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.

Incoming, upcoming

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Richard Mosse‘s Incoming opens at the Barbican Art Centre in London on 17 February and runs until 23 April.  In collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Richard has created an immersive multi-channel video installation (shown across three 26-foot wide screens) that turns military technology against itself – using a camera ‘that sees as a missile sees’ – to show the journeys of refugees (hence the artful title).  He explains :

I am European. I am complicit. I wanted to foreground this perspective in a way, to try to see refugees and illegal immigrants as our governments see them. I wanted to enter into that logic in order to create an image that reveals it. So I chose to represent these stories, really a journey or series of journeys, using an ambivalent and perhaps sinister new European weapons camera technology. The camera is intrusive of individual privacy, yet the imagery that this technology produces is so dehumanized – the person literally glows – that the medium anonymizes the subject in ways that are both insidious and humane. Working against the camera’s intended purpose, my collaborators and I listened carefully to the camera, to understand what it wanted to do — and then tried to reconcile that with these harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement.

If you can’t get to it, there is a book version from Mack:

The major humanitarian and political issue of our time is migration and with his latest video work, Irish artist Richard Mosse has created a searing, haunting and unique artwork. Projected across three 8 meter wide screens, the film is accompanied by a loud dissonant soundtrack to create an overwhelming, immersive experience. Moving from footage of a live battle inside Syria, in which a US aircraft strafes Daesh positions on the ground, to a scene showing pathologists extracting DNA from the bones of unidentified corpses of refugees drowned off the Aegean island of Leros, the film opens a testimonial space of historical document – bearing witness to significant chapters in recent events – mediated through an advanced weapons-grade camera technology. Narratives of the journeys made by refugees and migrants across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, are captured using an extremely powerful thermal camera not generally available to the public. This super-telephoto military camera can perceive the human body beyond 50km day or night, reading the biological trace of human life. The camera translates the world into a heat signature of apparent temperature difference, producing a dazzling monochrome halo-image which alludes literally and metaphorically to hypothermia, climate change, weapons targeting, border surveillance, xenophobia, and the ‘bare life’ of stateless people.

The book version recreates the immersive nature of the film, combining still images from the entire sequence over nearly 600 pages to represent the harsh and compelling narrative in a full bleed layout.

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A related exhibition of Richard’s photographs from the same body of work – entitled Heat Maps – has opened at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.  At the New Yorker Max Campbell describes the exhibition like this:

[U]sing a new “weapon of war,” as he describes it, Mosse captured encampment structures, servicemen, border police, boats at full capacity, and migrants of all ages. Mosse would spend time in the refugee camps before photographing, and some of the migrants sheltered there helped him to arrange his shots. But in the images his subjects are always seen at a distance, photographed from an above-eye-level perspective. Each “Heat Map” was constructed from hundreds of frames shot using a telephoto lens; a robotic system was used to scan the landscapes and interiors and meticulously capture every corner…

By adopting a tool of surveillance, Mosse’s photographs consciously play into narratives that count families as statistics and stigmatize refugees as potential threats. He recognizes that operating the infrared camera entails brushing up against the violent intentions with which the device has been put to use. “We weren’t attempting to rescue this apparatus from its sinister purpose,” he said. Instead, his project acts as a challenge. The people in his images appear as inverted silhouettes, sometimes disjointed, torn by the time passing between individual frames. The thermal readouts rub features out of faces and render flesh in washy, anonymous tones. Someone lays back on a cot, looking at a cell phone. Someone else hangs laundry. We can imagine what these people might look like in person, guess at the expressions on their faces or the color of their skin. Yet seeing them in Mosse’s shadowy renderings erases the lines that have been drawn between refugees, immigrants, natives, citizens, and the rest. His camera makes little distinction between the heat that each body emits.

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Heat Maps was shown in Berlin last year, where the links with the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben were made explicit:

Heat Maps attempts to foreground the biopolitical aspects of the refugee and migration situation that is facing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The project charts refugee camps and other staging sites using an extreme telephoto military grade thermographic camera that was designed to detect and identify subjects from as far away as fifty kilometers, day or night.

