In the line of fire
10th OCT Ankara Turkey
ZIYA PIR, politician | Words: Constanze Letsch
“I have never sat down and calmly thought about everything that happened that day,” says Ziya Pir, 45, an MP for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city in south-eastern Turkey. “Maybe I try not to, maybe I just cannot. Maybe my brain cannot grasp the horror of it.”
Over 100 people died and several hundred others were injured when two suicide bombers targeted a rally organised by several left-wing groups, including trade unions and the HDP, in the capital Ankara. It was the worst terror attack in the country’s recent history.
“We were in front of the central train station and I saw some friends, other HDP members from the Black Sea coast, so I went over to greet them,” Pir recalls. “I am from the Black Sea region myself, so they know me there. They offered me simit [a pretzel-like bread ring] and I remember that I only broke off a small piece, saying that I should go to the front of the procession. They said ‘yes, go, you should not be late’. So I turned around and walked off. Two minutes later the first bomb went off, then the second. I ran back to where my friends had been. The people I had shared tea and simit with were sprawled on the ground, dead or badly wounded. There was blood everywhere.”
“When the police started shooting teargas at people who were wounded I had to try to rein in my fury. I had to be the public figure I had been elected to be”
The twin bomb attacks ripped through the main junction close to the city’s central railway station as thousands of people began to gather to protest a recent escalation of violence between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “A lot of what happened after is like a blur now,” Pir explains. “I functioned, I tried to help. When the police started to shoot teargas at people who were wounded and at those who were helping them, I had to try to rein in my fury. I had to be the public figure I had been elected to be.”
The devastating attack came three months after the breakdown of a mutual ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK. Hostilities between the old foes resumed in July after a suicide bomber killed 33 Kurdish and Turkish activists in Suruç, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish government blamed Isis militants for the bloody attack, but many Kurds in Turkey blamed the government, long perceived as actively supporting Isis action against growing Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Following the bombing in Suruç, Kurdish militants killed two policemen in retaliation. By the end of July, Turkish fighter jets were attacking Kurdish positions in northern Iraq while the PKK stepped up attacks on military and police positions inside Turkey. Thousands of officers have been deployed in massive security operations against the PKK’s urban wing, with blanket curfews declared in several predominantly Kurdish cities and towns in the south-east of the country. Hundreds have died in the ensuing clashes, including more than 400 civilians.
In Turkey’s elections in June, the HDP took 13 percent of the national vote, surmounting the country’s 10 percent threshold for parliamentary seats to grant the country’s Kurdish minority unprecedented political representation. It had not been an easy victory for the party. “Since before the [June] elections, members of the HDP were assaulted, lynched, arrested and killed,” says Pir. “Election stands were attacked and destroyed. The polarising rhetoric of [president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [prime minister Ahmet] Davutoglu encouraged people to target us, and it is getting worse now.” Like many of his prominent party colleagues, Pir has not had a fixed address in months, for security reasons. The HDP leadership insists that he travels in armoured vehicles, and accompanied
Pir says that the main – and perhaps the only – reason he finally agreed to run for the HDP in June was his wish to play a part in the peace process, which had been launched in 2012 with the goal of ending a bloody conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984. “I wanted to sit at the table when Turks and Kurds would finally negotiate sustainable and lasting peace,” he says. “It is the most important issue this country needs to solve.”
Pir comes from the traditionally nationalist Black Sea region and his family name looms large in Kurdish militant history: his uncle Kemal was one of the founders of the PKK in 1978, alongside the group’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan. Unlike his uncle, Pir believes that politics rather than violence will put an end to the discrimination against Kurds in Turkey. However, the Ankara bombing and the spiralling violence across the country has put his faith to the test.
“After what I experienced in Ankara, all my political ambition was gone,” says Pir. “What is more important than a human life? The election campaigning, the talk of percentages and numbers of votes, it had lost all meaning. It was disillusioning. I watched the speeches and the campaign promises of the other parties and they suddenly seemed callous and empty.”
On the day of the Ankara bombing, the HDP decided to cancel all its remaining rallies for November’s snap elections, which had been called after the elections in the summer resulted in an AKP minority government that was unable to form a coalition. Meanwhile, the HDP’s opponents continued to tour the country advertising their views. “It was a time when we really needed to explain ourselves,” says Pir. “Many people in the Kurdish region blamed us for the breakdown of the peace process. The fact that we were suddenly passive and quiet did great damage to our party, and to our election results in November.” The HDP barely scraped over the 10 percent threshold, while the AKP regained a stable majority.
Pir is angry at the AKP government, which was quick to blame the organisers of the rally for the attacks, despite public prosecutors almost
immediately pointing the finger at Isis suicide bombers. Veysel Eroglu, the minister for forestry and water, said the HDP were “provocateurs that organise terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony”. The attackers, both believed to be affiliated with Isis, have since been identified, but not a single AKP party politician has ever apologised for their accusations.
Pir says that this, too, clearly shows the mentality of the government – and of the majority of Turks – when it comes to the Kurdish question, and to the country’s troubled relationship with its other ethnic, religious and political minorities. “The attitude against those who are not ethnic Turks, who are not Sunni Muslims, has never changed. They say: ‘We are brothers, but we are not equal. I am the big brother, and you are the little brother. I may punish you when you don’t do as I say’.”
Critics of the government have argued that Ankara turned a blind eye to Isis cells operating in the country, as long as their targets were Kurds and the leftist opposition. “Either the government and the security services knew about the pending attack in Ankara and did not prevent it, which would be terrible, or they had no idea about it, which would be just as bad,” says Pir. He has no hope that the case will ever be fully solved. “I am convinced that the only thing we will ever know for sure are the names of the two suicide bombers. Everything else will remain in the dark.”
Does Pir lose hope over everything that happened since the Ankara bombing? “There is always hope,” he replies. “But it is hard. In any real democracy, in any other democratic country, the government would resign after such an attack. But here in Turkey, the government blames the victims instead. Not even such a terrible event can unite us.”
On 17th February 2016, another bomb attack in Ankara resulted in the deaths of a further 28 people. The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, a breakaway faction of the PKK, claimed responsibility, saying the attack was retaliation against the security policies of the AKP-led government.
12th NOV Beirut, Lebanon
HUSSEIN NAJEM, Lebanese Red Cross | Words: Nabih Bulos
It was a quiet evening in front of the TV for Hussein Najem, until his phone rang. As head of the Red Cross in Beirut, Najem is among the first to be contacted in an emergency. “The caller said ‘Hussein, we heard an explosion. We don’t know where… but it’s big.’” Minutes later, Najem was racing towards Burj al-Barajneh, a predominantly Shiite district south of Beirut. “I immediately thought it was a terrorist attack. We had become used to it in this area,” he says.
Since 2013, Burj al-Barjaneh and other Shiite-majority neighbourhoods, collectively known as the ‘Dahiyeh’, had been targeted with car bombs due to their association with Hezbollah, the Shia party and militant group. Various groups including Isis had attacked Dahiyeh as retaliation for Hezbollah’s support of President Assad in Syria.
As Najem drove to the site, a second suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt in front of a bakery less than 20 metres away from the first bomber. It was this bomb, Najem explains, that made the death toll so high, eventually reaching 43, with 239 wounded. Najem and his team dove into the chaos, triaging the wounded before turning their attention to the dead. They approached one corpse, lying face down by a shop door. “His legs were blown off,” recounts Najem. “We brought the stretcher, and when we flipped the body we found an explosive belt. It was a third suicide bomber. We were terrified the belt might detonate. A soldier nearby fired his gun in the air, shouting ‘suicide bomber’ to disperse the crowds.”
It was the worst attack in Lebanon since the civil war. Following the attack, emergency teams now approach the scenes of suicide bombings with greater caution, Najem says. The protocol for handling bodies has also been modified: now bomb disposal crews ensure there are no explosives on a corpse before it is moved.
The onslaught in Paris a day later dominated the international news agenda, and some felt that Beirut was marginalised. “Sadly we’re accustomed to this. Anything that happens here, it doesn’t get media attention… I felt anger. When we die, no one asks about us? No one cares? There was never the global solidarity that happened with the Paris attacks,” says Najem.
