Observers’ top 10 eyewitness images from 2021
The year 2021 was again marked by the Covid-19 pandemic as the virus’s variants sparked new waves of infection around the world. But it wasn’t the only thing that made this year unlike any other. All over the globe, citizens, activists and eyewitnesses continued to film and photograph the newsworthy events going on in their own backyards. Their images and their stories allowed us to share the news from a new perspective. From Tehran to Tigray and from Yangon to Beirut, here are the 10 citizen images that shaped 2021.
February 9 – Naypidyaw, Myanmar: A woman hit with live ammunition
Ever since the Burmese army arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a February 1 coup, thousands of people have been demonstrating every day – and they have faced severe repression by the new regime. On February 9 at the Thapyaygone intersection in the capital Naypidyaw, a woman in a red shirt watches the police advance toward protesters. Security forces shoot a water cannon. Then, two blasts ring out. The young woman collapses, hit in the head. Other protesters came to her aid and moved her, even though she was unconscious. Her name was Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing. She died ten days later.
>> Read on The Observers: Video shows a protester being fatally shot in Myanmar
February 11 – Mutwanga, Democratic Republic of Congo: Residents of North Kivu parade around an ADF rebel’s body
Accused of massacres of civilians that are said to have left more than 1,000 dead since 2014, the rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is terrorising the Beni region in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ugandan-based group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, largely has the upper hand in clashes with the Congolese army. But on February 11, the army put the body of a man said to be an ADF fighter on display, to try and reassure the local population that they had the situation under control. Locals applauded the gesture, gaining confidence in the army’s fight against the ADF. “People here often believe that the army talks but doesn’t offer proof of its military feats,” said our Observer Ricardo Rapenzi, director of the local radio station Ruwenzori Voice.
>> Read on The Observers: DR Congo army displays body of killed rebel to assure public they are winning war
March – Tigray, Ethiopia: Rare images document the horrors of the Ethiopian conflict
A video shot on January 5 started to be shared online in February. After a long investigation, we were finally able to verify it: the video shows a massacre, committed by the Ethiopian army in the village of Mai Harmaz, in Debre Abay in the Tigray region. Since November 4, 2020, Ethiopian government forces have been in conflict with rebels from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
The video filmed in January shows thirty bodies with traces of blood lying on the ground, surrounded by men in uniform exchanging in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, and discussing the situation lightly. As Abiy Ahmed's government forbids access to the area for journalists and NGOs, this video is an essential document of the atrocities committed in the context of this conflict.
>> Read on The Observers: Ethiopia: video of Tigray massacre lifts lid on 'war without photos'
A few days later, another horrifying video came in. It is unbearable: shot in the hospital of Adigrat, a town in Tigray, it shows a doctor removing several objects from the vaginal cavity of a woman. She is a Tigrayan woman who has been repeatedly raped for several days by Eritrean soldiers allied with the Ethiopian army. This video is a document that clearly attests to the use of rape as a weapon of war.
April – Roraima Sol, Brazil: Indigenous land and culture under threat from illegal miners
In the spring, the Roraima Indigenous Council (CIR) sounded the alarm with an aerial photo: illegal gold miners, known as "garimpeiros", continue to settle on indigenous lands in this state in northern Brazil where nearly 20,000 indigenous people live. President Jair Bolsonaro openly encouraged this, even though mineral exploitation on these lands is prohibited. Our Observer, a member of the CIR, is concerned about the environmental and cultural consequences of this phenomenon: "Some indigenous farmers are influenced by mining propaganda and start to see it as the only option. These people defend the mining, defend the invasion and destroy their own home," he told us.
>> Read on The Observers: How illegal miners are invading Brazil’s indigenous territories
May 16 – Tehran, Iran: A view on the ‘street of drug addicts’
For two minutes, a resident of the Shush district in the south of Tehran films as they walk down a street full of dozens of people consuming drugs out in the open. Some inhale amphetamines while others inject heroin, in a scene that shocked many Iranians. This video reveals the growing phenomenon of drug addiction in Iran. "These homeless drug users generally group together, either for safety or for economic reasons, they become like a family to each other after a while. But unfortunately, they use the same needles and also find it easier to obtain drugs because the dealers can come to just one place,” explained our Observer, an addiction specialist in Iran.
>> Read on The Observers: Video of street drug use illustrates Iran’s growing addiction problem
In February, other images had emerged showing another facet of the drug problem in Iran: rehabilitation centres using humiliating and abusive methods, like making patients swim in freezing water, or beating them with batons.
