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April 11, 2013

I almost died in Syria

                              

I’ve covered wars for years, but nothing prepared me for the conflict on the ground – or in my head

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I almost died in Syria A photo of the author

There’s a private bar in London whose members are nearly all war correspondents. The men and women standing at the bar could easily convince you that war reporting is one of the most exhilarating experiences that life has to offer, a gateway to the outer limits of human experience. This, of course, is absolute nonsense, and they all know it. I can tell you that because I’m frequently one of those people drinking there, and I’ve spun that line on more occasions than I care to remember.

I’ve been making documentaries in war zones on and off for the last 10 years, and I can assure you that working in a conflict zone is absolutely the most horrible, lonely and uncomfortable experience you’re ever likely to have.

But that’s easy to forget.  Within days or even hours of getting home, the bitter and complex reality of seeing a conflict close-up quickly melts into a series of increasingly honed anecdotes whose veracity I can’t quite guarantee.

The only true and abiding memory I have of the weeks and months spent in places like Helmand province in Afghanistan or a field hospital in Iraq is a vague and intangible sense of my split personality.  One part of me becomes the journalist thief, prowling in search of people and stories to turn into a film. And at the same time I’m something quite different but also connected:  a profoundly moved and thin-skinned witness to the awful extremes of human behavior.  Both sides need the other, but they pull in very different directions.

For five weeks last fall, I embarked on a new project, living on both sides of a sectarian front line in rural Syria to make a documentary for the PBS series “Frontline,” and for Channel 4 in the U.K. I filmed with Sunni rebels on one side and regime loyalists on the other as they descended into an increasingly hateful feud.

Nothing could have prepared me for the imperial-scale level of violence that I witnessed there. It was totally unprecedented in my experience. And it’s only now, reading journals and looking back at footage, that some of it is even becoming real.

A family reacts in shock after a government airstrike on the Sunni village of Al-Bara on Oct. 28, 2012.

Six months ago, I was on a bed in a Turkish hotel, a few miles from the Syrian border. I was waiting for my fixer Abdulqader to come back to the room we shared.  He has a hell of a reputation for helping journalists “get inside” (the euphemism of choice among correspondents operating in Syria).

Before that day, I’d only met him once, for just a few hours, in a hushed and somewhat secretive meeting in the corner of a hotel foyer in Istanbul.  Two hours into our second meeting, I was sat in my boxer shorts in our shared room, our beds only inches apart, and the next day we were going to try to sneak into Syria for an extended stay in possibly the world’s most dangerous war zone.  In friendship terms, it was “in at the deep end.”

I kept wondering if I should be more scared. The smugglers who were helping us cross the border were full of horror stories about their friends being killed in airstrikes, or so-and-so “disappearing near Homs.” Then there was the casual warning I’d been given:  ”There’s been a lot of shelling on the road you want to take …” It alarmed me at first, but then I caught myself wondering how much danger this last line really indicated — the road we wanted to take stretched for miles, and people were vague about when it was actually shelled.  It sounded to me then like I was being advised not to drive on a highway because there’d been a car crash there the previous week.

We crossed into Syria the next day, and it took two more to reach our filming destination: the Orontes River valley in Idlib province. It’s a beautiful stretch of Syria’s rural heartland, peaceful for generations, but now a sectarian fault line: On one side of the river, Sunni fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army hold sway. On the other side, less than a mile away, Alawite villagers remain fiercely loyal to the government, and were protected by a line of well-armed regime checkpoints.

On our second day on the rebel side, the army positions shelled the village we were living in.  The sound was almost innocuous at first — a distant pop, a pause of about 20 seconds, and then a vicious crunch as the shell landed nearby.

After the fourth explosion, we headed to the makeshift field hospital to see what had happened. As I got out of the car, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me into a rudimentary emergency room.