Then again, he adds, “maybe they’re right in thinking this way, because we’ve experienced this for years and so people think we’re used to it, while for them it’s the first time.” But, Najem insists, Beirut is not used to it. The city has just become resilient. “The same night, after the investigations were complete, they removed the rubble,” says Najem. “People wanted to get back to work the very next day.”
12th NOV, Paris France
EMMANUEL CHIRACHE, music writer | Words: Matthew Lee
He had, after all, seen the Eagles of Death Metal several times before. He’d even played snooker with the band after an interview in 2009. But a friend requested his company at the show, and he made a late decision to attend. He was standing on the right-hand side of the mosh pit when, during the song ‘Kiss the Devil’, three men armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the venue. What happened next is a bit of a blur. “It takes a few seconds before you realise something is wrong,” recalls Chirache. It’s been three months since the attacks and he’s been on a much-needed break from work, to give himself some rest and to plan for his wedding. He says that he’s feeling OK, and that he once again feels comfortable going to concerts and sitting on the outdoor terraces of Paris bars.
Chirache recounts the events of the night. “One of the first thoughts I had was ‘really, this concert, the Eagles of Death Metal?’ They’re not a famous band. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I did the same as everybody else, the whole venue. We lay down. Somebody switched the light on and then I had a kind of blackout… There were gunshots and we were waiting to know what was happening and what we were going to do. My friend says I kept saying ‘it’s not possible, it’s not possible’. I remember seeing one of the terrorists but I can’t remember his face. Just a shadow, you know. At some point, maybe after ten minutes, there was a big crowd rush. Everybody started to run and I started to run too. It’s all very blurry in my mind. I climbed onto the stage, which was very difficult. Every move was difficult. Climbing onto the stage was maybe the most scary moment. I looked for an exit, but there was no exit.”
“I found a door to a small room,” Chirache continues. “We were around 30 people in there, including the Eagles of Death Metal bass player. We whispered when we had to share information and when people talked too much other people hushed them. I had no reception on my phone but some people were texting friends. Everybody was very polite and quiet and nice. Calm and rational. We had things we needed to do – we had to call the police and put barricades on the door. Then we just had to wait quietly.”
“I knew people had been killed. I’d seen a lot of wounded people. I had blood on my trousers. I knew what I was going to see. I knew I would see a massacre”
“We were in the room for maybe two hours,” says Chirache. “At the beginning we heard machine guns but after a while it became quiet. We didn’t know what was happening outside. After midnight some police opened the door and pointed their guns at us. We said we were civilians and they let us out.”
Chirache had to walk through the building before he could exit it. “I was very happy to be alive but then I saw everything,” he says. “I already knew people had been killed, of course. I’d seen a lot of wounded people. I had blood on my trousers. I’d heard everything so I knew what I was going to see when I got out. I knew I would see a massacre.”
In total, 89 people were killed at the Bataclan by Samy Amimour, Omar Ismail Mostefai and Foued Mohamed-Aggad. Another 99 people were critically injured. At least 40 more people were killed in mass shootings in nearby cafes and restaurants, and suicide bomb attacks at the Stade de France stadium in which only one person other than the attackers died. Chirache escaped unhurt, save for a bruised knee. Friends of friends were among the dead, but none of his own friends had been killed.
“The first thing I wanted to do afterwards was sit on my couch and watch movies,” says Chirache. “But it was so difficult to find a movie without gunfire. I’d never noticed before how much violence there is in films. I don’t want to watch romantic comedies, but I can no longer watch films containing gunfire.”
At first, Chirache consumed everything he could find relating to the Bataclan attacks. “I became a bit obsessed,” he says. “Sometimes I’d be in a conversation with people and my mind was somewhere else. I’d be playing the movie over in my head. I wanted to know every detail, every event. I watched the news all the time. I wanted to read everything – every testimony, every biography of the victims. But now I’m trying to avoid all of that.”