July 25 – Tunis, Tunisia: Parties clash outside the parliament building
On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament for a month. The move sparked a wave of outrage among Tunisians, who were already criticising the government for its poor management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The president's move plunged the country into a constitutional crisis and it also spurred clashing parties to meet outside the parliament building, exchanging insults and injuring several people.
Supporters of the president were met with people from the conservative Islamist party Ennahda outside the gates, and law enforcement struggled to quell the tensions between the camps.
>> Read on The Observers: Tunisian president's supporters clash with Ennahda opponents outside parliament
August – Saudi Arabia: Thousands of Ethiopian migrants suffer in Saudi prisons
In August, the Ethiopian consulate in Saudi Arabia published a list of 10 Ethiopian nationals who had died, including a child, in the al-Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah. At the beginning of June, Saudi authorities had begun to arrest Ethiopian migrants in large numbers, even those who were documented and legal, arresting them on the street and in cafés and conducting house raids. This led to thousands being detained, often in horrific conditions. One of the detainees told us what he experienced in a detention centre near Riyadh: "There are more than 350 of us squeezed into one room. Some of us are forced to go and sleep in the toilets with all of the nauseating smells, simply because there’s not enough space. It’s really hot, and we get very little food, just one baguette a day, served in the evening. Lots of people are ill because of that, they’ve got diarrhoea and are feverish."
Videos of one of these centres show people in tight spaces, struggling to sleep on the floor.
>> Read on The Observers: In Saudi prisons, Ethiopian migrants are beaten and ‘forced to drink toilet water’
September 28 – Herat, Afghanistan: The bodies of four men killed by the Taliban, on display
The Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, regaining power in Afghanistan, twenty years after being driven out by the US-led intervention. Numerous videos taken by citizens documented the chaos of the evacuation at Kabul airport and the first signs of repression. But at the end of September, one image was particularly shocking: in Herat, trucks paraded with the bodies of four kidnappers arrested and killed by Taliban security forces, which were then displayed, hanging from cranes, to the cheers of the crowd. The aim of the Taliban: to prove that their arrival means the return of security.
Our Observer explained the cheers: “I know a lot of people who detest the Taliban but can’t stand the insecurity here, so they do support how the Taliban deals with these criminals. When I showed my father the video, for example, he said, 'They deserved it,' even though my father hates the Taliban.”
>> Read on The Observers: Taliban display the bodies of four suspected criminals in Herat to the cheers of locals
October 14 – Beirut, Lebanon: Warning signs of civil war, the conclusion to a year of crisis
Snipers posted on rooftops, blasts from rocket launchers and automatic weapons: in Beirut on October 14, fears of a civil war grew as armed clashes broke out on the fringes of a rally of supporters of the Shiite movements Amal and Hezbollah. Both demanded the resignation of a judge in charge of the Beirut explosion probe. Shots were exchanged and six people were killed.
One video, in particular, marked this day: a sniper posted on the roof of a building as he fires.
Our Observer went to pick up her children from school as the violence went on just a few hundred metres away. She told us, “When you’ve been through the civil war and then you see this, I can tell you that it makes you think it could happen again.”
>> Read on The Observers: Armed clashes in Beirut are ‘fertile ground for a civil war’
This armed violence came amid an unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon, marked in particular by shortages in supermarkets and petrol stations, generating tensions among citizens.
November 10 – Mali or Central African Republic?: Questions about photos claiming to show Russian security agency training Malian soldiers
Reuters revealed that there were negotiations going on between Mali and the Russian private security company Wagner, provoking indignation in France. Soon after, images were shared online, purporting to show that the cooperation between Bamako and the Russian mercenaries had already begun. In particular, two photos show a white man who appears to be coaching two soldiers wearing the Malian Armed Forces crest on their uniform.
Our editorial staff is still investigating. It’s not possible to conclude with certainty that these photos do not show what some people claim, but there are some very strong reasons to be wary. The background in the photos strongly resembles the former palace of the Central African ex-emperor Bokassa, where it is known that Russian soldiers are based. Plus, the way the photos were distributed seems clearly coordinated, either by pro-Russia accounts or those hostile to the French presence in Mali.
>> Read on The Observers: Doubt cast on photos alleged to show Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers
Here's a look back at all the images that made 2021 unlike any other: