Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize 2017 Entry: The Inevitable Wall

I wrote this piece for the Bodley Head FT Essay Prize 2017

I remember standing on the platform at Baron’s court reading about the beheading of Steven Sotloff at the hands of Islamic State on the 2nd September 2014. His was the second beheading to be plastered across our news feeds and screens and fill all of us with horror. I recall grasping at my neck as if it were my own throat being cut, such was the power ISIS* propaganda. I could only impotently and naïvely hope that they would be bombed into submission and peace restored.

Two years later, I am stood with my fixer on the outskirts of Bashiqa, a recently flattened town in North Eastern Iraq. Bashiqa was liberated by Peshmerga** forces in November 2016 as part of the operation now underway to retake Mosul. The sky is grey and low, rain falls in cold spits. A relentless wind is blowing dismembered shop shutters around in a dreary chorus of banging and rattling. The entire town stinks of corpses which reveal themselves to us as we walk around. Underneath a collapsed wall I can see cracked ribs fanning out from an exploded chest, here a trainer contains a severed foot, there a smashed face is stuck in an eternal scream. Passing soldiers spit the taste in the air out of their mouths.

A journalist by the name of Saif Aldin Kader Sef I met in Kobane in 2016 once described an ISIS attack as like being in front of a herd of stampeding bulls. He told me there was an inhuman quality to them, manic, charging forward in front of withering fire and not hindered by fear of death. Looking at these corpses now I can almost hear the pounding of their feet, their snorting, the sweat and stink in the heat. After all the terror ISIS has caused, it was cathartic to see so many of their corpses.

We walk cautiously down a dirt track, wary of unexploded ordinance on the ground. The track opens into a field at the end of which is a badly damaged house. To the right of it, a lone ISIS militant lies dead face down in the dirt. His belly is exposed, swelling and yellow. His hair matted and smeared across the back of his head. He is missing a hand and a foot. Someone has cut the overhead wires with a pair of shears which now hang twisted on the end of the severed cable. They swing in the air with the wind and occasionally clang against the metal pole like a bell.

We go into the house watching for trip wires and anything that might explode. The smell of death makes your stomach heave so we pull our jumpers over our faces and fight the urge to vomit. The hallway is filled with broken glass, chunks of plaster and concrete. The living room has been blown open by a huge shell. At the far end, I can see two bodies in the desert coloured military jackets and black jumpers that have become the hallmark of ISIS. We can’t get any closer because it is not safe. I can’t see any more corpses until I look down at my feet and see a rotten face staring straight up at me. His left eye is open and shrivelled. His top lip is curled open exposing his long yellow teeth and black gums. I take photos, make some sketches. My fixer leaves me with the body.

I stare at him and think about the M1 Abrams tanks storming across the desert in 1991 and again in 2003 during the US-led intervention. I think of Saddam’s statue being pulled to the ground in Firdos Square on April 9th, 2003. Some of those same Abrams tanks can now be seen flying black flags after they were captured by ISIS from the Iraqi army. A symbolic subversion of US power has taken place. It seems the world I grew up in is coming to an end.

Recently though, that ending has felt more like a suicide. The election of Donald Trump to office and the Brexit vote seem to fit well with what the Frech Philosopher Jean Baudrillard had to say about 9/11: ‘The terrorist hypothesis is that the system will commit suicide in response to multiple challenges posed by deaths and suicides.’1. The twin towers were the most visible symbol of globalization and neo-liberal. In bringing down the twin towers, the nineteen hijackers were making a global call for the suicide of the system. As Bin Laden himself said in November 2001 Qandahar, Afghanistan:

‘Those young men (...inaudible...) said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world.’2.

Rejections of globalization and neoliberalism in their current forms were central to the Trump and Brexit votes. As a result, we have entered into a period of major traumatic adjustment in the political and economic order of the world.

As Gideon Rachman reported from the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos;

‘although delegates at Davos this week, fuelled by champagne and canapes, will do their utmost to pretend that it is business as usual, the fact is that the worldview epitomized by the WEF is under attack as never before.’3.

Within the rejection of neo-liberalism and globalization is a rejection of the free movement of people, in Western Europe at least by the handling of the refugee and migrant crisis. Trump and Brexit supporters might cheer the end of ‘Davos’ class, but the WEF has increasingly focussed on a much darker specter that poses a much greater threat to us all, climate change.

Over the last 10 years, Climate Change related risks have slowly crept up the WEF’s Global Risks Report. In 2017, the report lists the top three major risks in terms of likeliness to occur as extreme weather events, large-scale involuntary migration, and major natural disasters. The report also labels water crises as one of the top five global risks in terms of impact. These relate to climate change.

In December 2016 the chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, Maj Gen Munir Muniruzzaman stated that “Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st Century”4. The threat comes not from us burning up in our houses, but from the knock-on effects of water scarcity and food scarcity. Drought, flooding, natural disaster. These problems create instability and the conditions for groups like ISIS, Al Qaida and Al Nusra. These groups are not formed in vacuums but are a by-product of economic and social instability. The fact that it uses the Islamic faith is an accident of history.

Trump might call this dead man I am looking at the face of ‘Radical Islamic Terror’ but he is also the face of climate change.

As Naomi Klein writes in her 2016 essay ‘Let Them Drown’: “Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.”5. As the tropic belt expands, so there will be more drought, more drones, more boats.

However, Trump has been voted in on a Climate Change denying ticket and is threatening to pull the US out of the Paris agreement. Nigel Farage doesn’t want wind turbines in his back yard and everyone seems to love fracking. US Senators throw snowballs in the Senate to prove global warming is a myth.

Parts of Iraq could be described as what Naomi Klein and Steven Lerner call ‘sacrifice zones.’ These zones are parts of the world suffering near permanent environmental damage or economic disinvestments such as the Niger Delta or the Alberta Tar Sands, whilst being exploited for natural resources. In those sacrifice zones live sacrifice people, children mining Coltan for my iPhone in the Democratic Republic of Congo.6. Young girls stitching my clothes together in Bangladesh.7. But these modern day slaves are far away, they are not our problem.

The Oxfam ‘Even It Up’ a report released in January 2017 estimates that eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world. Our current system of division of wealth and labor is also poorly suited to the coming 4th Industrial Revolution.9. With automation of many jobs, a looming this inequality looks set to only worsen. This means more inequality, more destabilization.

We will continue to distance ourselves from this reality. We can build a wall in our minds against the truth. It is what Klein calls ‘othering’; “the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights, the same humanity, as those making the distinction. What does this have to do with climate change? Perhaps everything.” 5.

What are the consequences of the mass migration of people? We have already seen the effects. It has destabilized Europe and torn apart our political establishment. Besides, ‘othering’ will only get you so far.

“Go with me or go with the mob.”

In April 2016 I stood alongside Syrian refugees who had occupied the harbor on the Greek island of Chios after a riot broke out at their camp and they were forced to flee. Some two hundred men, women, and children lived for about a week on the concrete loading area. One night the locals decided they were fed up with the occupation of a key piece of infrastructure by the refugees. They showed up in force and surrounded the harbor. The police arrived but the refugees didn’t want to leave. The despairing mayor of Chios Manolis Vournous addressed the terrified refugees urging them to get on the buses saying:

It was an ugly night, but it was a scene played out endlessly across Eastern and Southern Europe. People that had left everything and risked their lives crossing the sea now being beaten up and terrorized by comparatively rich Europeans. It is easy to criticize the locals who had otherwise been welcoming, but they were living with reality. I imagined how the village where I grew up in middle England would deal with the sudden arrival of two hundred people on the village green. Surely they would be welcomed at first, but tensions build, outsiders get involved, changes are promised and not delivered on, help is offered but impossible to sustain, microaggressions become overt hostility and then you have open violence.

This is the point where it becomes impossible to ‘other.’

I can still hear those well-meaning and hardworking volunteers decrying what they saw as the barbarism of the EU; “We have enough for everyone. No Borders! Open the borders!”