The camera itself is export controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — it is regarded as a component in advanced weapons systems and embargoed as such — and was designed for border surveillance and regulation. It can be seen as a technology of governance, a key tool in what Foucault and Agamben have described as biopower. It is an apparatus of the military-humanitarian complex.

The camera translates the world into a heat signature of relative temperature difference, literally reading the biological trace of human life – imperceptive of skin colour – as well as proximity to death through exposure or hypothermia, even from a great distance. The living subject literally glows, and heat radiation creates dazzling optical flare.

Instead of individuals, the camera sees the mass — in Foucault’s words: massifying, that is directed not as man-as-body, but as man-as-species. It elicits an alienating and invasive form of imagery, but also occasionally tender and intimate, tending to both dehumanize and then rehumanize the bare life (Agamben) of the human figure of the stateless refugee and illegal economic migrant, which the camera was specifically designed to detect, monitor, and police.

The camera is used against itself to map landscapes of global displacement and more powerfully represent ambivalent and charged narratives of migration. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images attempt to reveal the harsh struggle for human survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked by our governments, and ignored by many.

You can find out more from a helpful interview with Iona Goulder which puts these twin projects in the context of Richard’s previous work in the Congo (see here and here).  En route, Richard says this:

Reading heat as both metaphor and index, I wanted to reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, while investigating one of the sinister technologies that our governments are using against them.

By attaching this camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, I scanned refugee camps across Europe from a high eye-level, to create detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point.

Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, I was surprised to find that some of the resulting images seem to evoke the spatial description, minute detail, and human narratives of certain kinds of classical painting, such as Breughel or Bosch. Yet they are also documents disclosing the fence architecture, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents and temporary shelters of camp architecture. Very large in scale, these Heat Maps disclose intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unliveable conditions in the margins and gutters of first world economies.

Continuing catastrophes

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At a time when the plight of refugees from the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere is – at last – commanding the attention of a global audience, it’s important not to forget other refugees: including those from Palestine.  Al-Haq, which co-sponsored the infographic above, explains:

August 26, 2015 marked the first anniversary of Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip, during which 2,219 Palestinians were killed. However, a large part of the story is left untold. Over half of those killed were refugees who were displaced from their homes in Yafa, Salama, Isdud, and many other villages and towns, as a result of and following the Nakba [‘catastrophe’] in 1948. The majority of those killed lived in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip within a 30 mile (50 km) radius of their homes of origin. A total of 1,236 refugees were killed during the 2014 offensive, including at least 309 children.

This infographic visually represents the untold story of Gaza’s refugees. Created by Visualizing Palestine in collaboration with four Palestinian human rights organizations, Al-Haq, the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, and Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, who launched a joint campaign to document Israel’s attacks during the 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip.

For Palestinian refugees, the Nakba did not end in 1948, as they have experienced a continued denial of justice. There are 1.3 million refugees residing in Gaza who are spread over eight refugee camps, making up almost three quarters of the total population of the Gaza Stip. Refugees residing in Gaza have faced multiple consequent internal displacements due to Israeli policies, including Israel’s three military offensives against Gaza over the last six years. Israel’s deadly military operations, as well as its eight-year closure of Gaza have had devastating effects on the entire population in Gaza. While all Palestinians in Gaza endure harsh living conditions, including irregular electricity and water supplies, these issues are even more acute in the refugee camps.

You can find the data and other notes on the visualization here.  And if you are wondering about my title, here is Joseph Massad writing in 2008 on ‘Resisting the Nakba‘:

[T]here is much at stake in all of this, in rendering the Nakba an event of the past, a fact on the ground that one cannot but accept, admit, and finally transcend; indeed that in order to move forward, one must leave the Nakba behind. Some have even suggested that if Israel acknowledges and apologizes for the Nakba, the Palestinians would forgive and forget, and the effects of the Nakba would be relegated to historical commemorations, not unlike the one we are having this year.

