I Refused to join the Israeli Defense Forces
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
Burma’s Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering, and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoized into a series of internally displaced-person (IDP) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, things escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed, and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces—again, involving rape and murder—in the aftermath. Further violence elsewhere in the state during October pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new—they have been subjected to marginalization and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterized the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is undeniably rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar.” (Kalar being a racist term for the Rohingya). “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art-therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to draw their memories of last year’s violence using colored pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew lying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a Rakhine man smash a woman’s skull in until some of her brains spilled out.
For VICE’s upcoming piece on post-war Iraq, premiering on HBO tomorrow night at 11, we interviewed Congressman Jim McDermott of the Seventh District of Washington State. Congressman McDermott has been one of the only experts and advocates in the US government on the issue of depleted uranium in Iraq. We sat down with him to get a firsthand account of the military’s history of using depleted uranium munitions, the legacy it has left behind in Iraq, and why the US government refuses to do anything about it.
Watch more over at hbo.vice.com and tune in tomorrow at 11 PM on HBO to watch the full episode.
Also, earlier today, VICE producers Eddy Moretti and Jason Mojica, along with Congressman McDermott, were guests on HuffPost Live to discuss the rise in birth defects and abnormalities in Iraq. Watch the episode here.
Ground Zero: Mali
Back in February, the only way to reach the city of Gao in northern Mali was to hitch a ride with the French convoys that rolled through the desert every few days. Along the way, a VICE production crew made friends with some French soldiers and chatted with them about what they thought about this grueling campaign as well as the greatest threat they face: homemade bombs, aka IEDs.
The Secret History of the Vietnam War
If you thought you knew all there was to know about the Vietnam war, you’re wrong. For example: Ever heard of the “mere gook rule,” a code of conduct the U.S. military came up with in order to make it easier for soldiers to murder Vietnamese civilians without feeling too bad about it? (“It’s only a mere gook you’re killing!”)
Well, few people knew about this bit of history either until author Nick Turse discovered it in secret U.S. military archives, which he used as the primary sources for his new(ish) book, Kill Everything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The book is based on Turse’s discovery of theretofore secret internal military investigations of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities alongside extensive reporting in Vietnam and amongst American veterans and it reminds us that the most significant fact about the Vietnam War is its most overlooked: massive and devastating Vietnamese civilian suffering.
The debate over the U.S. war in Vietnam continues to hang over this country’s most recent and techno-futuristic imperial adventures. Nick’s book makes for timely if extraordinarily painful reading, and I sat down with him recently to talk about the ongoing relevance of Vietnam, massacres, and secretly photocopying whole U.S. government archives.
VICE: Your book documents how the American war in Vietnam was a fight systemically waged against the civilian population. How does this account that you documented differ from the Vietnam war as it’s popularly remembered in the United States today?
Nick Turse: We have 30,000 books in print on the Vietnam War, and most of them deal with the American experience. They focus on American soldiers, on strategy, tactics, generals, or diplomacy out of Washington and the war managers there. But I didn’t see any that really attempted to tell the complete story of what I came to see as the signature aspect of the conflict, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed wounded, or made refugees by deliberate U.S. policies, like the almost unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling across wide swaths of the countryside. That is, deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. But any discussion of Vietnamese civilian suffering is condensed down to a couple pages or paragraphs on the massacre at My Lai.
This isn’t the book that you initially intended to write. Tell me about the War Crimes Working Group and the documents that you found.
I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. I would go down to the National Archives and I was trying to find hard data, military documents, to match up to the self-reports that we had from veterans about their experiences during the war. And on one of these trips I hit dead ends at every turn. After two weeks I had nothing to show for my research. I went to an archivist I worked with. I told him I couldn’t go back to my boss empty handed. He thought about it for a second. He asked me, “do you think witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?’ I told him, “excellent hypothesis” and asked what he had.
Within an hour I was going through this box, many boxes actually, these reports of massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation. Records put together by this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group impaneled in the Army Chief of Staff’s office in the wake of the My Lai massacre, to track any war crimes cases or allegations that bubbled up from the field, to make sure that the Army wasn’t caught flat footed again. And whenever it could it tried to tamp down these allegations.
VICE Loves Magnum: Thomas Dworzak Takes Photos of Sad Marines and Taliban Poseurs
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Thomas Dworzak joined Magnum in 2000. His books often deal with war. His first, Taliban, was a found photo project which freaked out a lot of Americans who didn’t want to see what the Taliban looked like when they were fooling about. M*A*S*H IRAQ examined the daily lives of US Medevac teams in Iraq, and his latest book,Kavkuz, explored the impact years of brutal war had on the Caucasus region. Oddly enough, in spite of shooting in some of the most hellish conditions imaginable, he thinks Paris is the hardest place to work in.
