Cities under siege (II)

In this second post on Cities under siege I provide a back-story to the re-intensification of military and paramilitary violence against civilians in Syria I described here.  But it’s also a back-story to the stunning image above, ‘Deluge’ by Imranovi: people were evacuated to what eventually became nominally ‘de-escalation zones’ from besieged cities like Aleppo, but many more continued to flee Syria altogether – like Imranovi himself (more on Imranovi here and here).  It’s worth pausing over his artwork: every time we see video of those perilous boats crammed with desperate refugees we ought to reflect on the oceans of bloody rubble strewn across their land and the millions of other displaced people in their wake.

There is a close connection between internal displacement and cities under siege.  Here is the UN’s estimate of the displaced population in December 2016:

They are concentrated in towns and cities.  Many people have managed to escape areas under siege, risking their lives to do so, but many others have sought refuge in towns and cities that have themselves come under siege.  Here, for example, is Siege Watch‘s description of Eastern Ghouta in mid-2016:

The capture of besieged towns on the south and eastern sides of Eastern Ghouta had a negative impact on conditions throughout the entire besieged region. IDPs from the frontline areas fled into host communities that have also been subjected to the same long-term siege and lack the infrastructure and resources to support the newly displaced families. There is now a higher concentration of people living in temporary shelters or sleeping on the streets.

The UN defines a besieged area as ‘an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit the area.’  

But the definition  and its application turn out to be as problematic as perhaps you would expect.  Here is Annie Sparrow:

Estimates of the number of Syrians currently living under siege vary widely, according to who is doing the reporting. For example, last December [2015], the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Damascus communicated back to the UN secretary-general’s office that 393,700 civilians were besieged. For the same period, Siege Watch estimated that the real figure was more than one million…

From its base at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, OCHA decided that an area is merely “hard to reach” rather than besieged if it has received an aid convoy in the last three months, regardless of whether the supplies are sufficient for one month, let alone three.

One doesn’t need to travel far from Damascus to see how little a distinction there often is between a “hard to reach” and a “besieged” area.

I’ll return to that last, vital point, but here are two of those OCHA maps.  The first shows the situation in January 2016 and the second in April 2017:

Even those attenuated maps are alarming enough, but the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) also believes that the OCHA reports systematically under-report the magnitude of the crisis, and in Slow Death: Life and Dearth in Syrian communities under siege (March 2015) they provided a more sensitive three-tier classification.

These are, of course, heterogeneous communities – none of the reports I have cited (nor those I will draw on later) conceals the presence of armed groups of various stripes within them, often jostling for control – but siege warfare renders them as homogeneous.  The presence of civilians, for the most part desperately struggling to survive in the midst of chaos and conflict, is erased; this begins as a discursive strategy but rapidly becomes a visceral reality.  In short, siege warfare becomes a version of enemy-centric counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the Syrian government less invested in ‘performing the state’ through the provision of services than in denying services to the entire population in these areas.  By these means the Assad regime has pursued a strategy that mimics the Islamic State’s determination to ‘extinguish the grey zone‘:

Like Annie, I have been impressed by the work of Siege Watch and so I’ll start with their regular reports that have provided a series of powerful insights into the effects of sieges on everyday life.  In their first report they identified characteristics shared by all communities besieged by the Syrian government.  When that report was compiled almost 50 communities were besieged; only two of them were under siege by forces other than the Syrian government and a third was besieged on one side by the Syrian government and on the other by Islamic State.

There are three characteristics that I want to emphasise:

Deprivation:

  • ‘Civilians in the besieged areas struggle to survive. Electricity and running water are usually cut off, and there is limited (if any) access to food, fuel, and medical care. In many of these areas, civilians have died from malnutrition due to the severity with which the blockades are enforced. In all of these areas, civilians with diseases, chronic conditions, and injuries have died as a result of the lack of access to medical care. Other recorded causes of siege-related deaths include hypothermia due to the lack of heating oil in the winter, and poisoning after eating something toxic while scavenging for food. Poor sanitation conditions in the besieged areas have resulted in frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases.’

Extortion and economic development:

  • ‘The pre-war economies in all of the government-besieged areas have collapsed. They have been replaced with siege economies that depend on smuggling, bribery, and local production; and because they are nearly-closed economic systems they experience extreme price volatility. Unemployment levels in besieged areas are high, reaching 100% in some of the worst Tier 1 communities such as Jobar. The Syrian government profits off of the sieges by allowing a few pro-government traders to sell goods – sometimes expired – through the checkpoints at tremendously inflated prices and taking a cut of the profits. Sometimes civilians can pay extremely high bribes to government forces or smugglers to escape the besieged areas, although both methods entail tremendous personal risk. These extortive practices have drained the areas under long-term siege of their financial resources.’

An improvised fuel stand in besieged Eastern Ghouta, February 2017

Violence:

  • ‘Most of these besieged areas are targeted with violent attacks by the Syrian armed forces and its allies. In addition to sniping and the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, there have also been confirmed uses of internationally banned weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons….  Most of the communities also contain AOGs [Armed Opposition Groups] which defend the the areas against incursion by pro-government forces, launch offensive attacks against the Syrian military and its allies, and coordinate with the Local Councils to varying degrees. Many Siege Watch survey respondents noted that AOGs were present only around the periphery of their communities, and a few respondents from towns in the interior of the Eastern Ghouta said that AOGs were not active in their areas at all.… [In addition] both Syrian government forces and extremists compete to recruit recruit men and boys from besieged communities using threats, blackmail, fear, propaganda, and indoctrination.’  

Siege Watch notes how, in consequence, ordinary people have ‘adjusted’ to these new, bleak realities: ‘Creative survival tactics such as rooftop gardening [below: eastern Aleppo], burning plastic to extract oil derivatives, and the local production of some basic medical supplies have become more common over time, and people have begun to acclimatise to a more primitive lifestyle’ [see also here].

That sentence gestures towards a sharper point made by José Ciro Martinez and Brent Eng (‘Struggling to perform the state: the politics of bread in the Syrian civil war’, International political sociology 11 (2) (2017) 130-47):

‘Most accounts [of the war in Syria] choose to privilege bellicose affairs over the humdrum concerns of daily life, which are deemed humanitarian issues separate from the violent battles and geopolitical struggles said to comprise the “actual” politics of war. This portrayal of conflict is illusory: it disregards the majority of interactions that shape both life and politics in contemporary war zones, where “most people most of the time are interacting in non-violent ways” (Tilly 2003, 12). One result of prevalent depictions of civil war is that civilians are frequently rendered powerless. If they do appear, it is as pawns in a conflict fought by armed groups autonomous from the societies they struggle to control.’

That’s an important qualification, but it plainly doesn’t erase the struggles of civilians either – which makes ‘acclimatisation’ a remarkably weak term to describe the multiple, extraordinary ways in which civilians have been forced to adjust to a new, terrifyingly abnormal ‘normal’ in order to survive.  Here, for example, is a doctor in Homs describing ‘Siege Medicine’ [more here]:The Center for Civilians in Conflict has also provided a report on civilian survival strategies that lists a series of other extraordinary, collective measures (and the title, Waiting for No One, says it all).  These strategies include the provision of makeshift early warning systems against incoming air attacks (spotter networks, radios and sirens); the provision and protection of medical infrastructure (in part through improvised field hospitals and the construction of underground hospitals); and the development of local aid and rescue teams (including the Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets); protection from unexploded ordnance (‘the armed groups typically harvest them for their own makeshift weapons’ but the White Helmets and other groups have sought to render them harmless).

But Siege Watch – and José and Brent – have in mind something more: something in addition to strategies that are necessarily but none the less intimately related to direct, explosive and often catastrophic violence.  They also want to emphasise the ways in which otherwise ordinary, everyday activities have been compromised and ultimately transformed by siege warfare.

Here I focus on food (in)security.  Here is Annia Ciezadlo reporting from Yarmouk in Damascus:

In a dark kitchen, by the flickering light of a single safety candle, two men bundled in hats and jackets against the cold put on an impromptu video satire: live from Yarmouk, at the southernmost edge of Damascus, a cooking show for people under siege.

“This is the new dish in the camp of Yarmouk. It hasn’t even hit the market yet,” said the man on the right, 40-year-old Firas Naji, the blunt and humorous host.

He picked up a foot-long paddle of sobara, Arabic for prickly pear cactus. Holding it carefully by one end to avoid thorns, he displayed first one side and then the other for the camera.

“In the U.S., they get Kentucky [Fried Chicken], hot dogs. In Italy, spaghetti and pizza,” he said, his raspy voice caressing the names of unattainable foods. “Here in Yarmouk, we get sobara.

“It’s not enough we have checkpoints in the streets and shelling,” he added, laying the cactus back on the counter with a sad laugh. “Even our cooking has thorns.”

 

Yarmouk was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for Palestinians but gradually it had absorbed more and more Syrians displaced by drought, famine and eventually fighting.  As the war intensified, so the siege tightened:

The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo…. On July 21, 2013, the regime closed the main checkpoint into Yarmouk for good. The siege was total: Nobody could leave, and nothing could enter except what the soldiers permitted.

Over the next six months, the price of everything went up. A single radish reached $1.50 at one point; a kilo of rice was $100.

And so the inhabitants turned to gardening:

Between buildings, in abandoned lots and on rooftops, the siege gardeners of Yarmouk have been cultivating everything from eggplants to mulukhiyeh, a jute plant whose glossy leaves make a rich green stew. Come harvest time, they bag the produce into 1-kilo portions, hang the bags on the handlebars of beat-up bicycles and pedal around the camp distributing the food to their neighbors. They focus on those most in danger of starving: children, poor people and the elderly.