This is the first interview Chirache has given since that night. “I’m a journalist so I understand why my friends who are journalists too wanted to speak to me,” he says. “But I said no to everybody because it was too soon. I wanted to be with my family and my girlfriend and that’s it. I spoke to some friends but I wasn’t ready to talk to the media. It’s been a few months and I’m more comfortable discussing it.”
When asked about the political implications of the attacks, Chirache finds it hard to make the connection between something so terrifyingly real and something rather more abstract. “I get frustrated when I hear people talk about how the terrorists are just doing politics,” he says. “I get angry when people take a very intellectual view of things. If terrorists shoot at you one day, you might realise it’s not just politics. And when people say that [the Bataclan attack] is part of a war, the thing is that we didn’t have guns. I couldn’t defend myself. It wasn’t a war, it was a massacre.”
His political views, he insists, remain unchanged: “I’m still a pacifist, I’m tolerant of immigrants and I’m not happy if France is at war.”
“I think more about the victims,” he replies when asked how he feels about the three men that turned what was meant to be an enjoyable evening into a nightmare. “Those guys [the terrorists] had been completely brainwashed. There’s no point being angry with them. They’re dead, and they didn’t understand what they were doing. Poor guys, stupid guys. Maybe if they hadn’t met the wrong people in their lives, many innocent people wouldn’t have died. It’s all such a waste.”
On 16th February 2016, Eagles of Death Metal returned to Paris for a show at the Olympia theatre. Chirache decided not to go. “I don’t want to look back at tragic events,” he says. “I want to look to the future.”
13th NOV: Mghila, Tunisia
LAURA-MAÏ GAVRIAUX, writer and philosopher | Words: Vidhi Doshi
Shortly after meeting the family of Mabrouk Soltani, a teenage shepherd boy decapitated by Isis militants, Laura-Maï Gaveriaux posted her thoughts to her blog: Today I saw the headless body of a child of 16 years. Tied up, hands behind his back, like a fighter. Today I held the arms of a mother who saw her son’s head returned in a plastic bag.
On the evening of 13th November, Gaveriaux was meeting families of terror victims in Kasserine, a poverty-stricken region in the south of Tunisia, near the Algerian border. Kasserine produces the majority of Tunisia’s Isis recruits and is also a key battleground for Isis and al-Qaeda factions operating in North Africa. While she was in Kasserine meeting terror victims, her own city of Paris had fallen victim to a horrific terror attack. “I got news that four of my friends had died at the Bataclan,” Gaveriaux says. “When I heard, I wanted to go back to France.”
Gaveriaux was making her way back to the capital Tunis when she changed her mind and asked her taxi driver to turn the car around. “It was a snap decision,” she says, “and I think it was a good one.” On the same day as the attacks in Paris, Mabrouk Soltani had been murdered by Islamist militants near his home in Mghila, around 60km from where Gaveriaux was. Instead of travelling 2,000 kilometres to grieve at home in Paris, she decided to mourn her loss with Mabrouk’s family in Tunisia. “He was a victim of terrorism too,” she says.
An image of Mabrouk’s decapitated head had been broadcast on a popular current affairs programme on national TV, an event which caused a huge public outcry in Tunisia. When Gaveriaux reached the Soltani home, situated at the foot of a mountain, she saw the journalists responsible for the controversial coverage. She says that they had been seen celebrating their scoop. “The family didn’t want to speak to anyone after that.”
Gaveriaux understood that she would have to gain the trust of the villagers before they allowed her to meet Mabrouk’s family. “I spoke with the villagers for an hour,” she recalls. “I tried to be respectful. After some time, they invited me into the family house and I was able to sit with Mabrouk’s mother and sister.”
“The Islamic State faction in Tunisia is trying to prove their allegiance to the Iraqi faction. Violence is a good tool to show that they’re here and they’re ready to fight”
Tunisia’s fledgling democracy faces a significant threat from rising terrorist factions operating inside the country. In 2015, the country experienced three major terrorist attacks: in March at the Bardo Museum; in June at the beach resort of Sousse; and in November with the bombing of a presidential guard bus. Those attacks received international attention because tourists were in the line of fire. But the majority of terrorist attacks in Tunisia go unreported. This is partly due to the difficulty of reaching the remote areas where Islamist groups operate. As Isis gains strength in neighbouring Libya and Algeria, a battle over resources and political ideology between Islamic factions seems to have spread to southern Tunisia. As part of her work, over a period of four months, Gaveriaux travelled to places where even local journalists are afraid to go, to meet with families of those who had been killed, threatened or kidnapped.
