Proudly Speaking Out On Behalf Of ‘Terrorists’ Or The Forever War And Its Silences

This essay was written as an introduction to my earliest attempts to produce a photographic work on the victims of America’s wars. Focusing on the communities living on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) or Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) as it is today called, it was a small attempt to speak out against the wars we had manufactured, and the millions of lives we were destroying. It was my first photographic dissent against what was unfolding. Written in the fall of 2011, it accompanied a few grant proposals I put together for this work. And whereas those attempts failed, this work, these communities, remain a part of my more recent and broader project in Pakistan tentatively titled Justice In Pakistan for which I did finally secure some much needed funding.

The video is grainy, and difficult to view on the small mobile phone screen its being played on. There is a man being interviewed by a BBC correspondent - she is questioning him about Osama Bin Ladin and about Al-Qaeda. I can't make out the details of the interview, and I can't see the man's face - he has his back to the camera but I can see his bearded profile. .."That is my father" Abubabakar Hayat says pointing to bearded figure in the screen. I continue to watch closely - the scene in the video cuts to one where a group of men, handcuffed and blindfolded, are being loaded into the back of a Pakistan Police vehicle. As the last man is pushed in - wearing an orange blindfold, dressed in a dark brown shalwar kameez, Abubakar's excited voice cuts in.."There - that is my father Shokat Hayat. This is the last view I have of him." The other children are sitting quietly around me, looking at me. I am not sure how many times they have seen this video before, but clearly they are more interested in my reactions. Their father disappeared on 15th March 2009, picked up by the Pakistani ISI and the Police, and was never heard from again. Now, this poor quality video, is there only momento, their only evidence of him. ..I want to ask questions about his involvement with the conflicts in Afghanistan, with the regime of the Taliban or whether he was involved in activities against the American presence in the country. I have been told that he was involved with groups speaking out against the Musharraf regime and the American war in Afghanistan. That he had been in Afghanistan and collaborated with the Taliban regime. But I stop myself. Its not his guilt that I have come to establish, but the legality of his disappearance and the unconstitutionality of his arrest. I remind myself that whether he is gulty of crimes or not, or whether he is religiously fundamentalist or not, the issue here is of law and the right to due process. ..Abubakar's father was accused, and condemned in some

The video is grainy, and difficult to view on the small mobile phone screen its being played on. There is a man being interviewed by a BBC correspondent – she is questioning him about Osama Bin Ladin and about Al-Qaeda. I can’t make out the details of the interview, and I can’t see the man’s face – he is turned away from the camera but I can see his bearded profile. “That is my father” Abubabakar Hayat says pointing to bearded figure in the screen. I continue to watch closely – the scene in the video cuts to one where a group of men, handcuffed and blindfolded, are being loaded into the back of a Pakistan Police vehicle. As the last man is pushed in – wearing an orange blindfold, dressed in a dark brown shalwar kameez, Abubakar’s excited voice cuts in..”There – that is my father Shokat Hayat. This is the last view I have of him.” The other children are sitting quietly around me, looking at me. I am not sure how many times they have seen this video before, but clearly they are more interested in my reactions. Their father disappeared on 15th March 2009, picked up by the Pakistani ISI and the Police, and was never heard from again. Now, this poor quality video, is there only evidence of him alive. I want to ask questions about his involvement with the conflicts in Afghanistan, with the regime of the Taliban or whether he was involved in activities against the American presence in the country. I have been told that he was involved with groups speaking out against the Musharraf regime and the American war in Afghanistan. That he had been in Afghanistan and collaborated with the Taliban regime. But I stop myself. It’s not his guilt that I have come to establish, but the legality of his disappearance and the unconstitutionality of his arrest. I remind myself that whether he is gulty of crimes or not, or whether he is religiously fundamentalist or not, the issue here is of law and the right to due process. It is the fact that Pakistani citizen’s rights – a commodity of no importance to the very people responsible for upholding then, were violated. There is nothing more to say. 

In July and August 2013, I am bringing bringing this work to the USA. The campaign for the release of the 33 men still imprisoned – without charge and without due process, at the Bagram / Parawan prison in Afghanistan, goes to major cities in Pakistan, and onto Washington D.C. and New York. I will be traveling and proudly speaking on behalf and in support of men who are considered ‘terrorists’ without any evidence, or without recourse to a meaningful legal process where they can defend themselves against these charges. They were rendered to the Americans by the British, Pakistanis and the Afghans, and have been waiting for a fair trial. Many have been there for over 11 years. Some have been released, and we believe more will be if we maintain the pressure, and keep insisting.

I am in the midst of this work now, traveling across Pakistan and into remote villages and urban slums, to collect as many stories as I can. Or am permitted to. Conservative, jaded and left without hope, many of the families no longer believe that any amount of effort can help release their sons, fathers and husbands from the black hole of American imprisonment they have fallen into. I believe otherwise and so do members of The Justice Project Pakistan, whose inspiring leader, lawyer Sarah Belal, has been fighting cases on their behalf. Our goal is to launch the work in late July, and bring the exhibitions to the USA in July and August. There will be a dedicated website for this work and I will post updates once that is ready.

