Scenes of crimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download those missing pages here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Witnesses

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

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counter Investigations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News from Forensic Architecture

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

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

Conflict Urbanism

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

Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast:

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

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

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

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

The rise of Forensic Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Aleppo

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-10-37-53The Atlantic Council has issued a new report, Breaking Aleppo, which uses satellite imagery, CCTV clips, social media and video from the Russian Ministry of Defence and the RT network to explore the siege of eastern Aleppo and in particular attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure.

It includes an analysis by Forensic Architecture of the bombing of the ‘M2’ hospital in the Maadi district of Aleppo on 16 July 2016.

Here is part of that analysis employing Forensic Architecture’s signature methodology:

One strike [on M2] was reported on July 14; on July 16, another attack was reported, again with CCTV footage showing the moment of the attack from multiple angles. In this incident, photographs and videos from the attack allowed locations in the photographs to be firmly identified, allowing analysts to confirm that the locations featured were indeed M2 Hospital. To begin this process, a photograph taken outside the hospital after the attack, showing debris and damaged vehicles, was geolocated.

forensic-architecture-analysis-of-attack-on-m2-hospital

A video published by the Aleppo Media Center (AMC) showed the aftermath of the attack, with patients being evacuated to another medical center. During the video, a sequence showed one patient being transported through the building into an ambulance waiting outside the building. It was possible to match the balcony visible in the geolocated photograph to a balcony in the background of the exterior shot in the Aleppo Media Center video.

By following the journey of the patient in the AMC video back to its starting point inside the hospital building, it was then possible to match the route to CCTV footage showing the moment of the attack, also posted on YouTube by AMC.

This CCTV footage, from the same cameras that captured the June 24 bombing, clearly shows that the building was damaged on July 16; parts of the video show the explosion throwing debris through the air with civilians, sta , and patients caught in the attack. The images show the moment a civilian is hit by a large piece of material flung through the air by the explosive force of the attack….

Taken together, these images from multiple sources over a period of several months confirm that the M2 hospital was repeatedly struck between June and December 2016.

But this doesn’t do justice to Forensic Architecture’s analysis of the strikes on M2; for that, you can go here and also watch the video here (its privacy settings prevent me from embedding it):

From June to December 2016, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Hospital, also known as M2, has been subject to 14 strikes by pro-government forces. The strikes have been predominantly by air to surface missiles, but also included illegal cluster munitions, barrel bombs, naval mines, and artillery. The hospital sustained significant damage in this 6 month period which has put it out of service numerous times.

Photographs and videos taken in and around the hospital allow us to analyze some of the consequences of the strikes. Each piece of footage captures only a small part of the building, but composing and cross referencing them allows us to reconstruct the architecture of the building as a 3D model and locate the images of the bombings and their damage.The model becomes the medium through which we can navigate between the different images and videos of the incidents.

There are a number of CCTV cameras in the hospital that are continuously on, capturing every strike. We locate each camera and its orientation in the building. We integrate footage from the CCTV cameras, handheld videos, and photographs within virtual space. Locating each video clip in space provides a tangible link between them, verifying their place and constructing their relation to each other.

One essential video which moves from inside-outside becomes a hinge to the geolocation of the hospital. By analyzing what we can see in the video we can demonstrate a common disposition of the built environment in satellite imagery. Due to the spatial link we created, we are able to anchor all footage to this exact location. We therefore establish the location and multiplicity of strikes and as a result raise questions about intent.

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The video embeds a series of video clips and CCTV footage within the model of the hospital.  It concludes with a grim roll call of the strikes on M2 – 14 strikes in six months.  Remember that this was just one hospital attacked repeatedly – and as the map from Breaking Aleppo below shows, it was but one of many hospitals targeted.

The report takes the scale and systematicity of the attacks together with the Assad government’s ‘intimate knowledge of the terrain’ and its regular confiscation of medical supplies from humanitarian aid convoys to opposition-controlled areas across Syria as evidence that hospitals were being deliberately targeted ‘as part of a strategy intended to break the will and infrastructure of the resistance.’

You can find a version of the report with video embeds here.

Here is its key summary:

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Aleppo was hit by 4,045 barrel bombs in 2016, with 225 falling in December alone. A record of attacks compiled by the first responder organization Syrian Civil Defence, known as the ‘White Helmets’, covering the period from September 19, 2016 until the evacuation in mid-December showed 823 distinct reported incidents, ranging from cluster-munition attacks to barrel bombs. By comparing satellite images of the east of the city taken on October 18 with those taken on September 19, HRW was able to identify 950 new distinct impact sites—an average of more than one blast an hour, day and night, for a month.

Over the course of the year, the SNHR recorded 506 civilian fatalities from barrel bomb attacks, including 140 children and 63 women. Separately, the Violations Documentation Center recorded the death by military action of 3,497 civilians in Aleppo from June to mid-December 2016.

This evidence was gathered by multiple, independent witnesses using a variety of sources, from on-the-ground contacts up to satellite photographs. The sources reinforce and corroborate one another. They reveal a collage of thousands of mostly indiscriminate attacks, and their devastating impact on life and death in Aleppo during the siege.

The scale of attacks on Aleppo makes it almost impossible to compile a robust and verified record of every attack on the city. But drawing on a broad range of information, it is possible to see that an extensive aerial campaign was waged in Aleppo, and that a high proportion of the munitions deployed against the city and its population were indiscriminate.

The indiscriminate strikes were not one-sided: armed opposition groups also engaged in rocket attacks on civilians in western, government-held Aleppo. Casualty numbers are more difficult to find, but the SNHR reported sixty-four civilian deaths during the period from April 20 to April 29, 2016, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded seventy-four civilian deaths during the opposition offensive to break the siege of Aleppo in late October 2016. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks is equally disturbing, and subject to analysis and judgement under the same international laws as any other attack on civilians in the conflict. However, there is little equivalence between the two sides when considering the scale and resources employed in the conflict.

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The report insists that

Aleppo was not broken in the darkness. Numerous witnesses provided evidence, some of it conflicting but much of it consistent, to substantiate claims of chemical attacks, barrel bombs, air strikes on hospitals and schools, and the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Its authors summarise an extraordinary campaign of disinformation that has three prongs: ‘denying the deeds’; ‘militarizing the victims’; and ‘attacking the witnesses’. I was astonished at the extent – and the mendacity – of this ‘campaign against the evidence’, as Breaking Aleppo calls it, when I first encountered it while analysing attacks on hospitals and medical workers in Syria.  It was (is) by no means confined to the alt.right and the devotees of Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ but reaches across to the far left, including an uncomfortable number of academics who have been willing to forego any critical understanding in order to absolve Russia and Syria of any and all culpability.

You can find my own arguments in previous posts here and here.

Human Rights Watch has also just issued a report on co-ordinated chemical attacks – illegal under international law – conducted by Syrian government forces as they advanced into eastern Aleppo between 17 November and 13 December 2016.