Mass Murder in Slow Motion (I): East Ghouta

This is the first of a series of posts – continuing my discussions of Cities under Siege in Syria here, here and here – that will examine the siege of East Ghouta in detail.

Today I begin with some basic parameters of East Ghouta, and in subsequent posts I’ll focus on three issues: the siege economy and geographies of precarity; military and paramilitary violence, ‘de-escalation’ and the endgame; and – the hinge linking these two and continuing my work on ‘the death of the clinic‘  – medical care under fire.

From paradise to hell on earth

Eastern Ghouta (‘Ghouta Orientale’ on the map from Le Monde above; ‘Damas’ is of course Damascus) has often been extolled as ‘a Garden of Eden’, ‘an earthly paradise’ and an ‘oasis’.  In the fourteenth century Ibn al-Wardi described the Ghouta as ‘the fairest place on earth’:

. . . full of water, flowering trees, and passing birds, with exquisite flowers, wrapped in branches and paradise-like greenery. For eighteen miles, it is nothing but gardens and castles, surrounded by high mountains in every direction, and from these mountains flows water, which forms into several rivers inside the Ghouta.

Before the present wars much of the Ghouta was a rich, fertile agricultural landscape, a mix of small farms producing wheat and barley, fruits and vegetables (notably tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini), and raising herds of dairy cattle whose milk and other products fed into the main Damascus markets.  Most arable production depended on irrigation delivered through a de-centralised network of water pumps, pipes and channels.

The agrarian economy was seriously disrupted by the siege imposed by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies from 2012.  The siege varied in intensity, but in its first report Siege Watch described the importance – and insufficiency – of these local resources:

While much of the population in Eastern Ghouta has become dependent on local farming 
for survival, the volume and variety of crops that are being produced is still insufficient for 
the population, since modern mechanized farming methods to water and harvest crops are unavailable and new seeds must be smuggled in. Some of the main crops being produced include wheat, barley, broad beans, and peas. The communities closest to Damascus are more urban areas with little arable land, so there is an uneven distribution of locally produced food within besieged Eastern Ghouta. Humanitarian conditions deteriorate in the winter when little locally produced food is available and prices increase.

Cutting off the electricity supply and limiting access to fuel also compromised vital irrigation systems (and much more besides), and many local people had to turn to wood for heating and cooking which resulted in extensive deforestation.

By November 2015 the price of firewood had soared:

Abu Ayman, an official in the Kafr Batna Relief Office, said that a family consisting of six people usually requires about 5 kg of firewood per day, costing up to 15,000 Syrian pounds (around $50) a month.
Fruitless trees are our first source of firewood, as well as the destroyed houses in the cities of Jobar, Ain Tarma and Harasta,” says Asaad, a firewood seller in the town of Jisreen…
Abu Shadi, the Director of Agricultural Office, said: “The orchards of Ghouta, known historically for their intense beauty, are on their way to desertification. Another year of the siege is enough to do so, especially since the urgent need for fuel prompted some people to cut down these trees without the knowledge of their owners.”

 

The military and paramilitary campaigns, the threats from mortars, snipers and bombs to workers in the fields, combined with a worsening drought (which made those irrigation pumps all the more important) to reduce agricultural production.  And as the regime’s forces advanced so the agricultural base available to the besieged population contracted.  (The reverse was also true: the regime desperately needed to regain access to its old ‘breadbaskets’, most of which were in rebel areas outside its control).

Much of the destruction of food resources was deliberate.  This from Dan Wilkofsky and Ammar Hamou in June 2016, shortly after the Syrian Arab Army captured wheat fields in the south of the region:

Residents of East Ghouta, where a half-million people have been encircled by the Syrian military and its allies, say the government is targeting their food supply as much as it is trying to gain ground. They say that weeks after capturing the area’s breadbasket, a stretch of farmland hundreds of acres wide, the government is using airstrikes and mortar attacks to start fires in the fields that remain in rebel hands [see photograph below].

“People gather the wheat and heap it up, only for the regime to target the piles and burn them,” Khalid Abu Suleiman…  said on Thursday from the al-Marj region.

