The weaponisation of health care

I’m continuing to work on attacks on hospitals and health care workers in conflict zones – see ‘The Death of the Clinic’ here for a general discussion – and I’ve just finished reading the preliminary report on the weaponisation of health care from The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria.  You can find out more on the Commission here and download the open access report here.

The authors propose the ‘weaponisation of health care’ to capture ‘the phenomenon of large-scale use of violence to restrict or deny access to care as a weapon of war’:

Weaponisation is multi-dimensional and includes practices such as attacking health-care facilities, targeting health workers, obliterating medical neutrality, and besieging medicine. Through large-scale violations of international humanitarian laws, weaponisation of health care amounts to what has been called a “war-crime strategy”. Weaponisation of health care in the Syria conflict is manifested most notably in the targeting of health workers and facilities.

They trace the targeting of health-care workers by pro-government forces in Syria back to the earliest weeks of protest against the regime, but the ‘substantial militarisation’ that followed – especially after the ‘military surge’ that began in September 2015 when Russia joined the Syrian government forces – made those attacks ever more aggressive and ever more systematic.  This map, based on the work of Physicians for Human Rights, provides a minimal accounting of attacks on doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers:

Attacks on hospitals – some of which I described in detail in a previous post – became not only more systematic but even repetitive, on a scale which the authors is wholly unprecedented.

‘Examination of attacks since 2012 on health facilities has revealed a distinct pattern of weaponisation.Analysis of attacks over several years in important opposition-held areas of Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, eastern Ghouta, and Homs reveals a pattern of repeated targeting with intention to shut access to health care, whether to impede opposition forces or to force civilian displacement.’

They list the effects of these attacks on healthcare in areas outside the control of the Syrian government – ‘rebel-held areas’ – but they also sketch the situation in areas under the control of the Islamic State:

Efforts to recruit foreign doctors through social media have reportedly helped IS to develop a functioning health system with modern facilities and equipment, qualified health workers, and a medical school in Raqqa where students train for free. But this health system is exclusive to IS, and foreign doctors are only permitted to provide care for IS members. For the rest of Raqqa’s civilians, over 1 million people, there are only 33 specialist doctors including just three obstetricians and one ophthalmologist, and just two public hospitals. Anecdotal reports indicate that health workers are forced to deliver care at gunpoint while others are arrested, abducted, or even executed for refusing to deliver care. To stop the exodus of health workers, IS uses the threat of seizure of homes and clinics in case of absence from work. Gender separation in these areas means that female health providers are subject to additional stress and restrictions, being forced to abide by IS dress code and to treat only female patients.

And for the benefit of the useful idiots inside the academy who deny these predations by the Syrian government on its own people, I should add that the report also discusses the situation inside government-controlled areas:

The bulk of Syria’s remaining health workers are in government-controlled areas, where there is variability in the capacity of health facilities and personnel. Workers from these areas have also reported challenges, but of a different nature to those working in non-government- controlled areas. Indiscriminate mortar attacks from rebel areas have adversely affected daily life and the public’s sense of security. Many health workers report facing multiple security checkpoints for their daily trip to a hospital or clinic. The collapsing economy has eroded living standards and restricted school and career options for offspring of health workers. Medical students fear the military draft and the risk of being sent to the battlefield. To avoid that fate, many seek whatever residency training positions are available upon graduation, irrespective of specialty. However, with the emigration of many experienced senior academics, fewer high-quality specialists are available to supervise the training of younger doctors. Travel restrictions due to sanctions and the need for leave permits from the government leave few choices for these doctors. Some doctors in these areas have indicated that the international media pay little attention to their plight. Others report being forced to breach ethical principles under unbearable pressure.

You can find an elaboration of these claims in personal testimonials here, which include this:

In November 2011, Dr. Zaki [a pseudonym], a military anaesthetist, was sent to Aleppo Military Hospital. This hospital usually received injured Syrian army combatants, but from the start of 2012, it began receiving civilian patients injured by pro-government forces during the peaceful demonstrations taking place in Idleb and Aleppo. Notably there was no conflict at this time in either city. These civilian patients were interrogated and tortured — either directly through electric shocks or beatings with rubber hoses, or indirectly, by leaving gunshot wounds or open fractures untreated,. A few days prior to the visit to the hospital by the UN-Arab League Special Envoy, who insisted on visiting all patients, Dr. Zaki was ordered by his superiors to find a way to keep these patients silent. The subtext of the order, issued by three generals, the first in charge of the hospital, the second, the head of military intelligence, and the third, head of the military secret police in Aleppo, was clear: “we know exactly who your family are and your wife’s family, and they will be arrested unless you comply” Under those conditions, Dr. Zaki used a combination of anaesthetic agents to sedate over 60 patients, so their wounds and shackles could literally be covered up, and no patient would be able to describe the torture and conditions of their confinement to the Special Envoy. Shortly after this, Dr. Zaki defected and fled to Turkey, along with his entire family and his wife’s family.

