Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Putting Down The Pen: Reflecting On Oryx’s Journey

By Stijn Mitzer
En güzel deniz: henüz gidilmemiş olandır. En güzel çocuk: henüz büyümedi. En güzel günlerimiz: henüz yaşamadıklarımız. Ve sana söylemek istediğim en güzel söz: henüz söylememiş olduğum sözdür – The most beautiful sea, hasn't been crossed yet. The most beautiful child, hasn't grown up yet. Our most beautiful days, we haven't witnessed yet. And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you, I haven't said yet. (By Nazım Hikmet)
Dear everyone,
I had always imagined 'penning' this farewell someday. You see, the journey of Oryx took a different path than its intended purpose. What Oryx was meant to be initially was a remedy for my teenage boredom at the age of 17. Back then, I was still in high school, and the manageable workload along with my recent departure from playing football left me with an abundance of spare time. An interest in the Arab Spring, in particular the Libyan and Syrian Revolutions, led me to spend more and more time scouring the internet for updates. As the Syrian Revolution evolved into protracted civil war, I decided to create a Twitter account to more closely monitor the unfolding events.

One of the accounts I followed was that of Eliot Higgins, who began reporting on the Syrian Civil War on his Brown Moses Blog. After asking him one day if he was going to report on the use of Italian-upgraded T-72 tanks in the war, I remember telling myself that if a ''high-school dropout who knew no more about weapons than the average Xbox owner'' was able to write these articles, so would I probably. That evening, I created a blog, picked a name (Oryx for the majestic animal, and Spioenkop, Afrikaans for 'spy hill', as a place from where one can watch events unfold around the world) and published my first article on Syria's T-72 MBTs. (For those interested, the article can be read here).

It was the 16th of February 2013, and little did I realise that the next decade would transform Oryx from a remedy for boredom into a project that would consume the majority of my time and energy. I can still recall the joy I felt when the T-72 article garnered 520 views in just several hours, contributing to a total view count of approximately 3500 for the entire blog that month. Fast forward ten years, and Oryx now achieves an average of 250,000 daily views. In the months following my inaugural article, I continued to write about Syria, a country that held my focus until 2017. However, a desire towards greater challenges was always present. My motivation thrives on challenges. Offer me the most difficult subject to analyse. Upon mastering the subject's intricacies, I seek out the next challenge.
I ultimately discovered my greatest challenge in the analysis of North Korea. Back in the early 2010s, the scarcity of photographs and videos emerging from the country, in stark contrast to the flood of visual content available now, intrigued me. The limited information available, coupled with the abundance of misinformation, arguably made it the most challenging country to analyse. Through a series of articles and our eventual book(s), Joost and I attempted to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Korean People's Army. Finishing the final pages of the book left me feeling satisfied with North Korea – we had done what we aimed for. We unearthed the answers to our questions. With this challenge resolved, I started looking for another subject that would keep me curious and motivated.

Finding a challenge this time around proved much harder than before. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Türkiye('s defence industry) and the Tigray War eventually emerged as subjects that provided me with both analytical satisfaction and the desired level of complexity. Their status as topics that Western analysts scarcely delved into rendered them all the more interesting to me. In contrast to mainstream media, we weren't confined by the need to generate popular articles and headlines. Instead, we saw this as an opportunity to illuminate underreported conflicts like the Tigray War, the Libyan War and the War in Yemen. Continuously delving into various countries and conflicts kept Oryx fresh for me, but it has also brought me to a place where I feel that I've largely covered the subjects I intended to explore. The journey has been a source of satisfaction, but it has now arrived at its final destination.

Since late 2021, the act of writing feels repetitive, almost as if I've written every sentence before. For me, this realisation serves as a clear sign that it's time to move on. In fact, I had already contemplated ending Oryx by the spring of 2022, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine infused me with renewed energy to keep going. But 1.5 years later, I have lost my spark. My interest in anything military is fading, and the constant pressure to keep up with everything is exhausting. I usually fall asleep with my phone in hand, only to wake up finding I've been sleeping on it. I'm tired of all the death and destruction. It's been a whole decade of watching videos of people's bodies having been torn apart by bombs or parents holding their lifeless newborns who died as a result of armed conflict – it really gets to you.
Still, I take great joy in the opportunities that Oryx has brought me, as well as from the lifelong friendships with Joost and Kemal. While I'm aware of options such as securing a position at a think tank or even transforming Oryx into a lucrative private intelligence agency, these career paths hold no appeal for me. I think I possess a moral compass that doesn't align with such institutions' goals. Despite the potential for financial gains through Oryx, I consciously opt not to pursue them. To me, the act of donating our entire Patreon income to charities seemed like the only possible course of action. Amidst ongoing wars and natural disasters, it's difficult to justify to ourselves to hold onto money without considering the greater need. Money doesn't tempt me, especially when it's associated with conflict. True wealth, for me, is found within family, health, and finding happiness in the little things in life. A forest stroll or spending time with friends makes me feel genuinely rich. Learning this lesson at a young age is priceless.

Over the years I've come to realise that, to me, genuine success and happiness are scarcely influenced by popularity, recognition, or even publishing a book. While these achievements hold their own significance, they haven't truly brought me a sense of pride. My most significant accomplishments involve making those dear to me proud and understanding the essence of happiness at a young age. Oryx has shown me that that true happiness cannot be attained through fame, career accomplishments, or wealth. Despite Oryx gaining recognition – being featured on major TV channels, acknowledged by figures like John McCain and David Petraeus, and with our information used by intelligence agencies – my proudest moment remains being able to write a message in my book I gave to my then girlfriend. You've shown me what real happiness looks like T. Nothing could ever surpass that. Thank you for that.
Reflecting on the last decade, I hope that Oryx has and will continue to motivate others to set out on their own journey of analysis and writing. Starting at the age of 17 without ever taking any education in the field of defence or international relations, Oryx can be seen as evidence that great opportunities await those who choose a similar path. What added to the excitement was the interaction with readers on Twitter, which I've thoroughly enjoyed over the years. At a certain point, the number of messages became overwhelming, so I want to apologise if you never received a response. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to all those who have offered their assistance in various capacities to Oryx over the years, with a special acknowledgment to Jakub. What began as a childhood interest ignited by buying Buck Danny and Biggles comic strips blossomed into a hobby that has far exceeded any reasonable limits. Although I once contemplated a position with an intelligence agency, an offer never came to fruition.

Lastly, I feel compelled to discuss the origin of the practice of list-making and its evolution over time. We began our venture into list-making in 2013 with the goal of aiding our internal analysis. The abundance and variations of North Korea's armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) posed a challenge, prompting us to catalog them before we could analyse them effectively. This initial list set the groundwork for subsequent lists, although it wasn't until the summer of 2014 that we embarked on compiling the 'losses lists,' intended to illustrate the staggering volume of armament and equipment captured by IS in the regions of Iraq and Syria. The rapid proliferation of these lists, owing to the relatively straightforward process of creating them, is probably what Oryx will primarily be remembered for. The lists gained such popularity that I found myself (somewhat jokingly) embracing the entire act of list-making on Oryx with a list of lists. However, I must confess, I have an aversion to planning ahead and never create lists in my everyday life. Sorry!

As I bid farewell on October 1st, I'll leave you with these lines from my most beloved song Ue o Muite Arukō by my favourite singer Sakamoto Kyu.

Shiawase wa kumo no ue ni - Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Shiawase wa sora no ue ni - Happiness lies up above the sky

PS: Just to clarify, I'm not being sponsored by the Põhjala beer brand – there was a half-price deal for a second bottle at my nearby supermarket. My Dutch spirit remains intact, after all.