VICE: You are often described as a “war photographer.” How do you feel about that?
Thomas Dworzak: It’s a label. What are you going to do about it? I’m not going to say I am not one, because I do go, and I used to go very often, to these conflict areas. But there are definitely people out there who are more into combat than me. There is a scale of how much involvement in war one has. And I’m not all the way up there.
How did working in Chechnya during the war there differ from your time in Iraq?
I think in Chechnya, I was more “on the ground.” I was hitchhiking around, trekking alone. You would talk to the fighters, you would spend time with them, and then if there was an attack you would arrive with them. It was all done in a very disorganized, one to one, personal way. I think Chechnya was very extreme as a war, compared to anything that I have seen since.
Extreme in what way?
Just the sheer amount of stuff I saw flying around. It was an atrocious war. Bosnia was very brutal of course, but there was not so much physical destruction, it was more killing and revenge on a very personal and human level, between neighbors or whatever. Chechnya was brutal in every way. The destruction of Grozny reached a level I had not seen until then, and haven’t seen since. I guess you might come across something like it now in Aleppo, for example. There was no accreditation when I was working there, no paperwork. I learned Russian so I could talk to the fighters. They were welcoming, so I spent time with them. Whereas in Iraq and Afghanistan I was embedded. You get your piece of paper and the military has to take care of you.
In what way did that affect your work? What’s your view on the embed format, do you think it worked well?
I think there is a strange kind of freedom in the structure of an embed. A lot of people have been bitching about it, going on about the embed being “the end of press freedom” and all that, but I don’t really think that’s true. I don’t know anything about Iraq really; I haven’t seen Iraq outside of the American point of view for so long now. But if I choose to cover the American angle, then an embed is not a bad way to do it. Because it is so institutionalized, you can actually move around and do a lot. You don’t have to beg, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s a bit duller in that sense. You just have to follow the guys in front of you. And there are not that many decisions to be made. I find embeds pretty relaxing in that way.
Was your M•A•S•H• IRAQ project concluded over one single embed?
It was almost all embed work. I don’t want to over-emphasize the fact that some photos—just a few—weren’t taken in embeds as it’s meant to be an embed book. I don’t know, maybe it was two years or three years, something like that. The core of the work was done over a year, I did maybe five or six embeds with the medical units over that time.
Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
One Young Druz vs. the Israeli Military
Every able-bodied Israeli has to serve in the military when they turn 18. Exceptions are made for Arab citizens and ultra–Orthodox Jews, but not for the country’s 125,000 Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnic and religious minority that is primarily based in the north of the country. Last October, a 17-year-old Druze from Galilee named Omar Saad took a stand against Israel’s mandatory military service when he refused to appear at the recruitment office for a medical examination. In Omar’s widely circulated open letter to the government, he wrote, “Many of our Druze men served in the Israeli army… But what did we get out of this? We are discriminated against on all levels. Our villages are the poorest, our land has been confiscated, there is no urban planning or industrial areas…” Omar hasn’t backed down in the months since his letter went public, and with his graduation approaching I thought I’d call him up and see how things were going.
VICE: What’s your situation right now? Are you getting a lot of heat for the letter?
Omar Saad: I was sent three messages to go and do the required medical tests before enlisting in the army. The last letter they sent me said that if I didn’t go by this specific date, a police officer could arrest me and take me over to the station to do the medical exam. This isn’t usually sent to 17-year-olds who don’t have an enlisting order. I don’t have an enlisting order because I’m not 18 yet.
Why are you refusing to join the army?
I am a Palestinian, and I cannot fight my own people. It’s against the way my parents raised me. Many years ago, my two brothers and I agreed that we would not serve in the army. Last year it began to be more of a reality when I received my first letter from the authorities.
What are you going to do after graduation?
I can’t do anything. I can’t travel. I can’t even go to university. I am trapped inside my land. I think I am going to spend some time in prison, and after prison, I really want to continue my studying of music—maybe abroad. I’m a musician, and my friends and I play for peace and to end the occupation.
Are you scared of being imprisoned?
I’m nervous. Every student in my class thinks about continuing their lives normally—maybe going straight to college or having fun for a year. Because I am studying in Nazareth, my siblings and I are the only Druze in our school. I’m thinking, I’m going to end up in prison. That’s not a place for a normal guy to be.
Read more from our Grievous Sins issue: