Report: “After the Dust Settles: Seeking Acknowledgement and Justice”

How was the 2015 bombing on Hawija experienced and interpreted on social media? And, what questions does this incident raise more broadly about remote warfare, both for the civilians in whose name airstrikes are performed and for those on the receiving end? A team of students from Utrecht University collaborated with the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (UU) and PAX to research how the Hawija bombing has been discussed online, from the morning after up until 6 years later. The findings are now available in the research report After the Dust Settles: Seeking Acknowledgement and Justice”.

Hawija. The name of the town continues to cause controversy in Dutch public debates. On June 3, 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an IS ammunition factory in Hawija, Iraq, as part of the fight against IS by the International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve. The airstrike had immense consequences: over 18.000 kilograms of munition detonated, causing an estimated minimum of 70 civilian deaths, hundreds more injured, and the destruction of 400 to 500 buildings.

The lingering effects of the bombing on the people of Hawija, as well as the Dutch government’s politics of denial, secrecy, and ignorance vis-a-vis these victims, are being studied by different organisations, from PAX and affiliated organization Al-Ghad League for Women and Child Care, to Airwars and the Intimacies of Remote Warfare at Utrecht University. To contribute to the body of knowledge being created on the aftermath of the event and the experiences of the victims, an interdisciplinary team of conflict studies students from Utrecht University teamed up in a Community Engaged Learning (CEL) project led by dr. Lauren Gould to research how this event was interpreted on social media. How did people trie to make sense of this disruptive and harmful event by sharing their different ideas about the identity of the perpetrator, the victims, and the reason for the bombing on social media? What are the narratives and images that circulate about this event on social media, and which broader themes can be discerned from the various posts?

To investigate these questions, the CEL-team undertook an open-source social media research resulting in the collection of almost 400 Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram posts, and Youtube videos. These stories, discussions, and images allowed for a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which social media users who closely identify with Iraq and Hawija interpret the bombing.

What becomes clear is that the day after, people were already searching for the truth regarding the cause of the bombing. What happened and who did it? Various images show the large scale and severity of the destruction, as well as the civilian harm effects. Speculations about the identity of the perpetrator and number of casualties greatly varied with no conclusive answers.

When in 2019, journalists from NOS and NRC revealed the Netherlands carried out the attack, social media was once again full of discussion about Hawija. Feelings of grief, pain, and anger were writ large in the online posts in this period, which mainly focused on the (mis)management of the incident by the Netherlands. Especially the five years of denial and secrecy and continued lack of acknowledgement of the civilian identity of the victims by the Dutch government, are highly resented. Social media users demand acknowledgement and compensation for the victims. Moreover, it is mentioned that the former Dutch Minister of Defence, who oversaw the attack and denied its consequences, should step down from her current position as Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. On a broader level, the CEL-team found that many Arabic-speaking users felt angry and dehumanized by the bombing and lack of recognition, because in their reasoning, their lives are treated as less valuable than Western lives. As one Tweet illustrates: “Iraqi blood is cheaper than oil”.

In this day and age, social media becomes an increasingly important source of data to research how people give meaning to and discuss the details of violent events. What these online posts ultimately tell us is that public acknowledgement of the civilian harm done is essential in seeking truth and justice, for the people who feel affected by this event. Our research contributes to shedding light on these strikes that are too often veiled in secrecy by the perpetrating governments.

At the PAX Protection of Civilians conference (2021) the CEL group presented their report to the mayor of Hawija.

For a more detailed and illustrated analysis, download the full report here: