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The Unrecognised Heritage after Warfare

Who controls the past, (ran the party slogan) controls the future.

Who controls the present controls the past”

(George Orwell 1949)


“To look is to draw attention to something. In everyday language we often say, “would you look over there please” or “look at that” In other words looking requires lenses that draw attention and help us become aware. To see, on the other hand, is to look beyond and deeper. Seeing insight and understanding. “Do you see what I mean” – Understanding is the process of creating meaning. Meaning requires that we bring something into sharper focus. – Conflict transformation is more than a set of specific techniques; it is a way of looking as well as seeing”

(John Paul Lederach 2003)


According to Lederach, “Looking and seeing both require lenses” – With this in mind, I have developed an alternative lens, one which would broaden the peripheral focus of humanitarian agencies addressing the challenges of post-conflict peace building (PCPB). This new lens could help provide a more nuanced understanding of elements essential for post-conflict social cohesion. The hope is that it will help communities collectively acknowledge and understand their post-conflict entangled emotions, memories, and trauma, whilst providing a deeper analysis of the sensitive dichotomy of victim versus perpetrator.  

I work to develop investigations and analyses that help reveal and acknowledge a relatively overlooked, yet very important local military character, a socially significant ex-combatant in need of support, and recognition. A type of ex-combatant that merits disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). In this case, the ex-combatants aren’t people but buildings, ordinary structures, everyday buildings which, like many of their human counterparts, were caught up in conflict and ‘used’ for violent means. These are buildings that, depending on what side of the conflict you were affiliated with, meant very different things.

The identification, acknowledgement and subsequent handling of ex-combatant buildings could contribute to communities’ taking ownership of their present post-conflict condition, help protect them from the negative consequences of any manipulation and misinterpretation of the past and muffle the call for any return to violence in the future. 

Like all combatants, these buildings have had a role in violence of one sort or another, in many cases, they have had a significant part to play in the past conflict and some cases, multiple conflicts before that. However, unlike their human counterparts, there is little consideration concerning their role in society after the violence has ended, in other words, their disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) a process of reintroduction to the communities they helped fracture during conflict. A process that recognises that if these buildings had been ex-combatants in the typical sense, many of them would be considered high-ranking senior figures, responsible for intelligence gathering and dissemination, propaganda, logistics, punishment, law enforcement and communication. Ex-combatants that amplify the duplicitous condition of “one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist”

Therefore, these senior-ranked buildings represent a complicated and contrasting set of post-conflict emotions. For those people within a post-conflict community, depending on what their affiliation was in the violence, these buildings could have been feared and reviled by some, or respected, welcomed and even loved by others. To leave these senior military figures unchallenged, unsupported and mistreated in disorientated communities riddled with post-conflict emotional entanglement, renders any reconciliation more fragile and, therefore more susceptible to failure and manipulation resulting in the recurrence of violence.

It is imperative then, that at the earliest stages of non-direct violence, these characters are identified and understood. The first step is to recognise these buildings as ex-combatants, which is not difficult to conceive when you consider that according to the UN’s 2014 Operational Guide to the Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (IDDRS), a combatant is the following:

“ a member of a national army or an irregular military; or is actively participating in military activities and hostilities; or is involved in recruiting or training military personnel; or holds a command or decision-making position within a national army or an armed organization; or arrived in a host country carrying arms or in military uniform or as part of a military structure; or having arrived in a host country as an ordinary civilian, thereafter assumes, or shows determination to assume, any of the above attributes”.

If these buildings fit the description and can be recognised as combatants and therefore ex-combatants, then there is an argument to be made, that these buildings require an approach framed by a DDR process, (just like any other ex-combatant in a DDR programme), a method developed to manage their position in society and to find ways for them to play a positive role in the communities they help fracture, thus re-developing a renewed peacetime trust and social worth. Given the support they need, these buildings could take a senior role in reconciliation, they could defuse the temptation to scapegoat the other and help establish humanity where ‘othering’ was so prevalent.

Moreover, these buildings hold a subtle key to a more stable foundation from which to decipher and vent past social upheaval. Understood properly, they can help establish a more positive iteration of a past community, one with renewed hope and the bravery to explore a more transparent sense of belonging and place, where healing and tolerance can be promoted and worked towards. An environment where all sides of the conflict can feel acknowledged daily.



