Under the Wire Review: The Perils of Reporting on Conflict

In 2018, the targeted killing and imprisonment of journalists reached its global peak in 10 years. From repression by autocratic regimes to assassinations linked to organized crime, journalists have faced untold risks as they attempt to report the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Syrian Civil War, in which a reported 126 journalists, both local and international, have been killed attempting to report on the conflict.

Under the Wire brings home the real, human cost to journalists taking these risks, while also forcing the audience to once again to draw our eyes to the humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian Civil War. The film succeeds by showing the realities of reporting on conflict zones without romanticizing them, all while emphasizing the necessity of the work journalists do to tell the stories of the people most affected by conflict.

Under the Wire is first and foremost a personal story. It memorializes the legendary war journalist Marie Colvin, whose life was recently featured in the separate 2018 biographical drama A Private War. Centering on her working relationship and friendship with British photographer Paul Conroy, the film covers approximately two weeks that Colvin was reporting from Homs in 2012, during the assault by government forces on the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr. It was an assignment that would cost Marie Colvin and French journalist Rémi Ochlik their lives in a targeted shelling attack, in what recently was decided in U.S. courts to be an “extrajudicial killing” directed by the Syrian government  — the first time that Assad regime has been held directly accountable in courts for a war crime.

While Colvin’s bravery, commitment to the truth, and impact on the lives of journalists such as Paul Conroy shines through the film, the documentary succeeds most when it focuses on the Syrian people themselves. It does so by showing the children who die for lack of medical equipment, the images of bereaved families within the “Widow’s Basement” huddle against the shelling of the Syrian army, and the kindness and selflessness of Syrians such as translator Wa’el and Dr. Mohammed Mohammed, who put their lives on the line to save the lives of Western journalists whom they barely knew. By forcing the audience to once again realize the humanity of the victims of the conflict, the film reframes the Syrian War once more as a fundamentally humanitarian catastrophe, in which the people who are most affected by the war are not faceless victims and refugees but are individuals who possess their own humanity and dignity.

There is great humanity in this film. It does credit to Conroy and the Under the Wire film team’s declared goal: to show the world the story of the Syrian people. By the end of Under the Wire, the audience is left with little doubt as to the courage of journalists such as Marie Colvin, or the necessity of risking danger—and ultimately their lives—to show the world what has occurred. But after eight years of ongoing conflict, and eight years of courageous reporting by Western and local journalists alike, the world has no choice but to acknowledge what is happening on in Syria. Yet the war continues.

For the audience of Under the Wire, this is the truth with which we must grapple. The work that Marie Colvin, and others like her, did and continue to do rests on the commitment of the rest of the world—governments and the public alike—to take action to end the continuation of the atrocities that have been shown to us by journalists such as Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy. There are great perils to reporting on conflict, but the greater peril is when we see the images and stories presented to us—and decide to look away.

Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0

Feigned Inclusion: On Egypt’s 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform

On November 4, 2017, Gamal Sorour died in an Egyptian prison after falling into a diabetic coma. He and eight other Nubian detainees had declared a hunger strike to protest their holding conditions only five days prior. The nine men had been arrested in September of that year for staging a peaceful singing protest in Aswan. To this day, the fate of these Nubian activists remains unknown as they face a slew of charges, including organizing a political protest and disrupting public peace, in an ongoing trial.

It should come as no surprise that these peaceful protestors were arrested in September 2017 for demanding their their constitutionally guaranteed right of return to their ancestral lands, from which they were displaced at four separate junctures throughout the 20th century in order to facilitate either the construction or expansion of the Aswan Low and High Dams. Neither should their treatment, nor their 18-months-long detention shock anyone familiar with the current political climate in Egypt. As has been widely documented by international human rights organizations, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has waged a notoriously brutal security crackdown since the summer of 2013, when the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces seized power from sitting President Mohamed Morsi.  

However, despite this overarching climate of political and social repression, the Nubian activists’ case stands out as another episode in a long history of marginalization and exclusion of Nubian communities from mainstream political, social, economic, and cultural life in modern Egypt—a process that has been dubbed by Nubian activists as “de-Nubianization.” A distinct ethnic community indigenous to the region between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, Egyptian Nubians have long borne the brunt of a state that excludes them from processes of policymaking and political representation.