There on a metal gurney was an elderly man, probably mid-60s, lying on his back, his face covered in dust, and his right leg blown off at the knee, a shredded flap of skin dangling from his bloodied stump.  The medical team looked resigned, and gave me vague shrugs that I took to indicate their impotence, or their familiarity with a scene like this. I looked at the old man lying on the table in front of them. He was semi-conscious and shivering. He died a few minutes later.

The man who had brought me in pulled at my sleeve and took me into the room next door. It was completely dark.  He flicked a switch on his cigarette lighter to produce a tiny torch light, and shone its weak beam into the room to reveal two badly injured men lying in the darkness. The nearest man was making a strange, hoarse, stuttering sound that I realized was his faltering breath. The second man was reaching out to the man lying next to him, his cousin it turned out, and was saying, in Arabic, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.” He wanted these to be his last words.

The quiet, dark horror of the scene froze me for a moment.  I asked myself, quite deliberately, if I realized what I was looking at. I found myself slipping into that weirdly safe mental space, a kind of filming autopilot. I took the lighter from my guide’s hand, and shone the torch beam onto the men in the dark. I concentrated on keeping the camera steady. I asked the people behind me to be quiet so I could get good, clean sound of the dying man’s last words.  I told myself I could think about it later.

Outside the hospital, a truck had pulled up with three mangled corpses in the back.  A crowd had gathered around it, but a path quickly opened up and I was pushed through to film the bodies. ”Film, film,” people around me urged. It was a horrendous sight, and I flicked the camera to automatic — I didn’t trust my reactions to this.

A man was standing in the truck, holding something up for me to film. The sun was in my eyes, and I couldn’t see. Then the man slipped into silhouette, to reveal the awful outline of a severed foot, dangling there in his hand, displayed as evidence. For a few seconds, I forgot to breathe.

A rainbow forms over the Orontes River valley.

I wanted to find stories away from the violence, and three days later went to visit a group of young peace activists down in the valley. But when I arrived, a man appeared in the doorway and asked if I’d come to “film the bodies.” I was confused, and was led to the mosque next door. There on the blood-stained carpet were three shrouded corpses: a mother, I was told, and her two children. One of the bodies was painfully small. I lowered my camera to take this in, but someone tugged my arm. “Film, film!” he said.

I asked to be driven to where they’d been killed, and by the look of the crater it had probably been a mortar strike. It had landed about 3 meters from the garden patio of a small house whose walls were spattered with blood. A small boy was frantically digging in the crater to pull out bits of shrapnel.  I was told the mother and her kids had been sitting outside shelling corn, and were killed instantly. Two others were also killed nearby.

At the funeral procession, the body of a small boy was carried aloft on a piece of cardboard. I realized I was standing in a grave as men lowered in the bodies of two women. Blood trickled from the stretcher as they lifted it over the heads of the crowd. I worried that it would get on the camera.

Jamal Maarouf, seconds before being targeted in an airstrike.

By the second week, I could hardly sleep.  I lost all confidence in what I was doing. There was no privacy. I got the shits. I was bitten to pieces by mosquitoes. And I became increasingly aware of my split perspective on what I was seeing:  I’d experience total sensory and emotional overload, and then find myself thinking solely about framing or continuity, or about how this story would “work in the edit.”

It got worse.  One day, we heard we’d finally been granted an interview with Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, the most powerful rebel faction in the region.

We were summoned to  meet him in an anonymous house in the small village of Al-Bara, and I’d only just started filming when the house shook as a regime jet flew overhead, dropping the most almighty bomb on the village.  I was standing in the doorway trying to see the plane when the blast knocked me to the ground.  It had landed 300 meters away.  Even Jamal looked shocked.

I knew immediately that filming Jamal in the aftermath of an airstrike was “a good scene,” and was scampering around thinking about exposure and focus. But at the same time, the most awful, visceral reaction was taking place. Beside the huge crater, an old sheikh urged me to film something on the ground, and then he started wobbling something in front of him, some sort of sack of jelly or meat.  And suddenly I realized what I was looking at: the remains of someone who was alive just minutes ago, killed in the most brutal and sudden of ways, lying there debased in the dust. The body was not recognizable as human.

