Buses and tanks on the street

At a wonderful conference earlier this year in Roskilde I heard a stunning presentation about cross-cultural encounters and everyday racism on board Bus 5A in Copenhagen:

‘With more than 65,000 passengers a day, bus 5A is the busiest route in Copenhagen and the Nordic countries. Day and night, the bus cuts through the streets and connects different parts of the city. Bus 5A is iconic and loved, but also hated among bus drivers who have named it ‘the suicidal’ route and in everyday language refer to it as ‘Slamsugeren’ (suction vehicle) because it transports all kinds of people and connects many different places in the city. The bus starts in the suburb (Husum) and connects the multicultural part of Copenhagen (Nørrebro) with the more gentri ed inner city and the outskirts of Copenhagen, ending at the airport.’

The paper, by Lasse Koefoed, Mathilde Dissing Christensen and Kirsten Simonsen – which has been published in Mobilities (and from where I’ve borrowed these quotations) – describes a series of tactics pursued by passengers (and drivers) on the bus; for example:

‘… the dominant picture of the bus more often involves what we could call ‘the little racism’. A Pakistani immigrant describes this to us with a strong use of body language. He looks askance and moves a bit away from an imagined person next to him, wrinkles up his nose and says,‘Ashh’, in this way performing distanciation. Another respondent confirms this impression by telling: ‘You can feel it on the Danes, in particular when it is crowded’. She has difficulties finding words but talks about discomfort and anger. She is aware that she cannot rule herself out from the feeling:

I can see that I actually do it a bit myself. When a group of young immigrants enters the bus, then I strengthen my hold on my backpack or my bag. (Charlotte, passenger)

She recognises that it must be an unpleasant experience for the young men and feels a bit guilty, but she ‘tries to do it a little discreet[ly]’. What is at stake here is a sensing of an affective space, the more passive side of emotional experience, where emotions such as fear, discomfort, anger and disgust are circulating in the intense atmosphere of the crowded bus. This affective space is also at work as a background when young boys, asked about visions for the future, develop a utopia of a bus without racism.’

It’s a stimulating and provocative read, and it’s been on my mind for months since.  But it’s given a startling immediacy today by the new that Amnesty International has plastered a tank on the side of a Copenhagen bus.  Adweek reports:

The wrap makes a city bus look like a tank prowling the streets. “This is everyday life in Aleppo,” says the headline on the side, referring to the Syrian city devastated by the country’s civil war….

The idea is to remind people that while the Islamic State has left Aleppo [that’s a sentence that requires a good deal of qualification: to attribute the horrors of the siege of Aleppo to IS is not so much shorthand as sleight of hand], the Syrian war continues. The ad is also designed to raise awareness of refugees’ right to security from war and persecution.

“Everyone has the right to safety—also refugees,” says Claus Juul, legal consultant for Amnesty International. “It can be difficult to imagine what it is like to be human in a city, where one daily fears for one’s own and loved ones lives. Therefore, we have brought the everyday life of Aleppo to Copenhagen’s summer cityscape, so we, Danes, have the opportunity to face Syria’s brutal conflict.”

You need to see the short animation here or here to get the effect.

Fortunately the route is the 26 not the 5A…

Bombs, bunkers and borders

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

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

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

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

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

The statement continues:

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

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

More here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie singles out three particularly problematic issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all this comes at a cost:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unimaginative geographies

In my commentary on the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris in November 2015, I drew attention to Islamic State’s desire to extinguish what it called ‘the grey zone’.  As Jason Burke explained at the time:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

I noted then that ‘The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.’

Syrian artist Khaled Akil has captured this congruence perfectly in “Hate Loves Hate“:

khaled-akil-hate-loves-hate

Amnesty International‘s latest report (2016/17) on Human Rights around the world confirms that this is fast becoming generalised:

Politicians wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.

The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries. It warns that the consequences of “us vs them” rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak.

“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

2016-us-vs-them-001

“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs. Whether it is Trump, Orban, Erdoğan or Duterte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.

“Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.”…

“In 2016, these most toxic forms of dehumanization became a dominant force in mainstream global politics. The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia.

“The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the cross-hairs. The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion. When we cease to see each other as human beings with the same rights, we move closer to the abyss.”

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.”

TCAP

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.

Saydnaya 1 JPEG

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.”

One drop of water

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.

