Nick Turse

How I accidentally amassed a trove of horrors

Recently, I wanted to show my wife a picture, so I opened the photos app on my phone and promptly panicked when I saw what was there.

It's not what you think.

A lot of people are worried about what's lurking on their smartphones. Compromising photos. Illicit text messages. Embarrassing contacts. Porn.

What I noticed was a video in the photo stream between a picture of a document I sent to an editor and a shot of my dog — a clip of a man in Burkina Faso having his lower arm chopped off.

The still image of that act is bad enough. The video is far worse. The victim lies on the ground, pleading, screaming as another man, swinging a machete, forces him to place his right arm on a wooden bench. The attacker is trying to make the amputation easier, allowing him to make a cleaner cut. But "easier" is a relative term. The assailant hacks away, again and again and again, taking time to taunt his victim. You watch it happen. Slowly. You see the anguish on the face of the man whose arm is bleeding but mostly intact, then hanging at an odd angle, then barely attached. The video runs one minute and 18 seconds. It seems longer. Far longer. You hear the tortured screams. You watch the final swing, then see the victim kicking his legs back and forth, writhing in agony on the ground.

I shudder to think how many similar videos and images lurk on my phone — saved in the photos, in the files, sitting in text chains from sources, colleagues, fixers, contacts. There's the man lying in a street in the Democratic Republic of Congo as an assailant with a machete attempts to cut off his leg below the knee. I still remember the exact sound of his cries even years after first viewing it. There's the video of the captured Kurdish fighters. I recall how the second woman to be killed — just before she's shot in the head — watches the execution of her comrade. She doesn't plead or cry or even flinch. Not once.

There's the bound man shot at point blank range and kicked, still alive, into a ditch. There are the women and children forced to march to their execution. "You are going to die," says the Cameroonian soldier, who refers to one of the women as "BH," a reference to the terrorist group, Boko Haram. He steers her off the road and a young girl follows. Another soldier does the same to a second woman who has a toddler strapped to her back. The soldiers force the women to kneel. One of those men directs the girl to stand next to her mother. He then pulls the girl's shirt over her head, blindfolding her. Gunshots follow.

Binging on War Porn

My career in journalism tracks the global proliferation of "war porn," a subject that TomDispatch first covered in 2006.

In the twentieth century, this particular genre consisted mostly of still photos that only rarely surfaced. The Japanese "rape" of Nanking. Murders by Nazis. Decapitations during Britain's "Malayan Emergency." Most of those images were trophy photos, taken by or with the consent of the perpetrators and they generally received only modest circulation. In rare cases, as in an execution in South Vietnam, they were documented by the press, made front-page news, and were sometimes even captured on film.

Such photos and footage have become ubiquitous over the last two decades. As mobile phone technology has improved, cell-phone prices have dropped, and social media and messaging platforms have proliferated, people in conflict zones from Syria to Myanmar — often the perpetrators of atrocities, sometimes the victims — have been increasingly able to share video and photographic documentation of human-rights violations. During the 2010s, the Islamic State flooded the online ecosystem with gruesome execution photos and videos. Israel's most recent attacks on civilians in Gaza have also provided a seemingly endless stream of traumatic images and video.

While news consumers may increasingly be subjected to horrific images, exposure to limited amounts is, in most cases, unlikely to cause lasting distress. Binging on such footage is a different story. A 2014 analysis of exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that "repeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than was direct exposure"; that is, those who consumed six or more hours a day of news coverage experienced greater stress than those who were at or near the actual bombing scene.

It's clear that immersion in atrocity content is bad for your mental health. But what if your job is to binge-watch trauma? The work of certain journalists, social media content moderators, human rights researchers, and other analysts now has them awash in graphic "user-generated content" (UGC) or eyewitness video that can leave a lasting mark on one's mind. The American Psychiatric Association's 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, its official manual, states that post-traumatic stress can be brought about by exposure to the graphic details of another individual's experience, including work-related exposure to disturbing television footage, movies, pictures, or other electronic media.

