Everyday Embers of Conflict
Following an excellent article “Inside Srebrenica: old scars, new wounds” by Valerie Hopkins for the Financial Times, this is a short post to reiterate the very real issues concerning divided communities in post-conflict cities. Over the years of working in troubled and divided urban communities in Mosul, Belfast and Cape Town. I have seen these embers of violence burning into the social fabric and believe that they are a fundament threat to sustainable peace ambitions. When the acknowledgement and recognition of violent acts in everyday situations are overlooked or poorly remembered, there is a risk that these memories will become manipulated, distorted, and used/reused to ignite further violence in the future. This is not a distinct matter affecting a few cities like Srebrenica, it is a large-scale social phenomenon present after most modern civil wars and their subsequent peace treaties.
I would like to share an example from work in Mosul 2017:
Wadi Ha Ja, Shat Al-Arab, is a primary school in Mosul, Iraq. It is notorious within its city’s community for its apparent connection with the rule of ISIS and the atrocities that took place there. During the occupation of ISIS between 2014-17, the school continued to function as a primary school albeit, teaching a different ISIS approved curriculum. The school became a place from which to educate children, promote policy and distribute propaganda. However, the school is best known for the mass shooting of local police officers who had gathered in the school grounds. Wadi Ha Ja is a neighbourhood of the city where most of the city’s police lived with their families. After the swift fall to ISIS, the remaining police officers serving Mosul were instructed to assemble at the primary school on a designated time and day. Those that came perished.
Today, a few years on from the liberation of Mosul, this school seems to have an awkward presence in a post-conflict community that can remember its role when ISIS controlled the city. Situated in the centre of the district, a backdrop to many market stalls and on the primary thoroughfare, it is a prominent daily feature of life in the area. Newly repaired and painted and with the ISIS literature and symbols destroyed by staff, the school has reopened. The surviving community members take their children back to the school where the original syllabus has been re-applied in an environment where the doctrine and physical presence of ISIS had been the day-to-day normality for years. For some in the neighbourhood, it bore witness to horrific violence and persecution towards family members, neighbours and friends, to others, it was a place that saw the facilitation of a promising but failed caliphate. For all, it’s a contentious issue that is difficult and risky to speak about.
The first-hand observation of Wadi Ha Ja Arab primary school during the conflict with ISIS in Iraq 2013-2017, offers an example of the challenge, it presents a situation where a divided community wrestles with a contentious site seemingly imbued with memories of violence. This example in Iraq is not an unfamiliar condition, there are many more instances of socially awkward and contentious sites, not only in Iraq but in many other (if not all) countries struggling with the effects of conditions such as new war violence.
These situations offer an opportunity to consider the everyday relationship between, divided communities, their memories of violence and the surrounding urban context. Potentially drawing much-needed attention to the political and social implications of every-day places and spaces related to memories of violence, thus helping address broader issues of social cohesion within local communities still at odds and dealing with remainders and reminders of violence.
Image: From Dina’s Story – A Survivor of the Srebrenica Massacre