‘Visual memory’: Activists in race to save digital trace of Syria war

‘Visual memory’: Activists in race to save digital trace of Syria war
A Kurdish woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobani. (AFP)
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Updated 09 March 2021

‘Visual memory’: Activists in race to save digital trace of Syria war

‘Visual memory’: Activists in race to save digital trace of Syria war
  • The videos showing regime bombardments, executions by extremists and chemical attacks had served as a vital window into a conflict which has remained largely off limits to journalists and investigators and was captured mostly by the people living it

BEIRUT: From videos of deadly airstrikes to extremists' takeovers, Al-Mutez Billah’s YouTube page served as a digital archive of the Syrian war until automated takedown software in 2017 erased it permanently.
The page exhibiting footage that violated YouTube’s community standards could not be restored because Al-Mutez Billah, a citizen-journalist, had been executed by Daesh three years earlier over his documentation efforts.
“It’s not just videos that have been deleted, it’s an entire archive of our life,” said Sarmad Jilane, a Syrian activist and close friend of Al-Mutez Billah, who was killed at the age of 21.
“Effectively, it feels like a part of our visual memory has been erased.”
The Google-owned YouTube platform has deleted hundreds of thousands of videos uploaded by Syrian activists since it introduced automated software in 2017 to detect and delete objectionable content, including violent or graphic videos.
It is not the only social media giant relying on artificial intelligence takedowns, but the platform is home to the majority of Syria war footage, making it an even bigger blow.
The videos showing regime bombardments, executions by extremists and chemical attacks had served as a vital window into a conflict which has remained largely off limits to journalists and investigators and was captured mostly by the people living it.
With the war entering its 11th year, there is growing concern that digital evidence of history’s most documented conflict is being syphoned away by the Internet’s indiscriminate trash can.
“The videos are part of an entire population’s memory,” Jilane said.
“Every clip helps us remember things like what shells were fired that day, the date of the event, or even how we were feeling at the time,” the activist told AFP over the phone from Germany.
Jilane is one of the founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a renowned activist-run page that documented abuses by extremists from Daesh.
Four years ago, YouTube deleted the page’s account but it has since been restored with the help of the Syrian Archive — a group working to preserve the conflict’s digital footprint.
The Syrian Archive has helped restore more than 650,000 YouTube videos removed since 2017, but that is only a fraction of deleted content.
“There is a real feel among people who do open-source investigation that Syrian history is being erased by machine-learning technology,” said Dia Kayyali of the parent company Mnemonic.
“It is a steady and ongoing bleeding-out of this body of evidence.”
To get a sense of how much content is being removed, the Syrian Archive compares videos available online against those collected on its servers.
Almost a quarter of its collection is no longer available on YouTube, Kayyali said.
The situation is set to worsen as global powers ramp up pressure on social media giants to curb terror content online.
In December, EU lawmakers reached a provisional agreement on tougher regulations, including an obligation that platforms take down offending material within an hour.
If enforced, this would make preservation all the more difficult.
“As soon as we find things, we archive them,” Kayyali said.
“But we can’t keep up with the technology, it’s specifically designed to be much faster than human beings,” she added.
“Right now, it’s really a race against time.”
YouTube usually relies on a mix of automated software and human reviewers to flag and delete problematic videos.
But the coronavirus pandemic has forced it to lean more on artificial intelligence as it reduces “in-office staffing,” according to its latest transparency report.
This “means we are removing more content that may not be violative of our policies,” it said.
But “when it’s brought to our attention that a video or channel has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it,” said a YouTube spokesperson.
Despite the erasures, countless hours of Syria content survive.
“We have more footage of the Syrian war than the length of the conflict itself,” said Nick Waters of the open-source investigation website Bellingcat.
Bellingcat has gained prominence as a pillar of open-source intelligence since it started using videos and images to probe the use of weapons in Syria’s war, which has claimed more than 380,000 lives.
Rights groups have also used open-source information to investigate chemical weapon use in Syria.
“User-generated content is very good at establishing certain things: what happened, where and when,” Waters said.
“It’s less good in terms of the why and sometimes the whom.”
Experts believe social media evidence could potentially play a future role in Syria prosecutions.
Its use in court is still being developed, Waters said, but its added value should not be overlooked.
“Each one of these videos or images potentially shows a piece of history,” said the open-source analyst.
“By deleting these videos, especially from accounts of people who may have been killed ... these social media giants are effectively destroying evidence.”


Deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force dies from ‘heart condition’

Deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force dies from ‘heart condition’
Updated 1 min 29 sec ago

Deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force dies from ‘heart condition’

Deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force dies from ‘heart condition’

RIYADH: The deputy commander of Iran’s military wing that oversees its foreign proxy militias has died from a “heart condition.”
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hejazi’s death was announced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian media reported. No further details were given about his death.
He was a senior figure in the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the IRGC, whose overall commander Qassem Soleimani was killed by a US airstrike in January 2020.
The statement said Hejazi, who was 65, was involved in operations in Lebanon where Iran supplies and funds Hezbollah.
The Quds force is considered a terrorist organization by the US, Europe and many countries in the Middle East.


Abducted Yemeni model in Houthi prison threatens hunger strike

Abducted Yemeni model in Houthi prison threatens hunger strike
Entesar Al-Hammadi. (Social media)
Updated 44 min 26 sec ago

Abducted Yemeni model in Houthi prison threatens hunger strike

Abducted Yemeni model in Houthi prison threatens hunger strike
  • The organizations said that the Houthis are still holding hundreds of people inside small, insanitary and overcrowded cells in the military prison in Sanaa

AL-MUKALLA: Abducted Yemeni model Entesar Al-Hammadi has threatened to launch a hunger strike as the Houthis refuse to release her or allow local prosecutors to question her, the model's lawyer told Arab News on Sunday.

Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal said that the Houthi-controlled Central Prison, where the model has been held since Feb. 20, has rejected a request to transfer the model to the court for investigation.

“My client has threatened to go on hunger strike if she is not released. She has also complained about [verbal] abuses by her [female] captors,” Al-Kamal said, adding that the Central Prison officials gave no convincing reasons for not transferring the model to the court.

“The prison has rejected three demands to transfer my client to the court. I believe that they refused to release her due to the huge media coverage of the case,” the lawyer said.

The 20-year-old model and actress was on her way to a film set when a Houthi checkpoint stopped her vehicle and abducted her and two friends.

“There are no clear charges brought against my client,” he said.

The abduction has triggered outrage on social media as activists renewed demands for designating the Houthis a terrorist organization for their crimes against Yemenis.

The Mothers of Abductees Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, strongly condemned the abduction, saying that the Houthis prevented the model’s relatives and lawyer from visiting her.

In a statement, the organization demanded the international community and right groups to pressure the Houthis to stop abusing women and release all abductees.

“The Houthi group is fully responsible for the lives of Entesar and all kidnapped women in its prisons,” the organization said.

Several prisoners have launched a hunger strike in Houthi-held Sanaa to force the Houthis to release them, complaining about prison treatment and the refusal of their captors to set them free, two right groups said.

SAM, the organization for rights and liberties, and the Mothers of Abductees Association said in a joint statement on Saturday that several prisoners who were abducted by the Houthis in 2015, were transferred from the military prison to an unknown location after they launched a hunger strike, and they cautioned that their captors might torture them to force them to end their strike.

The organizations said that the Houthis are still holding hundreds of people inside small, insanitary and overcrowded cells in the military prison in Sanaa.

In March, hundreds of African migrants were killed or wounded when the Houthis caused a fire inside their overcrowded detention center in Sanaa in aa attempt to suppress a riot.

The rebels later used force to disperse a protest by survivors of the fire who demanded justice and compensation, and then deported them to government-controlled areas in southern Yemen.


Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province
Updated 18 April 2021

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

Iran hit by 5.9-magnitude quake in nuclear plant province

TEHRAN: A 5.9-magnitude earthquake Sunday hit Iran's southwestern Bushehr province, which houses a nuclear power plant, injuring five people but causing no major damage, state media said.
The 10-kilometre (six mile) deep quake hit 27 kilometres northwest of the port city of Genaveh at 11:11 am local time (0641 GMT) and was felt in nearby provinces, Iran's seismological agency said.
State news agency IRNA reported that the quake and several aftershocks caused power blackouts and cut phone lines nearby but caused "no damage" at the Bushehr nuclear complex about 100 kilometres away.
"The minor damage to Genaveh's water, electricity, telecommunication and gas infrastructure has been repaired," the head of the province's crisis management told IRNA.
Iran sits astride the boundaries of several major tectonic plates and experiences frequent seismic activity.
In 2003, a 6.6-magnitude quake in southeastern Iran levelled the ancient mud-brick city of Bam and killed at least 31,000 people.
Iran's deadliest quake was a 7.4-magnitude tremor in 1990 that killed 40,000 people in the north, injured 300,000 and left half a million homeless.


Rockets hit Iraqi air base, 2 security forces wounded

Rockets hit Iraqi air base, 2 security forces wounded
Updated 18 April 2021

Rockets hit Iraqi air base, 2 security forces wounded

Rockets hit Iraqi air base, 2 security forces wounded
  • Two crashed into a dormitory and a canteen of US company Sallyport
  • There have been around 20 attacks against US interests since Biden took office

BAGHDAD: Multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of the capital Baghdad Sunday, wounding two Iraqi security forces, an Iraqi military commander said.
In comments to Iraq’s official news agency, Maj. Gen. Diaa Mohsen, commander of the Balad air base, said at least two rockets exploded inside the base, which houses US trainers. The attack comes days after an explosives-laden drone targeted US-led coalition forces near a northern Iraq airport, causing a large fire and damage to a building.
Mohsen said the attack resulted in the injury of two security forces, one of them in serious condition and the other only slightly. There was no material damage inside the base from the attack, he added.
The incident was the latest in a string of attacks that have targeted mostly American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. There was no immediate responsibility claim, but US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militia factions for such attacks.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle Daesh after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. In late 2020, US troop levels in Iraq were reduced to 2,500 after withdrawals based on orders from the Trump administration.
Calls grew for further US troop withdrawals after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.
Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.


Eleven dead, 98 injured after train derails in Egypt

Eleven dead, 98 injured after train derails in Egypt
Updated 18 April 2021

Eleven dead, 98 injured after train derails in Egypt

Eleven dead, 98 injured after train derails in Egypt
  • 58 ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to three hospitals in the province

CAIRO: A train derailed in Egypt's Qalioubia province north of Cairo leaving eleven dead and 98 injured, the health ministry said in a statement.
58 ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to three hospitals in the province, it said.

 

Egypt’s health minister Hala Zayed visited the injured in hospital after the incident and 14 wounded people have been discharged from hospital. 
The train departed Cairo at 1:20 P.M. and was due to arrive in Mansoura at 5:00 P.M. 
At least 20 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured in March when two trains collided near Tahta in Sohag province.