In my view, the Nakba is none of these things, and the attempt to make this year [2008] the 60th anniversary of the Nakba’s life and death is a grave error. The Nakba is in fact much older than 60 years and it is still with us, pulsating with life and coursing through history by piling up more calamities upon the Palestinian people…  Much as the world would like to present Palestinians as living in a post-Nakba period, I insist that we live thoroughly in Nakba times. What we are doing this year is not an act of commemorating but an act of witnessing the ongoing Nakba that continues to destroy Palestine and the Palestinians. I submit, therefore, that this year is not the 60th anniversary of the Nakba at all, but rather one more year of enduring its brutality; that the history of the Nakba has never been a history of the past but decidedly a history of the present.

Overlooking Auschwitz

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, there has been widespread interest in a haunting video shot for the BBC using a commercial drone:

For once, the emptiness of the scene – just buildings, fences and railway tracks – is desperately affecting.   It’s surely impossible to watch this without thinking of the millions of people whose lives were so brutally effaced by the murderous regime of the Third Reich.  The only sign of a human presence in the video is a glimpse over the wall of trucks racing by: a reminder that Auschwitz was (and disconcertingly remains) at the centre of a small town (see also my post on Auschwitz here).

There are at least two other films that ought to be seen too.

Night Will Fall 2

The first is a documentary commissioned in 1945 by the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to document the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  The producer was Sidney Bernstein, for Britain’s Ministry of Information; Alfred Hitchcock was drafted in as a ‘treatment adviser’.  The working title was German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey; it was never shown in its entirety (though Billy Wilder turned the footage into a short, Death Mills), and the Imperial War Museum notes:

From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events including the completion of two other presentations of concentration camp footage to the German people and the evolution of occupation policy, where the authorities no longer considered a one-hour compilation of atrocity material appropriate. The last official action on the film was a screening of an incomplete rough-cut on 29 September 1945, after which the film was shelved, unfinished.

The footage has now been incorporated into a stunning HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer, who was an Executive Producer for Act of Killing (see my posts here, here and here).

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There are all sorts of stories about why the full version was never shown – see the Guardian‘s report here – but the fullest discussions are Kay Gladstone‘s ‘Separate intentions’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds) Holocaust and the moving image (2005) (see also Haggith’s ‘Filming the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here) and her ‘Memory of the Camps: the rescue of an abandoned film’, in Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (eds) Concentrationary cinema (2011).

The second film returns to the aerial view and to Auschwitz: Harun Farocki’s Images of the world and the Inscription of War.  Shockingly and sadly, Farocki died last summer at the age of 70, and Images is widely regarded as his masterpiece (see Thomas Voltzenlogel‘s wide-ranging and appreciative discussion of ‘Dialectics in images’ here).  The central motif is an image taken from a series of aerial photographs of Auschwitz shot by the Allies between April 1944 and January 1945 (see also here and here).

1389.3 Holocaust E

This image was taken on 4 April 1944 by Lt Charles Barry flying a Mosquito from 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the South African Air Force.  From the film’s commentary [available in Discourse 5(3) (1993) 78-92]:

American aircraft had taken off in Foggia, Italy, and flown towards targets in Silesia – factories for synthetic petrol and rubber – known as Buna.

On the flightover the IG Farben company factory still under construction, a pilot clicked his camera shutter and took photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

First picture of Auschwitz taken at 7,000 meters altitude.

The pictures taken in April 1944 in Silesia arrived for evaluation in Medmenham, England [the RAF’s Central Intelligence Unit concerned with air photograph interpretation].

The analysts discovered a power station, a carbide factory, a factory under construction for Buna and another for petrol hydrogenation.

They were not under orders to look for the Auschwitz camp, and thus they did not find it.

How close the one is to the other: the industry – the camp.

It was not until 1977 that two employees of the CIA [Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer: see their detailed report here] went through the archives to find and evaluate the photographs of Auschwitz. It was not until thirty-three years later that the following words were inscribed:

Tower and Commandant’s house and

Registration Building and Headquarters and Administration and

Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed.

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Kaja Silverman adds this gloss [‘What is a camera?’ Discourse 5 (30 (1993) 3-56]:

Not only does the camera here manifestly “apprehend” what the human eye cannot, but the latter seems strikingly handicapped by its historical and institutional placement, as if to suggest that military control attempts to extend beyond behavior, speech, dress,and bodily posture to the very sensory organs themselves. This sequence indicates, in other words,that military discipline and the logic of warfare function to hyperbolize the distance separating look from gaze and to subordinate the former completely to the latter.

