This roundtable took place on 16 January 2020, at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in Biafra. It brought together Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, Lasse Heerten, Arua Oko Omaka and Kevin O’Sullivan. The roundtable was organised and chaired by Bertrand Taithe, University of Manchester.
How can we go about our work of saving lives when, in Syria, civilians, the wounded and their families, medical personnel and aid workers are all targets – whether in areas controlled by the government or those held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or various rebel groups with diverging political agendas? Over the course of several field missions, the author of this article, a member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), sought to decipher the political and military engagements undertaken in different regions of Syria during the war years. He also factored into his analysis the endless flow of data, information and positioning being produced and published over this period, because the war was also fought every day on the internet where the representatives and ideologists of warring groups, human rights organisations, Syrian diaspora organisations and spokespersons of the Syrian central authorities were and still are a permanent presence. Drawing on all these observations and data, the author relates and analyses the emergency relief activities carried out by MSF in Syria, how these activities evolved and the conditions in which choices to intervene and decisions to withdraw were taken.
Monitoring of attacks on healthcare has made great strides in the past decade, even if improvement in information has not necessarily resulted in changes on the ground. However, important questions on the knowledge production process continue to be under-explored, including those pertaining to the objectives of monitoring efforts. What does our data actually tell us? Are we missing the (data) point? This paper explores several monitoring mechanisms, and analyses the limitations of the data-gathering exercise, affecting the ability of healthcare workers to share their experiences. By drawing on the experiences of those involved in the medical-humanitarian response in non-government controlled areas in Syria, these dynamics are further brought to the fore, advocating for a more discerning approach in the use of data for such disparate goals as analysis on patterns of attacks (and their implications), advocacy, and accountability.
Based on the author’s experience as both a journalist and an independent researcher working regularly in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this article examines the many constraints that journalists face in areas of armed conflict. It considers two unusual aspects of journalistic practice observed in the DRC: first, the reporters’ lexical dependence – that is, how the language journalists typically use to describe war is borrowed, sometimes unconsciously, from the war-related rhetoric developed in other fields – and second, journalists’ practical dependence on humanitarian organisations and how this might influence the articles they produce.
Nine years of continuous conflict in Syria have borne witness to various atrocities against civilians, some of which amount to war crimes. Most of the involved parties have committed such atrocities, but the Government of Syria (GoS) and its allies remain at the top of the list of perpetrators. Out of a population of 21 million in 2010, more than half a million Syrians were killed as of January 2019 with more than 13 million displaced either inside the country, in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. Moreover, civilian infrastructures, including but not limited to health, have been severely affected, resulting in interrupted services and suffering. Looking at patterns of these atrocities, timing of occurrence, and consequences, could allow us to draw conclusions about motivations. While the GoS maintains these attacks were against combating civilians, we argue that civilians and civilian infrastructure were military and strategic targets, rather than collateral damage to the attacks committed by the GoS and its allies. The motives behind attacking civilians may be related to military gains in imposing submission and surrender; whereas others may be linked to long-term goals such as forced displacement and demographic engineering. This paper argues, supported by several examples throughout the course of the Syrian conflict, that GoS has used a five-point military tactic with targeting healthcare being at the heart of it. This military tactic has been extremely effective in regaining most opposition strongholds at the expense of civilian suffering and health catastrophe.
In 1999, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) published an extensive account of genocide in Rwanda, Leave None to Tell the Story. Based on interviews and archival work conducted by a team of researchers and written primarily by Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell was quickly recognised as the definitive account of the 1994 genocide. In the ensuing two decades, however, much additional research has added to our understanding of the 1994 violence. In this paper, I assess Leave None to Tell the Story in light of the research conducted since its publication, focusing in particular on three major challenges to the analysis. First, research into the organisation of the genocide disputes the degree to which it was planned in advance. Second, micro-level research into the motivations of those who participated disputes the influence of ideology on the genocide. Third, research has provided increasing evidence and details of violence perpetrated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). I contend that despite these correctives, much of the analysis continues to hold up, such as the role of national figures in promoting genocide at the local level, the impact of the dynamics of local power struggles on the violence, and the patterns of violence, including the effort after the initial massacres to implicate a wide portion of the population. Finally, as a member of the team that researched and helped write Leave None to Tell, I reflect on the value of this rare sort of research project that engages human rights organisations in an academic research project.
This article explores the everyday practice of security management and negotiations for access conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Based on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews and archival exploration, it examines the experience of MSF Congolese employees, who navigate a complex politics of humanitarian fixing and brokerage. Their role in MSF is simultaneously defined and circumscribed by their political and social situation. MSF’s security management relies on local staff’s interpersonal networks and on their ability to interpret and translate. However, local staff find themselves at risk, or perceived as a ‘risk’: exposed to external pressures and acts of violence, while possibilities for promotion are limited precisely because of their embeddedness. They face a tension between being politically and socially embedded and needing to perform MSF’s principles in practice. As such, they embody the contradictions of MSF’s approach in North Kivu: a simultaneous need for operational ‘proximity’, as well as performative distance from everyday conflict processes.