Ghouta Attack Underlines Value of Documentation

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Image from a Youtube video from Kafr Batna City near Ghouta, Syria.

In addition to exposing and recording the reality of a horrifying chemical weapons attack, the photos, videos, and written reports from Ghouta also brought increased attention to the power of documentation itself. The concentration of documentation from Syrian citizens, journalists and groups– and not by foreign reporters, western NGOs, or even official organizations – produced huge amounts of generally reliable information. This information not only educated the world about the events in real-time, but also forms a significant historical record that could be valuable to Syrians in transitional justice efforts by laying the foundation for prosecuting officials, informing truth-seeking efforts, and serving as a credible basis for memorialization processes.

Search “Ghouta” on Youtube and the results yield about 17,000 hits from this month alone. Many of these videos have been integrated into televised and online media coverage of the chemical attack around the world. It is an exemplary case underlining the potential and critical impact that documentation can have on increasing the global knowledge of such events.  It is not, however, surprising.  Internationally-recognized and well-established news organizations are increasingly drawing on locally-produced publicly-available citizen journalism for photos and videos of events on the ground in hazardous places such as Syria.  These sources of information can ensure the media can access locations too dangerous for their staff.  The chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, in an area inaccessible at the time to international media, underlined just how necessary such local documentation can be under these circumstances.

The local documentation of the attack in Ghouta has also been recognized as timely and credible in supporting responses from the international community.  The UK-based Telegraph reported that Youtube videos “form[ed] a key part of the [British] Government’s dossier of intelligence” regarding the chemical attacks. Similarly, a US Intelligence assessment on the events in Ghouta also included videos and photographs publicly available on the Internet as sources.

The important role documentation can play in establishing facts about the conflict is certainly not unique to Ghouta. Earlier this week, after graphic videos surfaced online of alleged incendiary bomb use on a school playground in Northern Syria, BBC reporters visited the site, re-broadcasted some of the videos, interviewed witnesses, and reported on the aftermath.  Online videos have also been useful to widely-cited blogger Eliot Higgins (alias “Brown Moses”), who analyzes videos showing weapons in order to establish what munitions are being used by what groups in Syria (his analysis includes the chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta. Such “open-source” analysis may provide useful initial insights that could assist future prosecutions.

But the videos and photos do not come easily or automatically. They are the fruits of dangerous work undertaken by documenters who risk, and often lose, their lives in the pursuit of recording the truth. The dangerous reality of documentation was given well-deserved attention in a recent Foreign Policy article explaining that several documenters who arrived shortly after the chemical attack in Ghouta lost their lives. Their sacrifices, and the often uncertain work environment during violence, underscore the brave efforts that have made Syria such a well documented conflict.

This abundance of documentation is good news for the prospects of transitional justice after the conflict. The extensive documentation of the chemical weapons attack has created a vivid historical record of these events. With so many videos and photos in the possession of Syrian individuals and groups, and also freely available online, the veracity and horror of the attack will not fade easily from historical memory.  The extensive documentation can play an important role in eventually telling the story of the conflict. If preserved, Syrians can use it to base truth-seeking and memorialization efforts on credible information, not politicized claims, that can facilitate a peaceful post-conflict transition.

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