With the rise of Egyptian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, mainstream nationalist narratives designated Nubian languages and culture as unrefined and incompatible with the modern era. This facilitated the marginalization of Nubians from key political and economic processes, as well as their negative and racist portrayal in national cultural products, as observed by scholar Viola Shafik: “Egyptian cinema has with few exceptions shown Nubians as ever-smiling, simple servants who speak only broken Arabic” (85).

These trends were all but exacerbated by the fact that Nubian languages are not, and never have been, taught in Egyptian schools—yet another demobilizing strategy aimed at distancing Nubians from any effective participation in political, cultural, and economic life in Egypt.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from watching the latest promotional video for the 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform, which launched Saturday, 16 March 2019, and vaguely promised to “incubate youth discussions and ideas through a series of events discussing various topics.” This conference falls under the umbrella of Egypt’s annual World Youth Forum (WYF), the first of which was held in 2017, “under the auspices of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

The video begins with a catchy drum beat, played with the hands of a black man whose face we do not see. Following a series of scenic shots of Pharaonic temples in Aswan, we cut to shots of two women, each of whom hands colorful balls of string to several Nubian children who joyfully run across idyllic Nubian landscapes. The rest of the video follows the journey of these balls of string as they move from hand to hand, eventually received by a number of Nubian women weavers, whom we see preparing ceremonial boat sails, woven with the logo for the conference. “Aswan is getting ready,” the English voiceover announces.

The organizers behind WYF have faced heavy backlash in the past for their manipulation of millenial-aimed buzzwords—“engage!” “act!” “change!”—in the service of a state sponsored project that clearly aims to present a less-than-accurate portrayal of the state of youth engagement in Egypt. A brief glance at WYF’s marketing materials makes it immediately apparent that this is an event geared primarily towards representing Egypt to the West as a progressive country that truly invests in its youth and seeks their inclusion in policymaking processes. In 2017, the promotional hashtag for the conference’s inaugural edition, #WeNeedToTalk, prompted a powerful social media counter-campaign that sought to shed light on the array of social and political issues curtailing Egyptian youth’s capacity to participate effectively in the public sphere, from vast wealth inequality to severely limited media freedoms, staggering levels of political prisoners, and widespread sexual harassment—to name but a few.

However, in addition to promulgating this hyper sugar-coated portrayal of Egyptian youth and society, WYF’s marketers also traffic in a narrative that manipulates cultural symbols in the service of their promotional aims. On first glance, the 80-second video promoting the Arab African Youth Platform appears to be a dazzling celebration of Nubian culture. There are striking, colorful shots of famed Nubian spices, beautiful panoramas of the Nile River and Nubian islands, and a marked focus on the music, craftsmaking, and bodies of Aswan’s inhabitants – women, men, and children alike. Although this is a welcome shift in the hegemonic visual narrative typically associated with representation of Nubians in Egyptian cultural products, it also betrays a troubling hypocrisy at the heart of the Egyptian state’s relationship with its Nubian community—a community whose political representation, access to social services, and basic human rights have been consistently denied at the hands of state authorities from the early 20th century to the present day.

To exploit the symbolic significance of Nubian culture in order to market a conference, organized by the very same state that has worked for decades to disempower Nubian communities, is characteristic of the current political regime in Egypt, defined as it is by striking contradictions.

On the one hand, President Sisi declared 2016 “the year of the youth” and called for the launch of WYF; on the other hand, he has imprisoned more youth than any of his predecessors (a monumental feat in and of itself). Moreover, although the Egyptian Parliament legalized the creation of the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt in June of last year, it deliberately excluded Nubian MPs from discussions regarding the details of this legislation and continues to ignore activists’ calls for the implementation of Article 236 into the 2014 Constitution, which guarantees Nubians the right to return to their ancestral lands. In fact, as in Sorour’s case—and others’ cases—these calls are met with imprisonment, as well as state sponsored allegations of separatism and terrorism, tinged with racist anti-black sentiments.

Much like how WYF’s promotional materials portrayed a fabricated image of an Egypt that is welcoming of youth involvement; this new Arab and African Youth Platform has added an altogether new layer of promotional dishonesty. By manipulating Nubian cultural symbols to promote a state sponsored youth conference supposedly aimed at encouraging African-Arab youth engagement (whatever that means), conference organizers have attempted to represent a feigned appreciation for Nubian cultural symbols, one that finds no resonance either with state policies or with the actual lived reality of contemporary Egyptian Nubians.

