above) between two desert berms in a sort of ‘no man’s land‘ between Syria and Jordan.  From there Jordanian troops transport selected patients to a UN clinic, located across the border in a sealed military zone – ‘and then take them back again to the checkpoint after they are treated.’

(For the image above, and a commentary by MSF’s Jason Cone, see here).

For patients who do manage to make it across any of these borders, it’s far from easy for doctors to recover their medical history – as the note below, pinned to an unconscious patient who was admitted to the Ziv Medical Center in Safed implies – and in the case of Syria (as in Iraq) everything is further complicated by a fraught politics of the wound.

Here, for example, is Professor Ghassan Abu-Sitta, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the medical centre in Beirut, talking earlier this month with Robert Fisk:

In Iraq, patients wounded in Saddam’s wars were initially treated as heroes – they had fought for their country against non-Arab Iran.  But after the US invasion of 2003, they became an embarrassment.  “The value of their wounds’ ‘capital’ changes from hero to zero,” Abu-Sitta says.  “And this means that their ability to access medical care also changes.  We are now reading the history of the region through the wounds.  War’s wounds carry with them the narrative of the wounding which becomes political capital.”

In the bleak wars that have scarred Syria, and which continue to open up divisions and divides there too, the same considerations come into play with equal force.

Counting casualties and making casualties count

In my analysis of CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see ‘Dirty Dancing’: DOWNLOADS tab) I drew upon the tabulations provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Chris Herwig‘s cartographic animation of casualties between 2004 and 2013: see my discussion here and the maps here.

Quartz’s CityLab is now running a week-long series on Borders (‘stories about places on the edge’) and it includes a new series of interactive maps showing civilian casualties from drone strikes in the FATA (this series also ends in 2013).  Here’s a screenshot:

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There’s not much geographical analysis – apart from noting the focus on North and South Waziristan – and, as I argued before, I think it a mistake to isolate drone strikes from the wider matrix of military and paramilitary violence in the borderlands (including air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force).  And there are obvious problems in disentangling civilian casualties – the US Air Force has the greatest difficulty in identifying civilians in the first place.

It’s difficult to put all this together – and particularly to hear the voices of those caught up in a matrix of such extensive violence that, as Madiha Tahir puts it so well, ‘war has lacerated the land into stillness.’  In an exquisite essay in Public Culture 29 (1) (2017) Madiha reflects on that difficulty and the ‘spatial stories’ local people struggle to tell.  Her title – ‘The ground was always in play’ – is borrowed from Michael Herr‘s despatches from Vietnam, but the full quotation explains how aerial violence echoes across this shattered land:

‘The ground was always in play, always being swept.  Under the ground was his, above it was ours.  We had the air.’

But the ‘we’ in the FATA is plural – a product of the ‘dirty dancing’ between Washington and Islamabad – and so we come to the story Madiha pieces together:

The story Mir Azad came to tell is this [and, as Madiha shows, he had travelled 500 difficult miles across South and North Waziristan to tell it]. In July 2015, American drones bombed and killed two of his cousins, Gul Rehman Khan and Mohammad Khandan. After Zarb-e-Azb began in June 2014, thousands of Waziris fled in all directions, businesspeople, farmers, militants, and students, including to the Pakistani villages in Barmal, and there the drones followed. The military operation and the “surgical” operation, carpet bombing and “precision strikes,” coordinated maybe, intentionally or not, they worked together to redraw the lines of movement, new containment zones, a shockwave that could start with ground troops in North Waziristan and end with a drone bombing a car in Barmal [in Paktika province, on the border with North Waziristan].

My extract can’t do justice to the essay: do read it if you can.

Since I completed the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ a number of new reports from Waziristan have provided more details of the co-ordination of air/ground operations.  Over the summer AFP reported that the Pakistani military had removed the roofs of houses to provide a better ‘aerial view’:

“(The) military has removed the roofs of the houses to have a better aerial view and stop militants taking refuge in these abundant, fort-like mud houses,” the official told reporters.  From the helicopter journalists could see scores of homes with no roofs but appearing otherwise intact, their interiors exposed to the elements.

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But in many cases – especially in North Waziristan – those ordered by the military to leave their homes have returned to find them reduced to rubble.

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Earlier this month Ihsan Dawar reported from North Waziristan on ‘Life on the debris of wrecked houses’:

Murtaza Dawar sat with his children and cousins on the debris of his house. Behind him the setting sun was a ball of fire in the sky, reducing him and his family to silhouettes, the shards of glass in the wreck of his house catching the light and winking in the gathering dark of an early evening.

Coming back home to Mirali in North Waziristan has been a bittersweet experience for Dawar, 48. Sweet because he and his family has returned home after more than two years of displacement. Bitter, because they have come back to wreckage where their home was.

“We have nothing to do with militancy or Talibanization but our house has been demolished,” says Dawar, taking a break from pitching a tent. “There is not a single room intact. I don’t know where to take my family to protect them from the terrible cold.”

Dawar’s is not the only house that was razed during the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014 to clear North Wazristan of militants. Of the nearly million tribesmen displaced by the operation, many have lost not only their belongings and assets they left behind in the tribal district and their houses have been demolished for no reason.

The government has not issued any clear data on the number of houses demolished in North Waziristan. In May 2016, a property damage survey conducted by the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) revealed that 11,663 houses were fully and partially damaged during operations against militants in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.

Local tribesmen working in the political administration’s office in North Waziristan told Truth tracker on condition of anonymity – because of the sensitivity of information – that about 1500 houses were completely destroyed in the Mirali subdivision alone.

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Cartographic animations can’t capture these in-animations, but we must surely do our best to attend to them.

Seeing machines

 

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The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access).  Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.

Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.

One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”

Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:

The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.

By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.

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If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016 (see above and below).

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There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.

I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….

There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.

Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.

It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:

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That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?

 

Death sentences

Living under drones is both a chilling report and a nightmare reality.  In November 2014, in a New Yorker essay called ‘The unblinking stare‘, Steve Coll reported a conversation with Malik Jalal from North Waziristan:

‘Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more…  They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go.’

Now Reprieve has put a compelling face to the name – to a man who believes, evidently with good reason, that he has been included in the CIA’s disposition matrix that lists those authorised for targeted killing.

Malik Jalal JPEG

‘Malik’ is an honorific reserved for community leaders, and Jalal is one of the leaders of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC).  Its main role is to try to keep the peace between the Taliban and local authorities, and it was in that capacity that he attended a Jirga in March 2011.  He says this was on 27 March, but I think it must have been the strike that killed 40 civilians at Datta Khel on 17 March (see the summary from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here and my post here).

Here are the relevant passages from my ‘Dirty dancing’ essay, following from a discussion of Pashtunwali and customary law in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (I’ve omitted the footnotes and references):

***

‘In short, if many of the Pashtun people in the borderlands are deeply suspicious of and even resentful towards Islamabad (often with good reason) they are ‘neither lawless nor defenceless.’

‘Yet the trope of ‘lawlessness’ persists, and it does important work. ‘By alleging a scarcity of legal regulation within the tribal regions,’ Sabrina Gilani argues, ‘the Pakistani state has been able to mask its use of more stringent sets of controls over and surveillance within the area.’ The trope does equally important work for the United States, for whom it is not the absence of sovereign power from the borderlands that provides the moral warrant for unleashing what Manan Ahmad calls its ‘righteous violence’. While Washington has repeatedly urged Islamabad to do much more, and to be less selective in dealing with the different factions of the Taliban, it knows very well that Pakistan has spasmodically exercised spectacular military violence there. But if the FATA are seen as ‘lawless’ in a strictly modern sense – ‘administered’ but not admitted, unincorporated into the body politic – then US drone strikes become a prosthetic, pre-emptive process not only of law enforcement but also of law imposition. They bring from the outside an ‘order’ that is supposedly lacking on the inside, and are reconstituted as instruments of an aggressively modern reason that cloaks violence in the velvet glove of the law.

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And yet the CIA’s own willingness to submit to the principles and procedures of modern law is selective and conditional; we know this from the revelations about torture and global rendition, but in the borderlands the agency’s disregard for the very system it purports to defend also exposes any group of men sitting in a circle with guns to death: even if they are gathered as a Jirga. On 27 January 2011 CIA contractor Raymond Davis was arrested for shooting two young men in Lahore. The targeted killing program was suspended while the United States negotiated his release from custody, agreeing to pay compensation to the victims’ families under Sharia law so that he could be released from the jurisdiction of the court. On 16 March, the day after Davis’s release, a Jirga was convened in Dhatta Khel in North Waziristan. A tribal elder had bought the rights to log an area of oak trees only to discover that the land also contained chromite reserves; the landowner was from a different tribe and held that their agreement covered the rights to the timber but not the minerals, and the Jirga was called to resolve what had become an inter-tribal dispute between the Kharhtangi and the Datakhel. Maliks, government officials, local police and others involved in the affair gathered at the Nomada bus depot – a tract of open ground in the middle of the small town – where they debated in two large circles. Agreement was not reached and the Jirga reconvened the next morning. Although four men from a local Taliban group were present, the meeting had been authorised by the local military commander ten days earlier and was attended by a counsellor appointed by the government to act as liaison between the state, the military and the maliks. It was also targeted by at least one and perhaps two Predators. At 11 a.m. multiple Hellfire missiles roared into the circles. More than forty people were killed, their bodies ripped apart by the blast and by shattered rocks, and another 14 were seriously injured.

Dhatta Khel before and after drone strike (Forensic Architecture)

There is no doubt that four Taliban were present: they were routinely involved in disputes between tribes with competing claims and levied taxes on chromite exports and the mine operators. But the civilian toll from the strike was wholly disproportionate to any conceivable military advantage, to say nothing of the diplomatic storm it set off, and several American sources told reporters that the attack was in retaliation for the arrest of Davis: ‘The CIA was angry.’ If true, this was no example of the dispassionate exercise of reason but instead a matter of disrespecting the resolution offered by Sharia law and disordering a customary judicial tribunal. Even more revealing, after the strike an anonymous American official who was supposedly ‘familiar with the details of the attack’ told the media that the meeting was a legitimate military target and insisted that there were no civilian casualties. Serially: ‘This action was directed against a number of brutal terrorists, not a county fair’; ‘These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale’; ‘These guys were … not the local men’s glee club’; ‘This was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands.’ The official – I assume it was the same one, given the difference-in-repetition of the statements – provided increasingly bizarre and offensively absurd descriptions of what the assembly in Datta Khel was not: he was clearly incapable of recognising what it was. Admitting the assembly had been a properly constituted Jirga would have given the lie to the ‘lawlessness’ of the region and stripped the strike of any conceivable legitimacy. The area was no stranger to drone attacks, which had been concentrated in a target box that extended along the Tochi valley from Datta Khel through Miran Shah to Mir Ali, but those responsible for this attack were clearly strangers to the area.

***

‘Like others that day,’ Jalal concedes, ‘I said some things I regret. I was angry, and I said we would get our revenge. But, in truth, how would we ever do such a thing? Our true frustration was that we – the elders of our villages – are now powerless to protect our people.’

This was the fourth in a series of strikes that Jalal believes targeted him:

‘I have been warned that Americans and their allies had me and others from the Peace Committee on their Kill List. I cannot name my sources [in the security services], as they would find themselves targeted for trying to save my life. But it leaves me in no doubt that I am one of the hunted.’

He says he is an opponent of the drone wars – but if that were sufficient grounds to be included on the kill list it would stretch into the far distance.

He also says that the Americans ‘think the Peace Committee is a front’ working to create ‘a safe space for the Pakistan Taliban.’

‘To this I say: you are wrong. You have never been to Waziristan, so how would you know?’

And he describes the dreadful impact of being hunted on him and his family:

‘I soon began to park any vehicle far from my destination, to avoid making it a target. My friends began to decline my invitations, afraid that dinner might be interrupted by a missile.

‘I took to the habit of sleeping under the trees, well above my home, to avoid acting as a magnet of death for my whole family. But one night my youngest son, Hilal (then aged six), followed me out to the mountainside. He said that he, too, feared the droning engines at night. I tried to comfort him. I said that drones wouldn’t target children, but Hilal refused to believe me. He said that missiles had often killed children. It was then that I knew that I could not let them go on living like this.’

And so he has travelled to Britain to plead his case:

‘I came to Britain because I feel like Britain is like a younger brother to America. I am telling Britain that America doesn’t listen to us, so you tell them not to kill Waziristanis.’

You can hear an interview with him on BBC’s Today programme here.

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In you think Britain is distanced from all this, read Reprieve‘s latest report on ‘Britain’s Kill Listhere (which focuses on the Joint Prioritised Effects List in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan) and Vice‘s investigation into the UK’s role in finding and fixing targets in Yemen here.

I saw a man

SHEERS I saw a man N Am ednLast week I was in Bloomington for the drones conference – more on that later – but while I was there I managed to finish Owen Sheers‘ new novel, I saw a man.  All of the reviews I’ve seen so far (and they have been very, very good: see here, here and here, for example) praise the way in which Owen so beautifully recovers the circles of grief that spiral from a drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed a party of foreign journalists, including Caroline, the wife of the book’s narrator.  ‘Despite its “fire and forget” name tag,’ we are assured, ‘once a Hellfire had been released there would always be someone who never would.’

In fact, Owen and I had corresponded about the details of drone strikes and casualty investigations while he was working on the book, and he certainly treats mourning and memory with extraordinary skill and empathy.  Restricting the victims to those outside the region, apart from a local driver and interpreter, may make the task easier – much of the story plays out in Hampstead – but it’s still formidably difficult.

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Yet the book is also, equally centrally, about distancing.  Michael is an author with a reputation for effacing himself from his narratives.  Towards the end, in a phrase that powers the book’s meta-fictional twist (and which in some editions is captured on a cover from which Sheers’ own name is absent), Michael is told:

 “Isn’t that what you’re always saying? You need distance to see anything clearly? To become your own editor.”

Even when he tries to lose himself in his fencing lessons, his instructor insists:

“DISTANCE! DISTANCE MICHAEL! It’s your best defence!”

And it is of course distance that is focal to the fateful drone strike.  Those most directly involved in the kill-chain are soon effaced from the official narrative:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

And those who were killed are artfully turned into the authors of their own destruction (a tactic that is routinely used on Afghan and Pakistani victims too), even sacrificed for a greater good (international humanitarian law’s vengeful doctrine of ‘necessity’):

[T]he Pentagon statement also made mention of the journalists “working undercover,” of “entering a high-risk area.” They had known, it was implied, the dangers of their actions. And, the same statement reminded the world, an influential terrorist had been successfully targeted. The weight of blame, Michael knew, from the moment it happened, was being dissipated, thinned.

But distance is not a moral absolute (one of the most egregious mistakes of critics of drone warfare: if you think it wrong to kill someone from 7,000 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?).  In a narrative arc that will be familiar to many readers, the pilot of the drone (Daniel) is haunted by what happened, and by the dismal intimacy of death.

Charleston Mountains NV

Each morning, as he sets off from his home outside Las Vegas to drive to Creech Air Force Base, Daniel reflects on the similarity of the distant Charleston mountains to those over which he would soon be flying his Predator or Reaper.  It’s a common trope, actually: George Brant makes much of it in his play Grounded.  ‘Despite their proximity,’ though, Daniel hadn’t been into them and didn’t really know them.

They were his daily view but not yet his landscape, a feature of his geography but not yet his territory. Unlike those other mountains, 8,000 miles away. Those mountains Daniel knew intimately. He’d never climbed in them, either, but he was still familiar with the villages silted into their folds, the shadows their peaks threw at evening and the habits of the shepherds marshalling their flocks along their lower slopes. Recently he’d even been able to anticipate, given the right weather conditions, at what time the clouds would come misting down the higher peaks into the ravines of the valleys. Over the last few months he’d begun to feel an ownership over them. Were they not as much his workplace as that of those shepherds? For the troops operating in the area they were simply elevation, exhaustion, fear. They were hostile territory. But for Daniel they were his hunting ground, and as such it was his job not just to know them but to learn them, too. To love them, even, so that from the darkness of his control station in Creech, he might be able to move through their altitudes as naturally as the eagles who’d ridden their thermals for centuries.

It’s a brilliant paragraph, reflective and revealing, that captures the ways in which the pilot’s optical knowledge is transmuted into ‘ownership’, knowledge pinned to power, and distanced from the corpographies of troops on the ground for whom the mountains meant only ‘elevation, exhaustion, fear’ [see also here].  Daniel was freed from all that, soaring high above them, precisely because his territory appeared elsewhere.  If, as Stuart Elden suggests, territory can be conceived as a political technology that asserts a claim over bodies-in-spaces, then one of the most perceptive passages in I saw a man is the description of Daniel scanning ‘the territory of his screen (my emphasis)’…

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Distance, intimacy, experience: all mediated by political technology and in consequence highly conditional and always partial.  That is how the pilot is made free to pursue what Grégoire Chamayou calls his ‘man-hunting‘: because what appears on the screen is a target – not a man or a woman.

Or, as the book’s epigraph says: ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there….’

Conflicts without borders

In Finland last month I gave a presentation on Law, violence and b/ordering, in which I began by making two preliminary points about border crossings and (para)military violence: trans-border incursions and transgressions have been facilitated by (i) new stealth technologies deployed by state actors and (ii)  the rise of new non-state and para-state actors.  Here are the relevant slides:

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.001

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.002

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.003

GREGORY Law, violence and b:ordering.003

I derived the map showing the advance of IS(IS)/ISIL from the Institute for the Study of War; say what you like about their politics (this is the Kagans we are talking about), their maps and summaries are extremely helpful.

Now Public Intelligence has just published a series of (unclassified) maps of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan produced by the Humanitarian Information Unit of the US State Department called Conflicts Without Borders:

‘Conflicts Without Borders refers to a conflict in one country that draws in other governments and non-state actors, exacerbates stresses and conflicts in the neighbouring countries, and generates displacement across borders.’

