TIME Syria

Citizen Journalists Playing a Crucial Role in Syrian War

Blogger Eliot Higgins, who uses the pseudonym Brown Moses, has written extensively on the Syria conflict.
David Sillitoe—Camera Press/Guardian/Redux Blogger Eliot Higgins, who uses the pseudonym Brown Moses, has written extensively on the Syria conflict.

As Islamist militants, Syrian Kurdish fighters and American fighter jets continue to fight for control of the strategic Syrian town of Kobani, some of the most influential reports on the battle — and the war in Syria generally are emerging not from conventional news outlets but from two men based in regional cities in the Midlands region of England. The increasing difficulty of reporting on the the conflict from the ground was made all too evident by the brutal killings of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which is also holding hostage British photojournalist John Cantlie. Yet the growth of social media, facilitated by technological advances that allow Internet access even in a war zone, has made detailed, ground-level information on the war available online, and the two British-based sources have become particularly adept at analyzing it. One is a Syrian exile named Rami Abdul Rahman, who runs an information service called the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights from his two-bedroom house in Coventry; the other is a blogger named Eliot Higgins, who uses the pseudonym Brown Moses and who works from his home in the nearby town of Leicester.

Abdul Rahman’s reports are frequently cited by mainstream media outlets and Western government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, while Higgins has been credited with detecting significant developments in the war, such as the use of cluster bombs and barrel bombs by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Higgins was the first to notice that the rebels were using Croatian weapons, and he worked with a New York Times reporter to establish that they had been supplied by Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the U.S. government. More recently, he used satellite map imagery to identify the place in the hills south of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa where James Foley was murdered.

The two men work in different ways. Abdul Rahman, who was born Osama Suleiman in the city of Baniyas on the Syrian coast and came to the U.K. in 2000, has four main contacts in Syria. They help to collate information from more than 230 activists. By contrast, Higgins has no prior knowledge of Syria and no contacts on the ground. He started the Brown Moses blog in March 2012. His first posts were about the British phone hacking scandal, but in May 2012, he started analyzing events in Syria. He was laid off from his job as an office administrator in October 2012, and worked on a temporary contract for four months. In February 2013, he launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign that raised more than £6,000 and allowed him to continue his analysis full-time. Since then, he has become one of the pioneers of what he calls “citizen open source investigation.”

Higgins believes that the proliferation of social media reports cancels out the risks of relying on individual posts, which, without being triangulated with other evidence, are hard to trust. “People need to start thinking about social media reports not as individual pieces of information, but as part of a network,” he says by email. “So, for example, with Syria when I see a YouTube video that’s interesting, I’ll track down the original YouTube channel, associated Facebook and Twitter accounts, see who those accounts are linked on, and so on. That way you can build a broader range of information about an event from multiple sources.” Yet the volume of information presents a challenge in itself, and Higgins is seeking funding for a project called Syria Right Now, which he says will make it easier for its users to search through the mass of material online. “We’re talking thousands of social media accounts, and as it stands, it’s a nightmare to review them in an orderly fashion,” he says. “Syria Right Now aims to collate every Syrian opposition social media account, tag them with information, then organize the accounts in a much more accessible way, producing daily reports in Arabic and English. The aim is to visit one site and be able to find the accounts by groups, location, region, etc with a few clicks of a button.” Higgins is hoping to get a grant of £18,000 to run the project for six months.

Higgins does not believe that his work can replace the work of the reporters on the ground, but he believes it can help direct their activities and reduce the risks they face. “There’s a huge amount of information available from armed opposition groups and media groups, which can be used to inform the work of journalists, in particular how safe an area may be. If properly exploited, this information could have saved the lives of journalists and others working in Syria,” he says.