I felt a terrible expression contort my face: I was pulling back my lower jaw and cheeks, my top teeth were bared, and my eyes were wide. I was still filming, but was aware that my face had contorted into a look of horror. The weirdest part was that I was relieved to be horrified, to be human among all this inhumanity, and not just some robot with a video camera.

While I stood there in the rubble, shouts started going up that the jet was returning to bomb a second time. I ever so slightly pissed myself. Where does one stand in a situation like this? Would the jet strike an area it had just hit, to kill rescuers and survivors? Or would it regard that as a “waste” of a bomb, and drop it somewhere else? Was that crater, in fact, the safest place for miles?

I’m sure there’s a training course somewhere that teaches what to do in that situation. Actually, I’ve probably done that course.  But right then, all I could do was run for it like everyone else.

A young boy is consoled after his grandparents appear to have been killed in a government airstrike on the Sunni village of Al-Bara on Oct. 28, 2012.

That night, I walked down to our little supermarket to buy cigarettes. The men at the counter pointed at my jeans and asked why I was so dirty. I said “al-Bara,” and pointed vaguely towards the north. I think they understood.

An old man pulled up a chair and sat right next to me while we smoked in silence. His sleeve was touching mine.  The shopkeeper came out and handed me a little bottle of orange juice. He’d opened it for me and had put in a straw. There was something about this gesture that broke me. I just looked at the ground and started crying. I didn’t try to hide it. It was the first time in a while I’d felt normal.

 

Olly Lambert has a decade of experience documenting life in conflict zones. His latest film, “Syria Behind the Lines,” airs on the PBS investigative documentary series FRONTLINE on Tuesday, April 9 at 10 p.m. It will also be broadcast as “Syria: Across the Lines” in the UK on Channel 4 on April 17 at 10 p.m. More Olly Lambert.             

source

Glenda Jackson launches tirade against Thatcher in tribute debate

[youtube http://youtu.be/XDtClJYJBj8?]

‘Do you know any Arabs in London?’ Israeli airport authorities grill British photojournalist before kicking him out

by Mark Kerrison on March 31, 2013 280

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Detail of the Apartheid Wall, Bethlehem Palestine April 30, 2011 (photo: Mark Kerrison)

“I don’t pretend to know night-time from day, but if I were your God I’d have something to say” (Ben Gurion Prison, 14th March 2013)

These words, scrawled inconspicuously on the wall just above my head amid a plethora of other graffiti, drew my eyes as I sat on a dirty, broken bunk in an Israeli ‘facility’.

Or at least that’s what the Israelis call it. In my lexicon, rows of cells with no door handles on the inside and double bars across the windows are found in a ‘prison’.

That’s where I found myself on 13th March, six hours after arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport at the start of a photographic holiday.

Initially, things were as I would have expected on arrival in Israel.

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Mark Kerrison

At about 4 pm, I waited patiently in a queue to have my passport checked with a colleague from work that I had met by chance on the plane.

I stepped forward and was asked why I was visiting Israel and whether I’d visited before. I told the immigration official that I was visiting as a tourist and that I’d visited before as a child and in 2011.

This answer sufficed for him to tell me that my passport was being retained and that I should direct myself to a room in a quiet corner of the immigration hall for “a few more questions.”

I was surprised – I’ve travelled extensively without problems – but aware that security at Ben Gurion airport is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. I was also uncomfortable at having surrendered my passport, aware that this ran contrary to UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice because of the risk of passport cloning by Israeli authorities.

At first sight, the room indicated by the immigration official wasn’t too unwelcoming; generic airport seating and a drinks vending machine for those who travel with currency. Every seat was taken, though. I wasn’t sure if that was reassuring or not.

However: a young German female and I were the only Caucasians present. Travellers to Israel were being selected for interrogation based on their racial or ethnic profile. This appalled me and I set about counting. During the six hours that I was to spend in and around that room, 25 travelers were similarly detained; only three of us were Caucasian.

