How Others See Us: Anthropologists, WikiLeaks, and the Vertical Slice

This essay draws on Laura Nader’s urging for anthropologists to study up, to consider how their work is used by those in power, and to consider where anthropological knowledge fits within a vertical slice connecting a scattering of anthropologists, research subjects, state actors, and nation states. Nader’s notion of the vertical slice—which focuses on how individual segments of society relate to each other in hierarchical power relations—helps us to consider how power structures shape social formations. The dataset used for this paper’s analysis comes from one of the most significant leaks of the Twenty First Century, the so-called Manning Cables (sometimes referred to as the “Cablegate” files) that were leaked to WikiLeaks in 2009 by Chelsea Manning, and which WikiLeaks began publishing in February 2010. These diplomatic communiques are as a body referred to as “cables,” though the more recent one were originally emails; this designation of “cables” refers to the earliest technology used to transmit these communication which were known as “diplomatic telegrams” (sometimes referred to as DipTel) or as embassy cables, which were confidential communications sent between diplomats stationed around the globe. Chelsea Manning was court martialed for various espionage related charges associated with the leaking of documents to WikiLeaks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her sentence was later commuted to seven years by a presidential order issued by President Barack Obama, and she was released from confinement in May 2017—though she was later imprisoned again after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

This leak made public over 250,000 cables, dating from 1966–2010, coming from 274 United States’ consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions located in 180 countries. These cables were a mix of unclassified and classified documents, and as such they provide an incredible sample of the larger universe of US Department of State cable traffic, a universe which is generally hidden from public scrutiny.

 While many of the more sensational documents from this massive leak made significant news headlines (such as those relating to US military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq) soon after Wikileaks published these documents, there remains a wealth of more mundane information worth studying; information that can help us understand a range of significant topics relating to the American empire. This paper draws on one of the thousands of subsets of data in this record cache: it examines what these documents reveal about how the US State Department views, interacts with, conceives of, and ignores anthropologists and the field of anthropology.

Seeing Like a State Department: WikiLeaks and the Anthropologists

While the Manning Cables reveal many shocking details of illegal and unethical behavior of US civilian and military actors around the globe, beyond these startling revelations, this dataset provides us was a unique view into what is essentially the mundane realism of state department functionaries daily work.

My interest in this collection draws on Laura Nader’s conception of the vertical slice—essentially a heuristic device to help contextualize various actors’ positions within extant power structures, a tool that can help us consider how anthropology and the work of anthropologists is consumed and viewed by others within the US international political apparatus focused on maintaining US global hegemony.

These Manning Cables provide a unique view of mostly non-public interactions between State Department employees in embassies, consulates and Washington, D.C., and with a scattering of anthropologists. Using the WikiLeaks search engine, searching the Manning Cables for the terms “anthropology,” “anthropologist,” and “anthropological,” I identified 122 cables containing the term “anthropology,” 82 for “anthropologist,” and 31 for “anthropological,” after checking for multiple listings of the same cables, I found these terms appear in 207 unique Manning Cables. The below discussion summarizes the contexts in which anthropology appears in these cables and excerpts passage and critically analyzes anthropology’s appearance in the Manning Cables.

The Manning Cables document no single type of anthropological interaction with the U. S. Department of State. These cables instead show a range of ways that State Department employees interact with anthropological knowledge, or perhaps more significantly they reveal how the State Department views anthropologists, and the emerging narrative finds anthropologists performing many different roles for this audience. These roles include, anthropologists speaking truth to power—sometimes with information that power appears unwilling or unable to understand; advisors appearing to adjust their views to better coalesce with State’s mindset; consultants at times apparently destined to have their work taken out of context and used in ways that would likely make little sense to them; and informing US Consulate or Embassy personnel of developments in remote regions away from the capital or urban centers.

These types of interactions are familiar to most anthropologists engaging with various power structures, though the particulars of these engagements have some unique elements.

Read the full article on Public Anthropologist journal

The Judiciary and the Evacuation: Interview with Afghan Judge Tayeba Parsa

Antonio: Would you like to share your personal trajectory and the experiences that led you to become a judge?

Tayeba: On the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, my parents fled to Iran, fearing what would happen if they remained, and determined to avoid my father being conscripted. My siblings and I learned tailoring to help to support the family. As newcomers to Iran, we were able to attend school, but access to university was restricted. I did so well at school, however, that my family returned to Afghanistan so that I could attend university. When it proved difficult for my father to find work in Kabul, he returned to Iran and supported the family from there, so that I and my younger siblings at least could go to university. I have five sisters and one brother. A family made up largely of girls is regarded as weak in Afghanistan. My father saw the possibility of overcoming that weakness if the girls were educated and were able to stand on their own two feet.

I was interested in law and wanted to become a lawyer to prevent people’s rights being violated, but I did not want to be a judge because my image of being a judge was only as a criminal judge. The judicial system in Afghanistan was corrupt, and the judicial and educational systems were imperfect and not modernized, so I did not want to be a criminal judge and put people in jail without sufficient evidence. But after I received the highest score on the entrance examination for the judiciary, I decided to use the opportunity to become more familiar with the laws and regulations of Afghanistan. After graduation we had the opportunity to choose which court we were interested in. I still did not want to become a judge in a criminal court, so I chose commercial court in order to gain experience working as a judge for just a few years (because I did not want to remain a judge, I wanted to become a lawyer). When I started working as a judge, I observed that laws and people’s rights were clearly being violated as a result of corruption, and I realized that I had the ability and even the authority to prevent it, to protect people and implement the rule of law and justice. That was my ambition, so I decided to remain a judge.

Antonio: Can you describe your career as a judge?

Tayeba: I was a judge in the commercial division of the appeals court of Kabul province. I assessed the court decisions of the primary commercial courts of Kabul province, determining whether to affirm or reverse them. Cases included contracts between national and foreign companies and individuals, intellectual property cases, foreign exchange cases, transport contracts, disputes between companies and their employees, and others. I have worked in several different courts, including:

Judge in the Civil Division of the Primary Court of Kabul Province, Fourth District, June 2019–May 2021: Determining the applicable facts and law and issuing rulings on property, tort, and civil cases, and suits for damages.

Judge in the Public Rights Division of the Primary Court of Kabul Province, Fourth District, December 2017–June 2019: Analysing and ruling on lawsuits where one of the parties was the government, including property cases, administrative law cases, and disputes between employees and the government as employer.

Judge in the Primary Commercial Court of Kabul Province, June 2012–December 2017: Analysing and ruling on bank loan cases, contracts between national and foreign companies and individuals, intellectual property cases, foreign exchange cases, transport contracts, car businesses, and disputes between companies and their employees.

Judge Assistant in the Civil and Public Rights Division of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, July 2011–June 2012: Studying the complete case files and drafting summaries for each primary and appellate court decision on property law and civil law cases for the judges.

I am a member of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and have been in touch with them for about a year. I have been collaborating with IAWJ judges and expanding the international relations and communication efforts of the Afghanistan Women Judges Association (AWJA). Thanks to my outreach efforts, the IAWJ has registered the AWJA as a member organization. As part of that effort, I provided and translated the AWJA’s founding documents for registration with the IAWJ and provided a list of Afghan women judges and their contact information so they could obtain IAWJ membership. As a result, about 250 Afghan women judges are now IAWJ members and their membership dues have been waived. I also arranged to bring approximately 30 Afghan women judges to the biennial conference of the IAWJ. I gave a speech at the regional meeting of the conference on the security problems and Taliban threats faced by Afghan women judges, detailing our concerns over the peace negotiations with the Taliban. 

I also translated the news about the assassination of two women judges by the Taliban in January in Kabul, as well as the judges’ biographies, for the IAWJ. The IAWJ then issued a statement about the problems faced by Afghan women judges and called on the international community to support us. I rendered the statement to the Chief Justice in person and he published it on the website of the Supreme Court at my request.

I am also in touch with women judges from the UK. Working with my UK colleagues, I established a mentoring programme for ten Afghan women judges. Each of them has a mentor from the UK with whom they meet regularly online. 

In addition, I am a participant in the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), which is dedicated to enhancing women’s rights in Afghanistan. I have been trying to include more Afghan women judges in AIWR’s mentor programme, and I have asked Judge Anisa Dhanji from the UK to establish connections for all the Afghan women judges. 

I have worked as an instructor in the judicial training of the judiciary of Afghanistan, as a lecturer on Commercial Law and Administrative Law, and in courses with the Hamida Barmaki Institution (Max Planck).

Before becoming a judge, I worked for the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan (LAOA) as a legal counsellor and instructor in advocate courses. I prepared draft defense statements; advised clients in family, criminal, and juvenile law cases; and taught inheritance law, the defense lawyers’ code, juvenile law, evidence, and legal research.

I was Assistant Director of the Cultural Committee of the AWJA from 2012 to 2016. We conducted law seminars and training sessions for women judges in capacity building.

Antonio: What would you consider to be the major obstacles and challenges for a woman judge in Afghanistan?

Tayeba: As you know, for the Taliban, simply being a government judge is enough reason to be killed without trial. Recently two male judges were murdered by the Taliban the moment the Taliban discovered the men were judges. Often, for women judges the danger is even greater than for men. The Taliban believe that women are forbidden from being judges by the rules and regulations of Islam. So, it was common to receive multiple letters from the national security agency warning us about imminent risks, and also threatening phone calls from the parties themselves. Threats against women judges were always more acute and came from those who were opposed to women being judges, and even worse, from those not wanting women to be a part of the workforce at all.

The threats sometimes went beyond letters and calls. In western Afghanistan, a group of attackers took over the entire courthouse and massacred every single employee. In a suicide attack in front of the Supreme Court in Kabul, two newly graduated female Afghan judges, Mina and Zarghoona, were killed. We are still grieving the loss of two of our sister judges, Zakia and Qadria, who were killed in January. At one point the Taliban changed the forms of their attacks and started shooting directly at government judges and putting mines under their cars instead of using bomb attacks. Some women judges quit. Most continued, despite their families’ fears, knowing that when they left home each morning, they might not return. Some started to carry guns to protect themselves.

The problems I personally encountered might be recognized by women judges all over the world—of not being taken seriously, of being humiliated, and also, I was passed over when there was an opening for a new head of my court although I was clearly the best qualified. A young male judge was appointed instead, and then I was asked to help him. Women were symbolically appointed as the heads of family and the elimination of violence against women courts. On a more threatening level, I was once pressured by some corrupt judges to change a decision and feared that if I did not, I would be relocated to the provinces, as had happened to some of my colleagues. Despite feeling intimidated, I held my ground.

As you know, in Afghanistan a panel comprising three judges makes the decision in each case. Once there was a judge who shouted at me and insulted me only because I disagreed with him in a court decision. These things can happen, especially to women judges.

Antonio: When the Taliban took over in August 2021, you decided to leave the country. Can you describe that moment and what it meant for you?

Tayeba: When the provinces were falling one by one, we decided to escape. My mother and my sister secured visas. My fiancé and I got married, without a wedding party, and the plan was to fly with them after receiving our marriage document. However, while driving in the city we observed that all the roads were closed and realized that the Taliban had taken Kabul. My father called me and told me not to come home because there were Taliban members at the checkpoints. He told me they might search my car and discover my identity. He said do not drive yourself, because you driving may make them angry. I told my mother, do not miss the flight, at least you can save my sister. My mother and my sister ran to the airport. As I watched them running away, I thought it was the last time I would see my mother and it made me cry. Their flight was delayed by 12 hours, but finally they were able to depart. I stayed in the car until night. I saw that the soldiers and police had taken off their uniforms in order to disguise their identity. I felt I was trapped and I was afraid, not only of the Taliban but also of criminals and thieves who might take advantage of the situation. A judge from the IAWJ had called me and told me to be careful because the Taliban had opened the prisons and released all the prisoners. Finally, my husband drove me home. We did not leave the house for three days. During those three days I was in touch with the IAWJ and I was collecting information on Afghan women judges for them, because they were trying to start an evacuation programme.