…………………………..The above text is an extension of work done concerning ordinary buildings or infra-ordinary buildings in Northern Iraq. Earlier I wrote that ordinary buildings like swimming pools, petrol stations, shops and primary schools, caught up in conflict and used for violent means, could hold part of the answer to the multi-billion dollar question, how can a more engaging, robust and reliable peace-process be conceived, established and sustained in damaged nations such as Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Yemen......?

This is a question that national and international governments, the United Nations and the ever-growing NGO (non-government organisation) community have struggled with for decades. A struggle directly impacting the security, economy and social nature of international relations. More than 50% of all peace agreements have reverted to violence within five years or have resorted to other non-conventional forms of violent behaviour and the world is more precarious than it has been since the end of the Cold War.

I work to promote the idea that ‘every-day’ buildings have the potential to reduce the likelihood of a return to violence and could help address many of the underlying issues surrounding international migration, internally displaced people and ultimately improve security at home and abroad.

What’s required is a slight shift in mindset, a step away from the traditional approaches of elite-driven, top-down and internationally informed nation-building, (Hoffman, Richmond, Mac Ginty) peppered by museums, monuments and other porous jesters of western-centric liberal democracy before a platform of tolerance and trust has been established at the everyday level.

I suggest that peace begins with the notion of home, at a fundamental local level that can be understood and identified with. Home gives a sense of belonging, identity and social reassurance. If our homes are physically, psychologically and emotionally compromised then what chance has anyone of building a peaceful existence whilst haunted by the entangled emotions of conflict and survival?

Seeing these ordinary buildings, as another ex-military figure of war opens a vast range of peacebuilding potential. Pre-war the excombatants were part of the built environment that framed the fabric of societal interaction and communication. Post-war they are everyday buildings with a violent past and which require a positive re-integration within the community they once served only to traumatise during and after the war.  In other words, to help them assimilate within a community they had a role in destroying. 

These buildings are important characters within the community and like any combatant, they will struggle to play a positive part in the community unless they are understood, acknowledged and allowed to develop a positive role in rebuilding the community.  They represent a great deal of social significance. For many, they echo the abuse of power, traumatic experience, terrifying memories and heightened lack of trust in the ‘other’. For these others they represented a means of control, gaining and distributing information, a military function, a natural result or response to warlike conditions. Either way, these buildings embody a complicated and traumatic set of issues that amplify the post-conflict communities’ entangled emotions.

In the past, the default position on these buildings was one of demolition or camouflage, however, this has done little to address the memories and stories surrounding their existence. In fact, this practice has created a myth, a frightening story or a monster, easily manipulated to terrify and control public perceptions tapping into unresolved trauma. The monsters grow in significance, capture the imagination of the media and rival factions, eventually amplified beyond their tragic reality, re-worked and deployed to play a role in destabilising any peaceful intentions and igniting further violence.

“Collective memory, emerges in the lieux de memoire., where a continuity of successive experiences set down layers of meaning; where common awareness of the past articulated by people rather than inscribed on the very stones, is passed on through generations. This container of collective memory, when destroyed, causes memories to dislocate and identities to fragment” (Nora Akawi and Nina Valerie Kolowratnik, 2014). “Out of sight becomes out of mind both for those whose patrimony has been destroyed and for the destroyers” (Bevan 2006) 

These buildings therefore are highly controversial and complicated characters within a community transitioning from a negative to a positive peace. Nevertheless, they form an essential role in defining one's home. They are the background to our social interactions, and our relationship with others and offer a sense of the familiar, cultural and identity.

It is important to remember that these communities lived and are now terrified to live like any other, like yours and mine. To live in an environment where people from diverse backgrounds, religions or origins, rub shoulders at the local shop, where children play outside or go swimming together, where communities attend local celebrations and support one another in times of need, perhaps sharing collectively any local sorrows and hardship.

An example:

In October 2017 part of my work was conducted in Mosul City, in local buildings used by international aid agencies and which were considered ordinary community spaces, innocuous buildings used to distribute localised aid and information. Buildings rapidly made good so that they might continue their pre-war purpose.

One of these buildings was a typical Iraqi primary school with a high wall perimeter and a complex of single-story buildings at its centre. A building used to teach pre-war, which had spaces for education and social development, full of happy sounds of laughter and play.

Post-war the building was used to meet local community elders and representatives, to arrange supplies to inform the community of peacebuilding plans and to support ongoing projects whilst becoming a school again.

However, what was overlooked, was the impact and role of the property during the conflict. The property was used by ISIS to disseminate information, reward affiliation, and manage resistance, it was also used to torture and punish the demographic under its control.