In the mean time, below is the essay I wrote in one sitting, one quiet, late night in Stockholm. I remember I was on the phone with a friend, and after many days of struggling to figure out what to write, this simply fell out in less than a couple of hours. I have since left it unchanged.

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with words of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war.

Chris Hedges, On War1

I have come to the city of Peshawar on Pakistan’s Northwest frontier in search of a war – the long war. The one fuelled by an infinite righteousness, executed without regard to frontiers, the laws of conflict or even a definition of success. The one fought for my American way of life, the one that I must not question nor look at too closely. The one that I see using a host of previously unacceptable tactics including but not limited to targeted killings, drone attacks, suicide bombings, rendition flights, targeted ‘disappearances’, black sites, off-shore prisons, outsourced torture, unlimited detentions, military tribunals, legalized torture, and private armies. The one whose reality is largely invisible to us ordinary Americans, veiled behind severe media restrictions, closure of combat operational areas, a concentration of decision making in a handful of military and bureaucratic elite and the collaboration of our highest legal institutions in helping maintain its distance from our laws and procedures of justice.

I have come to Peshawar to touch this untouchable war and meet those who are bearing the crippling burden of its consequences. I have come to record their stories and complete the war’s narrative – a narrative which has to date been owned and defined by the powerful. I have come here to know what this war looks like away from the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the politicians guiding it, the sweeping generalizations of the pundits facilitating it and the elaborate obfuscations of the media selling it. I want to know its ugly reality and to walk into the darkness of the slums of Pakistan’s cities, the stifling infinity of its refugee camps, and the cold, silent living rooms of its affected citizens. I want to talk to and hear the stories of the ungrievable lives, erased from our consciousness, alien to our sense of responsibility, the ones that are torn apart even before the first bullets are fired, the first bombs detonated2.

Since 2001, the conflict in Northwest Pakistan has killed and injured thousands of civilians, displaced millions, and destroyed countless homes and livelihoods. Exact figures remain difficult to come by due to constraints on the media, general insecurity, remoteness of the terrain of the conflict, and both American and Pakistani government enforced secrecy around drone and clandestine operations. It is estimated that in 2009 nearly 2,300 civilians were killed in terror attacks with many more injured. Counting losses from Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes, actual civilian casualties in Pakistan could be three times that number, far exceeding the casualty levels in neighboring Afghanistan.3

Though waged in the country’s frontier region, the war’s tentacles have reached into the lives of those living in its urban centers, its horrors enveloping even those who are innocent of its interests, – academics, intellectuals, students, and the bystander on the street. Military operations have forced millions from their homes and lands, disrupting life and society in the tribal regions and tearing apart the delicate fabric of Pathan tribal culture. Drone attacks have killed with impunity with few bothering asking who was targeted – and who actually killed. Retaliatory suicide attacks have crushed the life of Pakistan’s centers, killing and maiming without mercy. State intelligence and security agencies have ‘disappeared’ thousands into torture and detention centres in Afghanistan, United States and elsewhere, leaving husbands, wives, sons, daughters and relatives searching for their loved ones. Those who have returned from incarcerations in America’s prisons and detention centers, are physically and emotionally crippled, and struggling to rebuild shattered lives and souls.

The scars of the war are long-term and devastating and its wake is tearing apart families and devastating entire communities. And yet the unrelentingly rhetoric of the war is drowning out the pleas of those being crushed by it. A slickly produced visual record of its execution is erasing images of those bearing the scars of it. A deafening silence surrounds the horrors unfolding here, and a shocking indifference informs the priorities of those presuming to govern here. Pakistan’s constitutional laws lie in tatters, her citizen’s rights subsumed under the demands of a greater power, and her political leadership pre-occupied in demonstrating its credential as a war ally.

I am traveling across the cities, slums, refugee camps, and frontier villages of the country, to hear the stories of the people who are the living and breathing front of this never ending war. It is here, in a thousand different living rooms, that the other side of this story is told, and where one meets men and women who have, in the face of extraordinary circumstances, been forced to confront their shattered lives with near superhuman stoicism. It is here, over cups of hot tea and in the presence of shell-shocked souls, that one begins to comprehend the deep, permanent and devastating impact of this war. And there are many; victims of drone attacks, widows of men killed in suicide bombings, displaced families struggling to find an existence in squalid and desperate refugee camps, families looking for their ‘disappeared’ fathers, sons and husbands, children of parents killed in artillery barrages, and innocent sons returning from torture and brutal incarcerations. These are the stories of this war, the ones that ‘…the victors often do not acknowledge’, and the ones that will be passed, long after the ‘victors’ have left, from generation to generation and perhaps some day becoming justifications for tomorrow’s acts of revenge.

1The New York Review Of Books, December 16th 2004

2Butler, Judith Frames Of War: When Is Life Grievable? Verso Books, 2010

3CIVIC Research Report Civilian Harm & Conflict In Northwest Pakistan, 2010 (www.civicworldwide.org)

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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