I've written articles based on video footage of executions and massacres. Sometimes atrocity photos figure in my reporting, so it's not surprising that sources often send me war porn. Still, I'm not immersed in such brutal scenes as regularly as some of my colleagues. In 2015, the Eyewitness Media Hub conducted a survey of people who often work with graphic UGC. Even then, more than half of the 209 respondents reported that they viewed distressing media several times weekly. Twelve percent of the responding journalists and almost a quarter of the human rights and humanitarian workers said they viewed such traumatic content daily.

"You witness it a lot more with UGC," said an anonymous senior editor at a news agency. "You're exposed to more intense visual material than battle-hardened war cameramen sitting in Sarajevo in the middle of the 1990s because it's coming at you from everywhere — even more so than, say, in Jerusalem. I was there at the height of the Intifada and there were body parts flying in and out of the office like nobody's business, but there's now a lot more of it."

Forty percent of Eyewitness Media Hub survey respondents said that viewing such traumatic content had a negative impact on their personal lives, leaving them with feelings of isolation, flashbacks, nightmares, and other stress-related symptoms. One quarter reported high or even very high "professional adverse effects."

In 2018, an anonymous staffer from Videre, an international charity that provides activists around the world with equipment, training, and support to gather video evidence of human-rights violations, offered a candid chronicle of the effects of two days of "cutting and splicing, frame by frame" video footage of a massacre of men, women, and children. "I went into auto-pilot: charred bodies, severed limbs," that staffer wrote.

"They ceased to be human. I needed not to think of their lost hopes and dreams. And for two days I edited. Headphones stuck deep in my ears. The sound of desperate cries crashing around my head… And then, I started sleeping badly — waking in the night, bad dreams. I was distracted at work. It all felt so futile. A couple of weeks later, I was out walking with my partner and I started to cry."

The next year, Casey Newton, writing for The Verge, offered a glimpse into the professional lives of Facebook's 15,000 sub-contractor-employed content moderators. After three and a half weeks of training — immersed in hate speech, violence, and graphic pornography — "Chloe" was asked to "moderate" a post in front of her fellow trainees. It was a video of a murder, a man stabbed again and again as he begged for his life. Chloe, her voice quivering, correctly informed the class that the post needed to be removed since section 13 of Facebook's community standards prohibits videos depicting murder.

As the next potential moderator took her place, Chloe left the room to sob. After that, the panic attacks began. They continued even after Chloe left the job and hers is not an isolated case. Last year, Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to 11,250 current and former moderators to compensate them for mental-health conditions resulting from the job. There is evidence to suggest that the situation may have worsened since then as Facebook has come under increased pressure to take action against online child abuse, forcing moderators to watch greater amounts of disturbing content.

"Even when the events depicted are far away, journalists and forensic analysts, deeply immersed in a flood of explicit, violent, and disturbing photos and video, may feel that it is seeping into their own personal headspace," reads a fact sheet on working with traumatic imagery provided by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (where I was once a fellow) at Columbia University's Journalism School. "Intrusive recollections — re-seeing traumatic images one has been working with — are not unusual," wrote Gavin Rees, the Dart Center's senior advisor for training and innovation in a 2017 guide for journalists. "Our brains are designed to form vivid pictures of disturbing things, so you may experience images popping back into consciousness at unexpected moments."

A Hammer to the Skull

Days before I saw that traumatic arm-amputation clip on my phone, I was rummaging around for an old file in the digital folders of a cloud-storage service. I noticed a folder of mine labeled "Graphic photos DRC." I had uploaded those images — dozens of people butchered as if they were meat — while I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018. Back then, I needed to get the images off my phone but carefully labeled the folder as a warning to my editor back in the U.S., who was monitoring the material, about what lurked in that innocuous-looking digital version of a manila folder.

Not long after finding that cache of Congo carnage, I needed to contact a source via a messaging platform. I didn't realize that it was several years since we had communicated via that app and that our last "conversation," still sitting there, included a photo of the corpse of a colleague who had been shot through the head.

