Scenes of crimes

I’m still on the road, but my series of essays on siege warfare in Syria has not ground to a complete halt: far form it.  Expect more soon, but in the meantime, two reports from the New York Times of considerable importance.

First, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed that the siege of eastern Ghouta was marked by war crimes and crimes against humanity:

Dramatically escalating their military campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April, pro-Government forces carried out aerial and ground bombardments which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian men, women, and children. By April, numerous homes, markets, and hospitals had been all but razed to the ground, amounting to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberately attacking protected objects.

In an effort to avoid the bombardments, terrified civilians relocated to makeshift basement shelters in February, where they subsisted for months underground in dire circumstances.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “What is clear from the terminal phase of this siege is that no warring party acted to protect the civilian population”, he continued.

Through the widespread and systematic bombardments of civilian inhabited areas and objects in eastern Ghouta, and the continued denial of food and medicine to besieged civilians during the period under review, pro-Government forces perpetrated the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering, the report finds.

Between February and April, besieged armed groups and terrorist organisations also relentlessly fired unguided mortars into neighbouring Damascus city and nearby areas, killing and maiming hundreds of Syrian civilians.

“Even if pro-Government forces are bombing and starving the civilian population of eastern Ghouta into submission, there can be no justification for the indiscriminate shelling of civilian inhabited areas in Damascus”, said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “Such actions by armed groups and members of terrorist organisations also amount to war crimes.”

The report notes that, by the time Government forces declared eastern Ghouta successfully recaptured on 14 April, some 140,000 individuals were displaced from their homes, tens of thousands of whom are being unlawfully interned by Government forces in managed sites throughout Rif Damascus.

“The blanket internment of all civilians who fled eastern Ghouta through humanitarian corridors, including women and children, is reprehensible,” said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “In many instances, the on-going internment of these individuals amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and the unlawful confinement of tens of thousands of individuals,” she continued.

Pursuant to local truces and “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, none of whom were provided aid by the Syrian Government.

The report also states that the cumulative physical and psychological harm wrought by the five-year siege continues to impact negatively hundreds of thousands of Syrian men, women, and children countrywide.

I’ve taken that summary from a press release on 20 June; the full report will be presented today, and you can download it here. (scroll down).

I’ll have more to say about this report when my series resumes, but what is important for now is that – according to a report by Maggie Haberman and Rick Gladstone for the New York Times – details of two chemical attacks were drastically reduced:

At least twice this year, the Syrian military fired Iranian-made artillery shells filled with a chlorine-like substance that oozed poison slowly, giving victims just a few minutes to escape.

In another attack, Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on the top-floor balcony of an apartment building, killing 49 people, including 11 children. Their skin turned blue.

These details and others blaming Syria for atrocities in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were uncovered by a United Nations commission investigating and documenting possible war crimes in the seven-year-old conflict. But when the commission issued a report on Wednesday, the details were omitted.

Seven pages that had been in an earlier draft, provided to The New York Times, were summarized in two paragraphs in the final document…

The materials in the leaked draft paint a far more frightening picture of chemical weapons use in eastern Ghouta than had been previously reported. And they assert without qualification that Syrian forces and their allies were responsible, rebutting repeated denials by Mr. Assad’s government and his backers in Russia and Iran.

One of those attacks was the assault on Douma on 7 April that I discussed in detail in Gas Masques.  The NYT report explains:

On April 7, the draft said, an improvised explosive delivered from the air hit a multistory residential building roughly 200 yards from the Rif Damascus Hospital, the last functioning hospital in Douma.

The draft described the explosive as a “single industrial gas cylinder” with fins that struck the top-floor balcony and appeared to have “rapidly released large amounts of a substance into the interior space of the residential apartment building.”

“Positions and physical symptoms displayed by victims of the attack support witness claims that the agent acted rapidly,” the draft stated, “and likely indicate that a high concentration of the chemical sank downwards.”

Based on witness statements and “material evidence received and analyzed by the Commission,” the draft stated, the dead showed “an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils.”

“Statements and material evidence received and analysed by the Commission in relation to the deceased within the apartment building revealed an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils. Numerous victims unable to flee the building collapsed shortly after exposure.”

You can download those missing pages here.

All of this is a vital preface to a second report from the New York Times: a reconstruction of the attack on that apartment building presented in Augmented Reality here.

The still above will probably look familiar to regular readers, because the reconstruction relies in large measure on the work of Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency and contributions from Eliot Higgins‘s Bellingcat (the image at the head of this post is taken from one of its tweets. ) The NYT again:

We were unable to visit Douma. But to get to the truth of what happened, we forensically analyzed the visual evidence unwittingly provided by the Russian reports. Combining those pictures with other videos filmed by Syrian activists, we reconstructed a 3-D model of the building, the balcony and the bomb, in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London research agency, Forensic Architecture.

The reconstruction brought a virtual crime scene to us. We could inspect how the bomb related to the trove of visual evidence around it, the debris strewn across the balcony, the bomb’s design, the architecture of the rooftop, the damage inscribed on the bomb’s casing, the hole punctured in the roof, and how the bomb penetrated into the room beneath.

Key pieces of evidence indicate that this bomb was not planted, as officials claimed, but dropped from a Syrian military helicopter. The evidence supports chlorine was involved. And it affirmed when it happened — on the evening of April 7, a time frame that is consistent with witness reports and interviews of that day.

The analysis confirms the narrative I set out in Gas Masques, but adduces several other evidentiary or inferential details.  In particular, it reveals that the apartment building (lower left in the diagram below) was located on a street that was regularly used by ambulances ferrying casualties to reach an underground tunnel that gave access to the only functioning hospital in Douma (upper right) – and may have been attacked for that very reason.

The reconstruction that follows included: geo-locating the building and plotting the locations of 34 victims on two floors and the stairwell (below) –

– analysing imagery of the bomb and its residues and fragments from cellphones and from video broadcast by Russian and Syrian agencies to show that the bomb had been rigged to fall from a helicopter (a standard tactic), a finding that reinforces the observed flightpaths from Dumayr Air Base that evening –

– and, finally, devastating film of the victims whose bodies, so experts confirmed, exhibit signature symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas at highly concentrated levels.  They do not rule out the use of other chemical agents, but they also conclude that the casualties did not die from a conventional weapons attack (see my discussion of Robert Fisk‘s reporting in Gas Masques) and neither were they somehow staged (I also discuss this in detail in that same essay).

Many of the victims had been sheltering the in the basement from the bombardment; smelling chlorine, the report concludes, they ran up the stairs towards the top floors of the building – the usual response, since chlorine is heavier than air – not knowing that the gas had been released from a bomb on the roof….

It’s an appropriately corrosive report, and you can watch the full 12-minute video here.  Please do.

Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?

 

One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).

 

In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).

 

The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.

 

It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.

 

Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.

 

The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.

 

Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:

 

Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.

 

 

The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

Counter Investigations

News from Forensic Architecture of an exhibition of their collective work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, 7 March – 6 May 2018.  The official opening is Tuesday 6 March from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m; all welcome:

Counter Investigations is the first UK survey exhibition of the work of Forensic Architecture, an independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

‛Forensic Architecture’ is not only the name of the agency but a form of investigative practice that traverses architectural, journalistic, legal and political fields, and moves from theoretical examination to practical application. In recent years Forensic Architecture has undertaken a series of investigations internationally into state crimes and human rights violations, spanning events within war zones and instances of politically and racially motivated violence and killing.

Counter Investigations presents a selection of these investigations. As historically contextualised interrogations of contemporary social and political processes, they put forward a form of ‛counter forensics’, serving as sites for the pursuit of public accountability through scientific and aesthetic means, in opposition to the monopolisation of narratives around events by state agencies.

The exhibition outlines five key concepts that raise related historical, theoretical, and technological questions. Explored in an accompanying series of public seminars, they add up to a short course in forensic architecture.

Last Sunday’s Observer had an appreciative notice from Rowan Moore of both the exhibition and FA’s work: you can find it here

The organisation’s founder and director is Eyal Weizman, a British-Israeli architect. Its primary mission is research, to “develop evidentiary systems in relation to specific cases”; in so doing, it acts as “an architectural detective agency”, working with NGOs and human rights lawyers to uncover facts that confound the stories told by police, military, states and corporations. “We think that architects need to be public figures,” says Weizman. “They should take positions, whatever they do. We map the most extreme and violent forms.”