These are similar issues that haunt my own discussions of the video feeds from Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq.  In another commentary, Christa Blümingler writes:

The vanishing point of Images of The World is the conceptual image of the ‘blind spot’ of the evaluators of aerial footage of the IG Farben industrial plant taken by the Americans in 1944. Commentaries and notes on the photographs show that it was only decades later that the CIA noticed what the Allies hadn’t wanted to see [my emphasis]: that the Auschwitz concentration camp is depicted next to the industrial bombing target.

Bombing of AuschwitzThe claim that the ‘Allies didn’t want to see’ spirals through an important debate about whether the Allies could or should have bombed Auschwitz (see, in addition to the symposium on the right, here and here).  In fact, as Christa observes later,

In … 1944, the allies bombed not Auschwitz, but the IG Farben factory nearby the death camp. Drawing on analyses of these events, how and why the allies didn’t act on their knowledge of the mass destruction of the Jews, Farocki … decodes a host of military images, focusing on two visual dispositives: American pilots in 1944 and CIA agents in 1977 offering two different [readings] of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz.

In this instance, Farocki developed an epistemological field of technological history — measurement and surveillance in a period of rapid automatization. At the end of the film, a blind spot in the photographic act, referring back to the reality of the concentration camp, becomes visible.

The final shots further emphasize details of the American pilots’ aerial photos, which are picked up in the sweep of the film several times, framed and arranged in different ways. At the end of the film, through a permutative movement of cuts, the extreme enlargement of the photographs reminds us once again of their materiality. Farocki shows these images in precisely the spaces where visual thought takes place, and in connection to specific techniques of reproduction and distribution (in albums, archives, institutions). Whenever he used marginal and hard-to-access image materials from specialized archives, he sought to consider these conditions of visibility in his analysis.

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What particularly interests me, and the reason I juxtapose these two films, is an interview with Chris Darke in 2003 in which Farocki artfully tracks between the eye-witness and the aerial shot:

Chris Darke: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.

HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.

There are at least two other detailed commentaries on the film that address the question of visuality in depth: Thomas Keenan‘s ‘Light weapons’, in Documents 1/2 (1992) 147-58 and Nora Alter‘s ‘The political im/perceptible in the essay film:  Farocki’s Images of the world and the inscription of war‘, in New German Critique 68 (1996). More generally, I also recommend the special issue of e-flux on Farocki’s work here, including a commentary by Trevor Paglen on Farocki’s ‘operative images’, and David Cox‘s brief commentary here.

Note:  Belinda Gomez writes (in relation to the commentary for Images of the World):

“Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed….” But that’s not quite accurate. Brugioni and Poirier didn’t write that in 1977. The gas chamber didn’t have a sign. That they were able to locate the gas chamber and crematoria was due to their superior technology and they knew what they were looking for. The pilot/photographers in 1944 took photos of the factory and what was taken as a workers camp. To say that they didn’t see Auschwitz because they weren’t told to look for it is more of a hind-sight interpretation.

Torture and raison d’état

statue-of-liberty-waterboardingMelanie Richter-Montpetit has an essay at The disorder of things, ‘Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror‘, which repays careful reading.

[L]ocating the findings of the Senate Torture Report within the racial-sexual grammars of chattel slavery and its afterlife opens up our analyses beyond explanatory and moral frameworks such as failed intelligence-gathering, “state of exception” or “human rights abuses” towards a more comprehensive understanding of seemingly illiberal security practices in the War on Terror. This genealogy indicates the fundamental role and value of force for the consolidation of the sovereign authority of the U.S. settler imperial formation ‘at home’ and abroad, and suggests the stubborn persistence of certain racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering in this age of “post-racial triumph.” For “[w]ithout the capacity to inspire terror, whiteness no longer signifies the right to dominate.”

The immediate provocation for her essay, which is rooted in her recent York PhD thesis Beyond the Erotics of Orientalism: Homeland Security, Liberal War and the Pacification of the Global Frontier, was the Senate Torture Report (see my earlier post on ‘Tortured geographies’ here).