My turn for interrogation came at 6:40 pm, 2½ hours after my arrival.

“Mark, come.”

I followed a young Israeli woman in uniform into a small office. We sat at either side of a desk and a computer. On my left sat two casually dressed males. I was later informed that they were officers from Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

“Why did you come to Israel?” the woman started aggressively.

“For a much-needed holiday, a photographic holiday,” I replied calmly.

She failed to understand and asked me to speak up.

I repeated my answer, just as loudly and clearly as I had the first time.

It was already clear that no pleasantries were on offer in this office.

“Where are you going in Israel?”

I told her that I would first spend two or three days in and around Jerusalem, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray for my brother (I explained why) and traveling to Bethlehem and Masada, before moving on to Tel Aviv, Haifa, Galilee and, I hoped, Eilat.

I was, of course, faced with the usual conundrum for anyone arriving in Israel wishing to include the West Bank as part of an itinerary. Mention any West Bank destination other than Bethlehem and you will be refused admission to Israel; fail to mention it and have it suspected and you will be refused admission anyway. I did also intend to visit the West Bank.

“Who do you know in Israel?”

“No one.”

“How long in Israel?”

“About three weeks.”

“What? Three weeks in Israel? Three weeks is too long! No one comes for three weeks to Israel!”

I considered pointing out that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism might see things differently, but thought better of it.

Instead, I repeated that I had three weeks in which to see as much of the country as I could.

One of the two men intervened.

“And the Gaza Strip? And the West Bank?”

“I am not visiting the Gaza Strip or the West Bank,” I said firmly but politely.

I felt as though I had been catapulted into a scene from a cheesy spy thriller, but although uncomfortable at being forced to state only a partial truth, I remained completely calm.

“Where are you staying in Israel?” the woman resumed.

I told her the name of my guesthouse, that I had booked two nights and handed her a copy of the reservation.

“Why only two nights?”

I explained that I only ever book one or two nights when I travel, so that I can plan my holiday on the fly and stay longer in places that I like.

“Where have you traveled this year?”

“Paris, Prague, Dublin and Turkey.”

“How can you travel so much? It’s not possible that you can travel so much.”

I explained that some of my trips were for work rather than for pleasure.

More intrusive questions followed, about my family, my marriage and family holidays.  Almost every question was followed by an inevitable “Are you sure?”

One of the men stood up.

“What about the Gaza Strip? When did you go to the Gaza Strip?”

“I have never been to the Gaza Strip,” I replied calmly.

At times, their interrogation, although intimidating, bordered on caricature.

The woman resumed.

“Is it your first time in Israel?”

“No. I came with my school when I was 13 and again in 2011.”

“Why did you come with your school? Are you a teacher?”

“No, I was 13!”

“What’s your job?”

I told her that I work in consumer electronics; I didn’t tell her that I also freelance as a photojournalist.

“When was the second time?”

“2011.”

“How long in Israel?”

“Two weeks.”

“Where did you go?”

“Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem.”

“What? In two weeks? Only Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem? That’s not possible!” she mocked.

I explained that it would easily have been possible to spend the entire two weeks in Jerusalem, so much was there to see in and around the city. I added that this was the main reason for me returning to see more of Israel.

“No one comes to Israel more than once!”

Another strapline for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Other questions followed in quick succession.

I told her the name of the convent where I had stayed and that I had spoken to people in restaurants and shops as well as to other guests in the convent.

I reeled off a couple of random first names from memory and told her that we had spoken about Jerusalem’s religious and other tourist sites.

I recall thinking that it was a bit like conversing with a persistent toddler.

One of the men intervened.

“So you didn’t meet any Palestinians?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said clearly, gathering that there must be some kind of prohibition on speaking to Palestinians.

“Are you sure?”

“Very sure.”

“So if I take your phone I won’t find the names of any Palestinians?”

“No, you won’t.”

“It’s better if you tell me now because if I find them you’ll be in big trouble.”