I urge you to read the whole report (it’s only 11 Lancet pages).

The report describes what it calls ‘siege medicine’, and for an update you can turn to another new report, this one from Physicians for Human Rights: Access Denied: UN aid deliveries to Syria’s besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

This is how it begins:

Death by infection because security forces do not allow antibiotics through checkpoints.

Death in childbirth because relentless bombing blocks access to clinics.

Death from diabetes and kidney disease because medicines to treat chronic illnesses ran out months ago.

Death from trauma because snipers stand between injured children and functioning hospitals.

And – everywhere – slow, painful death by starvation.

This is what one million besieged people – trapped mostly by their own government – face every day in Syria.

This is the unseen suffering – hidden under the shadow of barrel bombs and car bombs – that plagues the Syrian people as they enter a seventh grim year of conflict.

This is murder by siege.

The report is limited to ‘the failure of the two-step approval process in ensuring the completion of UN interagency humanitarian convoys to besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria’; this excludes operations outside that approval process, but it still makes for remarkably grim reading.  Here are the raw figures tabulating aid deliveries requested, approved and completed under the two-step process:

Even within these diminished envelopes there were further specific restrictions on medical supplies:

Throughout 2016, Syrian authorities specifically restricted medical aid to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, in direct violation of international humanitarian law.From February through December 2016, Syrian authorities prevented the delivery of more than 300,000 medical treatments to besieged and hard-to-reach areas.28 There is no clear definition of what constitutes a “medical treatment,” nor is there publicly available data on how much of each type of aid was removed from convoys. However, as [the examples in the tabulation below show], the disallowed medical aid included basic medicine, supplies, and equipment needed to treat traumatic, chronic, and acute conditions resulting from or aggravated by the sieges. In addition, it included medical aid speci cally meant to treat infants and children. Some of the disallowed medical aid could have been reused repeatedly to treat numerous people, thus its exclusion likely a ected large populations for prolonged periods of time.

In one particularly egregious example, Syrian government forces turned away an entire aid convoy as it was about to enter besieged Daraya in May 2016 because it contained medical aid and infant formula. Ironically, Syrian authorities in Damascus had limited the type of aid allowed on that convoy speci cally to medical aid, infant formula, and school supplies.

Kill Boxes

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As 2016 lurches towards its end, I’ve received notice of a number of books that once I would have hoped would be of purely historical interest.  No longer.  So we’ll start with Elisabeth Weber‘s Kill-boxes: facing the legacy of US-sponsored torture, indefinite detention and drone warfare coming soon from Punctum Books:

Kill Boxes addresses the legacy of US-sponsored torture, indefinite detention, and drone warfare by deciphering the shocks of recognition that humanistic and artistic responses to violence bring to consciousness if readers and viewers have eyes to face them.

Beginning with an analysis of the ways in which the hooded man from Abu Ghraib became iconic, subsequent chapters take up less culturally visible scenes of massive violations of human rights to bring us face to face with these shocks and the forms of recognition that they enable and disavow. We are addressed in the photo of the hooded man, all the more so as he was brutally prevented, in our name, from returning the camera’s and thus our gaze. We are addressed in the screams that turn a person, tortured in our name, into howling flesh. We are addressed in poems written in the Guantánamo Prison camp, however much American authorities try to censor them, in our name. We are addressed by the victims of the US drone wars, however little American citizens may have heard the names of the places obliterated by the bombs for which their taxes pay. And we know that we are addressed in spite of a number of strategies of brutal refusal of heeding those calls.

Providing intensive readings of philosophical texts by Jean Améry, Jacques Derrida, and Christian Thomasius, with poetic texts by Franz Kafka, Paul Muldoon, and the poet-detainees of Guantánamo Bay Prison Camp, and with artistic creations by Sallah Edine Sallat, the American artist collective Forkscrew and an international artist collective from Pakistan, France and the US, Kill Boxes demonstrates the complexity of humanistic responses to crimes committed in the name of national security. The conscious or unconscious knowledge that we are addressed by the victims of these crimes is a critical factor in discussions on torture, on indefinite detention without trial, as practiced in Guantánamo, and in debates on the strategies to circumvent the latter altogether, as practiced in drone warfare and its extrajudicial assassination program.

The volume concludes with an Afterword by Richard Falk.

You can read the Introduction here.

The Death of the Clinic

This is the fifth in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It follows directly from my analysis of the situation in Syria here.

President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied that his forces have attacked hospitals or doctors.  In an interview with SBS Australia on 1 July 2016 he asked his interviewer:

‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?… No government in this situation has any interest in killing civilians or attacking hospitals. Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are anecdotal claims, mendacious statements …’

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There are at least four answers to Assad’s disingenuous question (if you falter at the adjective, see here).

(1) Silencing the witnesses

When Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights testified at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on 31 March 2016 she provided one clear and compelling rationale for Assad’s attacks on doctors:

‘… attacks on doctors silence particularly powerful witnesses. When the Syrian government denies its use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, starvation, or torture, doctors can bear witnesses to these violations because they have seen and treated the victims.’

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To be sure, there are other witnesses and even paper trails and photographic records.  Ben Taub, who has done so much to bring ‘Syria’s war on doctors‘ to the attention of a wider public, has also provided a detailed account of the work done by Bill Wiley and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability whose volunteers have smuggled over 600,000 documents out of Syria detailing mass torture and killings by the regime.

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The war crimes have not been confined to attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas.  A photographer known only as ‘Caesar’, who had been attached to the Defence Ministry’s Criminal Forensic Division, smuggled out thousands of high-resolution digital images exposing the horrors of the regime’s own military hospitals:

The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range – one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies – thousands of them – betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation…

These unfortunates may have lived and died in different ways, but they were bound in death by coded numerals scribbled on their skin with markers, or on scraps of paper affixed to their bodies. The first set of numbers (for example, 2935 in the photographs at bottom) would denote a prisoner’s I.D. The second (for example, 215) would refer to the intelligence branch responsible for his or her death. Underneath these figures, in many cases, would appear the hospital case-file number (for example, 2487/B)…

[T]he system of organizing and recording the dead served three ends: to satisfy Syrian authorities that executions were carried out; to ensure that no one was improperly discharged; and to allow military judges to represent to families—by producing official-seeming death certificates—that their loved ones had died of natural causes. In many ways, these facilities were ideal for hiding “unwanted” individuals, alive or dead. As part of the Ministry of Defense, the hospitals were already fortified, which made it easy to shield their inner workings and keep away families who might come looking for missing relatives. “These hospitals provide cover for the crimes of the regime,” said Nawaf Fares, a top Syrian diplomat and tribal leader who defected in 2012. “People are brought into the hospitals, and killed, and their deaths are papered over with documentation.” When I asked him, during a recent interview in Dubai, Why involve the hospitals at all?, he leaned forward and said, “Because mass graves have a bad reputation.”

(2) Multiplying the casualties

This is a radicalisation of an old strategy.  As Sam Weber pointed out in Targets of opportunity (2005), ‘every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’  So, for example, when the United States or Israel bombs a power plant it often as not explains that it has been careful to bomb in the small hours when only a skeleton staff was in the building in order to minimise collateral damage.  But this begs the question: why bomb the power plant at all?  In most instances the degradation of the electricity supply means that it becomes impossible to pump water or treat sewage; refrigerators fail and food perishes; hospitals are forced to use unreliable generators. The result – the intended, carefully calculated result – is that casualties rise at considerable distances from the target and over an extended period of time.

Similarly, Dr Abdulaziz Adel notes:  ‘Kill a doctor and you kill thousands.’  Simply put, patients who are sick or injured then go without treatment and in many cases their lives are put at risk.  (The images below are from Collateral Damage: more here).

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Dr Rami Kalazi, a neurosurgeon from East Aleppo, agrees:

‘They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.’

(3) ‘Moral[e] bombing’

This too is an old strategy.  The architects of ‘area bombing’ during the combined bomber offensive against Germany during the Second World War described it as ‘moral [sic] bombing’: a sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the morale of the enemy population so that they would demand their leaders sue for peace.  If this was a tried and tested strategy, however, the test showed that it was a complete failure (see my ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).

