Saada, Yemen. A group of children play football against a backdrop of destroyed houses. The northern governorate has witnessed several episodes of violence since 2006 that left behind immense destruction. © Karrar AL-MOAYYAD / ICRC
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Cities have featured as the centerstage for violence since humans began building them. Images in recent years – from Aleppo, Mosul and Sana'a to Marawi, Mogadishu, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Mariupol – confirm that towns and cities will remain primary battlegrounds in future armed conflicts.
Sieges, tunnels, booby traps and snipers now meet drones and digital warfare in a new form of protracted urban conflict. Unfortunately, digital warfare looks set to become the new normal in the years ahead.
An unbearable human toll
In urban centres, civilians and military objectives are often found in the same areas. Heavy explosive weapons, such as large bombs, missiles, rockets, mortars and artillery shells, are more likely to hit the military target, but their wide, inaccurate and all too often indiscriminate blast areas take down everything around them too. They significantly affect civilians, causing deaths, injuries and trauma.
I was having breakfast. As I took a sip of tea, an explosion came out of nowhere. Suddenly shrapnel tore through my arms and legs.
Ceaseless worry about loved ones' safety and unremitting anxiety about food and other necessities exacerbate all the personal difficulties associated with the traumatizing situation. Intense grief is common, as is fear. While most people will be able to continue to function and cope with the distress they have endured, others will suffer incapacitating psychological trauma.
I just want to be alright. It's hard to be 'okay' when you've seen so much. I saw my city die. I saw myself break. I don't know if I'll ever be okay, but I want that.
Urban fighting often destroys or damages the critical infrastructure necessary to supply vital services, such as electricity, water and san¬itation, health care, food or education. Urban populations, who depend for their daily survival on supporting infrastructure, goods and services provided by others, are inherently vulnerable to market and supply disruptions. One failure often results in the collapse of many others. It creates greater risks to public health and people's livelihoods, which may in-turn lead to the massive displacement of populations.
Bombing and shelling may also irreparably damage hospitals, prevent ambulances from reaching the wounded, and disrupt medical supplies. Medical personnel, as civilians, also suffer directly and can be forced to leave their jobs and flee.
After we went back, both were gone. The hospital had been looted and vandalised, the clinic burned down. All the staff had fled. For a while there was no care anymore,
Run for your life
As neighbourhoods become front lines, the basics of life - water, food, health care, jobs, education, decent accommodation – suddenly become hard to find. People are often forced to flee their homes, overturning their lives and exposing themselves to greater risks, such as sexual and gender-based violence, as they lose their livelihoods and support networks. It then usually falls to local communities to help those who have been displaced while they may themselves be suffering from the effects of conflict.
Yet even after the guns have fallen silent, displacement can continue for years, as homes and infrastructure are destroyed and landmines, improvised, unexploded and abandoned explosive devices litter residential areas. They may take years, decades even, to be cleared, preventing the safe return of populations.
Back to square one
The massive destruction caused by conflict in cities can set development indicators back decades.
As people leave for safety or better opportunities, the 'brain drain' of those who knew how to build, run and maintain infrastructure and the complex systems that ran on it becomes an issue. Similarly, insecurity and school closures mean that children may be unable to go to school for years, impeding an entire generation in their quest for a better life.
The four years of armed conflict in Yemen, for example, pushed human development indicators back 20 years.
The humanitarian consequences of urban warfare are complex, direct and indirect, immediate and long-term, visible and invisible. But they are not a fatality or an inevitable by-product of warfare.
There is an urgent need for a change of mindset, and that belligerents put the protection of civilians back at the centre of their policy and practices. The direct and reverberating effects of the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban and other populated areas are foreseeable and largely avoidable.
How can we reduce, or even prevent civilian harm in urban warfare?
1. In order to better safeguard civilians and civilian infrastructure, parties to armed conflicts must rigorously apply and better comply with existing international humanitarian law that is adapted to the major trends in warfare, notably the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions, which are critical in protecting civilians against the effects of hostilities in urban areas.
2. They must also urgently reassess their approach to operations in urban environments, including by reviewing urban warfare doctrines, training and planning procedures, tactics and choice of weapons. The protection of civilians must be made a strategic priority in the planning and conduct of military operations, as warring parties remain obliged to take all feasible precautions to avoid incidental harm to civilians.
3. Most importantly, they must avoid using heavy explosive weapons at all costs, as they are designed to deliver large explosive force from a distance and over wide areas, which causes indiscriminate damage and makes them ill-adapted for use in urban and other population centres. They should not be used, unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide area effects and the subsequent risk for civilians.
4. Allies and partners of parties to armed conflict also bear a great responsibility: they should adequately design and frame their support in order to avoid aggravating the humanitarian consequences on cities. Instead, they should proactively contribute to a higher level of protection of civilians and civilian objects
The ICRC and the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continue to reinforce their capacity to prevent and respond to the humanitarian consequences of urban warfare. We favour a multidisciplinary, integrated approach combining prevention, protection and assistance to civilians specifically adapted to the urban context. We engage with belligerents at every level, driven by the voices of the people who are most affected.
We work to prevent critical infrastructure from collapsing and forcing millions into crisis. This involves repairing and rehabilitating infrastructure, supplying spare parts, providing training and capacity-building for local service providers and developing emergency preparedness plans.
However, there are limits to what the collective humanitarian response can achieve in the face of extensive damage and destruction to critical infrastructure and its misuse by parties to conflict. When systems fail, the scale of the consequences far exceeds what can be addressed by humanitarian action alone.
Given the scale and complexity of urban warfare's humanitarian consequences, partnerships must be developed, especially with local authorities and essential service providers, as well as communities, local organizations and businesses to ensure responses are grounded in local realities and attract widespread support. Such partnerships can help safeguard public health, reduce displacement and enable a more rapid response to acute emergencies. Such partnerships can be supported by the combined efforts of humanitarian and development organizations to capitalize on their respective security, political and technical expertise.
Join our community to reduce the human cost of urban warfare