Fires have spread quickly through wheat fields sitting under the June sun. “When wheat turns yellow, the regime can spot it easily and a small shell is enough to burn the harvest,” Douma resident Mohammed Khabiya said on Thursday.

 

I’ll have much more to say about all this – and the survival strategies and smuggling routes that emerged in response – in my next post, but memories of the bounty of the region haunt those who inhabit its now ruined landscape.  ‘The area was once known for its intense carpet of fruit trees, vegetables and maize,’ wrote a former resident last month, but today ‘Ghouta is a scene of grey death.’  And here is a local doctor talking to the BBC just last weekend:

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death…  It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.  “They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me it was a paradise on the Earth.” Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy”. “It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Political rebellion and political violence

In the 1920s the Ghouta was a springboard for Syrian nationalism and its ragged, serial insurgency against French colonial occupation –  ‘its orchards and villages provided sustenance for the insurgency of 1925’, wrote Michael Provence in his account of The Great Syrian Revolt, while hundreds of villagers in the Ghouta were killed or executed during the counterinsurgency.  He continued:

Despite months of agitation and countless pamphlets and proclamations, the French bombardment of Damascus ended any organized mobilization in the city. The city’s destruction indelibly underscored the inability of the urban elite to lead resistance. But the effects of the bombardment were not what [French] mandate authorities had hoped. Resistance shifted back to the Ghuta and the surrounding countryside. The destruction of their city failed to pacify the population with fear and led to an outraged expansion of rebel activity, especially among the more humble inhabitants. Guerrilla bands soon gained control of the countryside on all sides of the city. They continually cut the lines of communication by road, telephone, and train, on all sides of the city Damascus went days on end virtually cut off from outside contact. Large areas of the old city were in rebel hands night after night. Contemporary sources document that the southern region was completely under the control of the insurgents. It took more than a year, and massive reinforcements of troops and equipment, for the mandatory power to regain effective control of the countryside of Damascus.

(You can find much more on French counterinsurgency and colonial violence in David Nef‘s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: insurgency, space and state formation (Cambridge, 2012)).

Abu Ahmad, an activist from Kafr Batna, recalling that ‘Eastern Ghouta has always been at the heart of revolutionary struggles in Syria’, drew a direct line of descent from the Syrian Revolt to the mass mobilisations against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring.  He insisted that the contemporary rebellion in the Ghouta had retained its independent spirit:  keeping its distance from international power-brokers, so he claimed, it was ‘one of the last arenas of a real civil war’ – so much so, that its fall ‘would spell the end of the original battle between the government and the opposition.’

This time around these have been vigorously urban as well as rural movements.  After independence from France in 1946, in the north and west of the Ghouta, closer to Damascus, agriculture gave way to a peri-urban fringe: a scatter of hard-scrabble, cinder and concrete block towns (above).  Aron Lund takes up the story:

Wheat fields were crisscrossed by roads and power lines, while factories, army compounds, and drab housing projects spread out of the city and into the countryside. The ancient oasis seemed destined to disappear.

Douma, which had for hundreds of years been a small town of mosques and Islamic learning, grew into a city in its own right. Many villages were swallowed up by the capital, with, for example, Jobar—once a picturesque multi-religious hamlet where Muslims and Jews tended their orchards—transformed into a series of mostly unremarkable city blocks on the eastern fringes of Damascus….

Throughout the first decade of the new century, slum areas around Damascus expanded rapidly as the capital and its satellite towns took in poor migrants, while spiraling living costs forced parts of the Damascene middle class to abandon the inner city for a congested daily commute. It was as if every driver of anti-regime resentment in the late Assad era had congregated on the outskirts of Damascus: political frustration, religious revanchism, rural dispossession, and downward social mobility.

When the Arab uprisings swept into Syria in March 2011, the comparatively affluent and carefully policed central neighborhoods of the capital hardly stirred—but the Ghouta rose fast and hard in an angry, desperate rebellion.