Ultimately, we won’t have enough for everyone because it will never be shared evenly. By 2050 it is estimated there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet. There will come a point for us when to ‘other’ means not only to kill through labor and exploitation but to outright kill because it is expedient. By that time, we will not regard them as innocent, because it will be the only way we will be able to cope. The only way a chosen few of us will ever be able to ‘flourish’ and not merely survive. Surely this vision of the future is only a matter of degrees away from what we are doing to ourselves now?

We are horrified by Trump’s wall, but if the predictions of the World Economic Forum materialize, and the current refugee crisis has caused this much disruption, the potential disaster we are sleep walking into will dwarf the current crisis. But then, on our side of the wall, what harm would a few more machine guns, a few more watchtowers, a few more inconvenient truths do to our breakfast reading of newspapers?

Being shot for crossing a border wall is not new.

Outside this house of corpses, I can see my fixer skulking around the car and looking bored. I have grown used to the foul smell of the bodies. I move closer to the face of the ISIS fighter and stare into that one open rotten eye.

First, yes, of course, you will hold up signs that say ‘No human is illegal’ and you will give up your spare room. You will be horrified by the wall. You will march in protest... a year will pass, frictions will start to occur. Little fissures. You cannot escape it.

One day you will start to reason for it and say; “at least we should be able to control things”, or “how can we help the world if we can’t protect our own?” Eventually, people will agree, grudgingly perhaps, but just as with your iPhone and your slave clothes, you will go along with it.

Time will pass, the news screens will fill with seas of black clothed, brown-faced people streaming over barbed wire fences. FEAR will set in. Fear like you never felt before. When fear takes hold you will find yourself seeing the wall as the only solution. Anything to protect you from that horde of incomprehensible and un-helpable humanity. They are beyond help, there are too many of them. Your own grandmother will have to pack her suitcase in tears and your leafy suburban street will be awash with tents, tents, tents! Where will you go? You will have nowhere to go.

Finally then, on your knees, you will beg for them to build that wall.

When?

When? Look at the world around you, it’s already begun.

 

* - ISIS – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), IS (Islamic State) and Daesh.
** - Peshmerga – The military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. ‘Peshmerga’ is a Kurdish word which loosely translates as ‘those who face death.’

  1. Jean Baudrillard: The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso Books, 2002).

  2. Osama Bin Laden’s speech transcript: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-

    srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/binladentext_121301.html

  3. Gideon Rachman, ‘Political Upheaval casts cloud over Davos.’ The Financial Times.

    Jan 15th 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/f9f4b23a-b711-11e6-961e-a1acd97f622d

  4. Damian Carrington, ‘Climate change will stir ‘unimaginable’ refugee crisis, says

    military.’ The Guardian. 1st December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/01/climate-change-trigger- unimaginable-refugee-crisis-senior-military

  5. Naomi Klein, ‘Let Them Drown.’ The London Review of Books. 2nd June 2016. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n11/naomi-klein/let-them-drown

  6. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/child-labour-behind-smart-phone- and-electric-car-batteries/

  7. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/06/bangladesh-garment-factories-child- labour-uk

  8. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/an-economy-for-the-99-its-time-to- build-a-human-economy-that-benefits-everyone-620170

  9. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it- means-and-how-to-respond/

Orwell Society Entry 2017 - Sonsuz Duvar, The Endless Wall

I wrote this for the 2017 George Orwell Society short story prize for dystopian fiction. My work received a commendation.

SonsuzDuvar

A red blip appeared in sector A5 of the digital map. The motion sensors had detected something. Captain Badur sat with his feet up on the white desk, staring at the three screens on the wall in the control room. He turned to Seyhmus, the trooper on watch.

“I see it, sir. Pulling up the visual.” Seyhmus was already tapping commands into the terminal.

The central screen switched to a live video feed. As the drone drifted towards the blip, the heat signatures of five people could be seen. They were slowly crawling into the exclusion zone. Seconds passed. One of the members stopped; a flash of heat and the camera feed cut off as the drone was shot down.