The dangers confronting journalists have been compounded by the retrenchment of conventional media companies; much of the coverage of the war has been provided by freelancers, who operate with little training, insurance or protection. John Owen, Professor of International News at City University in London, says that “news organizations can’t contract out their duty of care and moral responsibility if they choose to air or publish freelancers” material or “tempt them into pursuing risky stories.” Some media outlets, such as the British newspapers the Guardian and the Sunday Times, have declined to take reports from freelancers, because they do not want to create a market for their stories. Yet it is the largely unpaid citizen journalists, who live in the war zone and report on the events taking place around them, who are most in danger. According to data published by Reporters Without Borders before Sotloff’s murder, 122 Syrian citizen journalists have been killed in Syria since March 2011. Nonetheless, the volume of material posted online continues to grow, supplying the raw material that allows analysts like Higgins to detect patterns in the chaos.

TIME indonesia

See a Volcano’s Explosive Eruption in Indonesia

Hundreds of people have been forced out of their homes over the past four days following volcanic explosions on Mount Sinabung in Indonesia

TIME Viewpoint

The Indelible Lessons of Auschwitz

A replica hung in place of the stolen infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on Dec. 18, 2009.
Jacek Bednarczyk—AFP/Getty Images A replica hung in place of the stolen infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on Dec. 18, 2009.

The recent increase in attacks against Jews reminds us to stay vigilant against anti-Semitism

From the murderous pogroms of the 1930s to the chanting mobs calling for “death to the Jews” in a slew of European cities today, anti-Semitism and violence have historically gone hand in hand. It’s no surprise, then, that the rise of born-again terrorist groups marching in lockstep with al-Qaeda—chief among them the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)—has been accompanied by an increase in Europe of boycotts, protests, beatings, firebombed synagogues and other attacks on Jews.

That’s unnerving news in more ways than one. For decades, most people in Europe have believed the monster of anti-Semitism to be all but buried for good. Not quite. Across the continent, physical as well as verbal attacks on Jews are shocking the consciences of people who never thought they’d see such displays there again. Against this backdrop, and with ISIS and its supporters rooting openly on social media for a new Holocaust, it’s worth meditating for a moment on a historical milestone just ahead.

Nov. 24 marks the 70th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 11th-hour attempt to hide the Nazi genocide. With the Red Army practically at the gates of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, Himmler—chief overseer of the so-called Final Solution—ordered the crematoriums at the camp destroyed and the killing of Jews throughout the Reich to cease.

Himmler’s attempted cover-up failed miserably. Seventy years of trials, books, museums, documentaries, memoirs, testimonies and articles have so powerfully borne witness that one can only wonder whether, by 2014, there is anything at all left to say.

The answer from all directions continues to be not only yes, but also plenty.

For one thing, there’s the fact that writers of stature continue to mine the signature horror of the 20th century. Today’s prominent example is British novelist Martin Amis, who grappled with the Nazi genocide in earlier fiction too. Amis’ new book, The Zone of Interest, is a satire set in a fictionalized version of Auschwitz.

The novel has become the object of impassioned—largely positive—reviews in both the U.S. and Europe (though it has yet to secure a German publisher). The sheer amount of international attention goes to show that in literature at least, there’s no such thing as the last word on the Holocaust.

Amis isn’t the only current writer of fiction who dares to take up the subject. British novelist Philip Kerr is the author of a series of Berlin-based noir procedurals in which a Marlowe-esque protagonist, detective Bernie Gunther, is repeatedly enmeshed in major episodes of Nazi history. In addition to fiction written for adults, Holocaust-themed literature for children and teenagers is also flourishing and often assigned in classrooms, at least in the U.S. Among the most popular: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

This fall has seen two other new commentaries destined to leave their marks. One is the English translation of researcher Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. Already well known in Germany, the book challenges Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis via new documentation from Eichmann’s years in Argentina that reveal him repeatedly as an anti-Semitic braggart, a proud Nazi and a master manipulator. At the same time, a new film called Night Will Fall—about a rarely seen Holocaust documentary created in 1945 by a team including Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein—is playing in theaters across Great Britain.

In September, coincidentally, German prosecutors charged a former member of Hitler’s SS named Oskar Gröning with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. This so-called accountant of Auschwitz is 93 years old. What will happen when the last camp guard finally dies off, the last survivor ceases to tell the tale? Will the world then forget about the death camps at last, and move on?