The scenario was a bleakly familiar one, and followed the script established by the security forces in response to protests in Dara’a, close to the border with Jordan, in February 2011 (see here and here).  One of the most serious incidents took place after Friday prayer on 1 April, when protesters emerged from the Great Mosque in Douma to join a demonstration against the regime (above) in the central square.  They were greeted by hundreds of riot police, who fired teargas into the crowd, beat protesters with sticks and shocked bystanders with cattle prods.  Towards the middle of the afternoon the violence escalated; rocks were thrown by some demonstrators, and the police (including snipers on the rooftops) opened fire with Kalashnikovs: 15 and perhaps as many as 22 people were killed and hundreds injured.  According to one local journalist:

“This was the systematic killing of peaceful and unarmed citizens by security forces,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, one of several organisations that has collated matching witness accounts of the incident.

Witnesses [said] that thugs were bussed in by government forces to attack demonstrators [These armed thugs act as a private pro-Assad militia, known in Syria as al- Shabeha, ‘the ghosts’]. Journalists and diplomats were prevented from reaching the area over the weekend, and phone lines to Damascus have been disrupted.

In another familiar response, the same journalist reported that state news agencies had claimed that ‘armed groups’ had opened fire and that some of the demonstrators ‘had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured.’

Local people encircled the Hamdan hospital to try to prevent the security forces gaining access to the wounded seeking treatment.  One local source told Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand:

“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by secret service…

“We held the line until live fire was used and we had to run and hide. I saw the secret police break into the hospital and later when I went back to the hospital some of the bodies and some of the injured were missing.”

The National Hospital and the al-Noor Hospital were also raided by security forces on 1 April searching for injured protesters.  And, taking another leaf from the Dara’a playbook, all doctors were ordered to refuse treatment to the wounded; those discovered to have disobeyed were arrested, including the director of Hamdan.

The protests gathered momentum, and by September the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army had formed in Eastern Ghouta – ‘ostensibly’, Amnesty International said, ‘to protect the protesters from Syrian government forces.’

By the time Christine Marlow reported from Douma in December 2011 the city was cordoned off from Damascus by six military checkpoints (above: a Syrian Arab Army checkpoint at Douma in January 2012) and the town was effectively under martial law:

Military trucks stood parked at the end of the dark empty street. The electricity was cut, the phone signals out and apartment windows boarded up with whatever wood or metal people could find. It was to stop the bullets, activists explained. Shouting and chanting of “down down Bashar al Assad” could be heard in the distance, interspersed with the crackle of gunfire.  This is not Homs, Idlib, or any of those Syrian towns that for months have been in the throes of rebellious unrest and violent crackdown. This is Douma, a large satellite town on the edge of Damascus, the heartland of support for President Assad’s regime.

Damascus Old City continues in relative normality with the bustle of daily life. Occasional power cuts and a shortage of gas are the principal signs that all is not well.  But less than seven miles away, Douma is in lockdown. Every Friday – when protests traditionally take place after prayers in the mosques, the suburb is under a military siege.

… Residents had flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the town. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation of shelter to the demonstrators. Locals passed warnings to each other; “there are dogs in that street”, they said, referring to the army.

 The military was on edge – protesting voices of just 10 or so people was enough to prompt gunfire….

She visited a central hospital – I don’t know whether this was the Hamdan again – and found it dark and empty.  She was told that soldiers had stormed the hospital in the dead of night.  Again, I don’t know if this refers to the previous incident; I do know that Hamdan was raided several times, but so too were other hospitals in Douma: see the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria here.

Staff, who had been tipped off, ran to hide the wounded protesters.  “We grabbed the injured, we dragged them from the back door and down the side streets,” he recalled. “We kept some in the homes of sympathisers, others – those who could move – fled. Others hid inside cupboards in the hospital. Otherwise we think they would be killed.”

Activists say hundreds of people have been injured in the months of protests. Now they are tended by volunteers working in secret clinics inside sympathisers’ homes, with whatever medicine can be smuggled in. It is not enough. Mohammed, whose name has also been changed for his protection, received a heavy blow to the head from a security official during a protest in May. With no utensils or materials, doctors in the home clinic to which he was taken were forced to staple together the gaping, bleeding wound using a piece of old wire.

This too, as I will show in a later post, was a harbinger of the desperate future, in which hospitals would be systematically bombed,  medical supplies routinely removed from humanitarian convoys, and doctors – like everyone else – thrown back on their own limited resources and improvisations.