“We’re building a new sub-discipline of architecture,” he adds. “We just have to figure it out.” They use whatever means they can to reconstruct a hybrid of physical and virtual space – the metadata surrounding phone calls and phone-camera videos, meteorology, eyewitness accounts, reconstructions. They might scrape thousands of images of a bombing off social media and match them with material facts to fix facts in space and time, as if with the coordinates of a multidimensional map. They learn from ancient as well as modern methods, such as the memorising techniques of Roman orators and Elizabethan actors, when helping ex-prisoners reconstruct the monstrous and secret prison of Saydnaya in Syria.

They are engaged in a game of wits with military and security services. Their arena is shaped by surveillance and data collection – factors that give rise to well-founded fears that they might be abused by power. Forensic Architecture aims to make these techniques benefit rather than harm human rights.

Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

News from Forensic Architecture

If you haven’t received the latest newsletter from Forensic Architecture in your mailbox, you can sign up here.

(The image is taken from one of the reports, ‘Ground Truth’, a project that ‘aims to provide historical and juridical evidence on behalf of communities in the illegalised Palestinian Bedouin villages in the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab desert, Israel’; the newsletter provides details of this and several other current investigations around the world).

Conflict Urbanism

I’m in Copenhagen – and still bleary-eyed – for a symposium organised by my good friends Kirsten Simonsen and Lasse Koefoed at Roskilde on their current project  ‘Paradoxical spaces: Encountering the other in public space‘.  I’ll be talking about the war in Syria, drawing on my previous work on attacks on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘) – which I’ve now considerably extended as I work on turning all this into  a longform essay: I’ll post some updates as soon as I can – but now adding a detailed discussion of siege warfare in Syria.  More on that in my next post; but for now I wanted to share some remarkable work on Aleppo by Laura Kurgan and her students at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia:

Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.

First, we have built an open-source, interactive, layered map of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale. Users can navigate the city, with the aid of high resolution satellite imagery from before and during the current civil war, and explore geo-located data about cultural sites, neighborhoods, and urban damage.

Second, the map is a platform for storytelling with data. We are inviting collaborators and students to bring new perspectives and analyses into the map to broaden our understanding of what’s happening in Aleppo. Case studies will document and narrate urban damage — at the infrastructural, neighborhood, building, social, and cultural scales — and will be added to the website over time.

We invite ideas and propositions, and hope to build on the data we have compiled here to create an active archive of the memory of destruction in Aleppo through investigation and interpretation, up close and from a distance.

That last phrase is an echo of Laura’s book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics, published by MIT in 2013.  The new project emerged out of a seminar taught by Laura in 2016:

Students worked collaboratively to develop a series of case studies using a map developed by the Center for Spatial Research, specifically designed to research urban damage in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war. Their work incorporates a range of disciplines, methods and results. Each student was asked to create case studies and add layers to the existing map. The results — spatializing youtube video, interior borders between fighting factions, imagining urban survival during wartime, imaging escape routes, audio memory maps, roads, water, hospitals, informal neighborhoods, religion, communications infrastructure, and refugee camps at the borders — are [available online here].

I’m particularly taken by ‘Spatializing the YouTube War’.   One of the challenges for those of us who follow these events ‘at a distance’ is precisely how to get ‘close up’; digital media and the rise of citizen journalism have clearly transformed our knowledge of many of today’s conflict zones – think, for example, of the ways in which Forensic Architecture has used online videos to narrate and corroborate Russian and Syrian Arab Air Force attacks on hospitals in rebel-held areas Syria; similarly, Airwars has used uploaded videos for its painstaking analysis of US and coalition airstrikes and civilian casualties (see this really good backgrounder by Greg Jaffe on Kinder Haddad, one of the Airwars team, ‘How a woman in England tracks civilian deaths in Syria, one bomb at a time) – and I’ve used similar sources to explore the effects of siege warfare on Aleppo, Homs and Madaya.

Here is how Laura and her students – in this case, Nadine Fattaleh, Michael James Storm and Violet Whitney describe their contribution:

The civil war in Syria has shown how profoundly the rise of cellphones with video-cameras, as well as online video-hosting and emergent citizen journalism, has changed the landscape of war documentation. YouTube has become one of the largest sources (and archives) of information about events on the ground in Syria: since January 2012 over a million videos of the conflict there have been uploaded, with hundreds of millions of views to date. Major news agencies have come to rely on YouTube as a primary source for their reporting, and human rights organizations often cite videos as part of their advocacy and documentation efforts. This independently reported footage has created a new powerful archive, but opens up crucial questions of credibility, verification, and bias. As with all data, every video comes to us bearing the traces of the situation and intentions that motivated its production. This does not disqualify it – quite to the contrary – but it does demand that we approach everything critically and carefully.

