Voices from war zones

Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) allow for a more direct, participatory communication of people affected by humanitarian crisis or war and give the ‘voiceless’ a platform to share their stories on their own terms?

Humanitarian communication is often as complex as its subject matter, and sometimes stories are spun in either a positive or negative way. To this end Lombardi (2016) says that communication for development should not be about creating stories with a certain mood, be they negative or positive, extremely uplifting or deeply dark. Instead the emphasis should be on producing accurate stories with all the shades of emotions. The job of the storyteller is basically to do the story justice without oversimplifying important facts.

I recently read an article in The Guardian featuring stories from besieged residents in East Aleppo:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/30/stories-from-inside-aleppo-it-feels-like-we-are-in-prison

The tagline: “Aid can’t get in, but stories can get out”. In this case The Guardian used information and communication technologies, Skype and WhatsApp, to enable residents’ voices to be heard ‘in their own words’. The images and stories are mediated but it is the residents who seem to have control of the medium, as they can tell their own ‘unfiltered’ stories.

One of the pictures is a selfie from a teacher featured in the article; another picture is taken by the teacher of her son’s birthday party; then there is a screen grab. All the other photos are taken by a Syrian freelance journalist. However the focus is on the stories on the page rather than the photos themselves, and the photos fit well with the written narrative.

What is important is that the stories do not seem to have been framed by a reporter in a bid to achieve a certain effect or to fit their own agenda. Put simply, the voices sound authentic. To a certain extent the Aleppo residents featuring in the article seem to retain some control over the way their reality is framed and constructed and consequently understood by the reader.

How far can ICT enhance communication for development? For sure it is rarely, if ever, a magic bullet – think Kony 2012, which, according to many critics, promoted a simplified picture of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa (Hershey and Artime, 2014, p. 640).

Yet ICT is ultimately just a medium, so it’s how we use it and what we do with it that counts.

In this case, I believe that information and communication technologies were used in a positive manner, allowing for a more participatory approach to communication for development: reporting a humanitarian crisis from the point of view of the survivors.

These stories have the merit of showing the full spectrum of emotions, from fear about the current situation, to more down-to-earth details about everyday life. Thanks partly to ICTs these Aleppo residents are no longer anonymous Syrians: they have names, jobs and photos that help to tell their stories.

Susan Sontag (2003, p. 80) wrote that: “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand”. What is important is that these stories from Aleppo are based on narratives rather than on a single picture trying to encapsulate the essence of a war. In that sense they can help us better understand the reality of war, as well as giving a voice to the people affected by that terrible reality.

12 Comments

  1. Steve Slade

    There is no doubt that new media technologies have allowed these stories to get out – and not just though journalistic means. In Aleppo, this is the voiceless being at least given some semblance of voice through their mobile phones. As you’ve said, a more true narrative is then shown to the world. What is also interesting about new media is that it can bypass traditional means which means the story doesn’t get ‘spun’ – especially this is true of Twitter.

    1. Ane Kirkegaard

      I agree with you Steve, but also, I would perhaps ‘arrest’ you on “a more true narrative.” In my thinking it would be more of an additional narrative, from particular several space/place perspectives. The totality of narratives present us with a broader understanding of actors which is perhaps the most important aspect of such sharing.

  2. Kudos to you for quoting the great Susan Sontag!. New technologies have definitely acquired a big role as informative means these days and sometimes can act as an alternative mean to usual media reports (which may be restricted in providing information due to political reasons) and tell/show the “other” stories that would remain otherwise untold. Unfortunately, I think that the fact that we are constantly exposed to this kind of information (we are practically inundated even if we try not to!) has rendered us cold and distant in a way – what I mean to say is that it has become the norm and not the exception to see these things happen, we have become people that almost truly believe a like and an hashtag can save lives if not change the world even.

    1. Manuela

      Thanks for your comment Niandra! And you do make a crucial point about the detrimental effects that new technologies can also have. I guess the way forward is to carry on producing new and insightful narratives rather than searching for a million likes.

  3. Sisil Benjaro

    ICTs and new media are -with no doubt- so important, both for those who are still inside Syria to share in ‘their own words’ what they really live or pass through, and for those who are outside trying to make sense of what is going on inside the country by reading stories more authentic than the ones they hear or watch on TV (and which might be influenced by different agendas).
    ICTs and new media can also be seen as an asset for human rights organizations. Storytellers, trapped in conflict zones, can use these technologies to inform and provide evidences about human rights violation (or even about crimes against humanity). These evidences can -in their turn- be used by these organizations to sue those committing war atrocities. However, governments, from the other side, are quite aware of how these technologies are used, so they track all the communications made on there to arrest those who circulate information about the internal situation of the country and cause them real harm.
    So! At the end, ICTs in such a situation can be perceived as a double edged sword!

    1. Manuela

      Sisil, you are raising a very important point here – information collected through ICTs can indeed be a double edged sword and be used against those very people that is trying to give voice to. My hope is that The Guardian has fully evaluated whether publishing the article would in any way compromise the safety of the people featured in it. And I also do hope that they were made fully aware of how and where their stories would circulate.

  4. Pingback: A better C4D: assessing the potential for new media, ICT and development : Powertalk

  5. Emma Söderström

    Interesting, and I definitely agree. I wonder however how the editors or reporters have chosen which stories should be mediated, they must have had a discussion and decided on a direction or set of characters they would like to feature. I am quite cynical I guess, even though these stories are as authentic as it might get, they have been somehow chosen. And also they have been translated, so their words and linguistic nuances are not their own. What are your thoughts on that?

    But still, they are an important complement to traditional reporting.

    1. Manuela

      Emma, you have every right to be cynical and we should always be – you are actually raising a major point here. There is no such thing as a completely objective reporting or photograph: something always gets framed and something else is left out. And yes, it would be interesting to know what discussions took place among editors and reporters. I also agree that the translator played an important part in ‘framing’ the story. Thanks for pointing it out. Still, these stories add an additional layer of knowledge to the bigger picture.

      1. Sisil Benjaro

        It is true that all these stories are written in English, I still feel the Syrian spirit reflected in the words.
        So I can guarantee that the English translation has made no harm. The reality that Syrians try to convey is still in there.

        (I guess you know that I am Syrian 🙂 )

  6. Chiara

    The question of whose voice we are hearing is so crucial in the humanitarian and development world and yet I feel that not enough people besides those working in the sector pay attention to it. For example, who’s speaking on behalf of Africans and who do these people represent?
    Here’s an interesting article also from the Guardian. Food for thought….
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/17/bono-africans-stealing-voice-poor

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