I have many other atrocity photos on thumb drives, portable hard drives, and external hard drives that sit on my desk. I know some of those photos by heart. A few from the research I did for my book Kill Anything That Moves on American war crimes in Vietnam have resided somewhere deep in the recesses of my skull for close to 20 years. Several of them that I found in the U.S. National Archives were glossy photos of the victims of an American ambush. The dead were officially reported as enemy troops, but the investigation and those photos made it clear that they were just average Vietnamese civilians — men, women, and children.

One image burned into my brain is of a young Vietnamese boy lying lifeless on a forest floor. His glassy eyes, still open, evoke an enigmatic sense of serenity. It could be an art photo if you didn't know that parts of his body had been obliterated by bullets and landmine fragments.

Newer photos stick with me, too, like one of a heap of mostly headless bodies that no one could mistake for art, for example. I could go on, but you get the picture — or rather, I got the pictures.

I once interviewed a Vietnam veteran who had kept grisly war trophies — a small collection of atrocity images — corpses of those his unit had killed, some visibly mistreated.

In Vietnam, a surprising number of American troops amassed such photos and made grim scrapbooks out of them. Some also collected actual body parts — scalps, penises, teeth, fingers and, most commonly of all, ears. For others, like this man, the preferred anatomical souvenirs were skulls.

That veteran had held onto those war "trophies" for most of his life but, ever more aware of his advancing age, he confessed to me that one day — soon, but not yet — he needed to burn the photos and take a hammer to the skull. He didn't want his daughter to find them when, after his death, she came to clean out his home.

For years, I wondered what it must have been like for that man to live with the skull of a Vietnamese man or woman, to wake up every morning with that specter of atrocity in his home. Only years later did I begin to grasp that I might have some idea of what that was indeed like.

I've never actively collected war trophies, of course. I've left every skull, every corpse that I've encountered as I found it. But I've nonetheless amassed a horrific collection of war porn, far larger than anything that Vietnam veteran had.

While I don't have a human skull in my closet, my atrocity collection is arguably far more gruesome. That veteran's collection is still and silent, but the screams of the victims, people being butchered alive on video, are part of my collection. His trophy skull sat on a shelf hidden from view, while my compendium of horrors is scattered about my computer, cloud storage, my phone, my message chains — the totality of my digital life.

That man's collection was finite and contained, the product of one war and one year of military service many decades ago. Mine lives with me and grows by the week. While I was writing this article, another video clip arrived. It's horrific. At first, I couldn't tell if the woman was dead or alive. The answer only became clear when… On second thought, you're better off not knowing.

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

Why Trump will leave Biden with a unique opportunity to close the door on 20 years of war

"This is a different kind of war, which we will wage aggressively and methodically to disrupt and destroy terrorist activity," President George W. Bush announced a little more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated. Other victories will be clear to all."

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, including America's undeclared conflict in Afghanistan. After that war's original moniker, Operation Infinite Justice, was nixed for offending Muslim sensibilities, the Pentagon rebranded it Operation Enduring Freedom. Despite neither a clear victory, nor the slightest evidence that enduring freedom had ever been imposed on that country, "U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended," according to the Defense Department, in 2014. In reality, that combat simply continued under a new name, Operation Freedom's Sentinel, and grinds on to this very day.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Freedom's Sentinel failed to live up to their names. Nor did any of the monikers slapped on America's post-9/11 wars ever catch the public imagination; the battlefields spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, Syria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and beyond — at a price tag north of $6.4 trillion and a human toll that includes at least 335,000 civilians killed and at least 37 million displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, those long-promise clear victories never materialized even as the number of terrorist groups around the world proliferated.