“Hazir öl! - Stand to!” He yelled, first in Turkish for the local soldiers, then English for the internationals. Before he’d gotten up from his chair, the rest of his men were already throwing on their gear and checking their side-arms. Badur did the same, putting on his helmet and slapping the sides as he always did before an action. “Get another drone on that target immediately,” he yelled at Seyhmus.

“Yes sir!” Seyhmus replied.

Badur shouted as he walked to the door, “And keep your distance! I don’t want to lose another one.”

The alarm sounded, doors slid open, and the entire sixty-meter watchtower came alive. The twenty troopers stationed inside it streamed out and took their positions along their section of the wall with the rest of the company.

Badur stepped out into the cool night air of the Zagros mountains of Western Kurdistan. He could oversee things from inside the tower, but preferred to go out onto the wall with the men. The red lights of the replacement scout drone drifted overhead, towards the target. Searchlights were turned up and swept the area. The troopers took their positions behind monitors and grasped controls in their hands. The gun emplacements were automated, but the men were needed in case of technical failures, in which case they could revert to their battle rifles.

He walked for a few minutes along the gangway, checking in with the men and exchanging jokes. After fifty meters, he was greeted by Lieutenant Takus, coming up from a lower level to report in. “All positions manned and ready sir,” Takus barked. He saluted Captain Badur with the old Turkish military salute, which Badur met with the official Federation-style salute. The state of Turkey no longer existed; it had been split into the Turkish Federation and the Kurdish federation. Both regions were now all part of the Federation of Europe and Asia Minor, the FEA, the border of which they were now defending together.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Takus.” Both men went walked along the wall together to a control terminal, a smaller version of the control room in the tower. The station was manned by another drone operator. There was a screen displaying a map and two more screens for live drone feeds. Above the terminal there were bullet proof glass portholes, which gave them full visibility of the sector. The drone operator took control of the scout drone and gave them a report; “It’s a small group, sir. Looks like five people: four adults and a minor. I’m keeping the drone out of sight so we don’t lose it.” Both men took the information on board in silence. “I think they are trying to dig in, sir. Probably a tunneling group,” the drone operator concluded.

Badur and Takus both knew that tunneling groups were usually families looking to escape the wasteland, but there was always the threat that they were militants disguised as refugees. Militants had planted bombs on families in the past.

Takus looked at Badur impatiently. “What are your orders, sir?” He had a habit of using shows of diligence and eagerness to put pressure on Badur and make him feel like he was being slow or indecisive. Takus added impatiently, “We should torch them, sir—”

“Hold on, Takus,” interrupted Badur, reasserting his authority.

“But sir, they’ve already shot a drone down,” Takus protested.

“All the same...’ Badur insisted. He took a moment to consider the situation, then turned to the drone operator, “Give them a warning.” Badur knew it was futile, but he had to do it for his conscience.

The drone was sent in closer and the group was issued with the standard warning in Arabic and English from the drone’s speaker system: “Attention. You are in a prohibited area. Turn around now or you will be fired upon. This is in accordance with the Border Security Order of the Federation of Europe and Asia Minor. This is your final warning.”

There was another flash as the group tried to shoot the second drone down, but the operator evaded it and pulled it back out of range. Badur gave a heavy sigh. The Border Security Order stated that it was illegal to move or occupy space in the exclusion zone and it was illegal to attempt to cross the border. Attacking the border, including the surveillance drones, was regarded as a hostile act to be met with immediate force. In only a few minutes the group approaching the border had signed their own death sentence. He would have to hit them.

“Shall I engage, sir?” the drone operator asked.

“Light them up, twice to make sure,” Badur said curtly.

The drone operator picked up the receiver on the terminal, which opened a line with the gunner in the tower, “Wall to tower five-six-four: proceed with fire mission, thermobaric strike, 2 rounds. Sending coordinates now.” Painting the targets with a laser, the observation drone sent the coordinates to the tower.

