Shattering Afghanistan: State Destruction and Mass Murder in Central Asia

Having arrived at Harvard in the autumn of 2013 with some free time in my schedule to audit a seminar or two, and having dabbled some in GIS technology whilst at Oxford, I enrolled a course in Digital History taught by Kelly O’Neill, a historian of Imperial Russia in the Harvard History Department. As some of my blog posts from that autumn show, the seminar led us from theoretical debates about the relationship of the digital humanities with the “traditional humanities” to more technical excursions on how historians could use tools from GIS to network analysis to text analysis to enhance their work, and ultimately create more compelling work for other scholars and the general interested public.

Part of the work for the class involved building a project of our own. Having discovered some interesting maps of, and data on, Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan circa the early 1990s, and coincidentally having enrolled in the class just before the announcement of the release of so-called “Death Lists” – rolls of those murdered by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist regime that ruled from 1978-92 – I opted to expand my more traditional work on a scholarly monograph with new digital techniques.

A "heat map" of state-led killing in Afghanistan during the spring and summer of 1979, one of many pieces of my new digital exhibit, "Shattering Afghanistan."

A “heat map” of state-led killing in Afghanistan during the spring and summer of 1979, one of many pieces of my new digital exhibit, “Shattering Afghanistan.”

The result was an Omeka exhibit: Shattering Afghanistan: State Destruction and Mass Murder in Central Asia. (Omeka is a content management system specifically targeted for academic audiences – kind of like a more museum-ish WordPress or Drupal.) The exhibit uses GIS techniques to track the patterns of killing and forced migration in Central Asia from approximately 1978-92 in a way that integrates with, and fleshes out, some of the arguments I make in my book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan.

Visit the site and let me know your thoughts. Shattering Afghanistan is supposed to represent the beginning of a conversation rather than a closed-and-shut door on one: whether you’re a historian interested in thinking more about how we can use new technological tools in our scholarship, or a reader whose life has been touched in some way by the events I write about in the exhibit, get in touch.

To visit Shattering Afghanistan, either click on the image above or here. Please note that because the site was constructed in Omeka, clicking on either link will take you outside of the WordPress ecosystem of this site.