Last month, America's top general offered an assessment of the Afghan War that was as apt as it was bleak. "We believe that after two decades of consistent effort, we've achieved a modicum of success," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. "I would also argue over the last five to seven years at a minimum, we have been in a condition of strategic stalemate." Milley's soundbites provided appellations far more apt than those the Pentagon dreamt up over the years. Had the Defense Department opened the post-9/11 wars with names like Operation Modicum of Success or Operation Strategic Stalemate, Americans would at least have had a realistic idea of what to expect in the ensuing decades as three presidents waged undeclared wars without achieving victories anywhere across the Greater Middle East or Africa.

What the future will bring in terms of this country's many armed conflicts is murkier than ever as the Trump administration pursues an array of 11th-hour efforts interpreted as last-minute attempts to make good on pledges to end this country's "endless wars" or simply as sour-grapes shots at upending, undermining, and sabotaging the "deep state" (the CIA in particular), while handcuffing or kneecapping the incoming Biden administration's future foreign policy. As it happens, however, President Trump's flailing final gambits, while by no means ending America's wars, provide the Biden administration with a unique opportunity to put those conflicts in the history books, should the president-elect choose to take advantage of the inadvertent gift his predecessor provided.

The Third President Not to End the War on Terror

For four years, the Trump administration has waged a multifront war, not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere around the globe, but with the Pentagon as well. Donald Trump entered the White House vowing to stop America's ceaseless foreign interventions and repeatedly teased ending those "endless wars." He didn't. Instead, he and his administration continued to wage America's many conflicts, surged troops into Afghanistan and Syria, and threatened nuclear strikes against enemies and allies alike.

When the president finally began making halting gestures toward curtailing the country's endless conflicts and attempted to draw down troops in various war zones, the Pentagon and State Department slow walked, slow rolled, and stymied their commander-in-chief, deceiving him, for example, when it came to something as basic as the actual number of U.S. troops in Syria. Even after striking a 2020 deal with the Taliban to settle the Afghan War and ordering significant troop withdrawals from that country and others as he became a lame-duck president, he failed to halt a single armed intervention that he had inherited.

Far from ending endless wars, President Trump escalated the most endless of them: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia where America has been intermittently involved since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. Air strikes in Somalia have, for instance, skyrocketed under the Trump administration. From 2007 to 2017, the U.S. military conducted 42 declared air attacks in that country. Under President Trump, 37 strikes were conducted in 2017, 48 in 2018, and 63 in 2019. Last year, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged 53 air strikes in Somalia, more than during the 16 years of the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The reasons for that increase remain shrouded in secrecy. In March 2017, however, President Trump reportedly designated parts of Somalia as "areas of active hostilities," while removing Obama-era rules requiring that there be near certainty that airstrikes will not injure or kill noncombatants. Although the White House refuses to explicitly confirm or deny that this ever happened, retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa at the time, told the Intercept that the "burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically." That change, he noted, led AFRICOM to conduct strikes that previously would not have been carried out.

The uptick in airstrikes has been disastrous for civilians. While Africa Command recently acknowledged five deaths of noncombatants in Somalia from all such airstrikes, an investigation by Amnesty International found that, in just nine of them, 21 civilians were killed and 11 others injured. According to the U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars, evidence suggests that as many as 13 Somali civilians have been killed by U.S. strikes in 2020 alone, and Trump's recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from there will not end those air attacks, much less America's war, according to the Pentagon. "While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy," reads a Defense Department statement that followed Trump's withdrawal order. "The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland."

During its first year in office, the Trump administration relaxed the rules of engagement and escalated the air war in an effort to gain leverage at the bargaining table. "From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces' air strikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased," wrote Crawford. "In 2019, airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002." After the U.S. and the Taliban reached a tentative peace agreement last February, U.S. air strikes declined, but never completely ceased. As recently as last month, the U.S. reportedly conducted one in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian casualties.The war in Afghanistan has followed a similar trajectory under President Trump. Far from deescalating the conflict as it negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban and pursued troop drawdowns, the administration ramped up the war on multiple fronts, initially deploying more troops and increasing its use of U.S. air power. As in Somalia, civilians suffered mightily, according to a recent report by Neta Crawford of Brown University's Costs of War project.