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But the lesson was lost in Syria, where attacks on hospitals have had a central place.  As Samir Puri argues, the strategy behind the joint Syrian and Russian air campaign seems to be:

“If there is a total collapse of any kind of trauma care, those are the sort of things that can contribute to collapsing morale very suddenly. The morale of a besieged force can look robust until it collapses.”

And Syria is not unique in contemporary wars: Israel has deployed the same strategy in its repeated assaults on Gaza (see here, here and here for ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014), and the Saudi-led coalition has attacked more than 70 hospitals and health facilities in Yemen since March 2015 (in this latter case Russian media have reported MSF’s objections to the ‘utter disregard for civilian life’ without dissent: see for example here).

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‘Preventing medicine’, as Annie Sparrow puts it, has become ‘a new weapon of mass destruction’.

(4) ‘Violence legislates’

Following the attack on the UN aid convoy delivering supplies to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse outside East Aleppo on 19 September 2016, 101 humanitarian organisations issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on 22 September; in part it read:

‘Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians are war crimes. This must mark a turning point: the UN Security Council cannot allow increasingly brazen violations of international humanitarian law to continue with impunity.

‘Heads of state are gathered in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Each one that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law’ (my emphases).

The first paragraph is damning enough.  Ben Taub in the New Yorker again:

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics.

But the sting comes in the second paragraph.  As I’ve noted before, international humanitarian law is not a neutral court of appeal, a deus ex machina above the fray, but has always been closely entangled with military violence.  In many respects it travels in the baggage train, constantly pulled by the trajectory of the very violence it supposedly seeks to regulate (or facilitate, depending on your point of view).  In short, as Eyal Weizman has it, ‘violence legislates‘.

There is good reason to fear that the systematic violation of medical neutrality is intended to force its dissolution.  Thomas Arcaro writes: ‘Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria.’

And not only there.  In the case of the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz in 2015, I’ve suggested that some key Afghan officers and politicians chafed at the protections afforded to wounded Taliban combatants by international humanitarian law.  They also alleged that the Trauma Centre had breached its conditional immunity because the Taliban had overrun the hospital and were firing at US and Afghan forces from its precincts.  There is no evidence to support that assertion, but it is an increasingly familiar claim.  On 7 December 2016 US Central Command justified a ‘precision strike’ requested by Iraqi forces on a building within the al-Salem hospital complex in Mosul by claiming that IS fighters had used it as a base to launch heavy and sustained machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.  That would certainly have compromised the hospital’s immunity, but international humanitarian law still requires a warning to be issued before any attack and a proportionality analysis to be conducted; Colonel John Dorrian said that the US Air Force did not ‘have any reason to believe civilians were harmed’ but conceded that it was ‘very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity’ whether any medical staff or patients were in the building at the time of the air strike.

But what the Syrian case suggests is a new impatience with medical neutrality tout court: not only a hostility towards the treatment of wounded and sick combatants but also an unwillingness to extend sanctuary to wounded and sick civilians.

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And that reluctance is not confined to the Assad regime and its allies.    A survey carried out for the International Committee of the Red Cross between June and September makes for alarming reading – even once you’ve overcome your scepticism about public opinion polls.  As Spencer Ackerman reports:

Areas in active conflict record greater urgency over questions of civilian protection in wartime than do the great powers that often conduct or participate in those conflicts. In Ukraine, 83% believe everyone wounded and sick during a conflict has a right to health care, compared with 62% of Russians. A full 100% of Yemenis endorse the proposition, as do 81% of Afghans, 66% of Syrians and 42% of Iraqis – compared with 49% of Americans, 53% of Britons, 37% of the Chinese and 67% of the French.

It’s that last clause that is so disturbing: for the last four states listed are all permanent members of the UN Security Council…

So what, then, are we to make of what I’ve been calling ‘the exception to the exception’?

The exception to the exception

homo-sacerI think it’s a mistake to treat ‘the camp’, following Giorgio Agamben‘s vital work, as the exemplary, diagnostic site of the modern space of exception; the killing fields of today’s wars (themselves spaces of indistinction, where it is never clear where war stops and peace begins, where the geometry of the battlefield or, better, ‘battlespace’ becomes ever more fractured and blurred, and where the partitions between international and internal conflicts have been reduced to rubble) are also spaces within which groups of people are deliberately and knowingly exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded to them.  In short, killing and injuring become legally permissible.

