Why We Fight: massacres and other recruitment narratives


“You want to know why we fight?” Mohammad asked, looking back from the front seat. His eyes lost their usual softness for a moment, and I paused. Before I could answer, he said, “This. This is why."

We pulled up to a memorial: a small lot filled with gravestones, pictures of women and children, and militia posters. The sun beat down as Mohammed explained what we were looking at. About 11 years ago, an airstrike on a residential building allegedly left over 50 civilians, and no combatants, dead. Many of the photos were of kids under the age of 10.

Mohammed was waiting for a reaction, studying my friend’s face and my face. I figured he was thinking something along the lines of, you’ve been fed the opposing narrative your entire life. How does it feel to finally see the truth?

I let the tragedy sink in, let my eyes study the faces of children whose lives were cut far too short, and let my body language show what I was feeling. Even if I didn’t agree with fighting, I could understand why this was used as a recruitment narrative. It was compelling. I told Mohammed that I thought what happened there was beyond awful. He agreed, “And there’s more.”

We drove a few minutes to the memorial of another massacre. Two decades earlier, the opposition bombed a UN refugee camp, leaving 107 people dead, including UN peacekeepers, and many more wounded. A militia vehicle sat outside partially covered with a tarp.

When we arrived, we found that the memorial was closed for renovation. Mohammed disappeared for a few minutes and came back with the curator, an older man in his 60’s with a slight limp and an intense but not unkind face.

The curator was clearly frustrated to see Westerners. He asked about our intensions, what we had heard about the place, and where we were from.

Finally, after a few tense minutes of finger pointing and gentle reassurances between him and our guides, he led us inside. We navigated the empty hallways. The walls were covered in mostly dark, Goya-esque paintings—some Christian, some Muslim.

This is something few Americans have seen, a place few Americans have even been inside, I thought, feeling a little nervous. He led us upstairs into a bathroom closet and pulled out some dusty boxes filled with framed photos of the bombing’s aftermath.


One photo was of a girl from Iraq, according to the curator, a refugee fleeing Saddam Hussein’s cruelty. Her body was scorched. Another showed the bodies of peacekeeping troops. The curator was friends with them; he had taught them English.

“How many of the victims did you know?” I asked.

“About 80%.” He replied.

He explained the opposition’s use of proximity detonators and white phosphorous bombs, both technically legal but also capable of mass damage and casualties. Mohammed, who had fought and was injured years before nodded along, no doubt feeling justified.

“If you write about me…” The curator paused. “…write my name as the guarder of the graves.”


This story is from a project that I’m working on, a compilation of portraits, interviews, and profiles called “Why We Fight.” This project will be a step beyond what we read in the news and beyond the propaganda that some of these military groups and militias release. I’m searching for the real recruitment narratives and the personal reasons for picking up arms.

For my own safety, I decided to withhold the militias’ and military groups’ identities until I publish the project as a whole.

Wanna keep up with the project? I’ll be sending updates to subscribers that I can’t post on the Internet. So tag along and sign up! 

Note: I do not and never will condone violence. Writing about these stories does not mean I side with any militia or government military group. I side with restorative justice and the peacemakers. 

Hannah Smith