“The Islamic State faction in Tunisia has no official recognition from the Islamic State in Iraq,” Gaveriaux says. “So they are trying to prove their allegiance. Violence is a good tool to show that they’re here and they’re ready to fight.” Some reports claimed that Mabrouk had been killed because he had been working as an informant against Isis. But Gaveriaux says that there is no evidence to suggest his involvement on either side of the conflict. “He was just unlucky,” she says. “The terrorists were just walking by.”
After Mabrouk was decapitated, his severed head was placed in a plastic bag and given to his 14-year old cousin to take home. “The family called the police but the police didn’t come so they had to put the head in a fridge,” she says. “Nobody came the next day either so the family decided to go and find the body by themselves. There were ten villagers and they walked to the mountain. It took them an hour. They found Mabrouk’s body in the grass with dogs standing next to him. They put the body in a blanket and brought it back to the village.”
Since Gaveriaux’s visit, the region has been paralysed by massive strikes and demonstrations against unemployment and poverty. Activists say the area is neglected by the government and underdeveloped compared to the rest of Tunisia. Gaveriaux believes that the region’s socio-economic issues are a greater problem than terrorism. “They are afraid of terrorists,” she says, “but they said they suffer more from problems of development.”
Gaveriaux returned to Paris for Christmas and found a city that had changed dramatically. “I didn’t want to leave my house, not because I was afraid of terror, but because I didn’t want to deal with Parisians,” she says, explaining that she encountered Islamophobic attitudes everywhere. “French people think they know what a terrorist looks like – a young guy from the suburbs with a beard who listens to rap music,” she says. “If you played back these people’s opinions to themselves in ten years’ time, would they be ashamed?”
She felt that conversations in France always centred around terrorism. “It’s like all 66 million French citizens are suddenly experts on Middle East politics,” she says. One of her friends prepared to leave the country, a response to the attacks Gaveriaux considered extreme, while another began drinking heavily. Having been abroad when the attacks took place, in a country where terrorism is so common it is hardly talked about, Gaveriaux felt like an outsider in her own city.
Over the Christmas period, Parisians posted pictures of themselves making merry in bars, cafes and public places with the caption “Je suis en terrace” in the same font as the “Je suis Charlie” banner which spread across social media after the attacks at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices in January 2015. “It was as if drinking a lager in the pub was now resistance to terrorism,” Gaveriaux says. “And while everyone wanted to show themselves drinking and having fun, there was no serious public discussion about what Paris had gone through, or the wars we are involved in, or how to deal with this. If you look at before and after pictures of the city it’s the same, except now there are some flowers at Place de la Republique as a memorial. People need things to look the same from the outside but on the inside people are still in shock. Paris is traumatised.”
In the blog post Gaveriaux wrote after meeting Mabrouk’s family, she asked herself why they’d allowed her into their home: Why did they take me into their house? Why did they take my arm, bring me up to these women, show me the body?
She posed that question to Mabrouk’s mother. “She said it was because I was the only foreigner who came to see them,” Gaveriaux says. The Paris attacks had eclipsed news of Mabrouk’s death outside of Tunisia, and no other foreign journalists had made
“Mabrouk’s family told me that they were sad for France,” says Gaveriaux. “They wanted to tell me that.”
20th NOV Bamako, Mali
CORINNE DUFKA, Human Rights Watch | Words: Loes Witschge
“It seemed quite normal,” says Corinne Dufka about her arrival in Bamako a few days after the Malian capital was rocked by a terror attack. “The security presence wasn’t overwhelming. But when I ate out in a restaurant, I started looking for escape routes. You want to sit in such a way that you can see people coming in. You start running through your head the scenarios you might have to react to.”
Dufka, the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, was in Washington DC preparing for her trip to Mali when she heard the news of the attacks.
