Witness to Conflict

Sep. 24, 2013
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  “Witness” is an HBO documentary (out on DVD) about photojournalism, specifically three professionals who ventured into four of the most dangerous parts of the world—war zones in all but name. The documentary is eye opening, though the scenes with charred bodies make for gruesome viewing.

Perhaps the most alarming of the four episodes is the one closest to home. Eros Hoagland, a second generation photojournalist whose father was killed covering El Salvador during the Reagan years, ventures into Juarez across the border from El Passo. Everyone knows it’s a battleground for Mexican cartels, but Hoagland finds a situation that may be worse than usually reported. By some of the accounts he records, Mexico’s army and police are gangs themselves, engaging in the crime and violence they are charged to prevent. No one trusts anyone else in the fierce turf war that has gone beyond all limits. Most of us know that America is the main market for the cartels’ goods, but fewer of us realize the social cost of the low-wage American-owned factories in Juarez.

Hoagland also travels to Rio de Janeiro, which despite open warfare in the streets is the future site of the World Cup and the Olympics. The hillsides overlooking Rio have long been no-go zones for police, governed by narco traffickers. Hoagland witnessed a show of “pacification” as militarized police seize slum neighborhoods; the traffickers melted away, as if in tandem with the authorities. And then came the wrecking balls of gentrification in what appears to be a massive land grab. As in Juarez, it’s hard to know who to believe in a paranoid world without trust or confidence.

Michael Christopher Brown was naïve when he went to Libya covering the uprising against Gaddafi. But after the regime fell and the other reporters went home, Brown stayed on and grew aware of a situation more gray than black and white. With Gaddafi gone, the lighter complexioned Arabs forced black Africans from their homes, tribal animosities flared, militias refused to lay down their arms and the government, propped up by U.S. and EU hopes, governed almost nothing. “The more you learn, the more complicated you see things are,” Brown confesses in an insight applicable to life itself.

Veronique de Viguerie traveled to the land of lost children straddling Democratic Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda and South Sudan, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has burned villages and abducted thousands of children into his militant cult. The popular YouTube video has had no appreciable effect on Kony; Viguerie focuses instead on the less publicized but more important Arrow Boys, armed youth defending their turf in South Sudan against Kony’s militants.


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