After Kabul fell, as I said, I was at home for three days. I was gathering up documents in order to hide them and destroying case notes to hide my identity. I was the first judge to receive a call from a Polish lawyer about evacuation because of an interview in which I had spoken out against the Taliban. I had never wanted to leave the country or my job. But I was a female judge from the Hazara ethnic and religious (Shi’a) minority, and I had been in touch with foreigners, something the Taliban would consider an unforgivable crime. If I had remained, I am certain I would have been killed. But leaving was painful. I felt I had lost all I had achieved.

We did not want the Taliban to find out we were leaving so we did not carry any luggage. I only took my documents and some legal books that I love and could not leave behind. It was so crowded in front of the gate. The Taliban were shooting and beating people. I stood at the gate without food or sleep for 24 hours. Finally, I was able to enter the airport. My father and my husband waited a further 48 hours for their flights. We left Afghanistan on separate flights. They had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep for three days. Then they joined me in Poland.

Antonio: What is the situation of the judiciary now in Afghanistan?

To my knowledge, most judges who worked in the previous government have been fired and are being called to account. The judiciary has lost all its professional judges and is now conducted by illiterate and inexperienced people, and the society at large will bear the cost. Moreover, women have been eliminated from the judiciary. Having women in the judiciary was a great achievement that was lost so quickly.

Antonio: What are your personal plans now?

I believe no one can endure the cruelty of the Taliban and the lack of democracy and rule of law. So, one day, Afghans will take back their country and again democracy will govern. And I want to prepare for that day by learning and studying to rebuild our society. I believe many adversities in Afghanistan come from lack of knowledge. So I hope to get a scholarship and be able to study and work in legal areas, and to gain international experience that I will be able to use for my country in the future. I have worked and studied in the field of law for 16 years and do not want to abandon my career. I hope to use this opportunity of living in Europe to improve my qualifications and serve the international community. I hope one day I can return to Afghanistan and help improve the rule of law and democracy for my nation. Until that day I want to continue to support the rule of law through international entities and to pressure the Taliban to uphold the rule of law.

I will probably try to stay in an English-speaking country because of the advantage of knowing the language. It would be difficult to become proficient in another language for use in the legal sector.

As all my family members are scattered (some of them escaped to Iran, some to Poland, and soon I will need to leave my parents and go to an English-speaking country, which will not issue a visa for my parents), my hope is that one day we will be able to live together in the same country again.

Photo: Tayeba Parsa in her courthouse.

Here you can read an interview with judge Anisa Rasooli.

Suggested by Public Anthropologist: Margaret Mead

Public Anthropologist‘s suggested reading today is Margaret Mead by Paul Shankman.

Mead is arguably one of the most prominent anthropological figures of the twentieth century, an influential scholar who loved her public role, as Robin Fox emphasized in 1978 on the New York Times. Shankman’s book revisits Mead’s professional and personal trajectory by offering an accessible and informative introduction for anyone interested in learning more about the work and life of one of the firsts public anthropologists.  

Public Anthropologist Award 2022

Public Anthropologist Award (PUAN-A) is awarded to a social and cultural anthropologist who has published an outstanding contribution that addresses – in innovative, engaging and compelling ways – key societal issues related to one or more of the following topics: violence, war, poverty, social movements, freedom, aid, rights, injustice, inequality, social exclusion, racism, health, and environmental challenges.

A contribution can be any published research output – for example a book, peer reviewed article, documentary, etc.

Application: submit your research output together with your CV (2 pages) to Public Anthropologist’s Editor-in-Chief, Antonio De Lauri:

Write PUAN-A + “Title of the research output” in the subject heading.

Prize: A committee chaired by the Editor-in-Chief will select one research output for the Public Anthropologist Award. The author will receive a prize of 500 €.

Deadline for PUAN-A 2022: 15 January 2022 (for outputs published in 2020 and 2021).

For more information on the journal, please visit

Prize Winners

The 2021 winner of the Public Anthropologist Award was Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press, 2019 & Zubaan Publishing, 2020). Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir. Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship and research behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.

Writing a history of the “long summer of migration”: Reflections on activist-academic practices


In this paper we reflect upon our work in camps along the so-called Balkan route in 2016, from a perspective that merges activism, academic insights, and political orientations. Our experiences, the materials we collected, and subsequent reflections led to the creation of the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route,” which is located at the intersection of activism, art, and science. In this paper, we contemplate different areas of tension that emerged in our work as supporters of the struggles for open borders from an academic and activist perspective. We also reflect on how we gained specific knowledge through participation in that struggles.


One day in March 2016 we are sitting in a semiformal refugee camp close to Idemoni, a village on the Greek side close to the Greek-Macedonian border. We are sitting in front of the border fence with a Syrian journalist and talking about the situation in Syria. He tells us about the divided city of Aleppo, one part belonging to Assad and the other to the rebels. It is not possible to cross the dividing line and visit family members on the other side. He talks about daily bombings, torn body parts, and how he has been working as a war journalist reporting on all this. He explains that journalists are the first to be killed because they inform about things that should not be too visible. He concludes: “Every day there was a massacre, everyday children died. But if I found a way back, I would go back. All this is better than here.We did not know what to say, realizing the great gulf between us while sitting next to each other and talking. (Personal notes, February 28, 2016)

This article reflects on the tensions existing at the nexus of scholarly and activist issues and practices. They are discussed regarding the experiences of the authors in Idomeni in March 2016 and in other refugee camps later that year too—ones in which the authors supported refugees’ fight for open borders. This article outlines an activist research approach, which we term “struggle as method” based on Lisa Riedner’s notion of “conflict as method” (2014, 2018).[1]

We draw empirically, and retrospectively, on our own activist-academic practices within the struggles for open borders along the so-called Balkan route. The practices discussed in this article derive from the experiences of a small team of four people (students, workers, and activists) who traveled to Greece and Serbia. We were based in a semiformal refugee camp[2] close to Idomeni, a village in Greece close to the Greek-Macedonian border, from February 21 to March 14, 2016. From July 14 to August 5, 2016, we were in northern Greece and visited refugee camps in Katsikas, Derveni, Softex, Nea Kavala, Lagkadikia, and Diavata. In March 2017, we visited Belgrade and spoke to people on the move in a park there as well as in a refugee camp close to the Serbian capital. During our time in Greece, we participated in leftist, self-organized structures providing infrastructural support to refugees. We accompanied refugees in their day to day lives and wrote blogs[3] about their ongoing struggles for open borders. We spoke to many people in these camps, and were able to record 32 audio and video statements from people on the move in English, Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish.

We followed ongoing daily protests in Idomeni. We asked people protesting open questions: “What do you want people in Germany to know?” “What is going on here?” We recorded responses mostly in short statements close to the protest sites and sometimes longer, more or less political, talks in calmer settings. Our group documented the protests with video recordings and photographs.

The two authors of this article, together with a new team, later transformed the collected material into the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.”[4] This exhibition is located at the intersection of activism, art, and science, and was held in a number of German-speaking regions from fall 2017 to fall 2019.

The engagement at the borders we are reflecting on here started as solely an activist initiative. The two people writing this article only started to make use of their academic backgrounds later on in the project, when it came to creating the exhibition. When we entered the field, we did not discuss carrying out academic research. Nevertheless, we profited from academic insights into field research from Cultural Anthropology during our stay in the camps.

This article focuses on two areas of tension. The first is the breakdown of the Dublin Regulation in the “long summer of migration” (Kasparek and Speer, 2015), and the tensions arising within a humanitarian frame between control and agency. The second area of tension concerns activist-academic research approaches themselves. We will discuss problems of representation claims regarding participation in struggles (Riedner, 2015, 2018) seeking to produce a counter-knowledge “from below” against hegemonic governmental knowledge forms.

Acting in a Humanitarian Framework between Control and Agency

“What we witnessed in the long summer of migration in 2015 was and is not a refugee crisis, but a historical and structural defeat of the European border regime” (Hess et al., 2017, p. 6). The term “long summer of migration” expresses a situation in which “refugees had forced the Austrian and German governments to open their borders in a humanitarian gesture” (Hess and Karakayali, 2017, p. 26). In 2015 a corridor with complete infrastructure from Greece to Central Europe emerged through a series of formal and informal agreements and cooperation initiatives between states situated along the route, being fostered by the European Union. Within this corridor, agents of security as well as formal nongovernmental organizations and ad hoc volunteers were all involved. It can be understood as a humanitarian corridor (Moving Europe, 2016), one emerging as a humanitarian response to the open and visible brutality of state agents and to violent clashes between border guards and refugees along the Balkan route (Moving Europe, 2016).

The corridor arose as a special form of internal border (Hameršak et al., 2020), effectively a humanitarian border “holding together in an uneasy alliance a politics of alienation with a politics of care, and a tactic of abjection and one of reception” (Walters, 2010, p. 145). This humanitarian corridor was then later described as a “formalized corridor” (Beznek et al. 2016; Speer, 2017; Hameršak et al. 2020) so as to emphasize diverse and dynamic processes. From the perspective of the transit states, rational self-interest played its part, with formalization primarily an acceleration of the transit procedure (Speer, 2017), creating an extra-legal space of exception (Sperr, 2017; Kasparek, 2017) serving to bring back under control the dynamics of movement of thousands of migrants (Beznek et al., 2016; Moving Europe, 2016; Tošić, 2017; Kasparek 2017; Hameršak and Plese, 2018). The historical importance of the formalized corridor lies not, therefore, in its closure but in its “formation and its unexpectedly long existence” (Speer, 2017, p. 76).

When we set out on the route, the corridor was not yet closed—although how long it would remain open was contested. We observed several protests. Often, we heard the Arabic slogan of Syrian rebels: “Who does not participate has no courage.” We argue here that, of course, refugees are agents in their own struggles. They are not passive objects, they have agency, and they know how to act in difficult and violent situations. “When I decided to come, I knew it would be difficult. But I decided”—so one woman told us in Halle, Germany, in April 2017. We discuss the power of refugees in two respects. First, refugee “non-movement”—defined as collective actions by non-collective actors; practices carried out by a larger number of ordinary people. […] They contribute significantly to social change” (Bayat, 2012, p. 31). Refugees questioned the Dublin Regulations through everyday practices of collective disregard. The refugees crossed borders and fences repeatedly as part of collective movement in large numbers, a relevant and specific form of resistance and power of action (Moving Europe, 2016; Hess and Karakayali, 2017).

The second source of refugees’ power lies in their visibility within the humanitarian discourse. In Germany at the time, a “welcome culture” was staged and a “civil welcome society” arose (Karakayali and Kleist, 2015). Humanitarian narratives were at play in other countries along the route as well (Greenberg and Spasić, 2017; Jakešević, 2017; Sardelić, 2017; Bužinkić, 2018). Following William Walters, important is “knowledge which problematizes the border as a site of suffering, violence and death, and a political zone of injustice and oppression” (2010, p. 150). While critical theory and research has highlighted the governmental strategies and effects related to humanitarianism, we should not forget that there are other forms of humanitarianism too—notably ones emanating from grassroots activism and campaigns (Allegra, 2017; Brković, 2018, 2020). The established humanitarian regime has potential effects on migrants’ ability to cross borders. One form of agency from below lies in rendering visible brutality, harm, and human rights violations. Following Judith Butler et al., “vulnerability is part of the very meaning and practice of resistance […] characterized by interdependency and public action”(2016, p. 7).

People on the move were able to make use of a humanitarian approach by criticizing structures and people responsible for false humanity.” These individuals are able to adopt and adapt humanitarian arguments to demand unredeemed promises. In many interviews, then, people questioned European or German humanity; additionally We don‘t need false humanitycould be seen on a cardboard sign during protests in Idomeni. “Is this what your humanity looks like?” a person from Afghanistan asked in a camp near Belgrade in May 2017. Another young man told us in Idomeni in February 2016: “The European Union knows no mercy. They are watching us and make promises to us and nothing changes at all.” A woman in Nea Kavala, a refugee camp in Greece, summed up the situation there in July 2016 as follows: “We are only letters to them, nothing more.” Another person in Idomeni, speaking in February 2016, was more pointed besides: “They don’t give a shit!

Others contrasted their experiences in Europe with the situations they had faced in their home countries, challenging the Eurocentric view of the Old Continent as a place of human rights:We had our freedom. We were rebels and protesters in Syria. Here we are in jaila person in Idomeni told us after the border closure in March 2016. The judgment made by a person in a refugee camp in Nea Kavala in July 2016 catches Europe in its own misguided self-image meanwhile: We came here to Europe because people here are civilized and advanced. At least that’s what we thought.

Europe was criticized for making people vulnerable and for rendering false humanity visible, as articulated by a young man in Belgrade in May 2017: If you want to kill us, kill us directly. Finish, finish the game. We are playing a game. We’re the football, you know? One kicks us, the other side kicks us. On the border is the goalkeeper. And he kicks us; they catch us and send us back. So we are the football, and we don’t know when the game will be over. 

Activist-Academic Research Struggles

In this section we discuss engaged anthropology and reflect on our own academic-activist practices. We begin with a review of the main results of the “Writing Culture Debate” and the “Crisis of Representation” before moving on to activist-academic practices of social criticism, advocacy, and struggle as method.

Within cultural anthropology, reflections on power relations between the research field and researchers have become an increasingly important theme. The Writing Culture Debate in the 1970s and 1980s shifted the self-understanding of anthropological writings from the idea of objectively observing the truth, captured in texts, to the process of constructing knowledge and truth (Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Marcus and Fischer, 1986; Berg and Fuchs, 1993). The idea developed that academic writing creates the worlds it describes and that “ethnographic studies can legitimately be called fictions” (Clifford, 1993, p.110). Interwoven with findings from feminist academic criticism and postcolonial theory, power dimensions in the field, the subject position of the researcher, and the process of producing knowledge became central features of reflexive research practice. The relation between the subject and object of observation began to be questioned (Holmes and Marcus, 2005; Faubion and Marcus, 2009), along with the modes of representation of “the other” (Said, 1979; Stacey, 1988; Escobar and Restrepo, 2005; Browne and Nash, 2010; Fabian, 2014). The idea of “situated knowledge” (Haraway, 1988) became central, recognizing that our knowledge is always local, fragmented, and situated in a particular context.

Ethnographic research is based on participation and observation. It is precisely here that the production of knowledge passes through sensations, interpretations, and the researcher her or himself, who becomes the medium of knowledge production (Duden, 2004; Bendix, 2006). The central problems, ones that every researcher has to deal with, can be summarized in terms of questions of representation: Who speaks for whom? Who is heard, and who remains invisible? Which dimensions of power are reproduced or undermined? What kind of power relations are at stake, reproduced, and questioned through different kinds of research and knowledge production? Who profits from the research?

Through these debates, new forms of writings—ones more experimental and creative—were discussed that make the researcher and the context of the research visible. New fields of Anthropology such as Science and Technology Studies emerged, with the relationship between researcher and the researched no longer following the classical approach of studying down; studying through or studying up were now possible too (Nader, 1969; Wedel, 2004; Hannerz, 2006; Reinhold and Wright, 2011). Furthermore the simple exploration of locally fixed and locally ascertainable cultures was questioned (Abu-Lughood, 1996; Ferguson and Gupta, 1997; Welz, 1998), opening up the field to multi-sited ethnography (Marcus, 1995) able to follow the contours and networks between people, ideas, and objects (Welz, 1998; Burawoy et al., 2000; Hess, 2005).

Our main concern here is how the performativity of knowledge production can be used in the sense of consciously engaged research. Following John Law and John Urry, “social investigation makes worlds, then it can, in some measure, think about the worlds it wants to help to make” (2004, p. 391). If our writings and methods create the world and are never absolutely true, but depend rather on our individual point of view, we can discuss how to use “the power to bring new worlds into being [and] become open to possibility rather than limitations of the possible” (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 3). We understand our work as a productive interaction between academic and activist knowledge (König and Steffen, 2013), where the difference between the two “dissolves as soon as we look at the concrete ethnographic research practice” (Riedner and Weissmann, 2013, p. 196). However, “in such a situation, contradictions and tensions inevitably arise – a paradox that has to be endured” (König and Steffen, 2014, p. 272). While debates on engaged anthropology in Germany are still in their infancy, in the Anglo-Saxon context they are highly developed, differentiating between engaged anthropology, action anthropology, activist research, and public anthropology. Setha M. Low and Sally Engle Merry (2010) cluster these modes of engagement into six specific domains: sharing and support; teaching and public education; social critique; collaboration; advocacy; and, activism.

“Thank You for the Media!”

Thus far we have described a contested political situation along the so-called Balkan route between the control function of humanitarianism and the agency of people on the move themselves. We decided to focus on our accompaniment and support of the latter’s ongoing protests, which were directed at the politics of exclusivity, because the visibility of the perspective “from below”—or, better, migrants’ perspectives—seemed to be of great relevance. Methodologically we can situate our practices here under the research approaches of social critique and advocacy. In terms of social critique, we tried to understand the effects of policies on the people at the borders and highlight the “linkages between individual or group suffering and structural factors by examining harms in historical context and within relations of power” (Merry and Low, 2010, p. 208). One relevant aspect of social critique that we were able to grasp quickly during our stay in Idomeni concerns the depoliticizing humanitarianism described above, against which we tried to highlight the agency of people on the move themselves.

However, this humanitarian control function of the corridor was not the only prerequisite for the official closure of the route. In Idomeni in winter 2015/2016, having the right papers was the ticket to entering the corridor. Only people able to prove a certain citizenship were allowed to cross borders, thus creating a hierarchy. Many of those who were no longer allowed to pass borders were excluded and sent away from the official camps, saw food supplies cut, or were evicted by the police and brought to detention centers. Although some of the protesters continued to call for unity among the various status groups, this filtering by nationality had a number of effects on solidarity between refugees of different origins. “We’re all refugees here, why is there a difference?” a woman from Afghanistan told us in Idomeni in March 2016. We analyzed this as a policy of splitting up different groups of refugees in order to minimize their subversive power and to prevent them from challenging borders by passing across them collectively, in the sense of Asef Bayat’s (2012) “life as politics.” We described it as the old way of governance of “divide and rule.” A refugee we spoke to depicted documents and citizenship as follows: “The papers are like money, they are like gold now. It is more important than being human. Without papers, you are nothing, not a human being”(Interview in Idomeni, February 28, 2016).

We also tried to make the diverse critiques of refugees visible by sharing them on our blog. In an advocacy sense, therefore, we attempted hereby to “assist [local] communities in organizing efforts, giving testimony, [and] witnessing human rights violations”(Low and Merry, 2010, p. 210). In one case, we also encountered police violence in the form of brutal revenge after protests. People called us at night when they realized that some protest leaders were attacked and severely beaten by the border guards. We found the affected people in the hospital and in the camp, connected them with lawyers, discussed matters with them, and tried to support one person in bringing their case to court. We collected witness documents such as the following, which we published together with a larger report:[5]

And suddenly three men crossed the Macedonian border. They were the heads of the protest, which was here on the tracks. […] The Macedonian soldiers recognized them too and one told him to raise his hands, so he can search him. The police, the Macedonian soldier, punched him in the face. […] One of the soldiers starts to kick him at every point of his body – into his face, on his legs, in his side, on his back. […] They beat him up so violently – it was terrible. Then they started to stun him with stun guns. And then they brought him back to Greece – one of them. They have taken one of them with them, they did not send him back to Greece. I do not know what happened to him, if they have let him go or taken him with them. I do not know. But the other two were sent back to Greece. (Eyewitness report from March 6, 2016, in Idomeni)

Beyond this case, we aimed to provide space for people to express their respective demands and views. We asked people on the move what information and requests they wanted to convey to those from Northern European countries such as Germany. We collected many contemporary witness documents, in which these individuals described the situation faced or criticized the local and global politics of inequality. The situation worldwide or the influence of the West on the conflicts from which they had fled were cited here, such as in the statement “this president [of Afghanistan] was not elected by the people of Afghanistan” made by a woman from there in Idomeni in March 2016. In Diavata refugee camp, Greece, another woman from Afghanistan told us angrily, in July 2016, about the involvement of the West in her native country and how it avoided any responsibility for the refugees subsequently coming to Europe. Accordingly, these migration flows were produced precisely through these policies: “Bomb Afghanistan completely so that we are all destroyed at once.” A young man from Syria, meanwhile, argued in Idomeni in February 2016 that: “Every country sells weapons. Everyone supports any group while they fight.”

We discussed the political situation in Germany and Europe and the changing right-wing narratives with different people stuck at the borders. In the debates on the murders at the offices of the newspaper Charly Hebdo in Paris, France, in January 2015 or on the attack of Anis Amri on the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, in December 2016, people from Muslim countries were described as a threat to security in general. From the perspective of people stuck at the border, the debates should be more nuanced and situated in their wider context: “Many people say that if they go back to Syria, they will have to fight for [Islamic State] or Al-Nusra. This is the only work in war in Syria” a man in Idomeni explained in February 2016. Another young person from Afghanistan noted in May 2017 in Belgrade: “Christian? Muslim? That means nothing. If you have a good heart, that’s all. You were born in a Christian country; I was born in a Muslim country. So this is my fault?”

Even though we sought to publish original statements and support people making violence visible, ultimately the power of representation remains with us. We cut the audio statements, we put them on our blog, we spoke with only a handful of people, we framed the statements with small explanatory texts, we contextualized them, and we published the material through our networks.

A fundamental dilemma of a lot of ethnological work becomes apparent here, namely, the focus on the perspective of disenfranchised, marginalized and discriminated people and groups, who, nevertheless, only have their say through the mediation of the researchers, with whom the power of representation ultimately remains. (Schramm, 2013, p. 222)

The relevant question here, one that we cannot definitively resolve, remains who benefits from the insights gained through participation—namely by receiving attention and acknowledgment. Activism on the Balkan route was, meanwhile, well recognized in Germany, both within leftist circles and wider society (Reflectionist collective, 2016). The enormous focus on policy negotiations regarding the Balkan route interlinked with the discourse of the welcome culture, and white Germans helping there had the effect of giving attention and recognition to refugee struggles in Germany. Resources for and recognition of solidarity work in Germany became noticeably less important and less visible, which had an impact on the self-organized struggles of refugees in Germany. The Lampedusa in Hamburg[6] or the Refugee Activists of Oranienplatz[7] in Berlin, for example, hardly got the chance to draw attention to their own claims during the long summer of migration. In the context of helping, “the mass media put white Germans without any refugee or migration background in the spotlight” (Danielzik and Bendix, 2017, p. 198). In our situation in Idomeni, it meant being in danger of speaking for people instead of supporting their attempts to build self-organized structures or to further realize existing ones capable of being heard.