Badur gazed at the ancient town of Mardin behind them. It was a peaceful carpet of lights on the hillside, overlooked by a castle that had stood for millennia. The residents were used to minor emergencies like this. Around once a month, there would be a heavy action, but it rarely got hot here. The Mesopotamian Plain, which the wall overlooked, did not lend itself favourably to an attacker. When they did happen, it was with truck bombs, the occasional armoured vehicle, and a few rocket-propelled grenades. The militants sometimes sent in drones, but they were handled by the anti-aircraft laser mounted on the tower. Most of the

groups that approached the wall in this sector weren’t attacking it; they were just escaping war, famine, drought, and the cultist religious groups that dominated the region to the south.

Throughout his five years on the border, Badur had served in every region from Israel to the Black sea. The sector towers all along the line dealt with the same regular ordeals. The mountainous areas of Eastern Turkey were where the heaviest attacks came, because those regions were harder to monitor and control.

Badur was a native Kurd from Diyarbakir, the capital of the Federal State of Kurdistan. He had tried to persuade his wife Senay to move to Mardin with Ferhat -their only child- and live with the rest of the brigade’s families but she refused. There was a lot of paranoia about the wall falling to a tide of militants and terrorists. Badur kept telling her to stop watching the news because it was mostly nonsense; the wall would not fall that easily.

Most his men were Turks, but each brigade had a continuous flow of internationals from the Western FEA states. They sent them for educational reasons to show new recruits what life was like in the outlying regions of the FEA. These areas had to live with the burden of the wall, the brutal necessity of it so that the rest of the federation could enjoy peace, that was the theory. As much as Badur regretted the existence of the wall, he saw its purpose and tried to see himself as a guardian of the civilian population. It was the only way to cope.

“READY FOR FIRING, SIR,” the speaker reported. Badur swiveled to look up at the tower as the large grey box on top slid back to reveal the shining black barrel of the railgun, humming loudly as it was brought up to full charge. They listened to the hydraulics spin the weapon to the coordinates and elevate the barrel.

“Fire!” snapped Badur. The humming stopped and the weapon shuddered and gave its mechanical report, spewing a fireball as it launched the first round at a speed of 4,500 miles per hour. Once, twice, then it spat out the canisters with a rattle.

Badur watched through the portholes, imagining their panic when they saw the gun fire. In the darkness there were two explosions followed by a crack and a roar as the fireball from the fuel bombs curled up into the night and disappeared.

“I just don’t understand why they keep trying sir,” Takus said.

Badur shrugged, “it’s like all those people on the boats, they knew the risks but they kept coming. The people that put them up to this shit just want money. I’ve heard they pay for people to take them through the network of gangs and religious groups; they tell them that once they are underground and digging, they are safe from us.”

“Safe until our drones detect them,” quipped Takus.

“Exactly,” Badur folded his arms and stared back out onto the plains. “Drone operator, send in a GRU.” The drone operator activated the Ground Reconnaissance Unit. The two men watched its progress from the deployment point at the base of the wall. The six-foot walking robot strode with speed and relentless efficiency towards the target.

According to the Border Security Order, every incident had to be investigated. The soldiers were under orders to first neutralize any threat, and then find out more information. Badur knew that it was important to investigate because any information helped the Border Defence Force adapt their tactics, and the FEA gather data about perpetrators.

The monitor in front of them switched to the view from the GRU’s camera. Rather than requiring total control by the drone operator, the GRU was a semi-autonomous drone that poses questions to its operator. Aerial drones could accommodate the slowness of a human, but the GRUs often had to engage militants in combat, programmed with a series of algorithms instead. In this case, when the GRU reached the impact site, it detected four expired life forms. A fifth was trying to crawl away. The drone asked the operator how to respond--should it investigate or engage? Once the operator granted a request to investigate, the GRU strode over to the survivor. Badur and Takus watched as the drone pinned the man to the ground, his screams for mercy crackling through the intercom.

“Turn that off, I don’t want to hear that,” Badur growled. He had learned from experience that listening to the audio in situations like this was bad for his peace of mind. It was better to shut it out.