As those civilian deaths from air power were spiking, an elite CIA-trained Afghan paramilitary unit known as 01, in partnership with U.S. Special Operations forces, was involved in what Andrew Quilty, writing at the Intercept, termed "a campaign of terror against civilians," including a "string of massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and air strikes targeting structures known to house civilians." In all, the unit killed at least 51 civilians in Afghanistan's Wardak province between December 2018 and December 2019. As Akhtar Mohammad Tahiri, the head of Wardak's provincial council, told Quilty, the Americans "step on all the rules of war, human rights, all the things they said they'd bring to Afghanistan." They are, he said, "conducting themselves as terrorists. They show terror and violence and think they'll bring control this way."

President Biden's Choice

"We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought," Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller wrote as part of a two-page memo to Defense Department employees last November, adding, "All wars must end." His predecessor, Mark Esper, was reportedly fired, at least in part, for resisting President Trump's efforts to remove troops from Afghanistan. Yet neither Miller nor Trump turned out to be committed to actually ending America's wars.

After losing his bid for reelection in November, the president did issue a series of orders drawing down some troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Virtually all military personnel are to be withdrawn from Somalia. There, however, according to the Pentagon, some or all of those forces will simply be "repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations," not to speak of continuing "targeted counterterrorism operations" in that country. This suggests that the long-running U.S. air war will continue uninterrupted.

The same goes for the other war zones where American troops are slated to remain and no cessation of air strikes has been announced. "You're still going to have the ability to do the missions that we've been doing," a senior Pentagon official said last month regarding Afghanistan. Miller echoed this during a recent trip to that country when he said: "I especially want to see and hear the plan for our continued air support role." Ironically enough, Miller's all-wars-must-end November memo actually championed a forever-war mindset by insisting on the necessity of "finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001."

In classic the-U.S.-has-finally-turned-the-corner fashion, Miller asserted that America is "on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates" and "must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish." To anyone who might have thought he was signaling that the war on terror was coming to a close, Miller offered a message that couldn't have been more succinct: "This war isn't over."

At the same time, Miller and several other post-election Trump political appointees, including his chief of staff Kash Patel and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, have sought to make significant last-minute policy changes at the Pentagon, rankling members of the national security establishment. Last month, for example, Trump administration officials delivered to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a proposal to decouple the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. Miller also sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel informing her that a longstanding arrangement in which the Pentagon offered support to the Agency is in jeopardy.

News reports indicated that the Department of Defense is reviewing its support for the CIA. The reason, former and current administration and military officials told Defense One, was to determine whether Special Operations forces should be diverted from the Agency's counterterrorism operations to missions "related to competition with Russia and China." The New York Times suggested, however, that the true purpose could be to "make it difficult" for the CIA to conduct operations in Afghanistan.

The troop drawdowns and eleventh-hour policy changes have been cast by pundits and national security establishment boosters as the spiteful final acts of a lame-duck president. Whatever they may be, they also represent a genuine opportunity for a president-elect who has voiced support for a shift in national security policy. "Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure" reads the plan for "Leading the Democratic World" at JoeBiden.com. There, too, in the fine print, however, lurk a set of Miller-esque fight-to-the-finish loopholes, as the italicized words in this sentence suggest: "Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and ISIS."

Under an agreement the Trump administration struck with Taliban negotiators last year, the United States promised to remove all remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if that group upholds its commitments. Were the Biden team to take advantage of both the Trump administration's withdrawal pact and its last-ditch effort to handcuff the CIA, a significant part of the American war there would simply expire later this spring. While this would undoubtedly elicit anguished howls from supporters of that failed war, President Biden could defer to Congress's constitutionally assigned war powers, leaving it to the legislative branch to either declare war in that country after all these years or simply allow the conflict to end.

He could also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to call for sunsetting the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, a 60-word resolution passed by Congress three days after the September 11th attacks, which has been used to justify 20 years of war against groups like the Islamic State that didn't even exist on 9/11. He could do the same with the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized the war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, but was nonetheless cited last year in the Trump administration's justification for the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani.

Almost two decades after President George W. Bush launched "a different kind of war"; more than a decade after President Barack Obama entered the White House promising to avoid "stupid wars" (while promising to win the "right war" in Afghanistan); six months after President Trump committed to "ending the era of endless wars," President-elect Biden enters the White House with an opportunity to begin to make good on his own pledge to "end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East."

As President Bush put it in 2001: "Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated." America's twenty-first-century wars have, instead, been tragedies for millions and have led to a proliferation of threats that damaged the United States in fundamental ways. President-elect Biden has recognized this, noting that "staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power."

Failed forever wars are, however, also a Joe Biden legacy. As a senator, he voted for that 2001 AUMF, the 2002 AUMF, and then seconded a president who expanded America's overseas interventions — and nothing in his personal history suggests that he will take the bold actions necessary to follow through on putting an end to America's overseas conflicts. "It's long past time we end the forever wars," he announced in 2019. As it happens, on entering the Oval Office he will be faced with a monumental choice: to be either the first U.S. president of this century not to double down on doomed overseas conflicts or the fourth to find failure in wars that can never be won.

Copyright 2020 Nick Turse

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves.

The coming mass displacement will force us all to face a dark path of spiraling conflict

I saw them for only a few seconds. One glimpse and they were gone. The young woman wore a brown headwrap, a yellow short-sleeved shirt, and a long pink, red, and blue floral-patterned skirt. She held the reins of the donkey pulling her rust-pink cart. Across her lap lay an infant. Perched beside her at the edge of the metal wagon was a young girl who couldn't have been more than eight. Some firewood, rugs, woven mats, rolled-up clothing or sheets, a dark green plastic tub, and an oversized plastic jerry can were lashed to the bed of the cart. Three goats tied to the rear of it ambled along behind.

They found themselves, as I did, on a hot, dusty road slowly being choked by families who had hastily hitched up their donkeys and piled whatever they could -- kindling, sleeping mats, cooking pots -- into sun-bleached carts or bush taxis. And they were the lucky ones. Many had simply set out on foot. Young boys tended small herds of recalcitrant goats. Women toted dazed toddlers. In the rare shade of a roadside tree, a family had stopped and a middle-aged man hung his head, holding it in one hand.

Earlier this year, I traveled that ochre-dirt road in Burkina Faso, a tiny landlocked nation in the African Sahel once known for having the largest film festival on the continent. Now, it's the site of an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Those people were streaming down the main road from Barsalogho about 100 miles north of the capital, Ouagadougou, toward Kaya, a market town whose population has almost doubled this year, due to the displaced. Across the country's northern stretches, other Burkinabe (as citizens are known) were making similar journeys toward towns offering only the most uncertain kinds of refuge. They were victims of a war without a name, a battle between Islamist militants who murder and massacre without compunction and armed forces that kill more civilians than militants.

I've witnessed variations of this wretched scene before -- exhausted, upended families evicted by machete-wielding militiamen or Kalashnikov-carrying government troops, or the mercenaries of a warlord; dust-caked traumatized people plodding down lonesome highways, fleeing artillery strikes, smoldering villages, or towns dotted with moldering corpses. Sometimes motorbikes pull the carts. Sometimes, young girls carry the jerry cans on their heads. Sometimes, people flee with nothing more than what they're wearing. Sometimes, they cross national borders and become refugees or, as in Burkina Faso, become internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in their own homeland. Whatever the particulars, such scenes are increasingly commonplace in our world and so, in the worst possible way, unremarkable. And though you would hardly know it in the United States, that's what also makes them, collectively, one of the signature stories of our time.