But the situation was much bleaker than the picture conjured up by that paragraph; the siege waxed and waned, and UNRWA was occasionally granted permission to deliver emergency relief, but the image below – of residents queuing for food supplies – shows how desperate the situation became.

Here is a woman in September 2014 describing the horrors of the siege to Jonathan Steele:

There was no anger or hysteria in her voice, just a calm recollection of facts. “You couldn’t buy bread. At the worst point a kilo of rice cost 12,000 Syrian pounds (£41), now it is 800 pounds (£2.75) compared to 100 Syrian pounds (34p) in central Damascus. It was 900 pounds (£3.10) for a kilo of tomatoes, compared to 100 here,” Reem recalled. “We had some stocks but when they gave out we used to eat wild plants. We picked and cooked them. In every family there was hepatitis because of a lack of sugar. The water was dirty. People had fevers. Your joints and bones felt stiff. My middle daughter had brucellosis and there was no medication,” she said. In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.

Control of Yarmouk see-sawed between the Syrian Arab Army, Al-Nusrah and Islamic State, with thousands of civilians trapped behind the siege lines so that time and time again the community was thrown back on its own, desperately strained resources to survive.

Here is how Mamoon Yalabasi described a second satirical video from Yarmouk, made shortly after IS over-ran the camp, in April 2015:

“We are in the Yarmouk camp, the camp of plentifulness…  Take a look at the floor,” said the man as the camera shows water in the street. “This is not water. This is an excess of cooking [flooding the streets].”

The youth then moved on to mockingly give his viewers advice on how to lose weight.

“Would you like to lose weight? Green tea won’t work, nor will ginger … just come to Yarmouk camp for five months, in each month you’ll lose 9kg,” he said, adding the Arabic proverb: “Ask someone with experience instead of asking a doctor.”  …  “We ask the troublesome channels that claim Yarmouk camp is under siege to stop reporting that. It is ‘absolutely’ [said in English] not true,” one said.  “It’s true that my grandmother died of hunger but not because the camp was under siege but because my grandfather was so stingy – he never allowed her near the fridge,” he added.

Perhaps you think all this extreme, even exceptional, comforted by those images of rooftop gardens, and believe that those who bravely tended them could somehow perform their own green revolution.  So here are Zeinat Akhras and her brother describing how they survived during the siege of Homs:

The examples can be multiplied many times over, but in a way this last testimony is exceptional – amongst those on which I’m drawing, at any rate – because it only became available once the siege had been lifted.  Those videos from Yarmouk point towards something different: the possibility of breaching siege lines through digital media.

So let me turn to Madaya, a town in the Qalamoun Mountains 45 km north-west of Damascus and once famous for its fruits and vegetables.  It came under siege from the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah militias in July 2015: the town was encircled by 65 sniper-controlled checkpoints (below) and its surrounding countryside sown with thousands of landmines.

In January 2016 the UN still classified Madaya as a ‘hard-to-reach area’, so listen to one local resident describing conditions to Amnesty International that same month:

Every day I wake up and start searching for food. I lost a lot of weight, I look like a skeleton covered only in skin. Every day, I feel that I will faint and not wake up again… I have a wife and three children. We eat once every two days to make sure that whatever we buy doesn’t run out. On other days, we have water and salt and sometimes the leaves from trees. Sometimes organizations distribute food they have bought from suppliers, but they cannot cover the needs of all the people.

In Madaya, you see walking skeletons. The children are always crying. We have many people with chronic diseases. Some told me that they go every day to the checkpoints, asking to leave, but the government won’t allow them out. We have only one field hospital, just one room, but they don’t have any medical equipment or supplies.

I’ve described that field hospital before, but Mohammad‘s testimony reminds us that war produces not only catastrophic injuries; it also produces and intensifies chronic illnesses that a protracted siege eventually renders untreatable.  (The Syrian American Medical Society issued a report, Madaya: Starvation under Siege, which you can read here).

Two days later there were reports of a different digital satire: one that denied the existence of a siege in Madaya and mocked its victims.

A hashtag has swept Facebook and Twitter,  #متضامن_مع_حصار_مضايا , which translates to “in solidarity with the siege on Madaya”, where individuals have posted pictures of food or skeletons, mocking those in Madaya. While many believe that the siege is a myth, some appear to be genuinely mocking the suffering of innocent people…’

The posts were subsequently removed, but here is one I captured:

Fortunately a different digital economy was already at work.  Rym Momtaz, a producer with ABC News, had started a text exchange with a young mother of five children in Madaya:

We communicate through secure messaging apps over the phones, over the internet really. So the way we went about finding her was to go through a wide network of sources that we’ve cultivated over the years of covering the war in Syria. We had to work for a few weeks, I have to say, to identify the right person and then to get in touch with her and to gain her trust in order for her to feel comfortable enough to engage in this conversation with us because she felt and her family felt that it might put her in danger.

‘‘She would text me from the moment she woke up, which was very, very, early, like 5 a.m.,’ Rym explained, ‘and then she would text me truly throughout the day.’  And that same month – January 2016 – ABC started publishing those precious despatches from Madaya.  ‘They can’t get out of Madaya – and we can’t get in,’ ABC News’ Foreign Editor emphasised, but ‘they can tell their story to the world.’

Working with Marvel Comics, ABC transformed her story into a free digital comic: Madaya Mom.

For Dalibor Talajic, the Marvel Comics illustrator who worked on the project,

The most striking parts is for me the most intimate ones as she – for instance, she decides to even though they are – they’re all starving, she decides to stop eating herself because this little amounts of supplies and food that she has, she distributes it to her children and of course husband. And she herself just stopped eating. And it’s not like a dramatic decision. It’s, like, a logical thing to do. These are the moments that stick with me most.

And it is through the assault on the intimacies of everyday life – on something as vital as feeding one’s family – that siege warfare is at its most vicious.

In case you are wondering how the family managed to charge their phones, not at all incidentally, here is the answer:

After protracted negotiations aid convoys were allowed in from time to time, but the situation remained grave.  An aid worker who accompanied a UNICEF convoy into Madaya in September 2016 described the stories told by patients who flocked to a makeshift medical clinic:

Parents whose children had stopped eating because their bodies could no longer tolerate only rice and beans. Children who could no longer walk straight because of the lack of Vitamin D and micronutrients that had riddled their bones with rickets, or who had stopped growing entirely, stunted from lack of essential vitamins. One mother showed us her baby’s bottle filled with rice water – the teat so worn it had to be sewn back to together. “Look at what I am feeding my child” she said.

Almost everyone we spoke to asked for protein – meat, eggs, milk, vegetables – something more to sustain themselves than the dry goods that were available. One mother explained that every time her child now smells boiled burgal, she starts to cry.

The doctor reported an increase in miscarriages, 10 cases in the last 6 months, because of the nutritional status of mothers. Over the last year alone, he has had to perform over 60 caesarian sections. This number was unheard of before the crisis, she told us  But women no longer have the strength for childbirth, and many pregnancies go over term, again because of the poor health of pregnant women.

Six months later life in Madaya remained precarious in the extreme:

Throughout the siege there were accusations of profiteering, but these ran in both directions (it is partly through them that Hezbollah elected to acknowledge the suffering of the city – only to point the fingers of blame at the rebels inside).  According to Avi Asher-Schapiro for VICE News, who spoke to the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Abdulrahman, via Skype in January 2016:

Hezbollah media outlets are accusing Abudlrahman and his men of confiscating food in Madaya, holding the population hostage, and profiteering during the crisis. In early January, a video surfaced of a woman from Madaya condemning rebels for hoarding food among themselves. The rebels are “only traders in people’s blood,” she told a scrum of reporters who gathered at the barricades outside Madaya. “They only care about securing food supplies for their families.”

That video [above] was aired around the world by Reuters and Al Jazeera. The accusations enraged Abdulrahman. “When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry,” he says. “These are vicious lies.” VICE News spoke with another woman who claimed to be at the barricades that day. Although it was impossible to verify her claims, she said that Hezbollah fighters — who can be seen in the video frame — told women to condemn the rebels and praise Assad in exchange for food and safe passage from the town.

In a press release from early January, Hezbollah also accused Abdulrahman of profiteering. “Armed groups in Madaya control food supplies within the town and sell to whoever can afford it,” the statement read, “Thus, starvation is widespread among poor civilians.” VICE News spoke to a Hezbollah commander stationed outside Madaya who repeated these claims, and said that Hezbollah has been sending food inside the town. The rebels, he said, are keeping it for themselves. He also strongly denied that Hezbollah was trading food for propaganda.

VICE News also spoke with aid workers at the Doctors Without Borders-affiliated field hospital in Madaya, who reported no interference from Abdulrahman’s men in the dispensation of aid.

For further, still more shocking twists on the story, see here and a response here.  It’s difficult to adjudicate these competing claims in the face of skilfully organised propaganda campaigns (in which the alt.left is often as grotesque as the alt.right), but wherever the truth lies, it is clear that food has been consistently transformed into a weapon of war (‘surrender or starve‘) – a crime expressly forbidden by international humanitarian law (see also here) – and that 40,000 civilians inside Madaya were trapped in the midst of the battle.

In my previous post on this subject, I described all this as the back-story to the carnage now taking place in Idlib, in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere, but it is of course only one back-story: there are many more.  Still, on 14 April 2017 under the ‘Four Towns Agreement’ a fleet of sixty buses transported several thousand people, rebels and civilians, from Madaya – to Idlib.

Only 2,200 out of 40,000 people signed up to go, and ‘Madaya Mom’ expressed the catch-22 facing the besieged population perfectly:

If we leave, we’re labeled terrorists and we go to Idlib where the chemical attack happened last week; and if we stay we don’t know how the government will treat us.

At first, those who left were relieved and even heartened.  Deutsche Welle spoke with one young evacuee from Madaya soon after he arrived in Idlib:

I was surprised. I saw markets [below, June 2017], people walking in the streets; there is electricity, internet, ice cream and food – things we did not have in Madaya. Madaya and Zabadani are destroyed. In Idlib, the destruction is not too bad. There are a lot of cars and I was really surprised to see cars. I felt like the little children that came from Madaya to Idlib: they were surprised when they saw a banana, a cherry, biscuits or chocolate. They have never seen that before. It sounds stupid, but I felt a little bit the same when I saw cars again.

I can eat everything. The first thing I ate was fried chicken and it was great. And I have had a lot of chocolate, too.

But as the interview progressed, his elation was punctured by a growing realisation of the  bleak future ahead:

But in general, Idlib is a poor city… I started to search for jobs, but there are almost no jobs here. Idlib is like a big prison. It’s like Gaza. It’s like Madaya, but a big Madaya. So we are imprisoned here.

We know what horrors lay in wait, and we know something of what is happening in Idlib now.  But what of Madaya?  Here are extracts from a report (‘community profile’) for September 2017 (you can find more from SIRF/REACH here):

  • Movement was unrestricted within Madaya. For movement in and out of the area, two access points have been used since the implementation of the Four Towns Agreement. In September, 26-50% of the population were reportedly able to use formal access points providing they showed identi cation. However, men reportedly did not feel safe using the access points, fearing conscription and detention when crossing, while both men and women reported verbal harassment.
  • Since May 2017, commercial vehicle access has been permitted to the area. However, access restrictions on vehicle entry continued to be reported in September and included documentation requirements, confiscation of loads, required fees and limited entry depending on the day or time.
  • Humanitarian vehicle entry has reportedly not been permitted for the past six months.
  • The cost of a standard food basket in Madaya has remained stable since May 2017, with the average cost around 12% more expensive than nearby communities not classi ed as besieged or hard-to-reach.
  • Water continued to be insufficient and some residents reportedly reallocated money intended for other things to purchase water. Meanwhile, access to generators remained stable at 4-8 hours a day in all areas of the community.

I’m conscious of how much I haven’t been able to address in this post.  In particular, I’ve chosen to focus on the ‘silent violence’ of hunger and malnutrition rather than the explosive violence of mortars, missiles and bombs.  The two coincide in all sorts of ways – think, for example, of the air strikes on bakeries, what Anna Ciezadlo called ‘the war on bread‘, and on hospitals and clinics – but the contrast is really my point.  As one resident of Aleppo told Amnesty,

You need months before you die of starvation. The air strike attacks were a different story. You could die from a piece of shrapnel in a fraction of a second. Nobody was protected from the air strikes and shelling. Civilians, rebels, buildings, cars, bridges, trees, gardens etc. were all a target.

And so one final digital satire.  In April 2016 the Syrian government held elections and claimed that even opposition-held areas were enthusiastically participating.  Responding to what they called ‘the theatrics of the Assad regime’, teenagers in Madaya posted a video of their own mock hustings:The rival candidates were “Deadly Starvation”, “Deadly Illness”, and “Airstrikes”.

Cities under siege (I)

This is the first of a two-part post, in which I return (at last!) to a promissory note I issued last year about siege warfare in Syria.  My return is prompted by a series of reports about the catastrophic situation in Eastern Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus) and Idlib.

First, Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies since April 2013.  Most of Eastern Ghoutta was designated as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ (see map above) under an agreement reached in May 2017, in which aerial violence and all other hostilities would be suspended for six months and humanitarian aid would be allowed across the siege lines.

But the agreement turned out to be primarily a way of killing time.  Aron Lund writes:

In September, just as the Eastern Ghouta’s de-escalation zone was finalized, the situation abruptly worsened. After ordering a halt to the already heavily restricted commercial traffic through the Wafideen crossing [see map below: more here and here], the Syrian government refused to permit any more UN aid missions.

It was a transparent attempt to stoke the humanitarian emergency in Eastern Ghouta, but this time the effect was more severe than during previous rounds of food cuts. With the rebel trading tunnels out of commission for half a year, smuggling could no longer compensate for the shortfall or bring in medicine or basic necessities like fuel, which has not entered the Ghouta since February.

Food stockpiles dwindled quickly and triggered a scramble for whatever remained available on the market, the panicky mood inflamed by suspicions that rebel-connected businessmen were hoarding goods for speculation purposes. From August to October, the already high prices inside Eastern Ghouta increased fivefold, far beyond any other region of Syria.