Even if we could not overcome the problem of representation, our approach of recording voices to spread refugee perspectives was greatly welcomed. Many people in the refugee camps came to us and wanted to make a statement. We also found messages such as “Thank You for the Media!” written on banners or pieces of cardboard, which referred to the importance of increased visibility in the German and European discourses. The option of creating visibility and audibility, which we have, is a resource that we can use—one, of course, also appropriated and consciously used by people on the move themselves too. These individuals realized that they could make use of us and other media outlets to express their views on the ongoing contemporary debates and to produce a counternarrative to criminalizing and racist European tropes.

“Struggle as Method”—Going One Step Further

In the following section, we want to go one step further. In our stay at the borders we did not just record voices and spread views. We tried to go beyond just monitoring the protests. We thought about how we could make best use of our resources and privileges while attempting to build relations with people on the move. We also tried to connect with local people to acknowledge the diversity of struggles encountered. We hence now build on and expand Riedner’s aforementioned concept of “conflict as method,” which we frame here as “struggle as method.”

By reflecting on hierarchies, we tried to make use of our privileges and resources. We collected money by means of an appeal for donations; we were mobile (with a car available) and able to organize things and collect information; we had technical infrastructure support such as computers, cameras, and sound-recording equipment. In addition to such physical devices, we come from political movements possessing also specific knowledge and with access to particular networks and information.

We contacted some of the organizers and leading figures of the protests in Idomeni at that time. We tried to find out what they needed and, from time to time, bought materials people told us would be useful. We purchased shoes, which were really needed for long flight routes, when people needed to walk long distances over invisible routes, or the border guards took them away during an illegal pushback. We bought spray-paint cans and materials for banners. Sometimes, we had political discussions with people in front of the border fences about the situations in Syria, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and Germany and how they were interlinked. We were asked our opinions regarding ongoing struggles in Germany and how the protests in Idomeni could be better heard there. We were asked about right-wing attacks on refugees or the political debate and changing laws in Germany. Within our team, we considered how to intensify contacts and spread these individuals’ writings or press releases—instead of our own—via our networks. We also discussed how to extend our shared political discussions on what kind of support and collaboration people might find useful.

Methodologically, we tried to understand the perspectives of people on the move themselves. These practices refer to the concept of collaboration with the researched. In such collaborative approaches, the researched became subjects of the research. Researchers hereby work together with people in organizations or social movements or share the leadership of the research concept with the researched (Low and Merry, 2010; Kollaborative Forschungsgruppe Racial Profiling, 2019). Holmes and Marcus (2007) identified the relevance of “para-ethnography” within research, defined as knowledge-making by those within different fields of expertise. This knowledge-making comprises much more than facts; of relevance here are feelings, intuition, anecdotes, and similar too. These two authors claim that: “The traditional informants of ethnography must be rethought as counterparts rather than ‘others’ – as both subjects and intellectual partners in inquiry” (Holmes and Marcus, 2007, p. 236). While they describe this para-ethnography as capturing the peculiarities of research conducted in fields with experts, we use feminist and postcolonial theory to argue that para-ethnography is also relevant in hierarchical fields—where the supposedly inferior can be understood as experts on their situations, in fact.

Taking feminist and postcolonial critiques into consideration, critical research thus claims not to reproduce existing categories but to find practices that elude, refuse, and exceed existing categorizations (Foucault, 1993; Butler, 2002; Lorey, 2014). The research approach of the “Autonomy of Migration” tries to refute existing categories through its attribution processes, focusing rather on the practices of migration “to investigate what goes through these conditions of current forms of socialization in order to point beyond” (Bojadžijev and Karakayali, 2007, p. 203). This rejects the hegemonic discourses problematizing (flight-)migration as such, analyzing instead precisely these forms of migration governance (Bojadžijev and Karakayali, 2007; Karakayali, 2008; Riedner, 2014). Adopting this Autonomy of Migration point of view does not mean that we left our own subject position void or abandoned our own positionality within a hierarchical system; rather, it shows how the theory of situated knowledge opens up “scope for alliances and criticism that goes far beyond the perspective of being affected” (Schramm, 2017, p. 223).

Moreover, Isabell Lorey (2014) criticizes a focus on subject positions linked to debates on intersectionality and calls for a focus on the transgression of categories—both practical and theoretical. For the purpose of exceeding existing categories, feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti (2011) goes beyond the description of a research view, outlining instead a utopian version of the European subject. In this philosophical and ethical construction, a new normative subject takes responsibility for previous productions of Europe such as Eurocentrism, racism, antisemitism, and fascism. In this utopian draft, the normative subject is based on the realities of the marginalized. Similar to the Autonomy of Migration, the perspective is turned upside down and consequently makes marginalized truth hegemonic and normal. Braidotti envisions a nomadic, multi-fragmented, hybrid post-European subject that becomes “minoritarian” in nature.

Starting from these theoretical reflections and utopian drafts on making research on an eye-to-eye level, how can we approach this in concrete situations? How can we collaborate and work together to become minor or to think with the idea of the Autonomy of Migration in mind? Without claiming to have found a perfect solution to all these problems regarding hierarchies, we have at least discovered beginnings and attempts to counter the effectiveness of ruling subjectifications. We had the possibility of joining in the perspectives “from below” by participating in the protests, talking to people, and asking how to support them with our resources. We can identify our practices on the one hand as collaboration, thereby understanding the refugees as experts on their own situations. On the other, we describe our methods as an analytical lens for the struggles encountered, which Riedner (2014) separates from the perspective on the struggles of those affected by power relations. The latter stresses the relevance of being a part of those struggles: “Concrete participation in negotiations seems to be very helpful in order to be able to adopt such a perspective and also to make a concrete contribution to emancipatory changes” (Riedner, 2014, p. 12). She called this approach, as noted, “conflict as method,” which we changed here into “struggle as method” given that we participated mainly in collective border struggles instead of various different conflicts. Following Riedner, we want to argue that it is vital to overcome the neutral position of the academic, to exchange with the field, and to change one’s own knowledge, view, and subjectification. Most relevant is to let the struggles have a subjective, physical, and material effect on oneself (Riedner, 2018).

From this involvement in the conflicts and struggles, a new perspective on the situation arose. However, Participation in such struggles and making use of privileges are not reducible to the production of situated knowledge. Involvement in the struggles and the gained knowledge were also key to developing forms of activism and solidarity transcending subject positions. Like Riedner suggested, involvement in the struggles had a subjective effect on our positions within the field. Some activists as well lose certain privileges in coming into contact with state repression. Nevertheless, what we have focused on here is how we acquired a special form of knowledge—which is itself part of the struggles occurring. These perspectives later resulted in the preparation of the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.” We benefited, therefore, from our multiple involvements as activists and academics, which cannot be easily separated within our practices on the Balkan route: drawing on our diverse involvement in (academic and activist) knowledge production, we could share a different narrative and different views from below on the ongoing processes at the borders. We were thereby able to analyze the ongoing situation as academics and activists, connect to refugees in discussing what to do exactly, and to reflect on our activist-academic practices as well as on our shared knowledge.

And the struggle goes on …

This article has explored how we dealt with the different areas of tension at the nexus of scholarly and activist discourses and practices, mostly consisting of questions of humanitarianism and representation in the field. We cannot claim that we avoided every pitfall, but we showed how we attempted to make use of our privileges by talking to the people involved and finding out what could be useful to them. We described how we were able to gain insights into the perspective of the struggles occurring, which led to an activist-academic production of knowledge. This knowledge about governance, repression, and agency was subsequently communicated to a wider audience through the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.”


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[1]      All quotations originally in German have been translated by the authors themselves.

[2]      The term “semiformal” expresses that the camp near Idomeni was initially self-organized and emerged spontaneously from among the people on the move themselves, but then over time various state and non-state infrastructures were added there.






The Black Holes of Lesbos: Border Violence, Asylum and Racism at Moria Camp


Following the historic summer of 2015, when nearly 1 million people transited through Greece and overcame multiple border barriers within Europe, Lesbos was rapidly reconfigured as one of the main epicenters of a renewed violent phase of mobility control and militarization through the implementation of the “hotspot approach”.

Introduced by the European Agenda on Migration as an emergency response,[1] organizations such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Europol were deployed at the European Union’s external borders in order to assist, monitor and assist frontline states such as Greece to register and fingerprint migrants. A historical step toward the Europeanization of border regulations in the Aegean Islands, this hotspot approach has contributed to the proliferation of buffer spaces such as Lesbos, the reconfiguration of the recently destroyed Moria camp as a violent EU hotspot on October 2015 and the subsequent entry into force of the EU–Turkey deal of March 2016.[2] This deal, through the then new Greek asylum law 4375/2016, allowed for the detention, illegalization and deportation of migrants on the basis of nationality, thus denying them any chance for international protection in Europe.

This post is based on research conducted during a three-month period between September and December 2016 in Lesbos, where I participated in ethnography-volunteering with a small humanitarian organization in the Kara Tepe refugee camp, 5 kilometers from the former Moria camp. However, in seeking to determine why migrant populations of certain nationalities were living in Moria under conditions of prolonged detention, riots and frequent deaths, receiving no humanitarian aid and without access to the asylum process in Lesbos, I left the camp at Kara Tepe in order to meet with them in the streets, public squares and ports of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, and later in the depths of the Moria camp.

Asylum, migrant detention and the power of deportability in Lesbos

In October 2016, during one of several demonstrations in Mytilene against the EU’s border policies, I met Jack,[3] a young Algerian asylum seeker living in Moria. Jack, along with hundreds of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian and Cameroonian migrants, have been fishing, protesting and surviving in Moria camp because they belong to nationalities with an asylum recognition rate that is less than 25% of the EU average as calculated by the EUROSTAT database; thus, their cases are considered a priority and are not assessed for long periods by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO. As part of the EU–Turkey deal, Greece had to enact a new asylum law, 4375/2016, which includes key elements of European regulations (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020). The Europeanization of the new asylum law became one of the most effective mechanisms of the EU border regime in recent years in the Mediterranean in that it created an exclusionary procedure in terms of nationality and racial discriminations under international law, as well as deepening Greece’s role as post-colony of the central economies of the EU. As a consequence, the Greek asylum process was separated into two parts: one for the mainland, and another exclusively for the Aegean Islands called a “fast-track border procedure”, reconfiguring Lesbos as a novel border laboratory with the aim of illegalizing and indefinitely immobilizing migrant populations under the threat of deportation.

I contend, therefore, that the restrictive and violent fast-track border procedure was based above all on the channeling of asylum seekers into different but similarly exclusive procedural routes based on asylum recognition rates (above and below 25%) measured by nationality and calculated based on EUROSTAT statistics. At the end of 2016, migrants from nationalities with high acceptance rates (above 25%) and potential refugees such as Syrians were subjected to the controversial admissibility interview—a filtering system prior to the asylum examination aimed at preventing people with a high probability of protection according to the Geneva Refugee Convention from applying for asylum in Greece on the grounds that Turkey is considered a safe third country for asylum seekers, as established by the EU–Turkey deal.   

Migrants of nationalities with low recognition rates (below 25%), however, were entered directly into the Greek asylum examination process. While this pathway was supposed to be fast due to their “expected rejection” (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020) by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO, the detention experiences of Jack and dozens of others I met demonstrate how border procedures turned out to be even more violent, slow, opaque and confusing for these “economic migrants” than for potential refugees.

After entering Moria from Turkey in summer 2016, Jack was arrested on the beach by the Hellenic Coast Guard and placed in detention in the so-called pre-removal center, a high-security detention area within Moria with a capacity of up to 420 people. As an Algerian belonging to one of the nationalities of “bad Arabs”, as Jack described it, he was subjected to the racist “Pilot Project” of the Greek Police: a detention procedure launched after summer 2016 and exclusively targeting single men coming from certain “low profile” countries considered to constitute a danger to European security and the international public order, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the ultimate goal of the program was the deportation of these economic migrants, the vast majority of people like Jack were released and left to fend for themselves in the Moria camp after three months of isolation, uncertainty and violence under arbitrary and illegal detention by the Greek state and the EU agencies (Saranti, 2019).

Although Syrian refugees, whose suffering and the conflicts they are fleeing at home have received international media coverage, are more likely to obtain international protection in Greece, migrants of nationalities with both high and low asylum recognition rates were placed in a position of deportability (De Genova, 2002) and legal uncertainty as soon as they arrived in Moria. Therefore, I assert that the fast-track border procedure under the new asylum law 4375/2016 is subjecting virtually all asylum seekers on Lesbos to processes of illegalization, immobility and the possibility of deportation based on nationality, with the aim to make them voluntarily renounce their right to asylum. This procedure is an attempt to establish a legally institutionalized process of refoulement, so that the power to deport or impose that possibility is the cornerstone of this procedure, which generates feelings of anxiety, worry, suffering and anger among migrants.

Black holes, racism and anti-Black policing in the ruins of empire 

At the end of November 2016, I entered Moria with Hiroshima, a Congolese friend of Jack who led me inside the camp through a small hole in the fence, allowing me to carry out a quick transgressive ethnography. Inside the African area, as some of the residents called it, Hiroshima introduced me to his fellow migrants from Cameroon, Congo, Senegal and Mali. Having been politically persecuted and completely ignored by the Greek state and the EU for more than eight months at the time we met, they lamented above all being racialized by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO because they were Black and seemingly not deserving of international protection as they were considered only “economic migrants”.

Visiting the African area under the guidance of Hiroshima and his friends helped me see how Moria, a militarized and prison-like camp, operated under a similarly concentrated organizational system instituted by the Greek state and the EU, and within the humanitarian framework. Inspired by Suárez (2015), I conceived of the African area as a black hole of Moria. What is a black hole? I propose that it can be understood as a fragmented border space (Hänsel, 2020) where displaced Black bodies from the former European colonies in Africa are racialized and dehumanized through practices such as policing, isolation and abandonment. These practices converge under the opaque, changing and illegible legal framework of the Greek asylum procedure, creating “grey zones” (Knudsen and Frederiksen, 2015) where the lines between legal and illegal are blurred so that many rights are restricted, physical violence is inflicted and humanitarian aid is abandoned, resulting in the exposure to social (Cacho, 2012) and physical death of those who enter into its gravitational field.

The black holes are those ruins of empire (Stoler, 2013) located in the limits of the Global North that could not be externalized outside the borders of Europe, so they are framed in a historical continuity of spatial re-actualization of specific violence against racialized bodies such as those of Blacks (Mbembe, 2003). Therefore, I believe that they are not exceptional and novel spaces in the context of the global securitization of borders, but rather constantly renewed practices that derive from the colonial system of white supremacy originating in the enslavement of non-Western societies.

In this vein, Wilderson (2003) asserts that the seizure and control of the Black body during slavery was achieved through gratuitous, non-contingent and instrumental violence in a foundational scenario of modernity. This powerful argument dismantles the humanist conception of Western violence as a contingent and defensive resource to locate it rather as an offensive and punitive methodology that has placed the Black body outside the category of the human since the very beginning of modernity, as proposed by Saucier and Woods (2014). Drawing on these authors, I therefore consider that asylum seekers such as Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were not violently abandoned and illegalized simply for having arrived irregularly in Europe in the wake of the EU–Turkey deal. Rather, their Black bodies, daring to be/being outside of Africa at the gates of the former empire, exposed them to the racist and gratuitous. Thus, black holes are specifically governed primarily by the motivation and duty of the “culture of anti-Black policing established by slavery” as codified through the fast-track border procedure, thus legalizing spatial confinement and humanitarian abandonment for the perpetuation of dehumanization (Ibid.:62).

While Jack was intensely illegalized, placed in the deportability zone (De Genova, 2002) by the Greek state and FRONTEX in the pre-removal center and forced to voluntarily renounce his right to asylum after being racialized as a “bad Arab” of an undesirable nationality, Hiroshima and his peers were situated under the specter of deportability because their bodies were illegalized and racialized centuries ago. They were rendered neglected, abandoned and dehumanized as a product of the most primordial racism based on biological classifications in the most hidden layers of Moria, until they were finally allowed to begin their asylum process as an effect of the recurring riots, fires and anti-racist demonstrations.

Jack and Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were differently illegalized and racialized but similarly subjected to degrading forms of violence without being allowed to apply for international protection. Their experiences reveal how the Greek asylum process, under the effects of the EU–Turkey statement, is based on a complex racialized and white supremacist structure that conceives, reproduces and perpetuates a clear and historical hierarchy of different types of humans based on both phenotypical and cultural differences, thus structuring them as threatening, dangerous or simply inferior and expendable.

Beyond the racial hierarchies based on both biological and cultural classifications for the selection of a reduced percentage of those deserving protection, I end by stating that, ultimately, all the migrants at Moria have been subjected to a process of indefinite immobility in Lesbos that prevents them from pursuing their life projects. Hence, the detention and deportability of Jack, and the abandonment and dehumanization of Congolese migrants such as Hiroshima, reflect the differentiated effects of racism, with anti-Black policing (Saucier and Woods, 2014) being the most visceral form of violence inflicted by the Greek state and the EU.


Cacho, Lisa Marie (2012) Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, New York University Press.

De Genova, Nicholas (2002) “Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31, pp. 419–447.

Hänsel, Valeria (2020) “Returns Without Warranty: The Grey Zone of “Voluntary Return” in the Framework of the EU–Turkey Deal,” Les Cahiers de Tunisie 226–227, pp. 21–29.

Hänsel, Valeria and Kasparek, Bernd (2020) Hotspot-Lager als Blaupause für die Reform des Gemeinsamen Europäischen Asylsystems? Politikfolgenabschätzung des Hotspot-Ansatzes in Griechenland, Rat für Migration.

Knudsen, Ida and Frederiksen, Martin (2015) Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, Anthem Press.

Mbembe, Achile (2003) “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15 (1), pp. 11–40.

Saranti, Elli (2019) Locked Up Without Rights: Nationality-Based Detention in the Moria Refugee Camp, HIAS Greece, Mytilene.

Saucier, Paul and Woods, Tryon (2014) “Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,” Theoria 61 (141), pp. 55–75.

Stoler, Ann Laura (Ed.) (2013) Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, Duke University Press.

Suárez, Liliana (2015) “Migration and Refuge in the Mediterranean, Beyond Borders,” Dialectología y tradiciones Populares, 70 (2), pp. 265–276.

Wilderson, Frank (2003) “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whiter the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9 (2), pp. 225–240.

[1] A European Agenda on Migration, European Commission (2015), (Accessed 21 February 2021).

[2] European Council, EU–Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, (Accessed 23 February 2021).

[3] The names used in this article are pseudonyms chosen by the migrants themselves. Their real names do not appear here to protect their identities.

Suggested by Public Anthropologist: All I Eat Is Medicine

Public Anthropologist‘s suggested reading today is All I Eat Is Medicine. Going Hungry in Mozambique’s AIDS Economy.

In times of Covid-19, nuanced ethnographic accounts of therapeutic politics and implications are particularly welcome. In this new book, Ippolytos Kalofonos engages with the different ways in which the scaling up of HIV/AIDS treatment in Mozambique significantly altered the ordinary lives of many people. Although HIV/AIDS treatment arguably saved lives, Kalofonos shows that its forms of implementation also reproduced the exploitation and exclusion that characterized the escalation of the epidemic in the first place.

As the narrative guides the reader through the experiences of individuals and families, we clearly see the interconnection of epidemic, health intervention, hunger, and inequality.  

State–INGOs Relationship in Turkey

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in June 2015 and joined an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization) in November 2015. Since then, I have been working in several different organizations. Over the past five years, I have observed inefficient relationships between INGOs operating in Turkey and the Turkish state, leading to negative consequences for the vulnerable people who have been receiving aid. In response to the Syrian civil war which began in 2011, INGOs and local NGOs opened up in Turkey, mainly in southern provinces such as Kilis, Gaziantep, Hatay, and Şanlıurfa. They aimed to address the needs of those who fled from the civil war, many of whom moved to Turkey.

Fruitful collaboration between Turkey and I/NGOs was the precondition for an effective humanitarian campaign. However, this relationship has often proved to be unproductive. The lack of recripocal understanding between humanitarian organizations and the Turkish state, as well as interest-based politics, have negatively impacted the capacity to reach the most vulnerable.

Traditionally, Turkey is not an aid receiving country. For this reason, INGOs that have extensively worked in countries and regions where weak or failed states depend on international aid have not always been able to adapt to the institutional and bureaucratic context of the Turkish state. INGOs have structures, procedures, and rules that have been developed to substitute some of the functions of the state. These functions vary from human resources to finance or security. However, the mindset of INGOs relevant to weaker states often clashed with Turkey’s strong and pervasive state apparatus. For instance, some INGOs were fined for not complying with labor law or failing to register the organization properly.

Essentialism, defined as “the assumption that groups, categories or classes of objects have one or several defining features exclusive to all members of that category”,[1] can explain the approach of some Western INGOs in Turkey. In other words, in the INGOs’ approach, Turkey was yet another failed state in the broad humanitarian space.

Parallel to essentialism, a certain dose of idealism has been followed by INGOs in Turkey, whereby universal humanitarian principles were seen as non-negotiable – i.e. they coud not be compromised for the sake of the relationship with the Turkish state.

Finally, there have been practical difficulties in navigating this complex terrain. For example, delivering aid to SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and PYD (Democratic Union Party)-held territories proved particularly challenging. Turkey considers SDF and PYD as PKK’s (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) sister organizations, therefore a no-go area in terms of aid. Some organizations were therefore fined by the Turkish state for delivering aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled territories: Mercy Corps, for instance, was forced to shut down its office in Turkey.[2] Opting for a result-oriented approach, other organizations decided to deliver aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled areas through Northern Iraq.

Sadık and Zorba argue that humanitarian diplomacy’s primary goal is saving innocent people.[3] This implies that both international organizations and local NGOs have to negotiate and find a compromise with the hosting state (or other non-state actors) to implement their projects. Moreover, humanitarian organizations have a duty of care for their own staff members, and the security of staff might be challenged in a country such as Turkey where aid delivery is highly politicized.

In Turkey, humanitarian diplomacy is articulated through the complex infrastructure of the Turkish state. Since the state administration is highly centralized and any decision on activities to be carried out in the provinces needs to be approved by the relative ministries in Ankara, a national-level perspective is crucial. Thus, while INGO representatives at the field level should retain their grounded relations, top-level communication should be followed in the capital. Indeed, essentialism and idealism have, at least partly, characterized the work of INGOs in Turkey. This approach clashed with Turkey’s politics of aid both at the higher institutional level and at the field level, making it more difficult to effectivey implement projects and reach the most vulnerable. To reduce institutional tensions and facilitate the realization of projects, context analysis should always be conducted before starting to operate in one particular country. As often argued, “The purpose of context analysis is to allow humanitarians to better understand the socio-cultural, political, economic and geographic factors.”[4]

In my experience of I/NGOs conducting context analysis, there are two common mistakes. Firstly, context analysis should be conducted by a country expert. Most context analyses I have seen were not done by Turkish experts, but rather by staff members working from the organizations’ headquarters. Secondly, the context analysis should not stay on the shelf waiting for the dust. On the contrary, context analysis should be one of the reference documents during each project’s (finance-hr-logistics-program) decision-making process. Although this is not a solution for smoothly navigating difficult institutional environments such as the Turkish state infrastructure, it might set a better starting point.

[1] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griddiths, and Helen Tiffin, Post Colonial Studies: Key Concepts, 96.

[2] “Mercy Corps Closes Operations in Turkey,” Relief Web, [Accessed March 3, 2021].

[3] Giray Sadık and Hilal Zorba, “Humanitarian Diplomacy for Syrian Refugees and Turkey-EU Relations,” The Journal of Migration Studies, 3(2017): 17.

[4] “Context Analysis,” PHAP, [Accessed November 2, 2020].

The Lion’s War: Life Histories, Forgotten Art and Alternative Geographies. An Interview with Paolo Israel

I Interviewed Paolo Israel on December 10, 2020, via Zoom, as has become the norm during the pandemic. Our conversation revolved around war and violence in Mozambique, especially the insurgency that is currently raging in Cabo Delgado province. In our conversation we looked critically at Harry West’s take on witchcraft, the limitations of Marxist and post-Marxist views of the insurgency, the ethical conundrums of using data distributed via social media without consent, and the challenges of the double lack of access to a field that has been closed by war and a pandemic.

Paolo is an anthropologist and historian, currently a senior lecturer at the University of Western Cape. He holds a PhD from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in Paris, focusing on Makonde masquerades in northern Mozambique. At present he is working on two projects. The first is a nonfiction book titled The Magical Lions of Muidumbe, in which he blends interviews, life stories, descriptions of dance and anecdotes to provide a panoramic view of a witch-hunt and also society in Muidumbe, where it occurred. The second project is a history of the 1960 Mueda massacre, for which he has studied Portuguese intelligence documents and interviewed several actors.

Paolo Israel interviewing Simon Nshusha, Matambalane, 2014 (picture by Fidel Mbalale/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

A detail about the picture. Paolo is wearing a white necklace, which was tied around his neck during the ritual of kummwangalela (patronage) held for Nyusi during the 2014 elections. This ceremony took place in Muidumbe at all national elections. Anyone who so wished received the necklace from a master of ceremonies (these were always women, the mothers of the initiates), and was obliged not to remove it until the candidate was victorious.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carmeliza: Thank you for accepting this interview and for giving me your time. I’m going to make this an informal talk and see where it takes us. We can work around your research, your interests. You sent me a particularly good list of these, so we can talk around the issues raised. We will conclude with the violence that Cabo Delgado is experiencing today. Let us begin with life histories. I have read some of your writings. One of those that you sent, an obituary of Simon Nshusha [pictured above], was also published in the weekly Savana. You look at the past from the perspective of lived history, and a lot of your publications are about life histories. Tell me a little bit about the insights that you have gathered through this, and how your work has grown into this specific way of doing anthropology and history.

Paolo: Thank you for the question. I’m interested in life histories and in stories in general. As I mentioned, my academic career has moved between anthropology and history. I would say that probably what keeps them together for me is my interest in storytelling. My research in Cabo Delgado initially tried to re-inject a sense of historicity into the tradition of Mapiko masquerades, which were viewed in terms of the colonial paradigm, as something unchanging, traditional and tribal. That required my reconstruction of the histories not only of the people involved, but also of the masks and genres involved. And some of the latter can be viewed as characters.

Mbangi, the transformation of a crazy mask since colonial times

For instance, one of the masks used dated back to precolonial times—the only mask from those times whose memory I managed to collect. It was called Mbangi, and it was basically a crazy guy. This mask, representing a guy dressed in leaves, was used as a resistance tool against the Portuguese invasion in 1917. Essentially it was used as a decoy to scare and distract the invading soldiers, whom the Makonde would then shoot with arrows. From these beginnings, it moved into a genre of masquerading called Nshindo, which is performed during funerary wakes, where it became just a sort of funny character. And then from there it was transformed again into Neijale, a mask that emerged after independence: a jester who does not go to FRELIMO’s political meetings and goes astray instead.

But then I also became interested in life stories. This was complemented by work that I had been doing on the history of the Mueda massacre [that took place on 16 June 1960]. With people’s life stories I’ve been trying to complement the drier histories that one gets from the colonial archive. You mentioned Simon Nshusha, who was probably the first person to openly, if not directly, ask for independence, provoking the colonial administrator into a fury and revealing the activities of the association he was part of. And Nshusha died just around the time of the first Al-Shabaab attacks in Muidumbe, on the Makonde plateau, this year [in April 2020].

Pedro Seguro, voluntary child soldier of the liberation war

There are two other life stories that I have been working on recently. One is that of my friend Pedro Seguro, who was the former administrator of the Muidumbe district. He was born during colonialism and exposed to the structural oppression of colonialism. And then he went to fight in the liberation war right at its beginning, in 1966. He was sixteen, technically a child soldier; but he and others in his position did not think of themselves as child soldiers because they were not coerced. He proceeded with his studies at the Mozambique Institute,[1] and got caught up in the troubles there. Though it was not his fault, he was sent back to the front. He fought in what were called the second, third and fourth sectors of Cabo Delgado, then went for training in the Soviet Union. He became administrator, and visited Muidumbe just around the time it was occupied by RENAMO in 1991. He fought to reclaim Nangololo, and the village of Muambula, from RENAMO. And then he retired, finally, in 2005. He was my host when I was there. His passion was building houses, which he could not do because his life had been captured by the struggles, by the state.

Seguro built a big house in the village, then a pensão [boarding house] and many more. And then finally everything was burned down in this year’s attack, when the Al-Shabaab got into Muidumbe in April. They threw a bomb into his house, and it exploded inside. I think they made this gesture because it was a big house, and maybe they knew it was the house of the former administrator. In the second attack, Pedro was still there, and he stayed a week in the bush before managing to escape, being brought back to safety by his first son. So his is the life of someone who has gone through three wars in his lifetime. In the long evenings I spent with him, during which we would eat by candlelight, because there was no electricity, he told many anecdotes from the war. He always ended by saying “A guerra não vale a pena” [the war is not worth it]. He said that he did not expect to have to fight another war after the struggle for independence. And now there is a third war. It is very sad, and it gives us a sense of what the province of Cabo Delgado is like.

Conscripted soldiers of the civil war

Another of my friends has a similar story. He was born during the liberation war, and fought in the civil war as a soldier. He was conscripted by force by the state, and then was finally demobilized in 1994. In the last attack on Muidumbe he was forced to stay for two weeks in the bushes. His house burned, his fields were lost, everything was lost. And now he is a refugee in Pemba. These are typical stories at the moment.

Carmeliza: Sometimes the personal histories get forgotten in the statistics. When one says that it is the Al-Shabaab, or terrorists, or insurgents, and then the Defense Forces, these are nameless figures. But when one starts naming the insurgents, because they have names, they have parents, they have siblings in the villages, people know them. Then it takes on another character. One gets a different sense of the violence and the war, wouldn’t you agree?

Paolo: Yes. I also think that we don’t have enough life stories of the insurgents. We don’t even have many refugee life stories yet. I remember when I was at the conference at Pemba last year (2019), there were a few testimonies. We have even fewer from the insurgent side. Sergio Chichava just published one. I think it’s particularly important to try to understand events from that side as well; what leads people down that route.[2]

Carmeliza: I like the life story you told about this Makonde kid who went to the mines and then came back as an insurgent.

Paolo: It’s not entirely confirmed. You get this information from rumors. But it’s one of the stories I heard, about a kid who left at a certain point for the Namanhumbir [ruby] mines (in Montepuez) to work there as a garimpeiro [artisanal miner]. This garimpeiro business is quite old. I remember in 2002, when I began fieldwork there on the streets of Pemba, people were selling all sorts of semi-precious stones. I don’t know exactly what they were, but it was tourmalines and such. There was one mine that was at the border between Meluco and Muidumbe, called Shashasha. My friend and research assistant, who passed away before all of this began, worked there, and he told me a bit how it was. There were foreign people who were illegally overseeing the mine: Somalians, Tanzanians. So, it’s an experience that the kids from the village had before the Namanhumbir mines were found. The story of this kid is that he went there, his family didn’t hear from him for a long time, and then apparently he came back in April as an insurgent. The speculation is why. No one really has an answer. But I think one point is that there’s a sense of oppression from a gerontocracy of war veterans. In Mueda and Muidumbe and the whole Makonde area there were already a lot of pensions at the beginning of the 2000s. After 2005, in the Guebuza era, people were showered with pensions. People who didn’t exist got pensions; forty-year-old people got pensions. Many young people from the new generation, they didn’t want to work the fields because there just wasn’t any hope anymore. Some still had a link to that kind of culture, but then all the opportunities were blocked by this big gerontocracy of war veterans. There were cases of kids who went and stole pensions from their parents. There was a lot of that: hit the old grandma on the head and steal the pension in a very violent way. This could build into that kind of marginalidade [marginality] of village youth.

Carmeliza: Sort of a generational clash?

Paolo: A generational clash, definitely. I wrote about the story of the War of Lions. This happened when I was there, and as much as it was couched in a discourse of witchcraft, and there was a tension between the traditional authorities and the state, it was very much a youth rebellion. So you could already see youth tension in the early 2000s. It is probably some of the same angst that has fueled Al-Shabaab on the coast.

The permanence and naturalization of violence

If I can interject something here about the mines. You can find online a short video of torture in the Namanhumbir mines. Besides people being buried alive, if you look at that video, you can see it’s basically a reeducation camp. Because it’s not only violence going on. What the video showed was these garimpeiros who were made to stand still, with the guards going around and whipping them. And then they were made to say things such as “Eu sou um marginal”: I am a marginal. So there seems to be something about that culture that comes up in terms of histories of violence. I wonder if this is some replication here that has a direct link to the place’s history? That is a working hypothesis for now.


If you look at the chicote [whip], the law of the chicote never went away in Cabo Delgado. I don’t know about the other provinces of Mozambique. I remember when a video leaked of a woman being chicoteada [flogged] and everybody was surprised. That has been happening, not every second day, but every week and very often. There are all kind of milicianos [militias] who administer floggings. I think that because of the closer relationship with the liberation struggle, things are more entrenched. It’s my sense, at least, but I don’t have hard comparative data to confirm it.


My research assistant got an inordinate amount of chambocos [clubbing] one time, after being accused of stealing a can of paint—which belonged to me, by the way. When I was away, he was given twenty-five lashes by the policia communitária [community police], which are known there as grupo 12. He ended up pissing blood. That is how it was.

Operacão não pisa pneu [Operation do not step on the tire]

In the 2000s, in Pemba, there was this operation called Operacão não pisa pneu. It was pioneered by Joaquim Nido (the police commander) and José Pacheco (the governor). They cleaned up the streets of Pemba. The meaning of não pisa pneu was that if they caught you loitering about after the informal curfew that was enforced, the police would pick you up and you had to get in the back of a truck sem pisar pneu (which meant without stepping on its tires). They would throw you in.

The curfew was there to crush the criminality in Pemba. And it worked, but it was very violent. So it is part of this genealogy of violence. You have the Montepuez jail massacre,[3] you have Operacão não pisa pneu. Then you have the riots in Mocimboa, which curiously people aren’t mentioning that much. That was a sign things were about to explode.

Carmeliza: I remember Mocimboa as the only place in the country where ethnic tensions come up during elections, even though there’s violence in other places, like for example Gaza. But the violence in Mocimboa and what happened in Montepuez was very particular in terms of consequences and the number of dead.