I repeated my answer.

“Do you know any Arabs in London?”

“I have friends from many different countries owing to my work and studies.”

“What about Mohamed?”

“Mohamed? Who’s he?” I laughed.

He asked for my phone.

For an instant, I considered refusing – this seemed beyond the bounds of reasonable questioning – but any refusal would have been pointless.

He seemed satisfied with a quick check. I later discovered that he had used £5.00 of my PAYG credit without asking permission.

The woman asked me to write down my name, home phone number, mobile phone number, home e-mail address, work e-mail address, father’s name and grandfather’s name.

One of the men asked if I had any other e-mail addresses.

“No.”

“A facebook account?”

I had read an article suggesting that Israeli immigration officers ask travelers to open e-mail and facebook accounts for them to trawl, so I opted to say that I hadn’t.

This was a mistake.

He showed me on-screen an old e-mail address of mine entered in the sign-in page of a facebook account.

I started to explain, entirely truthfully, that I’d not actively used the e-mail address for years and that the facebook account has always remained entirely blank, but he cut me short and yelled at me from close proximity.

“You’ve been lying since the moment you walked through the door! Everything you’ve said has been a lie! Either you start to tell me the truth or you’re going to find yourself in serious trouble. I can make things very difficult for you. If I refuse you entry to Israel, you will have problems in many other countries. You will have to answer lots of questions about why you were refused entry to Israel. Now, tell me about your time in the West Bank. Who did you meet? Which Palestinians did you meet? Which Israelis did you meet? I want names. NOW!”

I repeated, quite simply, that I had not visited the West Bank.

“GET OUT! GET OUT!” he snarled at me.

It was about 7:25 pm. I shrugged my shoulders and walked outside.

He returned ten minutes later with my phone.

“You will not be entering Israel tonight.”

I sensed that there would be no tomorrow.

A shocked fellow detainee asked him why but he walked away.

On the face of it, I had been denied entry because I had forgotten about an e-mail account unused for years and a never-used facebook account; neither contained a single reference to either Israel or Palestine.

At 7.55 pm, an immigration officer led me to the baggage handling area.

The left-luggage attendant joked that he had completed a claim form because my rucksack had remained unclaimed for so long.

I guess he must repeat the same joke every day.

I was then led to a large room, closed to prying eyes. Everything was white. It contained a huge x-ray machine and a long row of tables.

I said that I didn’t have a laptop but that, as a photojournalist, I was carrying a lot of photographic equipment. This was the first time I mentioned that I also freelance as a photojournalist.

My luggage was x-rayed.

Two intelligence officers started to rifle through my rucksack with an electronic device as I was gestured into a small room by the immigration officer.

“Empty your pockets.”

I pulled out some British coins and my press credentials. My passport still hadn’t been returned to me.

I was then asked to remove my shirt and shoes and to unbutton my fly. I fixed the official in the eye as if to question this and he indicated that I should proceed.

I’d never been subjected to a strip search before.

Not in Soviet Russia. Not in Albania. Not in Latin America. Not in the US.

Only in Israel.

He patted me from head to toe and then swabbed me with an electronic device, including around my genitals.

An unwelcome invasion of privacy for me as a Caucasian male, I pondered how degrading and invasive this process must be for other travelers.

The contents of my rucksack and hand luggage had now been security-checked and were strewn all over the tables. I was asked to repack. Just the paraphernalia of modern life required by any backpacker on holiday.

Minus my bottle of water – they’d thrown that away.

At 8.25 pm, I was escorted back to the original room in the immigration hall. There were free seats now. An immigration official sat near to me.

A Muslim woman waiting when I arrived just after 4 pm was still there. There was no change in the ethnic profile of those waiting.

I had had no access to a toilet for over 5 hours and no food for 12 hours.

I phoned my guesthouse, knowing at least that I would no longer need accommodation that evening. I told them that I had been detained by Israeli immigration, that I did not know why and that I may or may not be allowed through the following day.