Those exposed groups include both combatants and civilians, but their fate is not determined solely by the suspension of national laws (the case that concerns Agamben) because international humanitarian law continues to afford them some minimal protections.  One of its central provisions has been medical neutrality: yet if, through its serial violations in Syria and elsewhere, we are witnessing the slow ‘death of the clinic’ – which I treat as a topological figure which extends from the body of the sick or wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – and the extinction of ‘the exception to the exception’, the clinic as a (conditionally) sacrosanct space – then I think it’s necessary to add further twists to Agamben’s original conception.

As Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan have argued, medical neutrality – the exception to the exception – represents a fraught attempt to restrict the state’s recourse to military violence: it is a limitation on and has now perhaps become even an affront to sovereign power and the state’s insistence that it is ‘the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die’.

Agamben describes the inhabitants of the space of exception as so many homines sacri – where sacer has the double meaning of both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’ – and it may be that in today’s killing fields doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are being transformed into new versions of homo sacer: once ‘sacred’ for their selfless devotion to saving lives, they are now ‘accursed’ for their principled dedication to medical neutrality.

 

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Yet the precarity of their existence under conditions of detention and torture, siege and airstrike, has not reduced them to what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  They care – desperately – whether they live or die; they have improvised a series of survival strategies; they have not been silent in the face of almost unspeakable horror; and they have developed new forms of solidarity, support and sociality.

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Sound(ing)s

DAUGHTRY Listening to warMy interest in the militarisation of vision is longstanding, but it’s important not to exaggerate the salience of an increasingly ‘optical war’.  Through ‘The natures of war’ project (see DOWNLOADS tab) I’ve also been drawn to the importance of sound in conducting, surviving and even accounting for military violence (see, for example, herehere, and here).  And, as Martin Daughtry‘s remarkable Listening to war (2015) shows, sound continues to be significant in later modern war too.

Even its absence is significant, sometimes performative: think of all those video feeds from Predators and Reapers that, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly reminded us, are silent movies – apart from the remote commentary from pilots and sensor operators:

‘The lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The contemporary militarisation (or weaponisation) of sound is double-edged, and I mean that in several sense.

First, Mary Roach has a revealing chapter in Grunt: the curious science of humans at war (2016) on what she calls ‘Fighting by ear: the conundrum of noise’.  It turns out that 50 – 60 per cent of situational awareness comes from hearing – and yet the sound of war can be literally deafening.  The damage is often permanent, but in the heat of battle hearing loss makes it difficult to parse the torrent of noise – to distinguish offensive and defensive fires, to detect direction and range, and to send and receive vital communications.  Mary explains:

ROACH GruntFor decades, earplugs and other passive hearing protection have been the main ammunition of military hearing conservation programs. There are those who would like this to change, who believe that the cost can be a great deal higher. That an earplug can be as lethal as a bullet. Most earplugs reduce noise by 30-some decibels. This is helpful with a steady, grinding background din — a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clattering over asphalt (130 decibels), or the thrum of a Black Hawk helicopter (106 decibels). Thirty decibels is more significant than it sounds. Every 3-decibel increase in a loud noise cuts in half the amount of time one can be exposed without risking hearing damage. An unprotected human ear can spend eight hours a day exposed to 85 decibels (freeway noise, crowded restaurant) without incurring a hearing loss. At 115 decibels (chainsaw, mosh pit), safe exposure time falls to half a minute. The 187-decibel boom of an AT4 anti-tank weapon lasts a second, but even that ultrabrief exposure would, to an unprotected ear, mean a permanent downtick in hearing. Earplugs are less helpful when the sounds they’re dampening include a human voice yelling to get down, say, or the charging handle of an opponent’s rifle. A soldier with an average hearing loss of 30 decibels may need a waiver to go back out and do his job; depending on what that job is, he may be a danger to himself and his unit. “What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs?” says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. “We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.”

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For that reason the US military has been experimenting with what it calls ‘Tactical Communication and Protective Systems‘ (‘Tee-caps’, shown above): ear protectors that incorporate radio communications.  They are a response both to the cacophony and the geometry of war:

No one, in the heat of a firefight, is going to pause to take off her helmet, pull back her ear, insert the plug, and repeat the whole process on the other side, and then restrap the helmet. There’s time for this on a firing range, and there might have been time on a Civil War battlefield, where soldiers got into formation before the call to charge…  You knew when the mayhem was about to start, and you had time to prepare, whether that meant affixing bayonets or messing with foamies. There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that.