Photo Credit: Divya Thakur

The Mobile State of Exception in the Central African Republic: Keeping the Peace through Violence 

Decades of peace operations in the Central African Republic have done little to attenuate violence.The persistent failure of the state (and its external agents, like peacekeepers) has embedded a culture of impunity in CAR, in which carrying a weapon necessarily emboldens subjects and constitutes sovereigns.

In CAR, the fluidity between the protection of civilians and violence against them by peacekeepers transforms local insecurity into an internationalized and mobile state of exception. The concomitant political teleology is, simply put, terror. Violence perpetrated by peacekeepers—as subjects of legitimized violence in armed conflict—is mobilized as a relational construct in the context of civil war in CAR.

The embedded praxis of terror perpetrated by non-state sovereignties and its implications for reconciling the lived experience of violence by Central Africans suggest a central question: why doesn’t the international community consider crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by peacekeepers to be terrorism?

Civil War and the MISCA Massacre

Séléka CPSK-CPJP-UFDR—a coalition comprised of political parties and armed militias—successfully deposed former CAR President Bozizé in a brief, but bloody coup in March of 2012. He was replaced by President Djotodia, who was seated in office after he led Séléka during its campaign for political control.

Facing significant international pressure, Djotodia dissolved the alliance. But Ex-Séléka militants soon mobilized outside Bangui, targeting civilians, particularly those suspected of supporting Bozizé, with brutal violence. In self-defense, civilians armed themselves and formed anti-Balaka militias targeting suspected Séléka supporters. This act was a necessity driven by the virtually non-existent state apparatus left behind from decades of violent politics at the center reverberating through peripheral communities in crisis.

Reacting to the ethnic and religious tensions underlying worsening violence in December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the African Union’s Mission Internationale de Soutien à la Centrafrique sous Conduite Africaine (MISCA). While MISCA peacekeepers were enforcing peace between 2013 and 2014, Central Africans reported massive violations of human rights, including sexual violence and the forced conscription of children.

On 24 March 2014, anti-Balaka militias—at the direction of commander Maurice Konomo, who told his troops to “go to war”—attacked MISCA soldiers in Boali (a town 100 kilometers north of the capital, Bangui), resulting in the death of one MISCA peacekeeper. Afterwards, 20 MISCA peacekeepers, all from Congo-Brazzaville, marched to Konomo’s home where they killed a young boy. With the knowledge of MISCA Captain Abena, they detained and executed 12 other civilians, including 4 women and 2 children, before burying their bodies only 500 meters away from the MISCA base.

The AU publicly condemned the murder of their peacekeeper, and claimed that MISCA troops had “returned fire” against anti-Balaka militias who had identified themselves as “spoilers and enemies of peace.” The MISCA massacre was a profound violation of their mandate to protect the basic human rights of Central Africans. The choice to blame MISCA victims exposes a much deeper problem in how peacekeepers use violence to keep the peace, though ultimately undermine it.

The State of Exception

The interaction between identity and agency is a critical analytic tool to explore the legibility of exceptional violence. Charles Tilly provides two analytic modalities in which to situate terrorizing in the larger project of waging war. First, terror is defined as acts of violence used in a “recurrent strategy of intimidation” that are perceived as terrorizing. Second, terror is measured by the presence of coercive specialists who “deploy terror under certain political circumstances, usually with far more devastating effects than the terror operations of nonspecialists” (2004, 9).

Terror is thus a fluid asymmetry of power, in which to be subject is to perform violence, either in fact or in effect. Deploying identity, indeed weaponizing it through terror, blurs the line between what (who) is subject and what (who) is sovereign. Described by Achille Mbembé as an internalized constituency, the subject becomes sovereign in the exercise of public violence, embedded in the “state of injury” (2003, 21). Notions of the enemy, and an intervenor, weaponize innocence against guilt such that the inherently innocent peacekeeper intervenes on behalf of the only circumstantially innocent civilian. Acts of terror thus become constitutive instruments producing a state of exception. Such exception (re)produces identities trapped at the intersection of violence and vulnerability, no longer dependent upon clearly delineated time or space, but in the ephemera of insecurity.

Evidence of the MISCA massacre—and proof of an act of terror—was literally uncovered when the mass grave was exhumed in February 2016. Abena was temporarily suspended in 2014 after accusations of the murders were publicized, but was later reassigned to another part of the CAR. The resulting logic—that peacekeepers are entitled with the privilege to treat a massive violation as a professional indiscretion—illuminates the role of silence and erasure in the making of civilians into objects, or instruments, of violence.

The brutal and cruel response to an aberrant act of violence reoriented the performance of dominating the periphery; in a sovereign and subject performance of retaliation, trained and militarized subjects deployed violence for the purpose of intimidation. Terror permeated the politics of everyday life, firmly establishing the peacekeeper as the sovereign subject with a legitimated monopoly of violence. When the United Nation’s Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA) formally subsumed MISCA in 2015, the UN launched investigations concluding that MISCA was in fact responsible for perpetrating crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Peacekeepers are entitled to protections as international agents of peace, but simultaneously enjoy the privileges of a traditionally armed military force. Obliged to the consent of the state in which parties are warring, rather than the warring parties themselves, peacekeepers are thus simultaneously combatants, who eschew international humanitarian laws regarding rules and responsibilities to civilians, and as civilians, intermittently engaging in hostilities, who deploy terror in discrete political circumstances. This effectively produces a state of exception which becomes a mobile instrument of sovereignty, a superstructure of peacekeeping through terror and governing through violence. The terror of being targeted by forces present in a community for the purpose of protecting that community is compounded by the impunity when those crimes are investigated and unpunished.[1]

Rethinking the Role of Violence in Keeping the Peace

Subjectivity and sovereignty are reinforcing logics: the state needs a subject over which it can exert authority. Such moments of violence as the MISCA massacre, expose a key paradox in the CAR: the structural durability of exception in categorizing all violence by non-state actors as legitimate and necessary. As peacekeepers define what peace means, they also claim ownership of exception to act violently in the name of peace. These acts of violence embed a framework of terror as a mechanism of creating a subject who might be blamed. Inevitably escalating violence, events like the MISCA massacre create a singular social structure in which violence, brutal and spectacular in form, is the most effective and efficient way that civilians might reclaim their agency and identity.

Terror, as an act and as an embodied experience, sits at the intersection of exception and injury: it causes irreparable damage to the relationship between the peacekeeper and civilian and in doing so, produces conditions of fear and insecurity which necessitate exceptional acts of violence. Thus, terror saturates social politics so completely that exception and injury become mobile. Where peacekeepers inhabit a malleable and transient state of exception, they are both the makers and the arbiters of the rule of law, to police and enforce a power arrangement dependent upon their flexibility in wielding and articulating their own powers.

As the dynamic of violence shifts, so too does the articulation of exception, isolating culpability for an act of violence from is victim, who remains static. As a result, civilians inhabit a similarly mobile state of injury, where they must accept victimization as a demonstration of their status as civilians and be resilience in response to terror.

The MISCA massacre further illuminates the interstitiality of the Central African civilian constrained by the politics of terror in which they are the vilified subject of an act of terror as much as the victimized object of it. By situating peacekeepers outside a good/evil binary, this analysis exposes the lacunae of terror. Such external agents of the Central African government in Bangui instrumentalize the existence and destruction of civilian bodies as proof of someone else’s wrongdoing. Persistent social and political insecurity at the periphery, which produces conditions that allow peacekeepers to claim a state of exception, also allows them to disjoin it from those same civilians. Blame is necessarily redirected to local actors, including civilians, for the conditions of insecurity and violence which require the suspension of the ordinary protections and privileges of being a civilian.

It is therefore in the asymmetric superstructure of blame that exception becomes a portable performance of legitimacy. The MISCA massacre is terror precisely because MISCA reacted so violently that they deployed a state of exception, yet peacekeepers’ sovereignty and performative subjectivity persist through their mobility.

[1]  Three of the peacekeepers involved in this incident, Abena, Ngouala, and Ntalani Bantsimba, were convicted of war crimes in the DRC and sentenced to three years in prison in July 2018. The Congolese chamber did not seek testimony from any Central African witnesses during the judicial process, neither the victims’ families nor witnesses were included in the proceedings. All three men were released in 2018 having served a portion of the sentence before being convicted. See coverage by Human Rights Watch for additional analysis.

Photo Credit: US Air Force