“I felt this sense of sadness that the lives of so many of my friends and colleagues in Mali had slid into this uncertainty and fear, a world where one has to worry about bombs going off in the capital city.”
On the morning of 20th November, militants stormed the Radisson Blu hotel brandishing guns and grenades. They reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they opened fire on security guards. A nine-hour siege followed in which approximately 170 guests and staff were held hostage. Malian armed forces assisted by UN troops and US special forces brought the siege to an end by nighttime, by which stage 21 people, including two attackers, had been killed.
Dufka began travelling to Mali regularly in 2012, just as the country suffered what she describes as a “spectacular collapse”. In northern Mali, a rebellion of nomadic Tuaregs was hijacked by Islamists with links to al-Qaeda, who quickly captured large swathes of territory. Almost simultaneously, a coup was successfully mounted against president Amadou Toumani Touré in Bamako in the south.
Since then, Dufka says, lawlessness and insecurity have been the norm in northern Mali, which has experienced rampant criminality and frequent attacks by myriad armed groups with shifting allegiances. Yet November’s terror attack, and a smaller attack in a Bamako nightclub in March 2015 which killed five people, marked a departure from the status quo. “Previously they [the armed groups] hadn’t gone after soft targets,” Dufka says. Armed groups had thinned out after the signing of a peace deal between the government and rebels in June 2015 and the presence of UN peacekeepers made life more difficult for the remaining fighters. “When that happens they start going after softer targets where the goal is less the control of territory, and more to terrorise and announce their strength,” says Dufka.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by no fewer than three Islamist groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun came first. Al-Mourabitoun is a terror outfit led by one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar who acquired fame after orchestrating an attack on an Algerian gas plant in January 2013 in which 40 staff and 29 militants were killed. Several days after
the Bamako attack, the Macina Liberation Front, a new group which Dufka understood had been carrying out summary executions and operations against Malian armed forces in previous months, also claimed responsibility.
Dufka believes that such groups have been able to thrive since the chaos of 2012 by winning a degree of popular support from Malians thanks to actions like putting a halt to banditry carried out by Tuareg separatists. “[The Malian people] said ‘We don’t like these people but at least they’re stopping the banditry. We aren’t losing cows any more’,” says Dufka. “The Islamist groups are filling a security vacuum that the state has been unable to fill.”
“They were trying to play it really nice, and therefore the abuses were not massive,” Dufka continues. “People were asking if this was a different type of Islamist group, or if they were just playing this way in order to win the favour of the Malian people. The [November attack] suggests that it was the latter.”
The timing of the attack, a week after the attacks on Paris, is curious, says Dufka. “It raised speculation about whether Malian franchises of al-Qaeda were entering the grotesque soft target game perhaps as some kind of warped competition with Isis,” she says. She fears that the attack signals a growing terrorism problem in sub-Saharan Africa, where extremists are capitalising on local grievances and spreading violence. “Boko Haram, for example, has now gone from being a Nigerian problem to a problem that affects four countries,” she says. “In Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea they have the same dynamics of rapid population growth, a large percentage of unemployed and frustrated youth, and deficiencies of the state which can be exploited by extremist groups from different religions and different stripes.” So when, on 15th January 2016, 29 people were killed by gunmen at a hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou in an attack claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Dufka was not surprised.
“These groups really know how to exploit the ungoverned and the undergoverned space,” she says. “To be honest I’m very worried.”
2nd DEC San Bernardino, California, US
JOE MOZINGO, LA Times reporter | Words: Matthew Lee
Six months before Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik went on the rampage at the Inland Regional Center, a non-profit organisation that helps people with developmental disabilities, an article by Joe Mozingo appeared on the front page of the LA Times. The headline was ‘San Bernardino: Broken City’, and it caused quite a stir. Shortly after its publication the San Bernardino Sun reported on how local residents had gathered to discuss the article, its impact on their community, and what they could do to restore their hometown’s damaged reputation.