Air strikes (above) and artillery bombardment resumed in November and have continued, and urgent medical evacuations were denied.  Here is UN Senior Adviser Jan Egelan in December 2017:

Six months ago a very detailed evacuation plan was delivered to the government for needy cases of evacuation, on medical grounds from eastern Ghouta.  Since then, names have been added regularly and it is now, we now have a revised list of 494 names. There are among them 282 cases that need] specialized surgery, specialized treatment, specialized investigations that [they] cannot get inside. There are 73 severe cancer cases, 25 kidney failure cases and 97 heart disease cases [that are] very concerning, five acutely malnourished children that need to be evacuated, six acute mental health cases etc.

The list had to be revised because 12 patients had died while waiting for ‘a half an hour drive to hospitals in Damascus and elsewhere that stand ready to help and save lives.’  Egelan explained that ‘231 of the cases are female, 137 are children, 61 are over 65 years old.  So these are civilians, in the midst of this horrific war.’

He added:  ‘Civilians, children, no one can be a bargaining chip in some kind of tug of war, where many things are negotiated at the same time. These have a right to be evacuated and we have an obligation to evacuate them.’

Siege warfare involves not only closure of movement across the lines for those inside; it also involves opening the zone to violence from the outside.  The assault on Eastern Ghouta has provided ample evidence, but the second case is even more instructive.

And so, second, what was supposed to be the ‘de-escalation’ zone of Idlib has been converted into a ‘kill box’ (for a discussion of the term in relation to remote warfare, see here and here).  Here is Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen writing in the Guardian:

Russian and Syrian jets bombed towns and villages across north-west Syria on Monday, devastating civilian areas and forcing fresh waves of refugees to flee to open ground in the biggest aerial blitz on opposition-held areas since the fall of Aleppo more than a year ago.  Monitoring groups said as many as 150 airstrikes were recorded in Idlib province by Monday, with dozens more pounding up to 18 towns across the region by nightfall.  Residential areas bore the brunt of the strikes, which severely damaged at least two major hospitals, and levelled dozens of buildings in which panicked locals had taken shelter.

Refugees and locals say they fear that Idlib has been transformed into a kill box, with the international community paying scant regard to their fate, as regional powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran all vie for influence in a vital corner of the country.

These strikes were in retaliation for the downing of a Russian aircraft – in this spectacularly asymmetric war, only air-to-ground attacks are acceptable – but aerial violence against civilian infrastructure in Idlib precedes that incident.  Owdai (al Hisan) hospital in Saraqab City was hit by air strikes on 21 and 29 January, for example, and has now closed indefinitely  MSF reports that the loss of the hospital is all the more devastating because ‘medical needs in the area are expected to increase due to the massive displacement of Syrians fleeing fresh violence in Idlib’s eastern countryside and northeast Hama.’

Since then, the strikes intensified:

“The Russians are on a frenzy. They’re going mad. The shelling is ongoing throughout the day and night. The warplanes are hitting residential areas,” Hadi Abdullah, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera by phone from the town of Kafr Nabl in the northwestern Syrian province bordering Turkey…

The main hospital in Maaret al-Numan [above: this was the largest hospital in Idlib], east of Kafr Nabl, has stopped working after it was hit by air strikes, according to the civil defence – also known as the White Helmets.  “About 10 air raids hit the hospital. It was a disaster,” said Hadi, who had rushed to the scene.”The most difficult and heartbreaking scene was when the volunteers were quickly pulling the babies out of the hospital. I can’t get the image out of my head,” he recalled with a trembling voice.

‘De-escalation’ has become a prelude to its inverse.  “There is a misperception that the de-escalation areas have resulted in peace and stability,’ UN assistant secretary-general Panos Moumtsiz said today. “If anything, these have been serious escalation areas.”

With all these horrors in mind, in my second post I’ll turn to the back-story.  You can find other dimensions to the critique of siege warfare in Susan Power, ‘Siege warfare in Syria: prosecuting the starvation of civilians’, Amsterdam Law Forum 8: 2 (2016) 1-22 here or Will Todman, ‘Isolating dissent, punishing the masses: siege warfare as counterinsurgency’, Syria Studies 9 (1) (2017) 1-32.

There’s also a series of important quarterly reports from Siege Watch; these started in February 2016, and the most recent covers August-September 2017 and includes a detailed analysis of both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

I plan to approach the issue through one of my favourite books, Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege.  Steve’s object was what he called ‘the new military urbanism’ but the situation in Syria – and elsewhere: think Mosul in Iraq (see, for example, here: scroll down) or Israel’s endless sieges of Gaza (see, for example, here) – demonstrate the extraordinary capacity of later modern war to combine cutting-edge technology (never has that adjective been more dismally appropriate) with medieval cruelty.  There is another difference; for all Steve’s analytical passion – and empathy – the voices of those inside the cities under siege are largely silent, yet in Syria (again: and elsewhere) digital media allow us to listen to them and to witness their suffering.  More soon.

New depths

I’m still working on the (very) long-form version of ‘The Death of the Clinic’; in a previous post I described the attacks on hospitals in Syria and, in particular, the the construction – and destruction – of the underground Cave Hospital in Hama, Syria (see also my update on ‘Bombs, bunkers and borders’ here).  You can find videos and photographs from Jake Godin here.  The hospital has provided trauma surgery and paediatric care, treatment for major illnesses, and emergency treatment for victims of gas attacks (below):

Th hospital opened in late 2015; it suffered series of devastating air strikes in October 2016 (see here).

I have just received this bleak news:

A few hours ago, at 12:15 pm Damascus time [on 1 February], the Al Maghara (Dr. Hassan Al Araj) Cave Hospital in Kafr Zita, Hama was hit by five missiles from an airstrike. The hospital, built under 60 feet of rock, suffered extensive damage.

The pharmacy was destroyed and there was extensive damage to the emergency department, which UOSSM supports, and ambulances. There were minor injuries and no casualties reported. The facility was put out of service. The hospital serves a population of 50,000 people, has 7,000 beneficiaries a month and performs roughly 150 major surgeries a month.

The hospital was previously hit by three airstrikes in 2018; on January 30, January 5, January 2. The hospital was built under 60 ft. of rock to protect it from airstrikes and is considered one of the most structurally fortified hospitals in all of Syria. Damaging the structure to this extent is only possible through advanced weapons/ bunker buster missiles.

Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…

Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Climate change and the war in the Syria

For those of you interested in the debate over global climate change and the war in Syria, there is an important exchange published online in Political Geography 60 (2017).  It starts with an essay by Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Christiane Frölich and Mike Hulme, ‘Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited‘:

For proponents of the view that anthropogenic climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a recurring reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that such conflict effects are already with us. According to this view, human-induced climatic change was a contributory factor in the extreme drought experienced within Syria prior to its civil war; this drought in turn led to large-scale migration; and this migration in turn exacerbated the socio-economic stresses that underpinned Syria’s descent into war. This article provides a systematic interrogation of these claims, and finds little merit to them. Amongst other things it shows that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria’s pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset. The Syria case, the article finds, does not support ‘threat multiplier’ views of the impacts of climate change; to the contrary, we conclude, policymakers, commentators and scholars alike should exercise far greater caution when drawing such linkages or when securitising climate change.

Several of those whose work is criticised in the essay respond: Colin Kelley, Shahrzad, Mark Cane, Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir (their original contribution ‘claim[s] climate as one of many contributing factors to the unrest’ and ‘nothing [in the critique] refutes this, and none of their supportable arguments even offer reason for doubting this view’), and Peter Gleick (‘While the authors note in a few places that the research studies they critique do not typically claim that climate change “caused” the Syrian unrest, they themselves regularly repeat that very argument as a strawman that they then try to debunk’).

There’s also a blue-helmet response from Cullen Hendrix:

I fear getting the Syrian case “right” – or at least correcting a flawed dominant narrative – will negatively affect discussions of environmental impacts on conflict in the policy sphere. Many will read this article as “all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong,” when in fact the evidence supports a much more limited conclusion: the impact of climatic factors on the Syrian civil war is not entirely clear. But the dramatic nature of the Syrian civil war and the vocal nature of those linking it to climate change have caused this case to exert inordinate influence on how influential non-specialists and the general public view the relationship between climate change and conflict.

There’s also a robust rejoinder from the original authors:

Firstly, we wish to emphasise that nothing in our analysis or our other writings questions the fact of anthropogenic climate change (though this really should go without saying) [Sadly it doesn’t: see here]. Second, we wish to note that, though some may read our article as evidence that ‘all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong’, as Hendrix fears, this is not our view. Most academic studies of climate-conflict linkages are much more careful in their use of evidence, and on issues of causation, than the studies interrogated here. Moreover, though there is room for debate on where, when and howclimate change will affect conflict, we do not doubt that it will do so. Given the scale and the range of challenges posed by global climate change, it would frankly be incredible if it did not have some significant conflict implications.

And yet there is a long, sad history of people making overblown claims about climate change and conflict, the Syria example – and Al Gore’s recent extension of it to explain the UK’s vote to exit the European Union – being clear cases in point. Climate conflict discourse has historically been much more policy- and media-than research-led, and indeed policymakers and journalists often show scant regard for academic nuance on these issues (see e.g. Selby & Hoffmann, 2014). In the Syria case, this problem has been accentuated by the readiness of certain natural scientists, most prominently the authors of Kelley et al. (2015), to feed this un-nuanced policy and public discourse while using evidence casually and failing to engage with relevant social scientific research. To this extent the main implication of our analysis is simple: that far greater care is required, since without such care there really is a risk of climate conflict talk fuelling climate scepticism.

My sound-bites don’t do justice to the debate, nor to its importance.

There’s also a commentary from the Center for Climate & Security (‘a non-partisan policy institute’ whose Advisory Board is stacked with Admirals and Generals: even if the Trump administration dismisses global climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese, the Pentagon certainly doesn’t) here.