The siege of Douma – and of East Ghouta more generally – tightened, and by early 2013 the region was under the control of 16 armed opposition groups.  Theirs was a complex and volatile political geography and, as I will show in my next post, their fortunes were closely tied to their involvement in the siege economy.  They enjoyed considerable though not unconditional nor unwavering support from local people, but this too was a complicated and changing situation.  The Assad regime, its allies and agents have often portrayed the besieged population as homogeneous,  particularly after displacement reduced East Ghouta from 1.5 million to around 400,000 inhabitants at the height of the siege.  In another iteration of ‘the extinction of the grey zone‘ practiced across the absolutist spectrum – from right-wing radicals in the US to Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – they all became ‘terrorists’.  That term was made to cover a lot of baggage, including anyone who was involved in any form of resistance to the authority of the state. But even within that shrivelled sense of political legitimacy, it’s important to remember throughout the discussions that follow that there were also hundreds of thousands of civilians who were caught in the cross-fire between pro-government forces and the armed opposition groups.

Dying and the Douma Four

I do not mean that last sentence as a standard disclaimer, and the most direct way I can sharpen the point is by giving space to the (too short) story of a small group of courageous activists who made their home in Douma during the siege:

The savage repression of the Assad regime had made it impossible for the people to continue with their non-violent protests. They started to carry arms, and with that, their need for an ideology of confrontation and martyrdom started to eclipse their earlier enthusiasm for forgiveness and reconciliation.

For many civilian activists, the transformation of the Syrian uprising into what seemed like a full-blown civil war was unbearable. Of those who escaped death or detention, many decided to flee the country; and, from the bitterness of their exile, they began to tell a story of loss and disillusionment. But for Razan, Wael, and many of their close friends, these same developments called for more, not less, engagement. They argued that civilian activists had the responsibility now to monitor the actions of the armed rebels, to resist their excesses, and to set up the institutions for good governance in the liberated parts of the country. They also believed, much like their friend the renowned writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, that their task as secularists was not to preach ‘enlightenment’ from a safe distance, but to join the more ordinary and devout folk in their struggle for a life lived with dignity. Only then could liberal secularism earn its ‘place’ in Syrian society and truly challenge its primordialist detractors.

It was these beliefs that set Razan Zaitouneh on her last journey in late April 2013. After two years of living underground in Damascus, she followed the example of Yassin al-Haj Saleh and moved to the liberated town of Douma. There, among a starving population that was constantly under shelling by the regime forces, Razan launched a project for women empowerment and a community development center, all while continuing her work in documenting and assisting the victims of the war. By August, al-Haj Saleh had already left for the north, but his wife Samira al-Khalil, Razan and her husband, and their friend, the poet and activist Nazem Hammadi were all settled in Douma, sharing two apartments in the same building. In the middle of the night of December 9 [2013], they were abducted from their new homes by a group of armed men that were later linked to Al-Nusra front and the Army of Islam. To this day, their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

You can find out more about the Douma 4 here and here.  Samira al-Khalil‘s diary of the siege of Douma in 2013 has already appeared in Arabic, and will be published in English translation later this year.

Samira wrote this in her diary:

“The world does not interfere with the fact that we are dying, it controls the ways we are dying: it does not want us dead with chemical weapons but does not protest our killing by starvation, closes the borders in the face of those who are escaping certain death with their children.  It leaves them to drown in their flimsy boats—a communal death in the sea, similar to the communal death by the chemical weapon.”

And those who remained inside East Ghouta, as the header to this post says, were all dying slowly.  As one aid worker inside East Ghouta put it yesterday, what has happened since has been ‘wholesale slaughter witnessed by a motionless world.’

To be continued.

‘Empire of the Globe’

Klementinum Library, Prague

A quick heads-up: the latest issue of Millennium [44 (3) (2016) 305-20] includes Bruno Latour‘s, ‘Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty’, a keynote address that – amongst many other targets – goes after the globe and geopolitics….  To give you a taste:

To put it more dramatically, the concept of the Globe allows geopolitics to unfold in just the same absolute space that was used by physicists before Einstein. Geopolitics remains stubbornly Newtonian. All loci might be different, but they are all visualised and pointed to on the same grid. They all differ from one another, but in the same predictable way: by their longitude and latitude.

