Finding Truth and Creating Justice with Digital Tools

Violence and conflicts leave deep scars on a society, and sustainable peace becomes possible only when people lean into the injustices of the past. The potential of digital role-playing games and social networks for collective reconciliation has inspired the participants of this year’s “Berlin Seminar” for their work in conflict-affected countries

David Weyand | July 2019
Seminar-Teilnehmer beim Gaming.
Manuel Frauendorf

Anarchist, social democrat or conservative Catholic? Sitting in front of a laptop, Mirian Bllaci selects a character while seven other players also scroll through profiles to choose from. Whispered conversations and swing music from the 1930s fill the room at the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s representative office in Berlin. It’s the first time all participants are playing “Through the Darkest of Times”, a strategy game in which players assume the role of civil resistance leader in the Third Reich. Mirian Bllaci chooses to play a social democrat and now has to carry out virtual actions against the Nazi regime: distribute leaflets, plan acts of sabotage, but above all, recruit other resistance fighters without being caught by the Gestapo.

Welcoming peace activists from conflict-affected countries to Germany

“These are fictitious characters, but they are the result of extensive historical research and true events,” explains Mirian as he immerses himself in the game world. An Albanian native, he is program director of an organization called “Cultural Heritage without Borders”. As human rights activists, representatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or directors of memorial sites, people like Mirian are instrumental in how conflicts are dealt with in their home countries. They all know that the process of coming to terms with past injustices is necessary for peaceful coexistence in a society and for ensuring that subliminal conflicts will not give rise to further violent confrontations.

Together with 24 other international representatives of civil society organizations, Mirian is taking part in the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s “Berlin Seminar: Truth, Justice, Remembrance” in June 2019. Every year for the past ten years, the Foundation has invited peace activists from countries afflicted by current or past conflicts to Berlin for two weeks to present them with various ways of coming to terms with the past. Internationally, Germany is regarded as a role model for dealing with its own past. At the same time, however, Germany’s culture of remembrance also shows that dealing critically with past conflicts is a social process that lasts for decades and never really stops. Germany’s colonial past, for instance, is only just beginning to become a focus of reconciliation efforts.

Manuel Frauendorf

Immersing oneself in the past: Gaming expert Jörg Friedrich (left) has developed a virtual strategy game in which players are resistance fighters in the Third Reich.

Relating to historical events through gaming

This year’s new focus of the Berlin Seminar is digitalization. Three workshops deal with digital documentation, open source investigations, and gaming. Mirian Bllaci’s current project in Albania is an abandoned prison from the communist era, which is supposed to be transformed into a memorial site. “We want to convey our difficult history also through alternative formats and primarily reach young people who were not interested in the topic before,” he explains. Playing the resistance game made him realize that it is not easy to develop a good game which is both entertaining and asks the player to take a different perspective.

Jörg Friedrich, who designed “Through the Darkest of Times” and runs the workshop, wants to convey to the participants “what a powerful tool games can be when it comes to personally immersing oneself in historical events.” In Mirian Bllaci’s game scenario, for instance, his character drives past a group of Nazi thugs bent over a civilian. He has three options: “Continue,” “Approach carefully and observe,” and “Head for the group.” “These are the dilemmas we set up for players to face, where they have to consciously ask themselves what they would have done,” explains Friedrich.

We want to convey our difficult history also through alternative formats.

One floor up in the Foundation’s representative office, another group focuses on various examples from current conflicts and on how meticulous fact-finding, also in the digital realm, may champion truth and justice. Thanks to the rapidly increasing availability of mobile communications and social networks, professional reporters and citizen journalists as well as activists can use open source information to document, share and present for legal purposes human rights violations worldwide.

Hunting war criminals with a laptop

Rawan Shaif of Bellingcat, an online research organization, and Tobias Schneider from the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) present a real case as an example to demonstrate just how well this works. When videos of a massacre in Libya were circulating on Facebook, the Bellingcat team examined the material using map services and sun position apps and compared it to other sources on social networks. With the help of these digital tools, it was possible to prove which warlord was behind the massacre. “This was the first time the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant based on evidence that was largely the result of open source research,” says Schneider.

Participant Samira Koujok also hopes to receive practical tips on online tools to use in her research. As program director of the “International Commission for Missing Persons” (icmp) in Lebanon, she documents missing persons cases in neighboring Syria. “We record the data of the missing persons in an app and document all facts. I’d like to learn how to use open source tools to check location and time data,” she says.

Manuel Frauendorf

Solving war crimes with sun position apps and Facebook: Open source experts Rawan Shaif (front) and Tobias Schneider (back) present a real case from Libya to explain how digital information can be turned into evidence in a court of law.

Digital alone is not enough

In these cases, the data is digitally accessible. But how can historical events and evidence from the analog age be digitalized? Archiving expert and workshop instructor Romain Ledauphin does not primarily distinguish between analog and digital data. For him, there is simply information that needs to be archived in a three-step process: data recording, collecting, and preserving. “The word ‘digital’ may be trending, but more important than analog or digital is how to structure the information,” says Ledauphin.

Kartika Pratiwi, program director of the “kotakhitam Forum” in Indonesia, knows from her own experience how important digital documents are. As an activist, she collects a great deal of video and audio material about the 1965/66 massacres in her country. She is now looking for ways to make her data and that of other activists available online. Equipped with new inspiration, she wants to establish a new workflow and a technical team back in Indonesia. In doing so, her top priority will be securing the data against external access.

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