Paolo: In Mocimboa, there were clear ethno, political and religious fault lines. I was in Muidumbe during the 2005 campaign, and I saw from very close up how everything was completely entangled. What happened is that from Mueda truckloads of Makonde headed to Mocimboa, all with FRELIMO flags, and marched on [majority Mwani] Mocimboa for the last day of campaign. It was really like a conquest march. And then they came back. That was not even a year before the riots, which happened in the aftermath of the first Guebuza election, in 2004. People weren’t happy and there was a riot, a big riot, in Mocimboa in September 2005. But it went a bit under the radar. It wasn’t as bad as the Montepuez case, but more or less the same intensity.

Carmeliza: So there’s a general uprising of the youth and against these old men in power. But the issue with the mines is also interesting. I mean, the violence around them is extreme. Something that people don’t talk about is the youth that come to Montepuez from all over the north of the country. I did five years of fieldwork in Cuamba, and the young men there are disappearing to the Namanhumbir mines. That’s where they go. It seems that even though the Mozambican state isn’t present and has managed to establish a weak unity, people on the ground are establishing their own networks. There are some connections that transcend administrative boundaries. And that takes me on to the issue of forgotten art and alternative geographies. I’m not sure if your masquerades are a forgotten art, because they’re not so forgotten in my opinion.

Paolo: The masks are not forgotten. And it should be said that, oddly enough, they haven’t made it onto the UNESCO heritage list yet. With a Makonde president, that’s rather bizarre. But anyhow, the masquerades are well known. But what I meant by forgotten art, it’s partly a personal consideration, that when you know these places that are now at the center of the insurgency get turned into names that make the international news, they’re obviously framed within a certain discourse of war, as a humanitarian emergency, etc. They become markers on maps of atrocity and war, often misspelled. But each of them is a site of art, of culture, and there’s almost an underlying geography to the province that isn’t a geography of ethnic tension or violence, but a geography of beauty. I could begin with Tufo and Mapiko in Mocimboa. And if you go south, to Mbau. Mbau was the site where in January 2021 the first major defeat by the FDA occurred. There were over 100 soldiers from the Escola de Sargentos de Boane who were attacked frontally by the insurgents. I think twenty-two soldiers died. It was the first military incident where you could see that these people could take on the Mozambican army. Mbau was the birthplace of famous singers called Namwalu and Shambili. They were masters of a singing style in which one voice follows the other. And it’s amazing. These songs are making the rounds now on social media because one of them begins by saying “Why war in Mozambique?” Of course, it refers to the civil war. “What is this war in Mozambique? Where does it come from?”

There was a tradition of masquerading calling Nshindo in which masks would dance through the night and throughout the day—amazing masquerades. In Nakitenge it was the same. In Myangalewa, there were masquerades, songs and timbilas. In Mwatidi, there was a youth mask who went around on a bike, called Naupanga. In Awashi, where the naked woman was killed,[4] there were many dance groups. Each of these places, which are now wastelands, had this kind of deep history of art [see the map at the end of the interview].

Awashi was kind of famous even before this event. Maybe because it’s like a crossroads; you can’t miss it when you go anywhere, you need to pass it. And they sold these roots, ming’oko, that people are eating now to survive. Near Awasi and Nshinda there was this man who sang with the pankwe [traditional zither]. An amazing Pankwe singer. Another amazing pankwe singer used to live around Luchete. He used to wander all those villages, which are now wastelands and the insurgents’ bases, from Mocimboa to Mucojo (Luchete, Naquidunga, Nazimoja). He was a storyteller. I met him once, and I had the good luck to record him. He was a bit crazy, hunchbacked, and he went around the villages. He didn’t have a house and he just improvised these songs on a zither, which he called Iwaya.

An iwaya/magita/magalamponi/pankwe (picture by Rui Assubuji/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

There was one song he sang that was a story of how he was captured by RENAMO people and was basically taken around the province. It portrays a geography of war that looks very much like this war. He was taken around as a slave, and tried to reach the Makonde. There is a war being fought with arrows and guns. The main point is that one should not forget that this province is very rich with art, dance, sculpture and music, and all this is being ignored and annihilated by the conflict.

Carmeliza: Do you feel that this war is destroying art in ways that previous wars did not manage to do?

Paolo: Maybe it will survive the war in some way. But the emptying out that is happening now hasn’t happened in the same way before. Obviously, when there’s war, there’s a strong impact on those forms of expression. The last years of the RENAMO war were the same. People weren’t paying attention to art. But now you have a situation in which from Mocimboa until Awasi, and then up to Myangalewa and the coast, most of the villages have emptied out.

Carmeliza: I want to go into our written exchanges now. When you sent me your wonderful personal trajectory, my comment was that I found it interesting that you didn’t mention Harry West. You mentioned that you respect him and he influences you. For me, you two are the biggest references for Makonde history and anthropology and culture. And I don’t think anyone else has done such profound work. Also, you’ve worked on similar things, but differently. You said that you disagree with some of his readings of witchcraft. I’m curious to hear how you disagree and why.

Paolo: First, I’d like to say that Yusuf Adam needs to be recognized. Yusuf Adam has done a lot of work, so you can’t leave him out of the “Makondologists.” You go to Yusuf’s house and it’s a treasure trove of field notes. I have a huge personal respect for Yusuf. Recently, and this has been blocked by COVID-19, we’ve initiated a project of digitization of all the interviews that the Oficina [de História] team made in 1981,[5] of which 150 survived in the Arquivo Historico and another forty at the Centro de Estudos Africanos.

About West, he did amazing work, and I think he was more systematic than me at the beginning. He was accompanied by Marcos Mandumbwe, who was also amazing. When I began my work, West was the reference figure. His book Kupilikula came out as I was finishing my fieldwork, but I’d read his PhD. I had no intention of working on witchcraft at all because that was his topic. But then in 2002 as I was doing fieldwork, lions began to eat people in the lowlands of Muidumbe, and in reaction to this there was widespread suspicion in the district. Pedro Seguro, the administrator (whose life history we discussed at the beginning), was suspected of being the mastermind behind the lions and of coordinating an international trafficking of organs that these ghost lions harvested. And I was accused of being his foreign buyer.

You can read a lot of things into those events and Harry has written about them. I was there, and I had the fortune to do research with Estevao Mpalume from the Ministerio da Cultura, a local scholar who is amazingly skilled in interviewing. I learned how to interview with him. I’ve been writing about this recently, and just to be able to relisten to those interviews led by somebody who has an amazing skill at asking questions without shame is such a boon. Now I’m able to understand what was going on; at the time I wasn’t. I was just sitting and listening to the translations at the end. Harry came later, with his analysis of this war of lions, about which he also wrote an article, which I think was a bit more secondhand. And I agree with some of his understandings of this event and of witchcraft in general, which can be read as a metaphor for neoliberal predation—the Commaroff argument that witchcraft is a metaphor for popular dissatisfaction with global forces, and that there’s a symmetry between the occult nature of witchcraft and the occult nature of the flows of capital, in this case organs.

What this analysis misses is the violence. I think that if you look at witchcraft as discourse, it’s just talk. But then when it escalates into witch-hunts, which was the case at the time, when twenty-five people got lynched, then you need to have something else that accounts for the violence that takes place. And you need to think about that violence. And the sort of playful, metaphorical, discursive nature of witchcraft needs to be philosophically paused. I think that witchcraft is always both metaphorical and non-metaphorical. It’s always a metaphor when you say that somebody is a witch; you’re always saying that somebody is unsociable or selfish, greedy, envious. You point to some major flaw of the person or you point to some major social crisis.

At the same time, if you discuss witchcraft only as a metaphor, then the metaphor loses its power, because to use it as a metaphor you have to believe in witchcraft in a literal way. And after working on that and after listening again to all the interviews, I think that to work on witchcraft you need to believe in it a little bit. If you take a purely secular approach you’re going to miss out. You need to leave the door slightly open to the possibility of something that’s beyond your understanding.

Carmeliza: I’ll now discuss one thing that you’re now into, and I guess because you haven’t been to the field, a way of following it is by following social media. How has this been? How has it been to not be able to go to the field, partly because of the violence that’s going on so it’s a no-go area and partly because the possibility of an alternative source of information is there. How has this transition from actual field to the digital field been for you?

Paolo: I was in Cabo Delgado between 2017 and 2018. So I was there for about a month when the insurgency began. I traveled around and went to Pangane and to Mucojo in late 2017, early 2018. I was doing research on Ningore. I don’t know if you heard about him. It’s a very fascinating history. He was the biggest witch hunter of Cabo Delgado, and maybe in the country, who operated in the 1980s. It was a mass movement, the Ningore movement. I haven’t written about it yet. But basically Ningore made the rounds of the whole province to exorcise witches with a machete. There was a deep connection between this exorcism and reactivating practices that were done in the colonial period. But he cleansed people during the civil war. And I think there was a connection between that and the anxiety about the enemy. So, we were interviewing the Ningore family, which was from Mucojo. I could see, especially because I’ve been to Pangane before, how the place has changed. It was a gut feeling, but also I spoke to some people. There was a sense of Islamic radicalization in Pangane. It was very, very palpable.

Then I went back last year (2019) for the Pemba conference. Not to do fieldwork, just to attend. And I wanted to go to my Muidumbe. It would still have been possible. The roads were a bit dangerous, but not too bad. I couldn’t go because my plane ticket didn’t allow it. And then COVID-19 came. So, 2020 for me was like these places I have known don’t exist anymore. Myangalewa, I spent three weeks in that village researching this and that, it was taken off the map. People don’t live there anymore. Shitashi, I spent quite some time there. There was a massacre. People don’t live there now. Mbau, Nakitenge, I had a very good friend from there, we spent weeks there. They were the first to go.

So I tried to phone people. The line between personal concern and fieldwork is very thin. You’re just phoning people to see whether they’re alive or not and then they tell you stories. At the beginning of the year, there was this huge trouble in communication due to a surveillance system that the government had put in place. Someone told me it was Chinese software, but basically after you made a few phone calls to specific areas they identified your phone. And then you heard a voice that said with an Asian accent: “Hello, hello, I cannot hear you! Hello, hello!” And then they hung up. I couldn’t phone anybody because my phone had been targeted. So I started changing phones. I used my wife’s phone, then someone else’s. Then after a while your phone works again, so you can phone again. Or else they recorded you. There was a conversation where you talked with somebody for two minutes and then the conversation began again. You heard the person say: “Kaka, umumi?” Brother, how are you? The person told me this a few minutes ago: why is he repeating the same thing? To sum up, there was this blockage of information.

And then the big anxiety, I couldn’t travel because COVID-19 had arrived. I had plans to go to Maputo. I had some hopes to go to Cabo Delgado. In April, when Muidumbe was attacked, I got to talk for the first time with friends. So that’s when the social media thing kicked in. There are several chats. There’s the Pinnacle News Chat, which is amazing. And there are Makonde chats. The media that are most shared are these little voice notes that people send from the war zones. And I can listen to and understand those in Makonde. I don’t have access to any others. They really give you a sense of practical information, or emotional information, or judgment about things.

Just to mention a few that were deserving of analysis. One of them generated the news about the 117 insurgents killed in Awasi by FDS. It was a recording. There’s an intellectual point here to be made about orality. You can sort of gauge the trustworthiness. People always ask, well, where’s the sound clip? A written message isn’t trustworthy. But if you hear somebody saying, my friend, here we are, they are bombarding, throwing this and that from helicopters, the people believe it. And there’s a reason for that. People can read the local codes; people can read the accent of the person. People can understand from the message whether the person knows the local geography and so whether the person is from there or not. People have ways of gauging the information.