When I finished the call, the immigration official informed me that I was being deported. He apologised that I had not been told before and pointed out that he was not in charge. I asked him whether he knew why I was being deported; he said he didn’t.

At 9:20 pm, a female intelligence officer entered the room.

She also informed me that I was being deported and said that my flight to the UK would leave at 5 pm the following day.

I again asked why I was being deported.

“Security.”

“But what’s the reason?”

“Security. That’s all I can say.”

At 9:55 pm, two men told me that they were taking me to a ‘facility’ where I could eat and sleep.

One smiled as he read a form bearing my photo given to him by an intelligence officer.

“What did you do? Did you throw stones at the soldiers?”

I explained that I had just arrived in Israel on holiday and asked him if the form explained why I had been denied entry.

He said that my refusal came not from Israeli immigration but from the Shabak. I later learned that Shabak is another name for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

I was transported to a prison in the back of an armored prison van, a journey of around 10 minutes from the airport.

Once there, a warder told me to leave my baggage downstairs and to take only my money and any jewellery. I could not take my stomach medication.

He asked my nationality and why I was there. I told him that I was from the UK and that I had come to Israel on holiday.

He offered me food – which I refused in protest at my unjust detention – and then apologized as he showed me to my cell, adding before he slammed the door that I should bang on the door if I needed anything.

It was 10:20 pm, over six hours after my arrival.

The lights were off, but I could see that the cell contained three double-bunks. Two were half-occupied and the occupants were trying to sleep.

I sat on the free bunk.

The cell stank of urine. There were double bars on the window. The door had a peephole but no handle on the inside. I could see a toilet and a basin. The walls of the cell and the underside of the bunk above me were covered in graffiti.

I used the toilet – my first opportunity for seven hours – and settled down to meditate on my bunk. I knew I wouldn’t sleep so I didn’t even try. I later discovered that I had been bitten by bed bugs merely from sitting on the filthy bunk.

As the night wore on, I could periodically hear other inmates shouting and banging on the doors of cells in the same corridor. Some of the voices were female. The only response I ever heard was an unsympathetic “Go to sleep!”

Two more men entered at around 7 am. They talked to one of the other occupants in Russian.

As daylight started to penetrate the barred window, I could see more of my surroundings. My bunk was broken in several places and there were bare electric wires sprouting from the wall right next to my head.

I began to read the graffiti. Those detained here had come from all over the globe. There were so many different languages represented.

I was shocked to think that all these people were being deported.

Much, if not all, of the text was harsh in its condemnation of Israel and its human rights record. I noticed a number of slogans calling for a ‘Free Palestine’. The few anti-Semitic comments and swastikas sickened me.

My eyes were most drawn, though, to some words in small, inconspicuous lettering immediately above my head: “I don’t pretend to know night-time from day, but if I were your God I’d have something to say.”

I found these words comforting and I memorized them.

I refused breakfast and lunch and tried to explain to my cellmates – only one of whom spoke a few words of English – that my refusal was in protest at my unjust detention. I should not, in any case, eat without my stomach medication.

I was sharing the cell with a Thai and three Moldovans. The Thai was being deported after four years in Israel and one of the Moldovans after ten years.

At 10 am, a cleaner arrived and we were ushered out of the cell. The Thai and one of the Moldovans left for their deportation flights. I joined the other two Moldovans for a quick cigarette outside, amusing myself with the thought that this was the only sun I would see in Israel. They also left an hour or so later.

At 4:10 pm, 24 hours after my arrival, a warder informed me that I was being taken to catch the 5 pm flight to London. He granted me access to my stomach medication. I had difficulty swallowing it without water. I hadn’t drunk any water for well over 24 hours.

I sat alone in a sealed compartment in the middle of an armored truck. Two immigration officers sat in the front, one carrying handcuffs.

We passed through a number of security checkpoints.

At one, the door to my compartment opened.

“Hello,” said a very young Israeli woman.