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Second, sounds can intimidate – sometimes deliberately so – but they can also be reverse-engineered to reveal the geometry of violence.  One obvious example is the use of sound-ranging to locate artillery batteries on the Western Front in the First World War; but less obvious, and of critical importance, soundscaping can form an important part of a forensic investigation into crimes of war. This brings me to yet another mesmerising project from Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency. Eyal explains:

In 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya – a secret Syrian detention center – from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists and others suspected of opposing the regime, have disappeared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government. Saydnaya, located some 25 kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

Torture has become routinised there – and not as a weapon in the grotesque arsenal of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (which, for any Trump fans who have stumbled into this site in error, has been demonstrated countless times not to work anyway).  Amnesty could not be clearer:

There are no interrogations at Saydnaya. Torture isn’t used to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to degrade, punish and humiliate. Prisoners are targeted relentlessly, unable to “confess” to save themselves from further beatings. Survivors say they dreaded family visits as they were always followed by extensive beatings.

Eyal continues:

As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration and incidents that take place inside.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya.

To understand the role of sound in the investigation, what Eyal calls ‘ear-witnessing’, here is Oliver Wainwright writing about the project in the Guardian:

“Architecture is a conduit to memory,” says Weizman, describing how an Arabic-speaking architect [Hania Jamal] built a digital model on screen as detainees described specific memories and events. “As they experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level, the witnesses had some flashes of recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma.”

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Inmates were constantly blindfolded or forced to kneel and cover their eyes when guards entered their cells, so sound became the key sense by which they navigated and measured their environment – and therefore one of the chief tools with which the Forensic team could reconstruct the prison layout. Using a technique of “echo profiling”, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.

“Like a form of sonar, the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them,” says Abu Hamdan. “The prison is really an echo chamber: one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured, because the sound circulates throughout the space, through air vents and water pipes. You cannot escape it.”

Oliver continues:

Saydnaya detainees developed an acute aural sensitivity, able to identify the different sounds of belts, electrical cables or broomsticks on flesh, and the difference between bodies being punched, kicked or beaten against the wall.
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee, in a video interview. “You know the person by the sound of his footsteps. You can tell the food times by the sound of the bowl. If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.”

Architecture of sound

You can find full details of the project, of its architectural and auditory modelling, and its findings here, and there is also an excellent video on YouTube:

Documenting what is happening provides an essential platform for political and eventually legal action against those responsible.  You can joint Amnesty’s campaign here (scroll down).  Please do.

Hidden in plane sight

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Just out: Negative Publicity: artefacts of extraordinary rendition by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black, with an essay by Eyal Weizman:

British photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black have assembled photographs and documents that confront the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control. From George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of the “war on terror” until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a network of secret prisons organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—transfers without legal process known as extraordinary renditions. No public records were kept as detainees were shuttled all over the globe. Some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released without charge, while others remain unaccounted for.

The paper trail assembled in this volume shows these activities via the weak points of business accountability: invoices, documents of incorporation, and billing reconciliations produced by the small-town American businesses enlisted in detainee transportation. Clark has traveled worldwide to photograph former detention sites, detainees’ homes, and government locations. He and Black recreate the network that links CIA “black sites,” and evoke ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process—a system hidden in plain sight. Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, copublished with the Magnum Foundation, its creation supported by Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund, raises fundamental questions about the accountability and complicity of our governments, and the erosion of our most basic civil rights.

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Here is how the always absorbing We make money not art describes the project:

Photographer Edmund Clark spent 4 years spent hunting for sites of extraordinary rendition and photographing any location associated with the programme. None of the photo printed in the book shows any clear evidence of torture, kidnapping or any other human right abuse. There is nothing spectacular to witness here, just mundane places such as the entrance to a Libyan intelligence service detention facility, the corridors connecting cells to interrogation rooms, anonymous streets or the bedroom of the son of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site. Clark calls the making of these photographs “an act of testimony.”

However, the images start to bear a chilling significance when coupled with the paper trail and extracts of interview patiently compiled by Crofton Black, an investigative journalist whose research focuses on extraordinary rendition and black site cases. Over the course of his inquiry, Black has amassed incriminating documents that range from satellite maps to landing records, from border guard patrol logs to testimonies of people tortured in CIA ‘black sites’, from invoices to CIA documents released after freedom of information act litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. He managed to give them meaning by organizing them into engrossing episodes that give a glimpse of the building and unraveling of the extraordinary rendition network.