Another example is an eighteen-minute clip from a militiaman from a village in Muidumbe, who describes with an extraordinary amount of detail the first hours of the attack and his own experiences. It’s an amazing document that came through social media.

Carmeliza: Now there’s a law against disseminating messages via social media. You’re liable for any message you disseminate. If a person didn’t give consent, they can take you to court. Technically they can take anyone who has disseminated a message to court. You shouldn’t be sharing without consent.

Paolo: That’s interesting. There’s also an interesting ethical discussion to be had about this. I’m one of those who’s against ethics by regulatory committee. How can you regulate anthropology and field work by filling in forms? What happens if I phone a family member to find out how the situation goes and the family member doesn’t know that the call is being recorded? The person phones in good faith because they want to know if the family member is alive. At the same time, they record the conversation, and they share it with the world without any kind of ethical clearance. And that lands on my cell phone. What do I do with this? It’s an ethical quandary if the person who gave that information did not agree.

Carmeliza: Technically, from what I understand, you shouldn’t record or disseminate things from others, even if you share them in a public group. And I think the intention is in a way to control information, the circulation of information related to the war and other things. Because social media is extremely powerful in Mozambique.

Paolo: Yes. If you look at how this information is being generated., one of the major actors at the moment is Pinnacle News. It’s this little independent news agency based in Nacala. And it’s all basically posited on sharing. The way it operates, it has a lot of groups and people who post. Sometimes they just tweak the message. For instance, the news of the massacre in Mwatibi, we still don’t have clarity about that, but it made the BBC and Al Jazeera. That was Pinnacle News; it came from social media. Somebody has either voice messaged or texted Pinnacle, and the news jumped from there to Carta de Mocambique, from Carta de Mocambique to Al Jazeera.

People are following Pinnacle. But it’s very wobbly. It’s a very anarchic space. But when you read news by Pinnacle, it means somebody has said it. And there’s a sort of checking. More, sometimes there are jokes. There was one in May that people were debating whether it was a fake. It was a sort of gallows humor. There’s this guy who phones:

“ – Hello. Who’s there on the phone?

– Who’s there?

– Who’s there?

– No, who are you?

– No, the owner of this phone is dead. I cut his throat. He was my uncle. No, I cut his throat.

– Who are you?

– I am an Al-Shabaab.”

The person who speaks is clearly a Makonde. One speaks in Makonde and the other speaks Makonde with a Mwani accent. He goes on and verbalizes what the Al-Shabaab are going to do. Now we want to get to Mueda, to kill Nyusi [the president], to kill Pachinuapa [a veteran general owner of mines in Namanhumbir – both Makonde], to destroy everything. It was very popular. Through gallows humor, it was a popular interpretation of the reasoning of the Al-Shabaab.

Carmeliza: There are two clips of the insurgents when they came into the Mocimboa and Quissanga, in which there’s apparently popular support for the Al-Shabaab. There’s this clip about a Mwani kid from the islands who kept saying “You know me, you know who I am. I am a child of the land, and I am here to liberate you because this government is unfair. It’s not treating you fairly.” It’s the first time that something is mentioned about the unfairness of the government and the like. I’m not talking about what’s discussed in the Makonde closed channels, but what’s going around in public channels. There’s not been much mention of the reasons for this war.

Paolo: When it comes to this insurgency, there’s a lack of understanding of its ideological underpinnings. I think that partly it’s because we have a Marxist or post-Marxist field that’s so saturated with the idea that everything boils down to economic causes. Surely the economic forces are there, but I think there’s work to be done on the specific ideological underpinnings. And I think that especially in the initial phases of the insurgency, there was too much dismissal of the Islamist side. People have now changed their minds. Eric Mourier-Genoud stressed the local much more. Yussuf was a bit skeptical about the Islamist factor, but now he’s worried. Hanlon did not change his mind. But I think there has been a shift into acknowledging that it is an important factor. But we still do not know clearly what the ideology is exactly. But it is not an incidental factor. This is my take, my sense.

I was listening to Liazzat Bonate talking at ASA the other day,[6] and talking to another colleague of mine, Andrea Brigaglia, who’s a specialist on Boko Haram. There seems to be something very peculiar about the kind of Islamic State ideology that’s different from the al-Qaida one, insofar as there’s much more emphasis on chaos, on Armageddon, on the end of the world. And that seems to be the modus operandi at the moment. This is something that Salvador Forquilha mentioned as well. They don’t do it like RENAMO did, finding support. They aim at emptying out the space.

There’s work to be done in that respect, but from somebody who understands Arabic, Swahili. Somebody who has a good grasp of the longue durée histories. And I think Liazzat is the one who’s best placed to do that.

Carmeliza: In a way, I understand why there was this reluctance in centralizing Islam. Because in an Islamophobic world, to centralize Islam becomes dangerous for the Muslim people who aren’t involved, for the non-radicals, even for conservative non radicals. There are a lot of people who are extremely conservative Muslims, but they’re not Islamist radicals. The point that was made by Liv Tønessen was an important one: that to be a Muslim, if we take this as an ISIS standpoint, is a very narrow vision of who is Muslim. Which means that everyone can be a victim. So rather than a clash between religions, it’s a purification of Islam—a point that Liazzat also made.

Paolo: There’s the whole war on terror discourse that one easily falls prey to. That’s something else you see on social media. In the Makonde social media, you begin to see Islamophobia. With the destruction of Nangololo there was a lot of grassroots Islamophobia. And that’s definitely something that it is very risky.

Another point for which I don’t have clear proof, but one that also needs to be considered, is the history of banditry as a possibility. That’s how RENAMO operated. That’s something that was said a lot, last year especially. That some people adhered to this to make a life out of banditry. It’s a possibility.

[1] The Mozambique Institute was created in 1963 in Dar-es-Salaam by FRELIMO, the liberation front. It was managed by Janet Mondlane, the American-born wife of FRELIMO’s leader, Eduardo Mondlane. It collected funds and oversaw the humanitarian works of the front, chiefly education. The troubles were a student rebellion against Janet Mondlane that occurred in 1968–69. They protested the predominance of white teachers, being forced to go to the war’s front lines, and political assassinations on the Cabo Delgado front (see Costa, C., 2018. ‘O Instituto Moçambicano e o Estado Social dentro da FRELIMO.’ Tese realizada no âmbito do Doutoramento em História. Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto).

[2] More has been published since the interview: see Macalane, J. and Jafar, J. (2021). Ataques Terroristas em Cabo Delgado (2017–2020): as causas do fenómeno pela boca da população de Mocímboa da Praia. Universidade Rovuma. Extensão de Cabo Delgado.

[3] An incident where around 100 people affiliated with the opposition were suffocated after they had been crammed into a small jail cell in a prison in Montepuez.

[4] This refers to an incident where four gunmen beat and shot dead a woman that they accused of being an insurgent. They filmed the incident, which went viral on social media and spurred international condemnation and a report on human righst violations the incident by Amnesty International.

[5] The Oficina de História was part of the Center for African Studies (CEA) at the University Eduardo Mondlane. Created in 1980, it set to rewrite Mozambican history using oral sources and focusing on subordinate historical actors such as peasants and guerrilla fighters. The focus of the Oficina was contemporary history, “focusing on the old liberated zones in the post-independence era, the socialisation of the countryside and the cooperativization of communal villages” (see Fernandes, C. 2013. History writing and state legitimisation in postcolonial Mozambique: the case of the History Workshop, Centre for African Studies, 1980-1986. Kronos, 39(1), 131–57).

[6] African Studies Association, USA.

The loss of “proximity” senses

Ruth Finnegan in her Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection (2002) explains that human face-to-face communication is characterized by multimodality, that is, by the fact that we always communicate using a variety of interdependent channels at the same time. The tone of voice, the effectiveness of the gaze, facial expressions, body posture, hand and arm gestures, the regulated use of touch, the evocative sense of smell, the symbolic power of clothing – all of these are elements of human interconnectedness.

Communicating is thus a highly polysemic process that is difficult to define and describe as it involves an extraordinary quantity of interdependent elements, in which the participants form an active and creative relationship.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown have caused an unexpected restriction of the multiple modalities of human interconnection, reducing both our extraordinary and our daily social relationship to what can be communicated to the two dimensions of a screen.

As a consequence, the sense of sight is enhanced compared with others, leading to a persistent visual overexposure that tires and depresses us, causing, in the long run, the sensation of a loss of energy. As a secondary schoolteacher confided to me during an in-depth interview on remote teaching:

… the particular thing that we have all noticed: you put energy in there but it does not return, whereas in a direct relationship energies return; whenever you enter a classroom you feel that the energies do arrive, what you give comes back to you somehow, you feel tired but emotionally fortified; in there it is pure exhaustion, total alienation.

Furthermore, in digital communication, sight and hearing no longer work in synergy but produce a kind of continuous cognitive dissonance since, online, there is always a time lapse, more or less accentuated, between what I see (the speaker’s face) and what I listen to (the words that come to me a little later, sometimes slowed down, sometimes accelerated); the sense of touch, then, locked up in our homes, is reduced to typing on a keyboard, clicking, scrolling or even to frantic washing and disinfecting for fear of infection.

There is an even more direct relationship between Covid-19 and our senses: the symptomatology of the disease manifests itself in several cases with ageusia, the loss of taste, and anosmia, the loss of smell.

Much has been said about the obligation, imposed by the need to contain the spread of the disease, to maintain a physical distance and not to touch each other, and much has also been said about the social suffering caused by these prohibitions. However, less attention has been paid to the loss of smell and taste. Yet smell and taste are the most intimate senses, anthropologically defined as “proximity senses”. We do not have a standardized system of coding and verbalization for them as is the case for the “remote senses” – sight and hearing –- though they operate, more widely than the other senses, at the emotional and affective levels of experience.

A person’s smell is part of their uniqueness – it suggests mutual intimacy and can form a special, close bond with another person; the smells of the places we frequent represent a particularly emotive basis for the sense of belonging to a community, for social inclusion and exclusion (commonly, the foreigner “stinks”). Moreover, the sense of smell comes into play  during ceremonial and therapeutic moments, those most linked to the symbolic and even ritual dimensions of culture. It is able to stimulate the deeply moving memory of places, people, situations.

Taste is the sense that most subtly and unconsciously binds us to our tradition and cultural memory. As Le Breton writes in Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses, our favourite flavours constitute a secret and timeless bond that reminds us of the table of our childhood and, even further, to our feeding mother. Taste metaphorically defines pleasure – expressions such as “to savour life” or “to taste the beauty of a landscape” are frequently used – and besides, a beloved food or drink produces instant, intense, satisfying well-being.

Symbolically, the pandemic, just as it takes our breath away, takes away not only the most emotional and intimate parts of our senses, but also the most mysterious side of human relationality. As it temporarily makes these senses dormant in the infected, so it hides them from social life, since taste and smell are precisely the senses that cannot be experienced and communicated through the digital channel, which now characterizes most of our daily communications. If we can share our ideas through remote meetings, view a photo or listen to good music on our social networks, we cannot share aromas, perfumes, fragrances, flavours on a digital platform.

Therefore, the symptomatology of Covid-19 involves the loss of the sense of proximity and leaves some open questions: does it foreshadow the future of a humanity without smell or taste, senses to be considered as superfluous for digital humans? Or does it urge us to pay attention to that irreducible background of physicality, which we have rediscovered as an important component of human interconnection? Or, finally, does it remind us that communication, and therefore sociality, implies not only a cognitive level but also affective and emotional processes that we are unwilling to give up?


Originally published in Italian as La perdita dei “sensi di prossimità”