I returned her greeting with a smile and had a strong sense that she found it difficult to imagine that I had done anything wrong.

I hadn’t.

Maybe she had that feeling every time she saw someone pass in one of those armored trucks on their way to a deportation flight.

At 5:45 pm, I was escorted across the tarmac towards my flight, the first passenger to board.

One of the immigration officers explained that my passport would be handed to the captain, only to be returned to me when we reached the UK.

I was greeted by the Easyjet crew at the top of the mobile stairway. The captain handed me my passport and smiled.

“You’re on British soil now,” he said.

I still don’t know for sure why I was denied entry to Israel.

I imagine, though, that Israeli intelligence Google-searched my human rights photojournalism in advance of my arrival and decided not to interrogate me around that as to deny access to a holidaying photographer is less likely to attract criticism than to deny access to a photojournalist.

Until such time as our Governments apply genuine pressure on Israel to permit travelers to openly state on arrival that they wish to visit the West Bank without risk of being denied entry, I fear that other people, too, may find themselves in the same distasteful predicament.

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Palestinian stallholder April 24, 2011 (photo: Mark Kerrison)

Some of Kerrison’s work can be seen here.

source

Stop the Killer Robots: Expert Warns of Real-Life Skynet

Skynet UK

02/24/2013

A new global campaign to persuade nations to ban “killer robots” before they reach the production stage is to be launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel peace prize laureates.

Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.

The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.

“These things are not science fiction; they are well into development,” said Sharkey. “The research wing of the Pentagon in the US is working on the X47B [unmanned plane] which has supersonic twists and turns with a G-force that no human being could manage, a craft which would take autonomous armed combat anywhere in the planet.

“In America they are already training more drone pilots than real aircraft pilots, looking for young men who are very good at computer games. They are looking at swarms of robots, with perhaps one person watching what they do.”

Sharkey insists he is not anti-war but deeply concerned about how quickly science is moving ahead of the presumptions underlying the Geneva convention and the international laws of war.

“There are a lot of people very excited about this technology, in the US, at BAE Systems, in China, Israel and Russia, very excited at what is set to become a multibillion-dollar industry. This is going to be big, big money. But actually there is no transparency, no legal process. The laws of war allow for rights of surrender, for prisoner of war rights, for a human face to take judgments on collateral damage. Humans are thinking, sentient beings. If a robot goes wrong, who is accountable? Certainly not the robot.”

He disputes the justification that deploying robot soldiers would potentially save lives of real soldiers. “Autonomous robotic weapons won’t get tired, they won’t seek revenge if their colleague is killed, but neither will my washing machine. No one on your side might get killed, but what effect will you be having on the other side, not just in lives but in attitudes and anger?

“The public is not being invited to have a view on the morals of all of this. We won’t hear about it until China has sold theirs to Iran. That’s why we are forming this campaign to look at a pre-emptive ban.

“The idea is that it’s a machine that will find a target, decide if it is the right target and then kill it. No human involvement. Article 36 in the Geneva Convention says that any new weapon has to take into account whether it can distinguish and discriminate between combatant and civilian, but the problem here is that an autonomous robot is not a weapon until you clip on the gun.”

At present, Sharkey says, there is no mechanism in a robot’s “mind” to distinguish between a child holding up a sweet and an adult pointing a gun. “We are struggling to get them to distinguish between a human being and a car. We have already seen utter incompetence in the use of drones, operators making a lot of mistakes and not being properly supervised.”

Last November the international campaign group Human Rights Watch produced a 50-page report, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, outlining concerns about fully autonomous weapons.

“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimising civilian deaths and injuries.”

US political activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel peace prize for her work at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is expected to join Sharkey at the launch at the House of Commons. Williams said she was confident that a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons could be achieved in the same way as the international embargo on anti-personnel landmines. “I know we can do the same thing with killer robots. I know we can stop them before they hit the battlefield,” said Williams, who chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

“Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now,” she said. “The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots.”

Via TheGuardian

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