At least 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to violence, persecution, or other forms of public disorder over the last decade, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. That's about one in every 97 people on the planet, roughly one percent of humanity. If such war victims had been given their own state to homestead, it would be the 14th largest nation, population-wise, in the world.

By the end of June, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an additional 4.8 million people had been uprooted by conflict, with the most devastating increases in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burkina Faso. Yet, as dismal as these numbers may be, they're set to be dwarfed by people displaced by another signature story of our time: climate change.

Already, shocking numbers have been put to flight by fires, derechos, and super storms, and so much worse is yet to come, according to experts. A recent forecast suggests that, by the year 2050, the number of people driven from their homes by ecological catastrophes could be 900% greater than the 100 million forced to flee conflicts over the last decade.

Worse Than World War II

Women, children, and men driven from their homes by conflict have been a defining feature of modern warfare. For almost a century now, combat correspondents have witnessed such scenes again and again. "Newly routed civilians, now homeless like the others with no idea of where they would next sleep or eat, with all their future lives an uncertainty, trudged back from the fighting zone," the legendary Eric Sevareid reported, while covering Italy for CBS News during World War II. "A dust-covered girl clung desperately to a heavy, squirming burlap sack. The pig inside was squealing faintly. Tears made streaks down the girl's face. No one moved to help her..."

The Second World War was a cataclysmic conflagration involving 70 nations and 70 million combatants. Fighting stretched across three continents in unparalleled destructive fury, including terror bombing, countless massacres, two atomic attacks, and the killing of 60 million people, most of them civilians, including six million Jews in a genocide known as the Holocaust. Another 60 million were displaced, more than the population of Italy (then the ninth-largest country in the world). An unprecedented global war causing unimaginable suffering, it nonetheless left far fewer people homeless than the 79.5 million displaced by conflicts and crises as 2019 ended.

How can violence-displaced people already exceed World War II's total by almost 20 million (without even counting the nearly five million more added in the first half of 2020)?

The answer: these days, you can't go home again.

In May 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. By the beginning of September, the war in the Pacific was over, too. A month later, most of Europe's displaced -- including more than two million refugees from the Soviet Union, 1.5 million French, 586,000 Italians, 274,000 Dutch, and hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Poles, and others -- had already returned home. A little more than a million people, mostly Eastern Europeans, still found themselves stranded in camps overseen by occupying forces and the United Nations.

Today, according to UNHCR, ever fewer war refugees and IDPs are able to rebuild their lives. In the 1990s, an average of 1.5 million refugees were able to return home annually. For the last 10 years, that number has dropped to around 385,000. Today, about 77% of the world's refugees are trapped in long-term displacement situations thanks to forever wars like the conflict in Afghanistan that, in its multiple iterations, is now in its sixth decade.

War on (of and for) Terror

One of the most dramatic drivers of displacement over the last 20 years, according to researchers from Brown University's Costs of War project, has been that conflict in Afghanistan and the seven other "most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001." In the wake of the killing of 2,974 people by al-Qaeda militants that September 11th and the decision of George W. Bush's administration to launch a Global War on Terror, conflicts the United States initiated, escalated, or participated in -- specifically, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen -- have displaced between 37 million and 59 million people.

While U.S. troops have also seen combat in Burkina Faso and Washington has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of "security assistance" into that country, its displaced aren't even counted in the Costs of War tally. And yet there's a clear link between the U.S.-backed overthrow of Libya's autocrat, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011 and Burkina Faso's desperate state today. "Ever since the West assassinated Qaddafi, and I'm conscious of using that particular word, Libya has been completely destabilized," Chérif Sy, Burkina Faso's defense minister, explained in a 2019 interview. "While at the same time it was the country with the most guns. It has become an arms cache for the region."

Those arms helped destabilize neighboring Mali and led to a 2012 coup by a U.S.-trained officer. Two years later, another U.S.-trained officer seized power in Burkina Faso during a popular uprising. This year, yet another U.S.-trained officer overthrew yet another government in Mali. All the while, terrorist attacks have been ravaging the region. "The Sahel has seen the most dramatic escalation of violence since mid-2017," according to a July report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution.