GTMO Statue of LibertyAt Just Security Jameel Jaffer has a brief, important post about the release of these documents – and, crucially, the Obama administration’s attempt to prevent the publication of photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at US military facilities – that loops back to the debate over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  He argues that it is at the very least ironic that some of the same voices calling for the freedom to publish cartoons whatever their consequences are now demanding the suppression of other images ‘because of the possibility that their release will provoke violence’…

And speaking of violence and torture in the global war prison, Mohamedou Ould Slahi‘s Guantanamo Diary, which is being serialised in the Guardian and was published in book form earlier this week, provides more evidence of its routinised, banalised practice.

Slahi Unclassified Manuscript scan

Slahi is still incarcerated at Guantanamo even though he was approved for release in 2010.  Spencer Ackerman reports:

Slahi’s manuscript was subjected to more than 2,500 redactions before declassification, ostensibly to protect classified information, but with the effect of preventing readers from learning the full story of his ordeal. The book is being published with all the censor’s marks in place, and the publishers – Canongate in the UK and Little, Brown in the US – hope they will be able to publish an uncensored edition when Slahi is eventually released.

The full manuscript is available here.  You can find Tim Stanley‘s review at the Telegraph here (‘a necessary book’ that ‘reminds us that the evil we’re fighting can be found in ourselves as well as in our enemies’), Mark Danner‘s extended review at the New York Times here (‘Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from “The Trial”’), and Deborah Perlstein‘s review at the Washington Post here (‘Slahi’s descriptions of … torture are the book’s most compelling, and difficult, passages [and] … are closely consistent with descriptions in official investigations of the treatment of other U.S.-held detainees’.)

In the face of these horrors, it’s necessary to consider this blunt reminder from Peter Beinart:

Torture, declared President Obama … in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”

No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America—the one with good values—does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.

And in the face of evasion and denial – and redaction and suppression – here is Chase Madar from February’s Bookforum:

Though the [Senate] report has blacked out the names of the torturers, refusing even to use pseudonyms, torture watchers have been able to identify one of the agents, a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her record of malfeasance, misrepresentation, incompetence, and gratuitous participation in waterboarding was blisteringly detailed by NBC News and [Jane Mayer at] the New Yorker, though neither outlet would name her. But far from being sanctioned or even demoted, she has risen to the civilian-rank equivalent of general inside the CIA. She has, unbelievably, served as the recent head of the agency’s “global jihad unit.”

It’s tempting to compare this to Latin American–style police impunity, but that would be unfair to the societies that have punished at least some of the abuses of their past dictatorships. In the same week that the SSCI released its report, Brazil published its own investigation into state torture of political dissidents under its long dictatorship. Indeed, one of that torture regime’s victims, Dilma Rousseff, is now the head of state. Latin American nations have been chipping away at, or simply ignoring, the amnesty deals made with the authoritarian rulers of the ’70s and ’80s and have brought many of their torturers to justice.

The United States would face a very different reckoning with its record of torture, should it elect to take a genuine, closer look at it. In our case, the impact of torture has largely been muffled by the military adventurism that has underwritten it…

Geographies of the Holocaust

We are in the preparatory stages for a new edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography, which I’m co-editing this time with Clive Barnett, Jeremy Crampton, Diana DavisGeraldine Pratt, Joanne Sharp and Henry Yeung.  At the moment, we are making devilishly difficult decisions over headwords (which to cut, which to add) and lengths (which to shorten, which to increase).  Of course, none of this is set in stone, and new entries always press themselves forward as the submission deadline draws near.  Sometimes they are words you wonder why they weren’t included in the first place.

One such, last time round, was ‘Holocaust’: a glaring omission from previous editions, I belatedly realised.  There was, after all, a considerable body of geographical work on it, some of it by geographers, which I did my best to incorporate in the entry I wrote in short order for the last edition.  In truth, I suspect I noticed the omission through my interest in Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and Remnants of Auschwitz; thinking about the geographies of the Holocaust made me realise that the space of the exception, however defined, was not limited by the barbed perimeter of the camp but extended out along the railway tracks to the ghettoes, the round-ups and a host of capillary and diminishing exceptions (see my discussion here).  This in turn makes the spatiality of the exception of constitutive significance.