What is amazing if you look at geopolitical textbooks, is that, apparently, the Globe remains a universal, unproblematic, and uncoded category that is supposed to mean the same thing for everybody. But for me, this is just the position that marks, without any doubt, the imperial dominion of the European tradition that is now shared, or so it seems, by everyone else.

I want to argue that the problem raised by the link between Europe and the Globe is that of understanding, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests, why it is that the onus orbis terrarum has been spread so efficiently that it has become the only space for geopolitics to unfold. Why is it that the res extensa, to use a Latin term that pertains to the history of art as well as of science and of philosophy, has been extended so much?

Instead of asking what vision of the Globe Europe should develop, it seems to me that the question should be: is Europe allowed to think grandly and radically enough to get rid of ‘the Globe’ as the unquestioned space for geopolitics? If it is the result of European invention and European dominion, this does not mean that it should remain undisputed. If there is one thing to provincialise, in addition to Europe, it is the idea of a natural Globe itself. We should find a way to provincialise the Globe, that is, to localise the localising system of coordinates that is used to pinpoint and situate, relative to one another, all the entities allowed to partake in geopolitical power grabs. This is the only way, it seems to me, to detach the figure of the emerging Earth from that of the Globe.

Geopolitics limited to absolute space?  The Globe as the ‘unquestioned space’ for geopolitics (and a geopolitics that is indifferent to, even silent about ‘the Earth’)?  Really?

MINCA and ROWAN Schmitt and SpaceIn an interview with Mark Salter and William Walters, which appears as a coda to the issue, there is also a lot about Carl Schmitt and the Nomos of the Earth (and a pointed rejection of the interpretation offered by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan), and this passage on drones that loops back to the discussion of sovereignty:

The point, I think, is that ‘sovereign’ has one very precise meaning, which is: a referee. So, is there a referee or not? In my understanding of Schmitt, in the two great ideas of his – the ones on politics and the ones in Nomos – there is no referee, precisely. And so, you have to do politics, which means you have to have enemies and friends. Not because of any sort of war-like attitude (even though there is some talk of that in Schmitt as well). But because, precisely, if you have no referee, then you have to doubt; you have to risk that the others might be right, and that you might be wrong. You don’t know your value; you are not in a police operation. OK, so that defines the state now, because the state goes, all the way down, to a police operation. If there is a police operation and not war, then there is a State, in some ordinary sense. That is how we can understand the first hegemon of the United States, entering the First World War as a police operation, no question. The drone, now, flowing over [and] … moving on top of the space of the land, is a police operation because the one who sent it has no doubt that he or she acts as referee. So, the first thing is to draw the extent of that hegemon. How we would do that, I don’t know. Certainly, there would have been a book by Schmitt a few days after the first drone, about this new definition of the State, extending above air its police operation everywhere.

Good knock-about stuff, but I’m not convinced about any of this either (and exasperated by the current preoccupation with the hypostatisation of ‘policing’)…

Illegalities and undemocracies

121102-bds-oranges_-EI_Vredesactie

A postscript to my previous post about Palestine, solidarity and BDS.  Over at Books & IdeasBenjamin Ferron has a review essay on Ingrid Nyström and Patricia Vendramin, Le boycott (2015): Globalisation and the art of boycotting.

There’s some succinct historical context, tracing the politics of boycotts back to the late seventeenth century, but then this about the current Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions movement:

‘Launched in 2005 at the request of Palestinian intellectuals and academics, and supported by 172 Palestinian civil society organisations, it calls for an economic, academic, cultural and political boycott of the state of Israel to protest against the colonisation and occupation of Palestinian territories, the construction of the Wall of separation and annexation, and campaign in favour of the equality of Israeli Arab and Jewish citizens, and the acknowledgement of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. The penalisation of these actions in Israel and in France (through the so-called Alliot-Marie circular) shows that this mode of action is threatening to the intended targets or their allies.’