Even seven decades after Himmler’s attempt to conceal the Nazis’ crimes, that’s impossible to believe. No one can erase the collected, recorded knowledge of what happened. Auschwitz remains what it has been since the Nazis first set boots in the place: the inescapable moral Rorschach test of our time, and of foreseeable times to come. n

Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Burma

The Good Doctor

Dr. Cynthia Maung stands for a portrait at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand on Sept. 16, 2014. Dr. Cynthia Maung was born in Rangoon in 1956. An ethnic Karen, she finished medical school in the city and began working in her homeland’s mountainous east, before fleeing over the border to Thailand after the junta launched a crackdown on democracy activists in 1988. Seeing the need for medical care among the displaced community, she established the Mae Tao Clinic at Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border. Today the Mae Tao clinic has 700 staff and treats over 150,000 impoverished migrant workers, refugees and orphans each year. Photo by Adam Ferguson for Time
Photograph by Adam Ferguson for TIME Among her own Dr. Cynthia is herself a refugee who fled a brutal crackdown in Burma a quarter-century ago.

Cynthia Maung’s simple border 
clinic is a lifesaver for Burma’s 
downtrodden

Lay Lay doesn’t yet have a name for her baby boy. The 23-year-old homemaker gave birth after a grueling eight-hour labor, having made the trip to Thailand alone from the Burmese town of Myawaddy. “I was scared to have my baby at home, as I didn’t have money for a doctor,” she says. “The doctors here made me feel safe.”

Lay Lay’s plight is a side effect of the world’s longest-running civil war, between Burma’s military and local ethnic rebel armies. The conflict has racked Burma, also known as Myanmar, for over half a century. Bloodshed and bitter poverty have claimed thousands of lives, destroyed infrastructure and forced more than 2 million refugees and migrant workers to eke out a better existence in comparatively booming neighbor Thailand.

This forsaken community has precious few options for health care, making the Mae Tao clinic, the free medical facility where Lay Lay gave birth, a lifesaver. Established by Dr. Cynthia Maung near the Thai border town of Mae Sot, Mae Tao treats more than 150,000 patients each year, including some 3,000 newborns—equivalent to a typical U.S. maternity ward.

But there are no gleaming floors or sterile hand-gel dispensers. Instead, a ramshackle collection of lichen-imbued concrete and wire huts is set amid a packed earth garden of calathea and palm. Patients lie on hard wooden or iron cots covered with mats or, if lucky, a thin mattress. Red spatters of betel juice mark the dusty courtyard.

It’s a testament to Burma’s woes that for so many of its people, Mae Tao represents the apex of medical care—and that the nation’s most famous doctor has lived in exile for a quarter-century. Dr. Cynthia, as she is affectionately known, was born in Burma’s then capital of Rangoon in 1959 but grew up just outside the sodden city of Moulmein to the south. After completing her medical studies, the ethnic Karen began working as a rural doctor and was constantly confronted by the hardships of ordinary people.

In 1988, student-led pro-democracy demonstrations convulsed the nation, only to be brutally quashed by the junta. Thousands died, and many more fled through the dense jungle to the relative safety of Thailand. Dr. Cynthia joined these bedraggled hordes, administering medical care as best she could despite the scarcity of equipment and medication. The next year, she and a few colleagues set up Mae Tao using supplies begged from missionaries and aid workers. At the outset, the clinic’s meager cache of instruments was sterilized in an aluminum rice cooker.

“We were just emergency medical relief in the conflict zone,” says Dr. Cynthia, attired in a traditional striped Karen tunic. “We were responding to the needs of new arrivals and never expected to stay on the border this long.” Over the next quarter of a century, Burma’s crisis festered and Mao Tao refashioned itself—first caring for ailing and injured students, then soldiers and refugees caught up in ethnic conflicts, and now undocumented migrant workers.