Mozingo paints a bleak picture of this city of just over 200,000 people, located 60 miles east of Los Angeles. His report begins in room 107 of the Country Inn motel, where a couple and a four-month-old baby sit on an unmade bed, surrounded by dirty nappies, broken Tupperware, hypodermic needles and cockroaches, both dead and alive. The mother, a methamphetamine addict, twitches throughout the encounter. San Bernardino, writes Mozingo, is a “distillation of America’s urban woes” – and here were some of its most
Mozingo rattles through grim statistics: San Bernardino, according to the 2010 census, is the second-poorest city in the country, after Detroit. Almost half of its working-age residents are unemployed. In August 2012 the city declared itself bankrupt, resulting in higher taxes and cuts to public services. Crime rates had declined since the dark days of the 1990s, when San Bernardino was known as California’s murder capital, but the situation worsened after the bankruptcy: there were 46 homicides in 2013 alone.
When ten people were killed in a shooting at an Oregon community college on 1st October, President Obama warned that Americans were becoming numb to violence and that mass shootings were now routine. So when one took place in San Bernardino, it came as a shock but not exactly a huge surprise. With 14 deaths, it was the most deadly mass shooting in the US since Sandy Hook in 2012, and that’s perhaps how it would have been remembered – at least, until a bloodier incident took place – if reports hadn’t circulated that Tashfeen Malik had pledged her allegiance to Isis on Facebook.
The fault lines shifted. The “broken city” of San Bernardino now faced the notoriety of being the target of the biggest terror attack on American soil since 9/11. Two weeks after the attack, FBI director James Corney said there was “no evidence” that either of the killers used social media to pledge their support for Isis, which in January used its magazine Dabiq to claim the attacks were inspired rather than directed by the militant group. By mid-February 2016, the FBI was still trying to establish a link between Isis and the attackers, leading to a public showdown with Apple over privacy and encryption.
Mozingo was on the scene within two hours of the shooting. “This city I’d been roaming around for months suddenly had media all over the place,” he recalls. “The police had roped everything off near the Inland Regional Center but San Bernardino has many dirt alleys and vacant lots and so I walked through this area of weeds and boarded-up homes to get there. Normally you’d want to keep your eyes open around these alleys; a lot of meth addicts live around here. But on this day they were all standing on the street, looking towards the Inland Regional Centre, trying to get a glance at the spectacle.”
He reached the police command centre but they weren’t sharing much. “I thought I’d wander the streets and ask some questions,” he says. “I asked people if they were scared because at this point the attackers were still on the loose. A mother, who was with her baby, shrugged when I asked her. They deal with violence here every day.”
“The ‘broken city’ of San Bernardino now faced the notoriety of being the target of the biggest terror attack on American soil since 9/11”
It was the 2012 bankruptcy that had prompted Mozingo to begin researching his report. “I wanted to know what it was like to live in a failed city,” he says. “And it was depressing, to be honest. There were a lot of abandoned homes, many of them old and poorly maintained. San Bernardino is a neglected back pocket of the state and it gets called the ‘armpit of California’. but it’s got the potential to be beautiful. It’s situated in a valley of orange groves, right beneath the mountains.”
Like many US industrial cities, San Bernardino suffered a painful decline in the late 20th century: the closures of a steel mill, a railyard and an air force base resulted in tens of thousands of job losses. By the time the financial crisis of 2008 had done its worst, San Bernardino had some of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country. There are ongoing problems with gang violence, homelessness, outdated infrastructure and corruption. And now, to add to all of that, San Bernardino has found itself at the centre of vicious pre-election culture wars. All mass shootings become politicised in the national debate over gun control, but this was something else. Most of the Republican presidential candidates used the San Bernardino attacks to bolster their arguments that Syrian refugees aren’t to be trusted. Donald Trump went further, citing San Bernardino when proposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
But for residents of San Bernardino, little has changed. “There’s violence that grinds on and on, especially in poor communities, and no one ever covers it,” says Mozingo. “There was so much media covering this one part of San Bernardino, this corporate office park area where nobody lives, but there’s never media in the rest of the city where crime occurs at a high rate. There’s this big disconnect.”
Will things get better? “I don’t think it can get much worse,” Mozingo replies. “As the US economy improves things will improve. And the terror attack might be a catalyst for positive change, something that binds people together.”
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