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.

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].

StateTube

An update to my post on social media and late modern war (also here): Rebecca Stein writes with the excellent news that she has published an extended version of her MERIP commentary on Israel’s Twitter-war on Gaza: “StateTube: Anthropological reflections on social media and the Israeli state”, in Anthropological Quarterly 85 (3) (2012) 893-916.  The essay complicates what she calls the usual narrative about digital militancy (which is the theme of a special section of the journal): ‘the notion of new technologies that organically liberate from below, and of states invested chiefly in their repression from above.’

That said, some Israelis seem to have an astonishingly obdurate view of the power of social media – Rebecca quotes one member of Likud claiming that “Facebook pages … have as much impact as a tank – and sometimes even more” – and, as she notes, remarkably little sense of the countervailing possibilities.

The social network

All of which makes me wonder about a sequel to David Fincher‘s film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, The social network (2010): in the light of Rebecca’s ethnographic work, the original poster (reproduced above) suggests an altogether different scenario….