US & Canada

Iraq v Chiraq: How Chicago violence feels like a war

Chicago aerial view streets
Image caption The streets of Chicago, where the homicide rate is higher than is has been in decades

BBC correspondent Ian Pannell has travelled to many places ravaged by violence. He covered the war in Iraq, reported from the frontlines in Afghanistan and more recently, covered the devastation in Syria. For his latest project, the Washington, DC-based Pannell stayed a little closer to home, travelling to Chicago to explore what is behind the city's skyrocketing homicide rate.

His report was an intimate look at life in the most troubled parts in the south and west of the Illinois city, where most homicides occur, where rival gangs war with one another over matters both large and small - with deadly consequences.

While conceding there are many significant differences between an active war zone like Syria and the streets of Englewood or Austin, where Pannell visited, he still noticed some similarities. He spoke with BBC News' Jessica Lussenhop about what he saw.

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Media captionLife and death on the lost streets of Chicago

War becomes a way of life

"People live with a threat or elements of danger, and although the degree is completely different, that's similar for civilian populations in both environments.

"So what you see is, externally you can go into war zones and on days when things aren't happening, it can look very normal.

"What always amazes me - you see this in Chicago and you see this in places like Syria - is people, they'll be out on the street, they'll be doing the shopping, but they know the rules. As soon as trouble starts to happen, they will immediately withdraw. Suddenly everybody disappears.

"Someone in Chicago was telling me, 'the mailman knows.' The mailman or mailwoman will not go down some of those streets on the days when they know there's an active beef going on. And it's the same in war zones - people learn to adapt, but that has psychological consequences.

"People won't give up. But they live with levels of trauma and danger and stress that aren't normal, and you can't live with that much threat and that much danger on a regular basis and it not affect you."

Image caption A group of young men make a rap video memorialising a fallen friend in an abandoned house

The power of guns

"I've never seen so many weapons in civilian hands outside of a traditional war zone as I did in parts of Chicago.

"I've never seen a readiness to use firearms outside of a traditional war zone like I've seen in areas of the city. So many people have guns and the threshold beyond which you are prepared to use a weapon is incredibly low.

"In a war zone you would expect people to be armed, you're ready to use it and there's a high chance you're going to be in a situation where you have to use it. In Chicago, you have kids who are empowered by weapons, who are empowered by shooting, given a kind of status that otherwise they don't have.

"In Syria, there are a lot of young, under-employed or unemployed men who became part of rebel groups not just because they believed in the struggle, but it gave them status. It gave them a weapon. It gave them a role. It gave them meaning.

"It's the same thing in Chicago - it's the same thing with the gangs."

Image caption Six-year-old Tacarra Morgan survived a drive-by shooting right outside her home in Chicago

The impact on children

"Childhood ends early in both these places.

"People who perpetrate violence ultimately don't really care. For them, it's 'collateral damage'.

"In Chicago, collateral damage is six-year-old Tacarra Morgan, who was shot in the stomach while playing outside her house, and the collateral damage in Syria is also the kids on hospital slabs who were shot or shelled while playing in their streets.

When the child rescuers die too

"Kids have become desensitized to violence. Someone's been shot, and kids are playing up and down the streets on their bikes, because they're used to seeing it and that's also what you see in a war zone.

"It means if the time comes and someone offers to put a gun in their hands, that they are simply more ready to embrace a life of violence. The threshold where you'd be willing to pick up a gun and shoot someone has been massively reduced."

Image caption Rapper CTC Duwop told Pannell, "We wanna leave this place, man, for good."

Young men with no way out

"In west Chicago, it's the closest I've ever felt in a civilian area to being in a hostile environment in the way these guys operate.

"They work in a group, all looking out, they're all looking around in every direction, watching for things coming. It's exactly the same as what you'll see in a rebel group.

"Young men have to play the hard man all the time. Given the opportunity to speak out, they have a 1,000 things in their heads and in their hearts.

"'There's no way out of this. I want it to stop. If there were another way...'

"There's this sense of, there's no way out. It's like a maze - when you work your way through it you're right back where you began."

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