Today, Mae Tao boasts 200 clinical staff plus 300 providing training, education and support. Half the patients are Burmese working in Thailand with the remainder crossing over the border specifically to seek treatment. There are departments for immunizations, HIV/AIDS, laboratory tests, eye surgery, dentistry, respiratory disease as well as distinct local needs—such as a dedicated malaria ward and a vital prosthetics department.

Khin Maung Than’s left leg was crushed in a traffic accident six months ago. Without his cherished prosthetic, handcrafted to precisely match his stump, the 56-year-old Mandalay native would be unable to keep working as a motor-rickshaw driver. “Because of this prosthetic leg, I can still support my two children,” he says. “I couldn’t earn a living otherwise.”

But Khin Maung Than is far from typical. A glance through the department’s register reveals most patients were maimed by land mines. Mae Tao mops up after ongoing clashes between the Burmese government and myriad ethnic armed groups—wounded rebels sometimes share wards with enemy soldiers. “When they are not in the front line, they will not fight,” says Dr. Cynthia.

Since 2011 the long-closed Burma has been pried open. Media censorship has eased, political prisoners have been released and unfettered by-elections saw Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament. But precious little reform has trickled down to the border regions. Rape, forced labor and assaults are legion.

Reform brings other problems. Dr. Cynthia has been lionized with awards from all around the globe, but as key donors—including the U.S., Canada and Britain—become enchanted by Burma’s renaissance, crucial funds are siphoned from the impoverished frontier to projects inside the country. Clinical services at Mao Tao cost almost $2 million annually, but resources are only secure until mid-2015. “It’s very challenging if you don’t have funds,” says Dr. Cynthia. “People come here for medical care but have many needs. We have to look not at a disease but at an individual.” Individuals like Lay Lay’s son, who might not yet have a name but, thanks to Dr. Cynthia, now has a chance.

TIME Military

General Who Championed Air Power Challenges Pentagon on ISIS

Clashes between ISIL and Kurdish armed groups in Kobane
Emin Menguarslan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani Thursday marks where clashes between its Kurdish defenders and ISIS attackers are underway.

Architect of U.S. air war in Afghanistan says U.S. strikes too limited

Once a United States military effort bogs down, as is now happening in the battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani, two things happen: Pentagon officials explain why what is happening should come as no surprise, and experts carp about how it is a surprise and could be done better.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, explained Wednesday why the U.S. and its allies are basically powerless to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from taking Kobani, which sits on Syria’s border with Turkey, and the 200,000 residents still living there. ISIS is now reported to control about a third of the town, half of whose population has fled to Turkey. “Airstrikes alone,” Kirby said, “are not going to . . . to save the town of Kobani.”

Them’s fighting words to air power advocates like David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who ran the successful air campaign over Afghanistan in the opening months of the U.S. campaign there.

Deptula responded to Kirby’s comments in an overnight email from Australia:

The issue is not the limits of airpower, the issue is the ineffective use of airpower. According to [The Department of Defense’s] own website, two B-1 sorties can deliver more ordnance than did all the strikes from the aircraft carrier Bush over the last six weeks. Two F-15E sorties alone are enough to handle the current average daily task load of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Wise analysts understand that those blaming airpower for not ‘saving Kobani’ are confusing the limits of ‘airpower’ with the sub-optimization of its application. One can see [ISIS] tanks and artillery . . . in the open on TV, yet the coalition forces for ‘Operation Un-named Effort’ are not hitting them. Airpower can hit those targets and many others, but those in charge of its application are not—that’s the issue—not the limits of airpower.

The airstrikes to date have been very closely controlled, tactical in nature, and reflect the way they have been ‘metered’ in Afghanistan. The process that is being used to apply airpower is excessively long and overly controlled at too high a command level. The situation in Iraq/Syria with [ISIS] is not the same as Afghanistan with the Taliban. What we are witnessing now is a symptom of fighting the last war by a command that is dominated with ground warfare officers who have little experience with applying airpower in anything other than a ‘support’ role.

The situation requires a holistic, complete, air campaign, not simply a set of ‘targeted strikes.’ It requires a well planned and comprehensive air campaign focusing on achieving desired effects at the operational and strategic levels of war.

