Rarely an image would have known how to express the potential for a city to become a battlefield than this photomontage of Kiev’s Maidan Square before and after its occupation started (see below for a zoomable version). Similar photographs have emerged to show the extents of the tragic damages produced by the current civil war in Syria (see below). I won’t be addressing the specificity of Ukraine or Syria, about which I know very little, but rather, I would like to insist on this potentiality for any city “at peace” — the notion of peace is an illusion of course — to become, not only the scene for war operations, but also an actor in it.
As written above, the very fact of thinking that a city might be at peace is already part of a problem that can sometimes degenerates into civil war. The city intensifies the relationships between the bodies of a given society. Isolating the aggressions between bodies at a micro-level is forgetting that this aggressions are produced by a normalized, ideological and urban context that needs to be addressed at a macro-level. Thinking of a city as being at peace is usually an interpretation of it made by bodies that dominate (voluntarily or not, it does not matter) this normalized, ideological and urban context. These bodies are therefore the most surprised to see a city that they thought was at peace turning into a battlefield where the relationships of power could not be more expressively operating.
As the image above illustrates, the very fabric of the city thus becomes an explicit weapon. On Maidan Square, all cobble stones have been withdrawn from the floor and either thrown at the police bodies and vehicles, or used to construct defensive barricades with other movable objects that can act as a physical barrier when aggregated together. The width of the street, the height of the buildings, the various points of access, all these elements that were not necessarily thought — or so we think — within a logic of political urban antagonism, become fundamental components in the way the city is an undeniable participating agent to the conflict.
At the end of the civil war, whatever might be the outcome, the imaginaries of the various actors in charge of thinking of the city’s reconstruction are unavoidably influenced by their vision of the city as a battlefield. It is therefore not surprising to see decisions made in an acute understanding of the city’s weaponization — see friend Mohamed El shaheh’s blog about the way it currently unfolds in Cairo for example. As written in my essay “Abject Matter: the Barricade and the Tunnel,” this is how macadam then asphalt came to progressively replace cobble stones in European cities for instance, this is also how the Baron Haussmann, following Napoleon III’s orders, started to radically transform Paris after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 into a more controllable battlefield in case more revolutions were to come (a forthcoming article will go back to the specific case of the 1871 Commune). Eyal Weizman also illustrated how the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), when designing reconstruction of the refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank after most of it was destroyed by the Israeli army in 2002, enforced the widening of the camp’s streets from 4 to 6 meters in order for the Israeli tanks to be able to come through it (Hollow Land page 204). The UNRWA argued that this way, Palestinian buildings would not get destroyed by the tanks, but this is where intentions are irrelevant and only facts matter: Jenin’s refugee camp is now easier for the I.D.F. to control.
By admitting that the city is inherently a battlefield, we do not compare all cities to Kiev, where a hundred people have died in the last few days or Homs, where bombings ordered by the Syrian government have not ceased for three years, we do not even evoke a ‘necessary’ antagonism between bodies, but rather, we acknowledge the impossible neutrality of everything that takes part in this city, architecture, objects, bodies and their behaviors. The terms of battle does not refer to a fatalistic violence between the bodies, but rather, a systematic violence that bodies have to face in the way relations of power are structured. The city intensifies such violence as it frames it. This is why the city does not become a battlefield at a precise moment, it simply changes — sometimes drastically — its degree of intensity when framing a more explicitly stated conflict than usual, its paroxysm being the civil war and its massive number of casualties.
Street in Homs before and during the Syrian civil war
Clickable version of the photomontage of Kiev Maidan Square before and during the conflict between insurgents and the police