The Platform Edge

I should have drawn attention to these two further, vital resources in my post on Black Friday, Israel’s assault on Rafah during ‘Operation Protective Edge‘.

Gaza Platform INTRO SCREEN

First, Forensic Architecture‘s wider collaboration with Amnesty International (in association with the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights/Palestinian Centre for Human Rights) has produced The Gaza Platform:

The Gaza Platform is an interactive map of attacks by Israeli forces on Gaza between 8 July and 26 August 2014.

It enables its users to explore a vast collection of data, collected on the ground by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), as well as Amnesty International, during and after the conflict.

Produced through a year-long collaboration between Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International, the Gaza Platform is a new gateway to this precious, first-hand information: it not only gives access to a large quantity of otherwise dispersed data, but helps make sense of it.

The Gaza Platform is the most comprehensive public repository of information about attacks carried out during the 2014 Gaza conflict to date. At the time of its launch on 8 July 2015, it featured over 2,750 individual events, recording the deaths of more than 2,200 people, including 1,800 civilians and 600 children. As a digital interface, it enables access not only to text reports, but also to photos, videos, audio recordings and satellite imagery documenting the war – all in one place.

It is important to note that the Gaza Platform does not provide a complete record of the impact of Israeli attacks during the 2014 conflict. It does not cover every single attack that took place during the conflict, but only those for which a report is available. Therefore, the total number of casualties presented in the Gaza Platform falls short of the one recorded by the UN across the entire conflict.

However, the Gaza Platform does more than provide overall figures and statistics about the conflict. Each death is linked to a specific event, for which all available details and context are given, thus providing the granular details of each individual event recorded. It also helps to reveal trends by making links between dispersed individual events and detecting patterns of attacks across the 50-day time span of the conflict, thereby contributing to an assessment of the conduct of Israeli forces and its conformity or otherwise with the provisions of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). As such, the Gaza Platform is a tool aimed at uncovering the truth about the attacks on Gaza and contributing to accountability efforts for crimes under international law committed by both sides during the 2014 conflict, the third such conflict in six years.

According to Doug Bolton writing in the Independent:

Phillip Luther, the Director of Amnesty International‘s Middle East and North Africa programme, said it “has the potential to expose the systematic nature of Israeli violations committed during the conflict.”

He added: “Our aim it for it to become an invaluable resource for human rights investigators pushing for accountability for violations committed during the conflict.”…

Francesco Sebregondi, the director of the project at Forensic Architecture, said the map “exploits the power of new digital tools to shed light on complex events such as the latest war in Gaza.”

“It enables users to move across scales, from the granular details of each incident to the big picture of the overall conflict, by revealing connections between scattered events.”

I’m not going to link to them, but the hysterical response from apologists for the indiscriminate violence of the Israeli assault on Gaza shows that the Gaza Platform has hit a nerve: as it should.

Incidentally, there’s a short article in today’s Guardian about the ongoing transformation of humanities research: the growth of the ‘digital humanities’,  ‘tech-savvy’ analysis of large data sets, collaborations with non-academic professionals, and a determination to show how ‘research can benefit society’.  The Gaza Platform isn’t mentioned, but it surely exemplifies exactly what the author has in mind.

BLUMENTHAL 51 Day War

Second, Max Blumenthal‘s coruscating chronicle of The 51 Day War: ruin and resistance in Gaza, out now from Verso.  As Juan Cole put it, ‘Max Blumenthal audaciously takes in-your-face, on-the-ground journalism into the realm of geopolitics.’  You can find Glenn Greenwald‘s interview with Max at The Intercept here:

What shook me the most was how well I was treated in the rubble. How after interviewing families who would tell me about witnessing their neighbors being destroyed by a missile, that they would beseech me to have lunch with them. I didn’t even know where the lunch would come from. They would chase me down after denouncing my government and insisting that the Obama administration was no better than Netanyahu, and hand me sweets, and tell me that they see a clear difference between the American people and the American government. I mean, that kind of treatment showed me how impeccable the character of these people was, even as they were facing their own immiseration and ruin.

That was kind of deceptive, because I started to adjust, in a weird way, to being in the rubble with these people. Then the bombing started again, and then I had to deal with the terror of night after night of bombings, and naval shelling throughout the day, and drones swooping closely overhead, searching for targets. And I became shell-shocked. So I couldn’t have even imagined going through 51 days of that, especially as a child under the age of seven.