The coalition should establish 24/7 constant overwatch, with force application on every element of [ISIS] leadership, key infrastructure, forces and personnel—apply unrelenting pressure day and night on [ISIS] throughout Syria and Iraq. Airmen have the capacity, equipment, training, tactics, and knowledge needed for this fight, but airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle.

Fighting words, indeed.

TIME faith

Meet the Iraqi Couple Attending Pope Francis’ Synod

Elizabeth Dias Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb

The Synod bishops have already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families

Baghdad has been home to Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb for their entire lives. It is where they first met at church in 1969, married in 1976, developed their careers—he is an engineer, she is a pharmacist—and raised their son and daughter, who are now both doctors. Their part of town has long been an area where Christians and Muslims have peacefully coexisted. But now all that’s changing—Iraq’s economic, political, and religious turmoil, especially with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (ISIS) attacks on minority Christian communities, is uprooting their lives.

This week Azzu, 61, and Habeeb, 60, are sharing their story with Pope Francis and the bishops gathered at the Vatican for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family, a special gathering of church leaders to discuss practical issues of marriage and family in the modern world. They are one of the fourteen couples appointed by the Holy Father to participate as auditors, a term for the non-voting attendees. On paper, their role is to serve as “witnesses of Christian family life in an Islamic context.” In person it is to witness to the larger story of the issues Christian — particularly Catholic — families face in the Middle East.

The couple previously represented Iraq with 10 other families at the 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan. They are humbled by the opportunity to be the ones to share their story at the Synod, they tell TIME. They were likely selected because their English skills are good and they are regular church attendees, Habeeb says, but she added that lots of families deserve this honor. The two main issues are on their minds as they prepare to speak to the Synod fathers: the impact of war on Christians, and immigration’s role in fracturing the family.

Both are experiences they have lived firsthand. ISIS has driven more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians out of the country over the last few months. The June 11 assault of northern Iraq was a disaster for their community. While Azzu and Habeeb were relatively safe in Baghdad, they watched as fellow Christians were driven from cities like Mosul and are now living in tents and church yards. “That did it for us. They were people like us—they had good homes, good jobs, they were driven away just like that,” Habeeb says. “It’s like the 9/11 of Iraq.”

The pair’s family has been torn apart as conditions have worsened in recent years. Their distant relatives have all left the country. Their son moved to Michigan and is now an American citizen. Their daughter, who has a PhD in diagnostic imaging, and her husband, moved with their grandchildren to Germany to try to build a new life. “She has to start again, from zero,” Habeeb explains, talking about how many youth are leaving the country, in many cases along with older family members, which fractures the close family ties Arab countries have developed over centuries. “She had no future. It is a hopeless case, Iraq.”

For now, the couple is staying in Iraq, but they are considering a move to the United States with their son. The burden brought on by being required to pay religious taxes and not be able to openly celebrate Christian feast days and big holidays like Christmas is taking its toll. Many of their moderate Muslim friends have already left the country. Their own church, St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic, has shrunk to 200 families, compared to 2,000 families two decades ago.

The bishops at the Synod are aware of the challenges Christians in Iraq have been facing, and already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families. In the midst of it all, Habeeb and Azzu are trying to bear testimony to their Catholic faith and to loving their neighbors, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or anything else. Church, they say, is what has sustained them and given them social community and friends. But they also recognize there are limits to what the Catholic Church can do to improve the situation.

“[The Church has] shown wonderful acts of solidarity, this is beautiful. They are making their voices heard in the world community . . . they are praying, there are contributing financially,” Habeeb says. “What else can they do? It is a moral voice.”

The U.S. and its military power is another matter. “It is [a] very slow reaction, they are saying it takes a lot of time, years maybe, I don’t know why,” Azzu says of the American response. “It is baffling,” Habeeb adds. “They say you people have to tackle their problems on your own, and they are right. . . . I’m sure our politicians are to blame also. . . . We had large expectations when America liberated us the first time, a beautiful sense of freedom. All of this disappeared.”

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