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This time round, the intellectual task ought to be made easier by a new book edited by Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano, Geographies of the Holocaust, due from Indiana University Press in their Spatial Humanities series the middle of next month:

This book explores the geographies of the Holocaust at every scale of human experience, from the European continent to the experiences of individual human bodies. Built on six innovative case studies, it brings together historians and geographers to interrogate the places and spaces of the genocide. The cases encompass the landscapes of particular places (the killing zones in the East, deportations from sites in Italy, the camps of Auschwitz, the ghettos of Budapest) and the intimate spaces of bodies on evacuation marches. Geographies of the Holocaust puts forward models and a research agenda for different ways of visualizing and thinking about the Holocaust by examining the spaces and places where it was enacted and experienced.

1. Geographies of the Holocaust / Alberto Giordano, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Tim Cole
2. Mapping the SS Concentration Camps / Anne Kelly Knowles and Paul B. Jaskot, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear, Michael De Groot, and Alexander Yule
3. Retracing the “Hunt for Jews”: A Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Arrests during the Holocaust in Italy / Alberto Giordano and Anna Holian
4. Killing on the Ground and in the Mind: The Spatialities of Genocide in the East / Waitman W. Beorn, with Anne Kelly Knowles
5. Bringing the Ghetto to the Jew: The Shifting Geography of the Budapest Ghetto / Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano
6. Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem / Paul B. Jaskot, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Chester Harvey, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear
7. From the Camp to the Road: Representing the Evacuations from Auschwitz, January 1945 / Simone Gigliotti, Marc J. Masurovsky, and Erik Steiner
8. Afterword / Paul B. Jaskot and Tim Cole

Tim Cole is the author of a series of outstanding geographical studies of the Holocaust, including Holocaust City on Budapest; he’s now Professor of Social History at Bristol, but his PhD in Geography at Cambridge was started under the supervision of Graham Smith, one of my dearest friends, who tragically died before the thesis was completed.

Here’s another old Cambridge friend Geoff Eley on the present collaborative project: ‘As a pioneering call to extend our familiar approaches, Geographies of the Holocaust offers a welcome model of collaborative interdisciplinarity — between historians and geographers, humanities and the social sciences, distinguished specialists and scholars from the outside. The desired purposes are admirably served. Thinking with space delivers not only a new range of challenging methodologies, but brings the well-established findings of the field under strikingly new perspectives too.’

Death, drones and Camp Delta

When I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ (DOWNLOADS tab), exploring the idea of Guantanamo Bay as a space of exception, three young men had just committed suicide in the war prison.  This is how I started:

In the early morning of 10 June 2006 three prisoners held at the military detention facility at the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, were found dead in their cells. Although the three men had been detained without trial for several years and none of them had court cases or military commissions pending (none of them had even been charged), the commander of the prison dismissed their suicides as ‘not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us’. Although the three men had been on repeated hunger strikes which ended when they were strapped into restraint chairs and force- fed by nasal tubes, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy described their deaths as ‘a Public Relations move to draw attention’ – to what, she did not say – and complained that since detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, ‘it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation’. Although by presidential decree prisoners at Guantánamo are subject to indefinite detention and coercive interrogation while they are alive, when President George W. Bush learned of the three deaths he reportedly stressed the importance of treating their dead bodies ‘in a humane and culturally sensitive manner’. 

KAISER Tod in Camp Delta

After ‘The Black Flag’ was published, I read a remarkable account of the despair and desperation of these three men by Mario Kaiser.  His original essay has now been updated and translated into English as ‘Death in Camp Delta‘ at Guernica.  Here is an extract:

At some point during their captivity, these three men began to retreat. They no longer touched the food the guards pushed through the holes in the doors of their cells. Their bodies dwindled. Their lives hung on thin yellow tubes shoved down their nostrils each morning to let a nutrient fluid drip into their stomachs. In their minds, nothing changed. They didn’t want to stay, and one night, on June 9, 2006, they decided to leave Guantánamo. They climbed on top of the sinks in their cells and hanged themselves.

