On the Radar
On the frontlines of ugly war crimes and destruction, they are often some of the first to the scene–dispatched to document human rights abuses and report violations of the laws of war.
Meet the E-Team.
They are part of a special unit within Human Rights Watch, dubbed the "Emergencies Team," and are specially trained to respond in emergency situations to the scene of suspected human rights violations soon after they occur to get the full story.
A new documentary now on Netflix, “E-Team,” tells their story.
Ross Kauffman, one of the film’s co-directors, and Fred Abrahams, an E-Team member featured in the film, recently sat down with “On the Radar” to discuss the documentary and life as a human rights investigator at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
“I think for me it's an opportunity to scream,” Abrahams said of his career as an advisor to Human Rights Watch. “A lot of people ask me ‘The laws of war, what's the point? War is hell. And how can you expect warring parties to behave better, and what's the point?’ But there is a point actually, because we're supposed to draw some red lines of acceptable behavior.”
The film follows Abrahams and other E-Team members as they take tremendous personal risk in the name of exposing human rights violations. At one point, two investigators inside Syria rush to the scene after a bomb drops in a small town of Azaz, near Aleppo, and witness the destruction of the country's raging civil war firsthand.
The filmmakers also took great personal risk in making the documentary.
American photojournalist James Foley, who was beheaded at the hands of ISIS earlier this year, was among the cinematographers. And the film, which is believed to be one of the last documentaries Foley ever contributed to, is dedicated to him.
“I met Jim in Libya, he literally walked right into my frame,” Kauffman recalled. “For this kind of film, it's not just reporting. We really look for people that are extremely sensitive and empathetic, and Jim came through.”
Abrahams too remembered the slain journalist fondly, explaining that Foley “[was] someone who had two things: one is real warmth, a personal warmth, and also a commitment to the story.”
Foley was not captured while working on this documentary, but as Abrahams pointed out, he had already experienced captivity as a cost for doing his job once before.
“He was captured in Libya, actually, before he worked on the film … went through detention under Gadhafi, was released, and then went back to cover Syria. A lot of people would give up.”
Since the film, Abrahams has spent time documenting human rights abuses against the Yazidi community at the hands of ISIS in northern Iraq.
“What’s happening in Iraq really scrapes low down the depths of the barrel in terms of humanity and what's disturbing,” Abrahams said. “ISIS, or the Islamic State, has taken things to such an extreme … that I haven't often, if ever, encountered.”
But what worries Abrahams even more, he said, is the challenge of reaching a solution.
“It’s too simple to just put ISIS in the corner as the boogeyman and say fight it, and it will be solved --that is not going to do it,” he said.
The current U.S.-led military campaign against ISIS will not be enough to solve the problem, Abrahams added. Instead, he said, the solution “must be political” to undercut the support ISIS has support among Sunnis in Iraq.
“They do have support,” Abrahams said. “There are legitimate grievances of the Sunnis in Iraq of oppression, marginalization, and abuse, and until that's recognized, they'll turn to extremists like ISIS. They may not like them, but it's the lesser evil or the enemy of my enemy.”
In addition to capturing the E-Team’s lives on the frontlines, the film also follows the E-Team members to their homes and families, examining the contrast between their jobs in the war zones and their everyday lives in Europe and the U.S.
“I struggle with that all the time,” Abrahams said. “Coming home from a place like Syria or Iraq, and then you open the door, and there's your one-year-old baby.”
Two of the film’s main characters are a husband and wife team, Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang. The film tracks their many trips to Syria at the height of the civil war, at a time when Neistat is pregnant and has another 12-year-old son at home.
“From the start, Katy [Chevigny] and I were very clear that we wanted to go home with our characters,” Kauffman said of his co-director and his vision for the film. “And Anna and Ole are incredible. I mean they go back and forth, and it’s almost seamless what they do.”
To learn more about the film and the work of the E-Team, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”
ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Tom Thornton, Richard Norling, Hank Disselkamp, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.