I knew about moves by the Cameron government in the UK and the now mercifully extinct Harper government in Canada to outlaw BDS – the irony of the former Prime Minister threatening to use ‘hate laws’ against anyone with whom he disagreed is wholly unexceptional –   but I now realise that their authoritarian response is much wider than I had imagined, and for the reasons supplied by those last eight words in the quotation.

Of particular relevance to the upcoming plenary at the AAG is this report from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept that details attempts in the US to suppress pro-Palestinian voices and peaceful actions: ‘Greatest Threat to Free Speech in the West: Criminalizing Activism Against Israeli Occupation‘.

The conflict shoreline, colonialism and climate change

Conflict_Shoreline_web

When Eyal Weizman was in Vancouver last March – joining us for Gaston Gordillo‘s  workshop on Space, materiality and violence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies – he delivered a public lecture on The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change.

It’s now available as an extended essay (96 pp) from Steidl in association with Cabinet Books:

The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than seventy times in the “battle over the Negev,” an ongoing Israeli state campaign to uproot the Bedouins from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel–Palestine conflict, however, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, displacement, urbanization, and climate change.

The fate of al-‘Araqib, like that of other Bedouin villages along the desert’s threshold, its “aridity line,” is bound up with deep environmental changes. But whereas even the most committed environmentalists today conceive of climate change as an accidental and unintentional side effect of modernity, Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman argues that from the point of view of colonial history, climate change has never been simply collateral damage. It has always been a stated goal; “making the desert bloom” is, in effect, “changing the climate.”

In examining this history, Weizman outlines attempts—from the Ottoman era through the period of European colonization to the present—to scientifically define, measure, and map the threshold of the desert. Such efforts have been important because imperial and, later, national governments—whose laws have never recognized property rights in the desert—aimed to push back this threshold as they tried to expand the limits of arable land and bring the nomads under state control. In the Negev, the displacement of the weather and the displacement of the Bedouins have gone hand in hand. But while the desert edge, and the Bedouins, have been driven further and further south, global climate change today acts as a major counterforce. Predictably, the Bedouins are caught in the middle.

Brilliantly researched and argued, Weizman’s text—part detective story, part history lesson, and part scientific analysis—explores the changing threshold of the Negev through the extraordinary contemporary photographs of American artist Fazal Sheikh, as well as an array of documents, maps, and images, including historical aerial imagery, remote sensing data, state plans, court testimonies, and nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts. Together, these disparate forms of evidence establish the “conflict shoreline” as a border along which climate change and political contestation are deeply, perilously entangled.

You can find some of the background, and the relation to Eyal’s Forensic Architecture project, in an interview earlier this year:

I’m mostly trying to establish forensic architecture as a critical field of practice and as an agency that produce and disseminate evidence about war crimes in urban context. Recent forensic investigations in Guatemala and in the Israeli Negev involved the intersection of violence and environmental transformations, even climate change. For trials and truth commissions, we analyze the extent to which environmental transformation intersect with conflict.

The imaging of this previously invisible types of violence—‘environmental violence’ such as land degradation, the destruction of fields and forests (in the tropics), pollution and water diversion, and also long term processes of desertification—we use as new type of evidence of processes dispersed across time and space. There are other conflicts that unfold in relation to climatic and environmental transformations and in particular in relation to environmental scarcity.

Conflict has reciprocal interaction with environment transformation: environmental change could aggravate conflict, while conflict tends to generate further environmental damage. This has been apparent in Darfur, Sudan where the conflict was aggravated by increased competition over arable due to local land erosion and desertification. War and insurgency have occurred along Sahel—Arabic for ‘shoreline’—on the southern threshold of the Sahara Desert, which is only ebbing as million of hectares of former arable land turn to desert. In past decades, conflicts have broken out in most countries from East to West Africa, along this shoreline: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. In 2011 in the city of Daraa, farmers’ protests, borne out of an extended cycle of droughts, marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Similar processes took place in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Homs, al-Raqqah and along the threshold of the great Syrian and Northern Iraqi Deserts. These transformations impact upon cities, themselves a set of entangled natural/man-made environments. The conflict and hardships along desertification bands compel dispossessed farmers to embark upon increasingly perilous paths of migrations, leading to fast urbanization at the growing outskirts of the cities and slams.