The drone took the routine series of tests-DNA from the mouth, fingerprint scan, retina scan, and then cross referenced them with existing information from the FEA database. The Federation had extensive surveillance networks, even in the wastelands. While the drone operator pulled up the report, Badur watched the man squirming and crying in the live feed, then looked at the readout.

“Looks like a 98% match with... Mahmood Al-Zahabeh, a suspected smuggler from Hamam Al-Alil, former Iraq,” the drone operator said.

They waited for more information.

“We’ve got incriminating photos of him here and... er... he’s got some transactions that match typical smuggler behaviour. Multiple blocks of $2000 dollars, all in the last week. I’d say we’ve got a smuggler here, sir,” the drone operator added.

“I don’t understand why he would be so brazen to try and dig a tunnel there when he seems experienced,” Badur said, pitifully. Badur and Takus exchanged theories as more information came in. Message exchanges in the region revealed that Al-Zahabeh had arranged for someone else to do the smuggling, but when that person had failed to show, Al-Zahabeh had been forced to lead them to the wall himself.

“If they’d begun digging further out they might have gotten away with starting their tunnel,” Takus observed, before leaning in and taunting the man on the screen, “you got too close Zaha... whatever your name is.” Takus smirked.

The legal algorithm would categorize Al-Zahabeh as a real threat to FEA security. Automatic authorization was therefore granted for him to be terminated in the field without needing to bring him in. Duly tried and convicted, the drone sent a request to the operator, asking for permission to carry out the termination sentence.

The request flashed up on the screen. The drone operator looked back at Badur. Badur stared at the face of Al-Zahabeh a moment longer before nodding for him to proceed.

The drone held Al-Zahabeh by his outstretched hands and sent 20,000 volts from one arm to the other across his heart, killing him instantly. Al-Zahabeh’s face froze in shock. His struggle was over.

The GRU retrieved the wreck of the observation drone, and located the lazer rifle Al-Zahabeh had used to shoot it down with. Then it sprayed the bodies with a chemical that helped speed up decomposition and limit the spread of disease, leaving them in the field as a reminder to others.

“See to it that the area is closely monitored throughout the night,” Badur addressed the rest of the men via the intercom on the terminal, patting the drone operator heavily on the shoulder. “Good work, men. Issue resolved. Stand down.” Badur stepped away from the terminal. “Very good Lieutenant Takus. It’s late, let’s have a drink.”

After doing the rounds of the men in their stand down stations and having the routine end of day drink with Takus, Badur trudged into his private quarters in the control tower. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was forty-two years old. At his age, his father was still a guerilla in the PKK, fighting against the Turkish state. Badur wondered what his father would think about the version of independence they now enjoyed.

To Badur, the world his father had lived in seemed much simpler, much less cruel. The fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK had been pitiless, but seemed more honourable than this. The last European war had ended ten years ago, in 2030, and the FEA was created by the victors as a block that could withstand aggression from the south and the east. The wasteland beyond the border wall was uninhabitable and uncontrollable. An irreversible change in the global climate had led to water insecurity, which caused drought and crop failure on a massive scale. These new conditions kept a swathe of the planet, from Senegal to Vietnam, in a state of constant chaos and war.

The wall was built in the name of peace and prosperity, to protect a majority from the millions of dispossessed and desperate people that were -in the eyes of the people of the FEA- beyond help. That was the philosophy. In the Turkish regions, they called the wall ‘Sonsuz Duvar – the Endless Wall.’ The name referred not to its length but to its permanence.

Badur went to the sink and cleaned his teeth, after which he pulled down his lower lip and checked his gum recession. Shrugging, he turned off the light and collapsed into bed.

WILL MIGRANTS MAKE OR BREAK EUROPE? (MARCH 2016)

The crisis on the Bodrum peninsula has lessened since last Summer but it remains a microcosm of the whole migrant issue; rich people drink and party in bars or dine on the decks of yachts while a few hundred metres away scores of migrant’s rush into the sea, wide eyed and terrified, to sail to Europe, to sink, to drown.

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