And VICE has an interview with the authors here.  Here is their description of the origins of the project:

Edmund Clark: In 2011, while I was working on a body of work on Guantanamo Bay, I was in contact with Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve and found out that they were doing work on extraordinary rendition. I met Crofton and discovered that was what he was also researching. I became interested in doing something on extraordinary rendition as a progression of my work on Guantanamo Bay.
Crofton Black: When he first came to me I’d been out in Lithuania, looking at this weird site—a warehouse that had been built in the woods in the middle of nowhere, on the site of a former riding school. I was building a court case around it, so when [Clark] got in touch I said, ‘Oh, you should go to Lithuania and take some photos of this strange, peculiar place.’ Which he did. After that we started formulating a more complex and ambitious scheme of trying to document the black-site network through documents, images, and prose. We spent a long time working out how to fit it all together.

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Crofton explains why he was drawn to the visual:

I was aware that I had all this material, that there were remarkable stories and images and documents that were bizarre, and spoke beyond what was immediately visible in them. I knew I wanted to do something with it that was less dry than legal cases, which are quite dull. There was an opportunity to do something that spoke to a different, and bigger, audience.

And they both emphasise the banality of bureaucracy in the service of violence (an argument that resonates with what – in relation to targeting for nuclear war – Henry Nash called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide’, which I discuss here):

Black: Obviously, post-Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” has become a standardized phrase. For me, one of the places you see it most strongly is in bureaucracy: in these documents, in the way they are written, the way certain forms of interrogation are described, or flight routes are detailed. I wanted to make that point. None of these things would be possible without a complex bureaucratic system enabling them. In theory, the idea of a bureaucracy is that everything has its place and gets done by the right person. But in practice it often means that no one is responsible for anything. And that’s what we found in Eastern Europe—no one was responsible. There’s no one in Poland or Lithuania who is responsible for any of this stuff!
Clark: That’s something we wanted to bring out: the ordinariness, the banality of it all. When she spoke of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt was talking about the bureaucracy of National Socialism. Here, we are talking about a mosaic of small companies—small to medium enterprises—earning a buck.

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Note the glorious correction above.

And one final comment about the geography of this sprawling bureaucracy which explains why my title is not a mis-spelling:

Black: Most of the paperwork in the book is from other entities or other countries [than the US]. If they wanted to have an entirely secret prison system, they shouldn’t have invented one that involved flying prisoners all over the world. You simply can’t fly a plane from A to B without leaving a gigantic paper trail. You just can’t, otherwise planes would be bumping into each other. They could have just held their 119 prisoners in Afghanistan and we would probably have found it an awful lot more difficult to find out about it. But the peculiarities of how they wanted—or, at times, were forced to—use different locations… that made it detectable.

All of this, of course, parallels Trevor Paglen‘s work in interesting and complementary ways: see my post here, which connects Trevor’s project to Crofton’s work on ‘the boom and bust of the CIA’s torture sites‘ and his involvement in the Rendition Project.

More tortured geographies

Route Map 2

There have been several attempts to reconstruct the geography of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. I’ve long admired the work of my good friend Trevor Paglen, described in his book with A.C. ThompsonTorture Taxi: on the trail of the CIA’s rendition flights, available in interactive map form through Trevor’s collaboration with the Institute for Applied Autonomy as Terminal Air. (I’ve commented on the project before, here and especially here).

terminal-air

And you can only applaud Trevor’s chutzpah is displaying the results of his work on a public billboard:

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The project, which involved the painstaking analysis of countless flight records and endless exchanges with the geeks who track aircraft as a hobby, triggered an installation in which the CIA was reconfigured as a ‘travel agency‘:

Terminal Air travel agency

At the time (2007), Rhizome – which co-sponsored the project – explained:

Terminal Air is an installation that examines the mechanics of extraordinary rendition, a current practice of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in which suspected terrorists detained in Western countries are transported to so-called “black sites” for interrogation and torture. Based on extensive research, the installation imagines the CIA office through which the program is administered as a sort of travel agency coordinating complex networks of private contractors, leased equipment, and shell companies. Wall-mounted displays track the movements of aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition, while promotional posters identify the private contractors that supply equipment and personnel. Booking agents’ desks feature computers offering interactive animations that enable visitors to monitor air traffic and airport data from around the world, while office telephones provide real-time updates as new flight plans are registered with international aviation authorities. Seemingly-discarded receipts, notes attached to computer monitors, and other ephemera provide additional detail including names of detainees and suspected CIA agents, dates of known renditions, and images of rendition aircraft. Terminal Air was inspired through conversations with researcher and author Trevor Paglen (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights – Melville House Publishing). Data on the movements of the planes was compiled by Paglen, author Stephen Grey (Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program – St. Martin’s Press) and an anonymous army of plane-spotting enthusiasts.