In 2005, Burkina Faso didn't even warrant mention in the "Africa Overview" section of the State Department's annual report on terrorism. Still, more than 15 separate American security assistance programs were brought to bear there -- about $100 million in the last two years alone. Meanwhile, militant Islamist violence in the country has skyrocketed from just three attacks in 2015 to 516 in the 12 months from mid-2019 to mid-2020, according to the Pentagon's Africa Center.

Compounding Crises to Come

The violence in Burkina Faso has led to a cascade of compounding crises. Around one million Burkinabe are now displaced, a 1,500% increase since last January, and the number only keeps rising. So do the attacks and the fatalities. And this is just the beginning, since Burkina Faso finds itself on the frontlines of yet another crisis, a global disaster that's expected to generate levels of displacement that will dwarf today's historic figures.

Burkina Faso has been battered by desertification and environmental degradation since at least the 1960s. In 1973, a drought led to the deaths of 100,000 people there and in five other nations of the Sahel. Severe drought and hunger struck again in the mid-1980s and aid agencies began privately warning that those living in the north of the country would need to move southward as farming became ever less feasible. By the early 2000s, despite persistent droughts, the cattle population of the country had doubled, leading to increasing ethnic conflict between Mossi farmers and Fulani cattle herders. The war now tearing the country apart largely divides along those same ethnic lines.

In 2010, Bassiaka Dao, the president of the confederation of farmers in Burkina Faso, told the United Nations news agency, IRIN, that the impacts of climate change had been noticeable for years and were getting worse. As the decade wore on, rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns -- droughts followed by flash floods -- increasingly drove farmers from their villages, while desertification swelled the populations of urban centers.

In a report published earlier this year, William Chemaly of the Global Protection Cluster, a network of nongovernmental organizations, international aid groups, and United Nations agencies, noted that in Burkina Faso "climate change is crippling livelihoods, exacerbating food insecurity, and intensifying armed conflict and violent extremism."

Sitting at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the country has long faced ecological adversity that's only worsening as the frontlines of climate change steadily spread across the planet. Forecasts now warn of increasing ecological disasters and resource wars supercharging the already surging phenomenon of global displacement. According to a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank that produces annual global terrorism and peace indexes, two billion people already face uncertain access to sufficient food -- a number set to jump to 3.5 billion by 2050. Another one billion "live in countries that do not have the current resilience to deal with the ecological changes they are expected to face in the future." The report warns that the global climate crisis may displace as many as 1.2 billion people by 2050.

On the Road to Kaya

I don't know what happened to the mother and two children I spotted on the road to Kaya. If they ended up like the scores of people I spoke with in that market town, now bulging with displaced people, they're facing a difficult time. Rents are high, jobs scarce, government assistance all but nil. People there are living on the edge of catastrophe, dependent on relatives and the kindness of new neighbors with little to spare themselves. Some, driven by want, are even heading back into the conflict zone, risking death to gather firewood.

Kaya can't deal with the massive influx of people forced from their homes by Islamist militants. Burkina Faso can't deal with the one million people already displaced by conflict. And the world can't deal with the almost 80 million people already driven from their homes by violence. So how will we cope with 1.2 billion people -- nearly the population of China or India -- likely to be displaced by climate driven-conflicts, water wars, increasing ecological devastation, and other unnatural disasters in the next 30 years?

In the decades ahead, ever more of us will find ourselves on roads like the one to Kaya, running from the devastation of raging wildfires or uncontrolled floodwaters, successive hurricanes or supercharged cyclones, withering droughts, spiraling conflicts, or the next life-altering pandemic. As a reporter, I've already been on that road. Pray you're the one speeding by in the four-wheel-drive vehicle and not the one choking in the dust, driving the donkey cart.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves. This article was reported in partnership with Brown University's Costs of War Project and Type Investigations.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World Wr II.

Copyright 2020 Nick Turse

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