Few people are malicious or evil for no good reason. Being evil for the sake of evil is a myth that applies only to the villains of childhood fairy tales or mainstream entertainment media. Humans are complicated creatures who seek to rationalize everything they do. What one person thinks is evil, another may find to be acceptable, if not good.
This applies most especially to war. Most large-scale conflicts are not chosen by their participants, but are the product of the petty squabbles and self-interests of a given society’s elites – for whose transgressions the poor and disenfranchised must overwhelmingly pay the price (both as fighters and victims of atrocity). People are cajoled and manipulated into fighting for the interests of others, albeit always under the pretext of something more admirable and idealist – the enemy is evil, the enemy is a threat, God has mandated that we do this, etc.
Even those who feel a genuine desire to fight and kill do so for complex reasons – again, no one puts their lives at risk simply because they feel like being evil. The human mind doesn’t work that way. This fact is most dramatically expressed by the work of Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, “My Enemy, Myself,” presented by Foreign Policy:
Who’s your enemy? Why fight? Over the course of three years, Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa has traveled to both sides of the world’s longest-simmering conflicts to ask these pointed questions. What he heard from combatants in the Gaza Strip, the disputed Kashmir region along the India-Pakistan border, and tribally divided South Sudan captures the futility of wars that never end — and can’t be won. Tragically, bitter rivals are often fighting for the very same reasons.
Needless to say, I would find it both chilling and world-changing to speak to both sides of these intractable and long-fought conflicts. These are the nameless militants that most people see as little more than two-dimensional Hollywood-style goons. To hear them express thoughts and opinions – even seemingly altruistic ones – is to change everything we know about human nature.
Granted, I’m not saying that this justifies their violent and harmful actions, or that immorality doesn’t exist. My point is that evil is a complex phenomenon that reflects the equally complex nature of our minds, social relations, and conditions. And that’s what makes the struggle for a better world all the more daunting.
Below is just a small sample of these personal accounts (unfortunately, the corresponding photos cannot be saved or transferred by URL). I encourage you to read them all, as they may strongly impact the way you view both conflict and human nature in general.
My name is Abu Mohamed; I’m 45 years old. I am a member of the Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades. My enemy is the state of Israel and anyone who supports them. I joined the resistance when I was 16 years old. The Israelis stole our land; they took our country; they killed our children, wives, and families. The reason I am fighting is because Islam orders us to do so. I’ve seen a lot of my enemies; we continuously face them. I am not afraid; I feel honored and proud because I am Muslim and a Palestinian mujahid. I’m recovering part of my dignity, so all is good for me. We have very basic and simple weapons, yet we are facing one of the strongest armies in the world. Just being on your feet facing this army is already a victory, and we will never give up. In 20 years we will have absolute freedom for the Palestinians. Freedom is something very, very important for me; it is a dream in my life to see my country, a land free of our enemies and ruled by Islam.”
“My name is Adi; I’m 22 years old, and I’m an officer in the Israeli army. Anyone who tries to cross the border illegally to do bad things is an enemy. The reason that I am doing what I am doing is to protect my country, first and foremost against terrorism and secondly there is also a lot of drugs and other illegal things that have been smuggled across the border, just things that corrupt society. I have never met face to face with an enemy in my entire three years in the army. I think mostly my fears [are] that something happened to one of my soldiers. Freedom should be global, and I think once there is no more wars between people and no more violence, that is when people will be truly free. Terrorism is one of the worst things invented by humanity. It is just an insult to everything that separates us from animals; it is an insult to democracy and an insult to everything we try to be. I want to educate people; I want to be a big part of a change. I hope that being a teacher will be able to make people think differently, be more honest, be nicer to each other, and to be more respectful.”
My name is Bilal Ahmed. I am 32 years old. I have been throwing stones since 1993 because India is constantly harassing us. My enemy is India. I am not afraid of anything except God. I haven’t killed anyone because I am a Muslim and Islam forbids us to harm innocent people. God has created every human being, and I have no right to go against God’s will. I fear only one thing — that is that we are not safe under the rule of India. Recently two sisters in Shopian were raped and martyred by Indian soldiers. Freedom from India would be a blessing for us. We are not terrorists; we are Muslims, and I wish from life to die for Islam.
“My name is Kashmir Singh; I am 40 years old. I am a policeman. I have joined the police forces 23 years ago to serve my country. My enemy is the one who breaks the law of my country. I have met my enemies face to face, and they do not scare me. We have been attacked by our enemies several times, and I killed many of them. If someone endangers us and the laws, we might have to kill him in order to protect us. Terrorism is harmful for everyone, and we will fight it until the end. In the next 20 years, India will grow to become the first country in the world. I wish peace and harmony for my life.
My name is Bureth Akuer. I’m 33 years old. My tribe is the Murle. My enemy is the one who attacks me. The Lou Nuer have attacked me. The cause of the tribal war is food. As a Murle when I feel hungry, I go to the Lou Nuer land and take their food, but they won’t allow me to take it so they will attack me. This is why we fight. They did the same to us, and we had to defend ourselves. I did not kill any of my enemies because I had no weapons, but they killed three of my relatives. When they left, I followed them, but I didn’t have a gun to fight them. My heart was set on revenge, but I couldn’t take it. For me, freedom is to be able to grow food on your own land, have your own livestock. That is what I enjoy, and this is freedom for me. Violence is something I don’t really understand. Why is it happening? We are praying and asking God to let us live in peace together. Of course, it’s all about food, but we should find other ways to find food so that the violence stops. In 20 years to come, we should see improvements. We shouldn’t continue to take things by force. If we can’t do that, then the future will be dark and we will get stuck in this tribal war.
My name is Paulino Kueth; I’m 28 years old. I’m a member of the Lou Nuer. My enemies are the Murle. They designated themselves as our enemies. The problem is the cattle; the Murle come to steal it. The fighting is historical: They kill and we kill them in return. We can’t deny that we have also killed; people fought for so long now. People have suffered: Your cattle has been taken; your children are abducted; you are not allowed to work your land; you feel hunger and you go without food for a long period of time. All those things are the result of the conflict. Nobody has been solving the problem and addressing it until recently. People were not blaming the government, maybe because of the scarcity of the resources. Freedom is a situation that allows you to interact with people. If we can interact, you and I, it is because of freedom. Freedom is something that can help to find solution to solve a lot of problems like addressing hunger, the problem of fighting. Previously people were under the rule of north Sudan. We had no freedom because people were not interacting. We had no future plan, or to think of what might happen, but this time around we feel we have freedom. We are under our own rules. You can even think peace as a result of freedom. Violence is a situation where there is a lot of poverty, a lack of knowledge, no valuing of the importance of other human beings. That is why you have killings, but if you know that there is another human in front of you, you can’t simply kill another person. Therefore if people get together, sharing knowledge, they will value other human beings.
It’s interesting to see how almost every everyone that was interviewed seemed to have honest intentions. Their motivations and desires are scarcely different from our own, nor are they any different than their enemies – and that is what is most tragic. Imagine if these people actually sat down and had a conversation with their enemies? Imagine if they read one another’s accounts and exchanged their points of view? Would that make any difference? Or is war just that complicated.