We have to recognize that the Gaza Strip is a ghetto of children. The majority of the people in the Gaza strip are under age 18, and a substantial percentage of those under 18 are under the age of seven, which means they have known nothing in their lives but these three atrocious wars, which have left almost 20 percent of the entire area of the Gaza Strip in ruins.

What’s on those children’s mind? What kind of lives can they have? Can they ever be normal as they go through life without therapy, without relief, without recourse and without justice, with continuous traumatic stress disorder?

Black Friday

Just released: a joint investigation by Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture reconstructs Israel’s siege of Rafah during its assault on Gaza in 2014.  You can read the Executive Summary here and access the full report, Black Friday: carnage in Rafah, here.

In Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip, a group of Israeli soldiers patrolling an agricultural area west of the border encountered a group of Hamas fighters posted there. A fire fight ensued, resulting in the death of two Israeli soldiers and one Palestinian fighter. The Hamas fighters captured an Israeli officer, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, and took him into a tunnel. What followed became one of the deadliest episodes of the war; an intensive use of firepower by Israel, which lasted four days and killed scores of civilians (reports range from at least 135 to over 200), injured many more and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and other civilian structures, mostly on 1 August.

In this report, Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, a research team based at Goldsmiths, University of London, provide a detailed reconstruction of the events in Rafah from 1 August until 4 August 2014, when a ceasefire came into effect. The report examines the Israeli army’s response to the capture of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and its implementation of the Hannibal Directive – a controversial command designed to deal with captures of soldiers by unleashing massive firepower on persons, vehicles and buildings in the vicinity of the attack, despite the risk to civilians and the captured soldier(s).

The report recounts events by connecting various forms of information including: testimonies from victims and witnesses including medics, journalists, and human rights defenders in Rafah; reports by human rights and other organizations; news and media feeds, public statements and other information from Israeli and Palestinian official sources; and videos and photographs collected on the ground and from the media.

Satellite imagery Rafah 1 August 2014

Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture worked with a number of field researchers and photographers who documented sites where incidents took place using protocols for forensic photography. Forensic Architecture located elements of witness testimonies in space and time and plotted the movement of witnesses through a three-dimensional model of urban spaces. It also modelled and animated the testimony of several witnesses, combining spatial information obtained from separate testimonies and other sources in order to reconstruct incidents. Three satellite images of the area, dated 30 July, 1 August and 14 August, were obtained and analysed in detail; the image of 1 August reveals a rare overview of a moment within the conflict. Forensic Architecture also retrieved a large amount of audiovisual material on social media and employed digital maps and models to locate evidence such as oral description, photography, video and satellite imagery in space and time. When audiovisual material from social media came with inadequate metadata, Forensic Architecture used time indicators in the image, such as shadow and smoke plumes analysis, to locate sources in space and time….

Public statements by Israeli army commanders and soldiers after the conflict provide compelling reasons to conclude that some attacks that killed civilians and destroyed homes and property were intentionally carried out and motivated by a desire for revenge – to teach a lesson to, or punish, the population of Rafah for the capture of Lieutenant Goldin.

There is consequently strong evidence that many such attacks in Rafah between 1 and 4 August were serious violations of international humanitarian law and constituted grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention or other war crimes.

It really is worth accessing the full report and closely examining the video animations produced by Forensic Architecture.

Lambert Hannibal Directive JPEG

You can find a commentary on the project and its wider implications, which also draws on a lecture FA’s Eyal Weizman gave at Médecins sans Frontières in Paris earlier this month, by Léopold Lambert over at Warscapes here: ‘The Hannibal Directive and the economy of lives: making sense of Black Friday in Gaza‘.

The Hannibal Directive exists because of the historical asymmetrical characteristics of prisoner exchanges between the Israeli government and Palestinian and Lebanese political groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The armed sections of these groups evidently rely on this precise asymmetrical relationship and undertake kidnappings of one or multiple Israeli soldiers when possible to negotiate the liberation of several Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. However, the economy of lives that can be perceived through this asymmetry is profoundly disturbing. The hidden message in the enunciation of the 2011 Shalit exchange is the following: One Israeli life is worth 1,027 Palestinian lives. The very fact that many of us know Shalit’s name, but not one of the 1,027 liberated Palestinian prisoners’, is symptomatic. In the case of “Black Friday,” this economy of lives exposes its violence through even more extreme and perverse forms: for the Israeli army, 135 to 200 Palestinian lives are worth ending in order to end an Israeli one, so to avoid freeing Palestinian prisoners.