In the Pentagon’s view, the men hanging from the walls of their cells were assassins whose suicides were attacks on America. The Pentagon struck back.

The story of the lives and deaths of these prisoners is an odyssey of three young men who left for Afghanistan and ended up in Cuba. It is the story of a war against a terror that is difficult to define, a war that the United States government wages even in the cells of its prisoners. It is about a place, Camp Delta, that exposes the asymmetry of this war, and it leads to the front lines—and the American lawyers standing between them, struggling to defend presumed enemies of their country. It is the story of the internal and external battle over Guantánamo.

Nobody but the dead knows the whole truth. But there are places where the story can be pieced together. There are files and letters, people who distinctly remember these prisoners. There are places where the strands of this story intersect. A law firm in Washington. A mosque in London. A living room in North Carolina. A cell in Guantánamo.

This is on my mind today for three reasons.  The first is that Kaiser describes himself as

‘a writer who combines in-depth reporting with literary storytelling. Taking on issues of social transformation and human rights, Kaiser’s stories are based on long-term immersion in environments that are difficult to access. His hope is that this approach provides a fuller understanding of the ways in which policies and social change affect people’s lives and long-term prospects.’

It’s worth reflecting on those aspirations if you read his essay (which I urge you to do) because they raise important questions about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, and about the ability of researchers to produce and animate publics through their (our) work.  There’s something there, too, about the power (and, yes, the seductions) of story-telling: so much academic writing still seems to substitute and so privilege our own narrative (‘I did this… then I did that .. I thought this…. then I felt that’) for the stories of others.  And, as Kaiser shows in that brief extract, those stories are often multi-sited.

AGAMBEN State of exceptionThe second reason Kaiser’s work matters to me is that I’m revisiting ‘The Black Flag’ for The everywhere war (more on this later) and, partly in consequence, thinking again about spaces of exception.  I’m in Mexico this week, and I’ve been re-reading Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and The state of exception.  I was originally doing this to sharpen my arguments about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a space of exception for air strikes by the CIA/JSOC and the Pakistan Air Force – I’ll be talking about this in Glasgow early next month, and I’ll post the presentation slides as soon as I’ve finished – but as I’ve worked my way through these texts still wider issues have emerged.

One of the central elements of Homo sacer (and Remnants of Auschwitz – though here too the differences between the two texts are suggestive) is the deliberate exposure of bodies to death: outcasts from whom the protections of the law have been stripped so that their death is no crime.  But in The state of exception Agamben’s focus is on the genealogy of the ‘force of law’ through which this takes place: the victims are nowhere in sight.  Throughout the short text Agamben makes much of the proximity of war and, for the ’emergency’ that activates the modern state of exception, of the First World War, but war and its developing armature of (international) law is never subjected to critical scrutiny.

Yet war (and its casualties) can reveal something else about spaces of exception.  On the battlefield – and let us immediately agree with Frédéric Mégret that ‘the battlefield’ is a highly unstable conceptual constellation – soldiers are at once vectors and victims of violence.  Here the usual restrictions on killing are removed; they can kill, provided they do so ‘lawfully’, without risk of punishment (‘combatant immunity’).  The other side of the contract, of course, is that those who might kill them are not subject to  legal sanction either.

This is not what Agamben means by the state of exception, and apart from repeated references to a contemporary ‘global civil war’ (and to Guantanamo) the transnational rarely appears in his writing and international law disappears into the margins.  His thumb-nail history of the state of exception is framed by the state and its sovereign.

But for reasons that I’ll set out in a later post, the proximity of the exceptional space of  the ‘battlefield’, of war zones and killing fields, to the ultimate reductions of bare life, is far from accidental.  In fact, that’s one of the links between the three deaths in Guantanamo Bay and air strikes and targeted killings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan which, as I’ll want to show, requires a radically enlarged view of spaces of exception and their historical geographies.  (In the case of the FATA, the Obama administration insists it requires a radically enlarged juridical conception of the ‘battlefield’ in time and space too).

To be continued.