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On witnessing the atrocities of war and colonialism in the digital age

When violence and trauma travel through digital networks, it’s our responsibility to make solidarity and resistance travel the same way.

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This is the age of the smartphone and internet, the age of the civilian-journalist. Seven years ago I watched on YouTube as a barrel bomb was dropped on a Syrian neighbourhood, killing several civilians, one of them my ex-boyfriend. He and the others were at the site of a previous bombing, civilian rescuers attempting to dig bodies from the rubble, and my ex-boyfriend a journalist documenting it all. They were killed by a second bomb hitting the same site, a cruel calculus designed to kill rescuers.

The video documenting the atrocities of the Syrian regime was posted on YouTube, because no mainstream media would dare. It showed the bomb falling from a helicopter hovering in the air. Men shouted “Allahu Akhbar” in fear as they filmed its destruction. They filmed the aftermath. They filmed the bodies pulled from the rubble. Including the body of someone I once loved.

I cannot possibly describe that experience. The face of someone once so familiar seemed to melt and meld in front of my eyes, shifting into a monstrosity bearing an uncanny resemblance to Picasso’s “Guernica.” I had to blink several times for the features of that face I knew to come back into order, everything in its right place.

At the funeral two weeks later, his mother asked me to place a rose into his hands. I didn’t know how to say no. I still don’t know how to say no to a mother grieving the violent death of her child. How can anyone say no in that context? His body and face were unrecognizable because of the violence, and that brought me some peace. A voice in my mind told me, “It’s the wrong person…it’s the wrong person…maybe he is still alive but injured somewhere.” But when I placed the rose in his hands my entire heart shattered. I was once again struck by how soft his hands were. I felt the same surprise I felt the first time we held hands, the first time his hand cupped by cheek. Recognition of touch shattered all illusions and brought me back to the horror of the loss.

A couple of days later a friend sent me a selfie on Instagram. But when I opened the photo a selfie was not what I saw. To my horror, the photo sent to my phone showed the dead body, lying in the casket, of my ex-boyfriend. Reviled, I threw the phone away from me and sobbed. “How did anyone get this photo?” “Why would someone send this photo to me?” These are the questions that swirled through my panicking mind. Only hours later when I had the courage to pick up the phone again, did I see that the photo was a selfie of my friend—a friend who, apart from also being male, looks nothing like my ex-boyfriend. My mind had created the image of the body. PTSD flashbacks can also circulate through technology, it turned out.

Now, in the latest violent offensive of the Israeli settler-colonial and apartheid state, I can watch more videos—this time on Twitter and Instagram. Videos shared more easily online than ever before, as the villages, towns and neighbourhoods of my Palestinian friends are bombed. I can watch videos of roving groups of Israeli settler terrorists, bent on genocide, as they attack and lynch any Arabs they find. Streets that I walked down while visiting these friends, I revisit through these terrifying videos of angry mobs smashing the windows of Arab businesses and burning them to the ground.

At night I try to set a time limit for how much of this I will allow myself to watch, but I always end up overstretching staying on my phone until the small hours of the morning. At this point, I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in days. When I do try to close my eyes, images of dead and broken bodies flood my inner eye. I try to visualize a waterfall, my childhood home, the living faces of the people I love, but the bodies return. One body in particular returns and returns, that of my ex-boyfriend.

I ask myself, repeatedly, why must I watch so many of these videos? I answer myself, I have a responsibility to bear witness to the atrocities that the mainstream media, including the CBC, have failed to document, and even whitewash or justify in their coverage.

I have asked myself thousands of times over the past seven years, why did I decide to watch the YouTube video documenting the massacre of my ex-boyfriend and seven Syrian civilians? In the moment, opening the video sent to me in an email from a distant acquaintance didn’t feel like a choice. I don’t regret watching the video. I felt and I still feel that witnessing the death of someone I once loved was a continuation of the love I still had. He was there as a journalist to show the indifferent and apathetic world what was happening. He wanted people to witness and to stand up against the injustice of it all. The least I could do was be his witness.

Yet I know that this witnessing is not a heroic act. I know that this witnessing is not enough, not nearly enough to bring an end to the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria, in Palestine, in the Hazara neighbourhoods and villages of Afghanistan, the Tigray and Oromia regions of Ethiopia, in Yemen, or any of the other places where imperialism, oppression or tyranny are ripping the fabric of the world asunder.

Real heroism is what the people of Palestine demonstrate every day as they continue living, writing and resisting in the face of brutal violence. Real heroism is found in every step taken towards indigenous self-determination and decolonization.

For the rest of us, the least we can do is speak out in solidarity. True solidarity comes at the risk of your career, your reputation and your comfortable life, in order to demand an end to injustice.

Canada has exported $57 million worth of military weapons and technology to Israel since 2015, despite numerous well-documented human rights abuses over the years. Our government has repeatedly refused to condemn the actions of the Israeli government, instead pledging its loyalty. Settler-colonial nation-states stand together.

We should remember that South African apartheid was inspired by the Canadian system of reservations for Indigenous people. This system was further modified and adapted by the Israeli government and illegal (according to international law) settlers as they annexed more and more land partitioning off large swaths of the occupied West Bank. Freedom for Palestinians is directly linked to struggles for Indigenous self-determination and resurgence here on Turtle Island.

As an uninvited settler in Mi’kmaki I have spoken out about the continued violence of settler colonialism here, and now I do so in favour of Palestinian freedom as well.

With the facts on the ground, the violence and the massacres so easily accessible online, none of us has an excuse to remain silent any longer. These crimes and injustices can no longer be hidden by the imperialist propaganda machine that calls itself the news. I am not asking you to risk your mental or emotional well-being to watch the videos all over social media. But I am asking you to read the written accounts and the tweets from Palestinians on the ground. I am asking you to speak out against Israeli apartheid, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. In an interconnected and digital world there are greater possibilities for solidarity than ever before. We are the networks we need to distribute the truth, and to speak that truth in a whisper or a deafening roar into the face of power.

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