We should not think of the concept of economy of lives as a retrospective reading of the Israeli Army’s crimes: This logic is at work in most Western military decision making, as Weizman shows in his book The Least of All Possible Evils (Verso 2011) through interviews with Human Rights Watch consultant Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon “chief of high-value targeting” during the first years of the 2003 US war in Iraq. For each airstrike against an Iraqi political or military figure that Garlasco designed, he had to follow a “correct balance of civilian casualties in relation to the military value of a mission. ” In other words, there is a number of civilians the US army allows itself to kill as “collateral damage” when targeting a strategic assassination. In Iraq, this number was 30, Garlasco reveals. “In this system of calculation,” writes Weizman, “twenty-nine deaths designates a threshold. Above it, in the eyes of the US military lawyers, is potentially ‘unlawful killing’; below it, ‘necessary sacrifice.’” Here, again, lives are disincarnated into statistics calculated in relation to military and ideological objectives.

AI Unlawful and deadly JPEGI should not that there are also important critiques of Amnesty’s other investigations into ‘Operation Protective Edge’, most significantly from Normal Finkelstein at Jadaliyya.  

He takes particular exception to Amnesty’s Unlawful and Deadly: Rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict.

He insists that Amnesty too often cites official Israeli sources in ways that ‘magnify Hamas’s and diminish Israel’s criminal culpability’. You can access what he describes as his ‘forensic analysis’ of that report in two parts, here and here.

My own posts on ‘Operation Protective Edge’ are here, here, here, here, here (my own attempt at a forensic analysis of sorts), and here.

Destructive Edge

In a previous post on ‘The Death Zone‘, I suggested readers compare Israel’s extended ‘buffer zone’ in Gaza by following the line of the main highway, Saladin Street.  Hugh Naylor has followed that route on the ground – what he calls ‘Desolation Road’ – and his report is accompanied by an interactive map showing some of the vast panorama of destruction:

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I’ll have more to say about the caption – about the Israeli military’s targeting in Gaza – shortly.  The Guardian has just published a graphic by Nadja Popovich showing the UNRWA-run schools sheltering refugees (many of them from the expanded ‘buffer zone’) that were struck by the Israeli military:

Gaza schools hit by Israeli military

 Amnesty International reports growing evidence that health facilities and workers were deliberately targeted by the Israeli military:

Testimonies from doctors, nurses, and ambulance workers who have spoken to Amnesty International paint a disturbing picture of hospitals and health professionals coming under attack by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, where at least six medics have been killed. There is growing evidence that health facilities or professionals have been targeted in some cases.

Since Israel launched Operation “Protective Edge” on 8 July, the Gaza Strip has been under intensive bombardment from the air, land and sea, severely affecting the civilian population there. As of 5 August, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1,814 Palestinians had been killed in the Gaza Strip, 86 per cent of them civilians. More than 9,400 people have been injured, many of them seriously. An estimated 485,000 people across the Gaza Strip have been displaced, and many of them are taking refuge in hospitals and schools.

Amnesty International has received reports that the Israeli army has repeatedly fired at clearly marked ambulances with flashing emergency lights and paramedics wearing recognizable fluorescent vests while carrying out their duties. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, at least six ambulance workers, and at least 13 other aid workers, have been killed as they attempted to rescue the wounded and collect the dead. At least 49 doctors, nurses and paramedics have been injured by such attacks; at least 33 other aid workers were also injured. At least five hospitals and 34 clinics have been forced to shut down due to damage from Israeli fire or continuing hostilities in the immediate area.

Hospitals across the Gaza Strip suffer from fuel and power shortages (worsened by the Israeli attack on Gaza’s only power plant on 29 July), inadequate water supply, and shortages of essential drugs and medical equipment. The situation was acute before the current hostilities, due to Israel’s seven-year blockade of Gaza, but have been seriously exacerbated since…

Amnesty International is aware of reports that Palestinian armed groups have fired indiscriminate rockets from near hospitals or health facilities, or otherwise used these facilities or areas for military purposes. Amnesty International has not been able to confirm any of these reports. While the use of medical facilities for military purposes is a severe violation of international humanitarian law, hospitals, ambulances and medical facilities are protected and their civilian status must be presumed. Israeli attacks near such facilities – like all other attacks during the hostilities – must comply with all relevant rules of international humanitarian law, including the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects and military targets, the obligation that attacks must be proportional and the obligation to give effective warning. Hospitals and medical facilities must never be forced to evacuate patients under fire.