For the local demographic, it was clear that the building had an unresolved presence in the community, many wouldn’t go inside or had horrific tales of family members never returning once they did. This building reminded everyone of the fragility of the peace and that ISIS or an organisation like it, was never that far away it was and still is, a powerful war character, a major combatant, and it loomed in full view, un-challenged and un-integrated. A building with sinister whisperings that grow louder as the white hard-shell vehicles of the UN retreat well before nightfall and all that remains, are the memories of a community at its most vulnerable and those familiar feelings of conflict and turmoil sour the night once more.  


Entangled Emotions

Making sense of the entangled emotions, out-with war, is difficult enough - but after the violence, after a catastrophic condition where friends, family and neighbours turn on one another, where everyone becomes either friend or foe in a conflict where desperate things were done by once familiar faces, during which the brutal and perpetual dynamic of victim versus perpetrator became disorientating and vague. Where would you start in your attempt to reconcile those emotional entanglements of pride, hate, fear, hope, revenge and shame, to name but a few?

Or is it a case of, ‘therein lies the problem.’ Do these emotions need to be reconciled? Is it a Western-centric obsession with trying to simplify or resolve our difficult emotions or anything complex and demanding? Have we developed a culture adverse to complexity? When many of us are confronted with complex issues, we tend to avoid them or make attempts to contain them, especially in a time-sensitive context of peacebuilding where time means more lives suffering or the pressures felt by agencies and donors wanting positive and quantifiable results quickly, which is understandable. However, Lederach argues complexity should be embraced as it "often brings a multiplicity of options to the surface. If we pay careful attention to those options, we can often create new ways to look at old patterns" (Lederach 2003). Perhaps these buildings are a vehicle or an old pattern to express a new and more sustainable approach to peacebuilding in communities, by not treating the entanglement, rendering them identified and acknowledged but untreated, complicated and honest. An unapologetic fabric of emotions that should be peacefully read and tolerated within these buildings, sensitively woven to create an authentic approach to building the foundations of a new community, a place for all to call home once more.

Place, belonging & home

A home is “our first universe” and “our first world” – “What human beings know first- and never forget – are “the intimate values of inside space” (Bachelard, Casey 1998)

Home is an interesting concept. We are all familiar with the term home (casa, acasă, الصفحة الرئيسية, or Главная......). For many it's where you live, your house, a property that belongs to you, a place that you feel safe in. Home is much more than that though, it’s a ‘place’ among places where you live and feel a connection, in many ways, it defines us, and provides a construct from which to feel a sense of belonging and identity. Casey sums this up nicely when he writes,

“Whatever is true for space and time, this much is true for place: we are immersed in it and could not do without it. To be at all -  to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place. Place is as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the bodies we have. We are surrounded by places. We walk over and through them. We live in places, relate to others in them, die in them. Nothing we do is unplaced”. (Casey 1998)

In Leviathan, Hobbes states that, “No man therefore can conceive anything, but he must conceive it in some place” Therefore to conceive of home we must understand where we place it geographically, emotionally and in what context.

It is that notion of home, of particular interest to my work in the context of home after conflict - how do families rebuild their homes in and amongst the ruins of social fracture and ethnic fear? There have been many dogmatic and formulaic attempts to build peace in war-torn communities however these have been very much a top-down foreign approach, often overlooking the fundamentals of a sustainable localised social cohesion. Barakat supports this in his paper where he states that, “Local perceptions of recovery frequently focus on reaffirmation of identity and regaining the control of lives and livelihoods at the individual and community level. However, contemporary reconstruction interventions frequently ignore the demands for identity and control”. (Barakat, 2010)

Therefore, I explore the idea that buildings provide the means to develop post-conflict places that will facilitate the emergence of home, a place where trust and tolerance can be considered once more. Bevan argues that “buildings gather meaning to them by their everyday function, by their presence in the townscape and by their form. They can have meaning attached to them as structures or sometimes, simply act as containers of meaning and history” (Bevan2016). I suggest that these buildings had meaning before the war, they redefined themselves during the war and new meanings were earned. Now in post-conflict a new layer of meanings can be earned, means that can be read alongside those of the past, thus taking a positive stance when you consider Hirst’s quote, 

"War is not just technique, a clash of forces the outcome of which is given by the capacity of the weapons on respective sides and decided by the resulting causality lists. War is also symbolic, symbols affect the capacity of the soldiers and civilians to fight and to suffer. They also help them to understand war, both as conduct - to see models of bravery, competence and endurance - and in terms of placing themselves, knowing where they are and why" (Hirst, 2005).


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