We set out to investigate YouTube as archive of the Syrian uprising and to develop a method for organizing that archive spatially. We used the frameworks that we had developed for the Conflict Urbanism Aleppo interactive map, together with a naming convention used by Syrian civic media organizations, in order to sort and geolocate YouTube videos from multiple sources. We then produced a searchable interactive interface for three of the most highly cited YouTube channels, the Halab News Network, the Aleppo Media Center, and the Syrian Civil Defense. We encourage journalists, researchers, and others to use this specifically spatial tool in sorting and searching through the YouTube dataset.

The Halab News Network [above] shows a wide distribution of videos across the city, including the city center and government-held Western side of the city. The Eastern half of the city — in particular the Northeastern neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), Hanano (هنانو), and Ayn at-Tal (عين التينة) – is the best-documented.

In contrast:

The videos published by the Aleppo Media Center [above] roughly follow the formerly rebel-held Eastern side of the city, with a small number of videos from the central and Western areas. The highest number of videos is in the neighborhood of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار). Particular spots include ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), coverage of which is shared with the Syrian Civil Defense. Another notable concentration are two neighborhoods in the Southwest, Bustan al-Qaser (بستان القصر) and al-Fardos (الفردوس).

They also analyse the video geography produced by the White Helmets [below]: ‘The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, have uploaded videos primarily in the formerly rebel-held Eastern and Southern areas of Aleppo. Only the Western area of ash-Shuhada’ (الشهداء) falls outside of this trend.’

This, like the other collaborative projects under the ‘Conflict Urbanism’ umbrella, is brilliant, essential work, and we are all in their debt.

You can read more about the project in a short essay by Laura, ‘Conflict Urbanism, Aleppo: Mapping Urban Damage’, in Architectural Design 87 (1) (2017) 72-77, and in another essay she has written with Jose Francisco Salarriaga and Dare Brawley, ‘Visualizing conflict: possibilities for urban research’, open access download via Urban Planning 2 (1) (2017) here [this includes notice of a parallel project in Colombia].

The rise of Forensic Architecture

Andrew Curry has an interesting essay on Eyal Weizman‘s development of his Forensic Architecture research agency out of his work on the role of architecture in enacting and enforcing the Israeli occupation and colonisation of the West Bank here.

En route Andrew illuminates the combination of patient, meticulous analysis with imaginative, affective public engagement that is the signature of the ‘forensis‘ to which Eyal constantly appeals (and demonstrates):

Since Weizman, 46, founded FA in 2010, it has established itself as a unique hybrid of architecture studio and human rights investigator. The agency’s reports balance high-flown architectural theory with cold facts. “To build a quasi-discipline requires a combination of theoretical, historical, experimental, and technical capacity—along with serious historical analysis and serious theoretical understanding of the relationship between the architectural materiality and events,” Weizman says. “On the other hand, we’re very practical. It’s important to provide evidence to convince people and win cases.”

… The agency’s flair for showmanship is thanks in no small part to Weizman himself, who manages to marry undisputed intellectual heft—he’s published more than a dozen books (Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability comes out in May) and teaches at the University of London and Princeton University—with undeniable stage presence. Take his appearance outside an Israeli Army base in the West Bank, filmed for a 2014 Al Jazeera documentary called The Architecture of Violence: Weizman initiated a shouted exchange with an unseen (but presumably armed) soldier concealed inside a tall concrete watchtower. “Is this place only yours? It’s everybody’s place,” Weizman yelled in Hebrew, with an exaggerated wave and theatrical shrug. “Why are you here, anyway? Is that tube your home? It’s not even your home and you’re sitting in that tube telling me what to do?”

Point made, Weizman turned his back on the tower and strode through a scrubby field back to the waiting camera, sporting a toothy grin under aviator shades. “Fuck them,” he said dismissively. “Doesn’t he look ridiculous, inside his pipe house? Like he’s king of the hill, inside his tube?”

UPDATE:  There’s a first look at Eyal’s new book of essays, Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability, at We make money not art here.