That’s a definition to think about; there are obvious ironies in the US offering a definition that I suspect is intended to exclude its own part in initiating conflicts (if so, it doesn’t work), and there is the interesting attribution of causal powers to conflicts (which ‘draw in’ other actors like so many black holes).

This map series is dated 9 October 2014; the maps provide a Regional Overview (the first map below) and then show Northern Syria and Turkey, Western Syria and Lebanon, Southern Syria and Jordan and Eastern Syria and Iraq (the second map below).

DoS-Syria-ISIL

DoS-Iraq and Syria-ISIL

You can access a single summary map for late June here (shown below):

DoS Iraq Syria Conflict June 2014

When I wear my alligator boots

When I wear my alligator bootsI left at the crack of dawn the very next day for Madison, so I couldn’t post about this before: last Wednesday Shaylih Muehlmann gave a reading from her new book, When I wear my alligator boots: Narco-culture in the US-Mexico borderlands (University of California Press, 2014) at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (where she was an Early Career Scholar last year).

Her reading was beautifully judged – a series of exquisitely written (and read) extracts that re-traced the narrative arc of the book, explained her own take on ethnography (and its writing), and sparked a lively discussion.  Thanks to Gaston Gordillo‘s generosity, I was able to devour the book on the flight to Madison; since I had to get up at 3 a.m., that was no mean feat and speaks volumes about the book.

When I Wear My Alligator Boots examines how the lives of dispossessed men and women are affected by the rise of narcotrafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, the book explores a crucial tension at the heart of the “war on drugs”: despite the violence and suffering brought on by drug cartels, for the rural poor in Mexico’s north, narcotrafficking offers one of the few paths to upward mobility and is a powerful source of cultural meanings and local prestige.

In the borderlands, traces of the drug trade are everywhere: from gang violence in cities to drug addiction in rural villages, from the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music to the icon of Jesús Malverde, the “patron saint” of narcos, tucked beneath the shirts of local people. In When I Wear My Alligator Boots, the author explores the everyday reality of the drug trade by living alongside its low-level workers, who live at the edges of the violence generated by the militarization of the war on drugs. Rather than telling the story of the powerful cartel leaders, the book focuses on the women who occasionally make their sandwiches, the low-level businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their products, the mules who carry their money and drugs across borders, and the men and women who serve out prison sentences when their bosses’ operations go awry.

Read it to find out much more about the intersections between popular culture, the ‘drug wars’ , and the borderlands than the usual cartel-talk.  A central theme of the book is not so much the narco-corridors snaking across the border as the narco-corridos, folk-ballads telling stories of the men and women who work the drug business.  These are also the subject of Shaul Shwarz‘s prize-winning documentary Narcocultura (2013); I’ve embedded the trailer below, and you find out more here and read a thoughtful review here.

Shaylih’s subjects, then, are the low-level players who are, in their way, also being played.  For this very reason, their construction and celebration of narco-culture is also a real challenge to the corruptions, exactions and violences of the state.  Shaylih unravels the connections between prohibition, poverty and addiction in northern Mexico, and en route her gift for narrative – for telling their stories – provides a powerful analytical lens:

‘The people whose lives are chronicled in this book reveal the extent to which the war on drugs ultimately pushes many of the costs of trafficking – the deaths, the vulnerability, and the risk – over the border into Mexico and particularly onto the Mexican poor.  These are the people who run the risks of the business, experience the brunt of the violence, and serve the prison sentences that the wealthy cartel bosses largely avoid…  In the stories that follow, we will see that those who become involved in the narco-economy do so precisely because the Mexican and U.S. governments have declared war against it.  And as their stories show, for a long time this war was already being waged against them.’

Read it, too, for an object lesson in writing prose that doesn’t hobble the flight of the intellectual imagination – as even the chapter titles show:

Introduction: Life at the Edges of the War on Drugs
1. Narco-Wives, Beauty Queens, and a Mother’s Bribes
2. “When I Wear My Alligator Boots”
3. “A Narco without a Corrido Doesn’t Exist”
4. The View from Cruz’s Throne
5. Moving the Money When the Bank Accounts Get Full
6. “Now They Wear Tennis Shoes”: Social Debts and Calculated Risks
Conclusion: Puro pa’delante Mexico

You can access the first chapter here (box, top right). The marvellous title is easily explained:

‘Javier … wore alligator boots like a badge of his past smuggling work… He said that while you may see people dressed as cheros, the alligator boots are how you know if they are really narcotraficantes.’