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war

Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.

The Demand for Urban Planners to Heal the Trauma of War

Residential Road in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
Contemporary warfare psychologically traumatizes millions of innocent people every year.  Since the industrialization of warfare at the end of the 19th century, the wreckage inflicted upon humanity  has torn communities apart, crushed families, and rendered vast swathes of land throughout the world useless.  In contemporary war,  the range of actors consists of independent militants, private armies, gangs and criminal elements, and thus the issue of trauma and land use have become additionally problematic as there is no clear end to the conflict.  

Today, the world is dotted by low-intensity protracted conflicts, stretching onward by scattered acts of terrorism and insurgency, thus continually threatening civil society and undermining the development of state sponsored institutions.  The elongation of war not only drains state resources, but reinforces a cyclical condition of violence, as the population subjected to war must continue to live and die in a constant state of fear and aggression.  While contemporary psychology may have individual methods of therapy, tied to the personal history of the victim, how can we move forward at an urban scale?

In contemporary wars and post-war landscapes, the triggers for trauma do not go away.  The also risk remains constant.  On the most peaceful days, the threat of terrorism lurks around the corner and the random loss of a loved one haunts  every family.   How can one overcome trauma when threatened by the possibility of bombings in cafes or the return of insurgents at night to abduct family?  Particularly for those populations who were a major part of the conflict, such as in Rwanda or Somalia, how can psychological change take place, to shift the normative mindset of the community from a culture of war into one of peace, when the environment and the people are always the same?  

Not only does the constant stress drive conflict by twisting normative social patterns, but can induce increased rates of risk in other areas of our lives.  A victim of PTSD may struggle to focus at work, or may become more likely to become subject to physical illness.   A population under stress is less likely to be physically healthy and also less economically productive.  If trauma can have a negative impact in the US alone at $42 Billion a year, imagine how it must affect entire populations under threat of war.

In the post-conflict environment, there is a necessity to rely on traditional security methods, such as the imposition of military installations and checkpoints, but the ability for complete transformation and thus also reduces the level of security over time..  If we drop the traditional security mechanisms then the fear of returning instability dominates the society and the stressful feeling of risk becomes more oppressive.  Solutions must be multifaceted to maintain security and to facilitate healing.

The problem of maintaining military security alongside psycho-social healing clearly demands the attention of urban professionals.  At present, security infrastructure is generally handled by engineers, architects, and planners as technical problems with little regard for the broader impact on society.  Among those who are working to provide social counseling and trauma workshops there is negligible ability to modify the physical environment.  While these conditions are demanding and maintain risks, it would seem that more Community Planners and likeminded individuals would be drawn to this problem, considering the problems of post-conflict transition are not exactly new.  Yet where are they?

Mapping the Humanitarian Terrain

I've been incredibly busy lately, so the posts have slowed down, but today I discovered UNOCHR's dynamic regional maps on the ongoing multi-sector status of various regions and felt its worth sharing.   I'm always impressed by UNOCHR's website, although I'm often frustrated that the wealth of information available is so hard to locate or discover.  Just click the image above to explore the site.

I also discovered the monthly humanitarian update, its not very detailed, but it does at least present a decent overview.

Lastly, for today's post, I'm attaching a brief article from the ICRC on the perils of combining humanitarian aid with military support.  The author makes the point that humanitarian actors need to be clear in there policies, not just politicians or military commanders, that humanitarian aid should be independent of military support.  He also raise the point that "humanitarian space" may not actually exist, although most humanitarian's lament the space as merely shrinking.  Ultimately he argues that while conflict becomes increasingly fragmented, it is important to draw clear lines between military and humanitarian actors so as to assist the most vulnerable populations and with the least risk.  




Confronting Terrorism: Restructuring Somalia's Primary Export



As the actions of Al Shabaab extended beyond the Somali border and into Kampala just a few days ago, leaving over 70 dead from the bombings, I've been thinking a great deal about the role of the AMISOM forces and the prospects for stabilizing this broken nation.   Are the actions taken by UNISOM sufficient to achieve peace and security within Somalia?  What more needs to be done, and more importantly, what actions can be taken based upon the available resources?

Looking back over the African Union's AMISOM newsletter, The AMISOM Bulletin, I only find evidence that UNISOM forces have pursued merely a conventional and unidimensional approach toward counterinsurgency.  The only evidence to the contrary is a statement from the AMISOM Force Commander, Major General Nathan Mugisha, " There is no military solution to this conflict; only a political solution, that is, dialogue and negotiations can achieve a lasting solution to the conflict in Somalia. Somalis must sit around a table and resolve their differences. The solution will not come from without; it will only come from Somalis themselves." However this is only indicates a recognition of the political forces within the stabilization and reconstruction process, it does not make any reference to the sociocultural, economic, environmental, and global elements that are necessary to end the violence and benefit the lives of the inhabitants.  It is obvious that AMISOM is ill equipped to meet facilitate all of these concerns, yet as the country remains bound by violence, it is difficult for NGO's to fill in the gaps.

Counterinsurgency is a complex process that requires more than just military action.  It requires building relationships and most importantly, the ability to provide the local populations with something they consider valuable.  It requires constructing metrics to determine progress, the development and implementation of a popular narrative for mobilization, and to have a keen understanding of the enemy that goes far beyond intelligence passed down from upper command.

Within Somalia, it is important for counterinsurgent forces to recognize the founding factors of radicalism, terrorism, and militancy.  Terrorism is not merely the product of social processes and economic devastation, but can be understood as an economic commodity.  The socio-economic infrastructure is oriented around a culture of violence as much as it is concerned with other basic commodities such as food or shelter because in contemporary Somalia, survival requires an understanding of violence and its social underpinnings.  As a lone individual, or as a part of a family or community, to survive and have insurance of future survival (security) is to either partake in the socio-economic processes that facilitate conflict or to avoid them.  Either way, each course of action requires the same understanding of these processes.

Sadly, as Somalia has been left to indulge in its own suffering and deterioration by the international community for so long, the internal economic structure has consolidated so that its exports can reflect nothing else.  As there is no longer a sufficient livelihood in animal husbandry or agriculture, yet no infrastructure for technical development to partake in the global marketplace, one of the best options is to either partake in piracy or militancy.   While the Somali people must necessarily seek greater unity and peace, without the sufficient infrastructure to carry out those goals, they lack a means to implement this vision in a durable fashion.  In the end, the only way to negate the exportation of terrorism is to work toward a Somalia based on something more durable, less violent, and more integrated within the global marketplace.