I’m trying to understand these processes across desert thresholds. There has been a very long colonial debate about what is the line beyond which the desert begins. Most commonly it was defined as 200 mm rain per annum. Cartographers were trying to draw it, as it represented, to a certain extent, the limit of imperial control. From this line on, most policing was done through bombing of tribal areas from the air. Since the beginning, the emergence of the use of air power in policing in the post World War I period—aerial control, aerial government—took form in places that were perceived, at the time, as lying beyond the thresholds or edges of the law. The British policing of Iraq, the French in Syria, and Algeria, the Italians in Libya are examples where control would hover in air.

Up to now I was writing about borders that were physical and manmade: walls in the West Bank or Gaza and the siege around it—most notably in Hollow Land (2007). Now I started to write about borders that are made by the interaction of people and the environment—like the desert line—which is not less violent and brutal. The colonial history of Palestine has been an attempt to push the line of the desert south, trying to make it green or bloom—this is in Ben Gurion’s terms—but the origins of this statement are earlier and making the desert green and pushing the line of the desert was also Mussolini’s stated aim. On the other hand, climate change is now pushing that line north.

Following not geopolitical but meteorological borders, helps me cut across a big epistemological problem that confines the writing in international relations or geopolitics within the borders organize your writing. Braudel is an inspiration but, for him, the environment of the Mediterranean is basically cyclically fixed. The problem with geographical determinism is that it takes nature as a given, cyclical, milieu which then affects politics—but I think we are now in a period where politics affects nature in the same way in which nature affects politics. The climate is changing in the same speed as human history.

fazal-sheikh-desert-bloom-web

The conflict shoreline was originally commissioned in response to Fazal Sheikh’s Desert Bloom series (part of his remarkable Erasure trilogy: see image stream above, and also here).

Truth Commission

It has also been submitted as evidence for Zochrot‘s project on transitional justice, the Truth Commission on the responsibility of Israeli society for the events of 1948–1960 in the South.

Transitional justice mechanisms address the needs of communities and countries in conflict to cope with systematic abuses and structural injustices in order to facilitate reconciliation. Communities in conflict, both victims and victimizers, have developed a variety of innovative approaches to addressing the needs that result from ongoing conflicts. Hitherto, practices informed by the transitional justice paradigm have been used mainly to accompany and heal societies and communities in political transitions such as from totalitarian to democratic rule, or from an apartheid regime as in South Africa to an egalitarian democratic regime. Usually, these practices have been applied after a violent conflict had ended in a peace agreement, as in the former Yugoslavia, or in an armistice, as in Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

Many activists around the world have demonstrated time and again that silencing and ignoring the past prevent conflict resolution and the attainment of true reconciliation. Therefore, even in situations of seemingly intractable conflicts, several initiatives by civil society organizations, trade union or social religious organizations similar to state-sponsored mechanisms of transitional justice have sprung around the world. For the past 40 years, these initiatives have acted without government backing to bring resolve violent conflicts.

The Truth Commission established by Zochrot now joins these initiatives. The first of its kind in Israel/Palestine, the Commission is unique in that … it is active while the conflict is still ongoing, and against the background of the regime’s evasion of responsibility to the events of the Nakba, which began in 1948 and is still ongoing [the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ refers to the forced eviction and dispossession of the Palestinian people set in motion by the war of 1948]. The Truth Commission for Exposing Israeli Society’s Responsibility for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South which started its deliberations in late October 2014…

The Commission seeks to expose the events of the Nakba during those years – events that have profound implications for the ongoing Nakba experienced by the Palestinian Bedouins to this day. The Commission examines testimonies by Palestinian displaced persons and refugees, as well as Jews who lived in the south and Jewish fighters who took part in displacement and expulsion operations in the area. In addition, the Commission peruses relevant archive materials. The Commission’s report will be designed to encourage the Jewish society in Israel to accept responsibility for past injustices in the south, with reference to the ongoing Nakba, and for redressing them.

You can also read Tom Pessah‘s report for +972 here.