New York

“Notes of a Former Peacekeeper”


photo by Johan Rydeng Spanner; All Rights Reserved

The photograph above was shot by my friend Johan Spanner, a really talented Danish photographer who I think is covering the inauguration in DC today. I met Johan in Jordan in April 2003, shortly after he was released from jail in Iraq. Johan, along with three other journalists, had been jailed by the Hussein government for traveling to Iraq on the wrong visa (a tourist visa, and not the incredibly difficult to obtain journalist visa). They were held, among other places, at Abu Ghraib prison.

Johan has been back to Iraq since then, and will head back to Baghdad to cover the election. The photograph here comes from an online exhibition of his work, part of a monthly series put on by the folks at PixelPress, and it’s well worth checking out. I’ve excerpted a selection from his artist’s statement below, which hints at the unique perspective he brings to covering war. In it, he discusses the Iraqis you see doing push-ups above, exercise Johan says wasn’t voluntary.

Before becoming a photographer I served in the Danish Army as a peacekeeper in Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. It was a very different conflict from Iraq–there were actual front lines, violence was only occasionally directed against the peacekeepers, and we were clearly instructed to act as guests in the region, rather than as an occupying force. Now, while I don’t see the Balkan missions as a complete success, I consider them a lot more successful than Iraq, which seems to spin ever more out of control.

During the few days I was embedded with an infantry company in the Sunni Triangle during January, 2004, the American soldiers routinely violated the Geneva Conventions. I witnessed them raid a hospital with the intention of taking anybody with a gunshot wound back to the base for interrogation; I was told (but not shown) that a prisoner at the Forward Operating Base who had been shot in the abdomen would receive no medical attention unless he decided to speak.

I also witnessed the implementation of a policy called “Leave No Refuge,” aimed at destroying the houses of suspected highway hijackers. In the process of finding those houses, the soldiers raided literally every house in the village. They forced villagers to do push-ups, just for the fun of it or to extract information. I saw them kick in villagers’ doors and offer their kids teddy bears confiscated in earlier raids as compensation.

At times it was truly absurd, as when they used 8 TOW missiles (at an estimated $20,000 each) as well as hundreds of rounds of other ammunition, to destroy the empty houses of two of the suspected hijackers.

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