Your phone is a conflict zone

I'm often asked questions by people here in the UK about my research, whether it's on children's experiences of political violence, or the transmission of forbidden histories in societies that are overshadowed by past atrocity, or reconciliation as it manifests in the lives of nuns who inhabit situations of violence. People want to hear the stories. Their reactions range from fascinated, to horrified, to antagonistic, to impressed. And often I feel as if they relate to these stories as they might to a spellbinding fairy tale, as if I'm relating something that is too distant to be real - a story that happened "once upon a time and far, far away." 

This sense of mass violence as something that happens to other people a long way from us is reinforced by the language that echoes across the news. War-torn region. Conflict zone. These phrases make it sound as if war-affected areas can be neatly labelled and colour-coded into different zones like a sprawling map of the London Underground, and they reinforce the idea that war is something separate from our own lives. Yet in reality, it resides on our desks and in our back pockets. Your phone is a conflict zone.

Roughly five million people were killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1994 and 2003, in a brutal conflict that is still ongoing in the eastern regions. Different powers (multinational corporations, governments, paramilitary groups) are fighting for control over DRC's rich mineral resources, including coltan and tungsten, which are used in mobile phones, laptops, and many other electronic goods scattered around your house. Massive worldwide consumer demand for these products fuels the violence. (This very short video outlines how the trade in conflict minerals is perpetuated.) So when we pick up a games console, board a plane, or key in a phone number, we are handling artefacts of one of the twentieth and twenty-first century's bloodiest wars.

In his book on theatre and war in Sri Lanka, Digging Up Stories, James Thompson describes the 'threat maps' that we create in our minds to ensure that danger remains far away from us. He uses a shaded map showing malaria prevalence as his example, produced by a university health centre, on which Sri Lanka is shaded in. When he reached Sri Lanka, the map shrank, with people telling him that only certain places were malarial. When he reached those places, the threat map shrank again. "Risk is always elsewhere, but as you approach risk, it still flees to the edges," Thompson writes. "Here be dragons - mapped away." Concepts such as 'war zone' are very useful in showing us how people imagine war in relation to their own lives, how we draw up our own threat maps, but do such terms really reflect the global nature of war? The way it seeps across boundaries and refuses to stay put?

I started to avoid these terms in my own writing once I realised that political violence can't be as neatly compartmentalised as they suggest. Instead I talk about loci of violence, imagining a circle with violence rippling outwards and flowing inwards. Sometimes I speak about fault lines, as it's impossible to think about fault lines without remembering that earthquakes make themselves felt elsewhere. Political violence touches all of us, without exception, which is one reason why I set up this blog on my research - to encourage conversation about the disturbing questions that are lying around all our houses.