More on CCS from the Washington Post here.  The CCS was cited approvingly in a comic, “Syria’s Climate Conflict” (2014), produced by Years of Living Dangerously and Symbolia Magazine; you can access it via Mother Jones here.

If, like me, you wonder about the methodologies on which these arguments and counter-arguments rest, I recommend Thomas Ide, ‘Research methods for exploring the links between climate change and conflict‘, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 8 (3) (2017) to jump-start the debate.

Other Dunkirks

The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk.  ‘A tour de force’, wrote Manhola Dargis in an extended review for the New York Times:

“Dunkirk” is a World War II movie, one told through soldiers, their lived and near-death experiences and their bodies under siege. Names are generally irrelevant here; on the beach — and in the sea and air — what counts are rank, unit, skill and the operation, although more important is survival, making it through another attack and somehow avoiding exploding bombs. Mr. Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid; even in some opening explanatory text, the enemy isn’t identified as Nazi Germany. The soldiers, of course, know exactly who they are fighting and perhaps even why, but in the field the enemy is finally the unnamed stranger trying to kill them…

Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers — and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized — blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. “Dunkirk” is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Mr. Nolan closes that distance cinematically with visual sweep and emotional intimacy, with images of warfare and huddled, frightened survivors that together with Hans Zimmer’s score reverberate through your body.

In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw also made much of the film’s visceral quality, rendered aurally as much as visually (and we surely know that the sound of war is crucial to its horror):

It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.

In the Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, Robbie Collin lauds the ‘Britishness’ of the film and also (significantly) its presentness.  He writes about this as an aesthetic –

there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket

– but, as readers of the Telegraph will surely have realised, this is also a matter of politics.  In one of the most perceptive essays I’ve read on the film, Anthony King describes this sensibility as an ‘arrogant insularity’ (he intends it as a criticism, of course, but Telegraph readers probably differ).  For him, Nolan seeks to ‘revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century’:

The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.

In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.

(This is precisely why what Anthony calls the ‘radiant harmonies’ of Elgar’s Nimrod dissolve the dissonance noted by Peter Bradshaw to preside over – to celebrate in something like the religious sense – the climax of the film).

What is lost, in consequence, is both context and also composition.  The first is intentional, and Nolan makes a good case for wanting to convey the sense in which soldiers experience war in shards, torn from any larger context.  ‘That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film,’ he says, ‘and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’  As the historical adviser to the film, Joshua Levine (an historian whose work I’ve long admired) tells it:

[M]aking the threat faceless frees the event from its geopolitical ramifications –it becomes a timeless story of human survival. [Nolan] didn’t want to take a classic war film approach because in so many ways, the story of Dunkirk is not the story of a conventional battle. ‘It was death appearing from the sky,’ he says. ‘U-boats under the Channel that you can’t see. The enemy flying over and rising up through the waves to pick people off, to sink ships.’ The soldiers cannot understand their own predicament, and the audience experiences the same horror. This is why the action never leaves the beach. ‘If you’re continually showing the Germans as Germans and generals in rooms talking about strategy, you are lifting the veil.’ The audience would then be more informed than the soldiers. ‘Standing on a beach, trying to interpret what’s going on, “How do I get out of here? Should I stand in these lines? Should I go into the water?” That’s the experiential reality I want the audience to share.

But the second is, I think, unintentional.  I’ve written elsewhere about the myths of the First World War that continue to stalk the British political imaginary – see ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here – and several commentators have made the same point about Dunkirk.  Here is Sunny Singh in the Guardian:

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.

To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.

But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.

And here is Yasmin Khan in the New York Times:

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain….

The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

 Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did…
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit.
Ironically, in Joshua Levine‘s Forgotten voices of Dunkirk those other voices are absent – forgotten – too.
There are several other commentaries that sharpen similar points – see, for example, Yasmin Khan again here [and more generally her The Raj at War: a people’s history of India’s Second World War],  Ishaan Taroor here and Robert Fisk here (for a clumsy attempt to blunt those points, see Franz Stefan-Gady here); also the contributions to We Were There Too – but I’ll end with these observations from John Broich:

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1940 (F 2478) Members of a mule transport company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on parade, 10 February 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204868

The latter has been much on my mind because for much of the summer I’ve been in the archives immersed in medical care and casualty evacuation in both those theatres.

But I’ll leave that for another post, because I want to close with a reminder that – given what I’ve been saying about the ‘present-ness’ of Dunkirk – there is at least one other version that should be brought into focus.  And for that you need to read Jacob Albert on ‘The Fire in Dunkirk‘ at Guernica.  Here he is describing young Kurdish refugees – about the same age, I suspect, as many of those soldiers on the beach in 1940 – stranded in a camp outside Dunkirk (it burned down after he left):

Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”

Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.

“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain…

There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.

In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. …

There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.

But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.

You may think I’m making too much of this.  But when Joshua Levine asked him about ‘modern parallels’, Christopher Nolan explained that he saw his film as ‘a survival story’ and continued:

One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats –to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival . . . it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.