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The report includes detailed testimony from Palestinian paramedics and ambulance crews who describe the extraordinary difficulty and danger they faced in attending to casualties from Israeli shelling (see also my post on ‘Gaza 101‘, the emergency number for Gaza, and the update here).  Not surprisingly, Israel has rejected Amnesty’s claims and denied targeting hospitals, but when Netanyahu’s spokesperson, Mark Regev, explained that ‘What we’ve had to do on a number of occasions is to hit terrorist targets in the immediate vicinity of hospitals and things like that, where they’ve abused them,’ he failed to address the violations of international law summarised in the last paragraph above.

There’s more.  B’Tselem, now back on line, is also providing detailed testimony from Gaza, including (so far) two ambulance drivers, Rami ‘Abd al-Haj ‘Ali and Ahmad Sabah.  Here is an extract from the first statement (all testimonies are linked to B’Tselem’s interactive map):

B'Tselem map Beit HanounOn Friday afternoon, 25 July 2014, I was working at the medical emergency call center in Beit Hanoun. At around 4:30 P.M., we received a call reporting injured people in al-Masriyin Street in Beit Hanoun. We asked the International Red Cross to coordinate our going there. About 15 minutes after we received the call, we got authorization and an ambulance headed over there with paramedics ‘Aaed al-Bura’i, 25, Hatem Shahin, 38, and driver Jawad Bdeir, 52. The team didn’t make it to the wounded people. Soon after they reached the street, they reported back that a tank had fired at them and they were injured. They asked for another team to come and rescue them.

The call center coordinated the arrival of another team with the International Red Cross and got authorization to go rescue the injured team. I drove the second ambulance, and there were two medics with me – Muhammad Harb, 31, and Yusri al-Masri, 54. The street is only about 200-300 meters from the call center, so we were there within minutes. When we reached the entrance to the street, we were surprised to see three tanks and a military bulldozer in the street, about 100 meters away.

Suddenly, with no warning, they opened heavy machine-gun fire at us. The bullets penetrated the ambulance. I tried to turn the ambulance around to get out of there, but the steering wheel must have been hit. Suddenly, I felt sharp pain in my leg and realized I’d been hit by a bullet or shrapnel. Then the windshield shattered. Because I couldn’t turn the ambulance around, I decided to try reversing. They kept firing as I backed up, until we got far enough away. When they stopped, I managed to turn us around and head back to the center.

On the way there we met Hatem Shahin, one of the paramedics from the first ambulance. He’d been hit by shrapnel in his shoulder and leg. He told us that a shell fired from a tank had hit the front part of the ambulance. He said he’d managed to get away but the other paramedic, ‘Aaed, had been hit. He told us that after he ran away from there, he saw the tank fire another shell at the ambulance, completely destroying it. He thought ‘Aaed must have been killed, but we didn’t know for sure.

The next day, on Saturday, a ceasefire was declared from 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. An ambulance team went to the spot and found ‘Aaed’s body in the burnt ambulance.

To put all of this in context, the BBC has mapped the deaths of 1,890 Palestinians – ‘mostly civilians’, as its accompanying chart shows – killed during the Israeli offensive to 6 August.  As you can see, Palestinians were killed ‘right across Gaza’ – not only in the expanded buffer zone shown on the map, though the carnage in Beit Hanoun and Shejaiya is clearly visible – with high concentrations also produced in the killing grounds of Gaza City and Khan Younis:

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Finally, in case you’re puzzled by the title for this post: Israel’s attack on Gaza is codenamed Tzuk Eitan in Hebrew, meaning ‘Firm Cliff’ or ‘Resolute Cliff’.  According to Yagiv Levy, ‘The operation’s name signals the power, commitment and resilience of the Israeli people.’  But the official English-language version, ‘Protective Edge’, was changed ‘to give it a more defensive connotation’ (really). As Steven Poole explains, ‘the bombing was supposedly “protective”, though not of those bombed’. All of this is of course in line with the designation of the Israeli military as the ‘Israeli Defence Forces’.

I decided I’d prefer to use a version that provides a more accurate rendering of what has happened – in Hebrew, English or Arabic.