There’s a short video documenting the project on Vimeo here and embedded below (though strangely Trevor isn’t mentioned and doesn’t appear in it):

Although Trevor subsequently explained why he tried to ‘stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible’ in his work, preferring instead the ‘view from the ground’, the cartography of all of this matters in so many ways – from the covert complicity of many governments around the world in a global geopolitics of torture through to the toll exerted on the bodies and minds of prisoners as they were endlessly shuffled in hoods and chains over long distances from one black site to another.

And now, thanks to the equally admirable work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it’s possible to take the analysis even further.  Here is Crofton Black and Sam Raphael introducing their project, ‘The boom and bust of the CIA’s secret torture sites‘:

In spring 2003 an unnamed official at CIA headquarters in Langley sat down to compose a memo. It was 18 months after George W Bush had declared war on terror. “We cannot have enough blacksite hosts,” the official wrote. The reference was to one of the most closely guarded secrets of that war – the countries that had agreed to host the CIA’s covert prison sites.

Between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 people disappeared into a worldwide detention network run by the CIA and facilitated by its foreign partners.

Lawyers, journalists and human rights organisations spent the next decade trying to figure out whom the CIA had snatched and where it had put them. A mammoth investigation by the US Senate’s intelligence committee finally named 119 of the prisoners in December 2014. It also offered new insights into how the black site network functioned – and gruesome, graphic accounts of abuses perpetrated within it.

Many of those 119 had never been named before.

The report’s 500-page summary, which contained the CIA official’s 2003 remarks, was only published after months of argument between the Senate committee, the CIA and the White House. It was heavily censored, while the full 6,000-page study it was based on remains secret. All names of countries collaborating with the CIA in its detention and interrogation operations were removed, along with key dates, numbers, names and much other material.

In nine months of research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have unpicked these redactions to piece together the hidden history of the CIA’s secret sites. This account unveils many of the censored passages in the report summary, drawing on public data sources such as flight records, aviation contracts, court cases, prisoner testimonies, declassified government documents and media and NGO reporting.

Although many published accounts of individual journeys through the black site network exist, this is the first comprehensive portrayal of the system’s inner dynamics from beginning to end.

CIA black sites (BOIJ:REndition Project)

At present the mapping is rudimentary (see the screenshot above), but the database matching prisoners to black sites means that it ought to be possible to construct a more fine-grained representation of the cascade of individual movements.  The Rendition Project has already identified more than 40 rendition circuits involving more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners: see here and the interactive maps here.

Joining the dots…

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have just published their first quarterly report on 119 people secretly detained and tortured by the CIA as part of the ‘war on/of terror’.

You can download the brief report as a pdf here, but the infographic below summarises the key findings (and don’t let its stark simplicity fool anyone about the detailed research that went into its production: this is difficult work).

what-we-know

Many commentators have noted that the Obama administration’s determination to end the CIA’s rendition program coincided with a decision to ramp up its covert program of targeted killing.  The preference for ‘kill’ over ‘capture’ is complicated by the living death suffered by many of those who were imprisoned in the carceral archipelago of black sites and prisons – and we should surely welcome the determination to widen the focus beyond Guantanamo to include, notably, Bagram.

But the apparent distinction between the two programs becomes even more blurred once you realise that many of the officials in charge of the one were switched to the other.  According to Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo writing in the New York Times:

‘Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position…

‘Mr. D’Andrea was a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center when the agency opened the Salt Pit, a notorious facility in Afghanistan where prisoners were tortured. His counterterrorism officers oversaw the interrogation and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. His actions are described in the withering Senate Intelligence Committee report about torture that was released late last year, although he was not identified publicly.’

(On the Times‘ decision to name names, see Jack Goldsmith‘s interview with Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times).

But the real sting in the tail comes when Mazetti and Apuzzo also note:

‘The confidence [Senator Dianne] Feinstein and other Democrats express about the drone program, which by most accounts has been effective in killing hundreds of Qaeda operatives and members of other militant groups over the years, stands in sharp contrast to the criticism among lawmakers of the now defunct C.I.A. program to capture and interrogate Qaeda suspects in secret prisons.

‘When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

‘“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.’