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Civilians bear brunt of the changing nature of hostilities

23-06-2009 Interview

This week, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is marking 150 years since the Battle of Solferino, which is where the idea of Red Cross was born. The ICRC is also publishing the results of a major survey looking at "today’s Solferinos" and their impact on civilians. According to the organization's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, a lot has changed over the past century and a half in the way wars are fought and how people are affected.

  ©ICRC/VII / F. Pagetti /lb-e-01189    
Tripoli, Liban. Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp.   

  ©ICRC/VII / R. Haviv /cd-e-00986    
Democratic Republic of the Congo. A child separated from his family during the fighting.    

  ©ICRC/VII / R. Haviv /ht-e-00345    
Port au Prince, Haiti.    


  ©Magnum / J. Nachtwey/ht-e-00345    
Kabul, Afghanistan. ICRC orthopaedic centre.    
ICRC director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl.    
     Can you point to a difference in the way civilians experience war today as compared to Solferino, in northern Italy?  

There have been striking changes between how battles were fought 150 years ago and today. Historians say that in Solferino, almost 40,000 soldiers were wounded or killed but just one civilian died in the fighting. Today things are very different. Obviously, civilians were affected back then. Th ey had to flee their villages, go into hiding and try to protect themselves. What’s alarming today is the scope of that kind of suffering and the number of civilian casualties and deaths we see around the world.

As part of our new research, we looked at what people in Afghanistan had to say about their experiences and 60% said they had been directly affected by the consequences of warfare. Now imagine that they’ve been living with the turmoil of hostilities for 30 years, or take the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as another example. High percentages of people there say that in the last 12 months they have experienced a whole range of violations, from exposure to sexual violence and displacement to a lack of access to health care.

The reversal of the trend, in terms of the transformation of armed conflict and who bears the brunt of it, is very worrying.


 What prompted you to carry out the survey?  

Well, we felt it was time to look at modern-day Solferinos… today’s conflicts and situations of violence. In particular, it was important to look at them through the experiences, fears, worries, frustrations and hopes of the people affected by these dynamics.

We chose to examine a geographical range of contexts, as well as a mix of situations that are often in the headlines and a few that rarely make the news. In the end, we selected Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines. For us, it was essential to sit down and hear from the people themselves what it means to go through these traumatic events.

 Were there any findings that were particularly striking or surprising to you?  

While not entirely surprising, it’s striking to see the extent of people’s concern and fear, first and foremost, about the safety and well-being of close family members. Their concern is not only about the loss of a loved one, but also about separation. In different ways, people refer to that as being among their greatest fears.

At the same time, another finding, which was noticeable and related to family and proximity, was that many people said that those who most effectively respond to their immediate needs were their communities, neighbours or families.

 How does knowing that have an impact on the ICRC’s work?  

The importance of being close to affected communities is something we’ve picked up on in recent years in our own operational experience. If there are any heroes in the humanitarian field, it’s the local surgeons and nurses in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia, who take the risk of going to the hospital every morning in their hope to make a difference for their own people.

Our privilege, and what we’ve tried to focus on in recent years, is to accompany them in that process… to enable local health personnel and aid workers, including our colleagues from national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, to respond on the ground, because we’ve seen that this makes a difference for affected populations. We will be focusing on this increasingly in future.

 The survey shows high numbers of people, who have been forced to flee their homes. What’s your response?  

I’m disturbed by the findings on displacement and the numbers of people who talked about having to flee their homes or abandon their property, and then losing it and never being able to get it back. In the Cong o, it’s not just one time people have been displaced over the past 12 to 18 months. Some people have been displaced four, five or six times, again, often with the loss of family members in the whole process.

So it seems very clear that from the perspective of the people interviewed, this ranks among the most anxiety-provoking and fearful experiences of conflict, and that’s something that the ICRC must focus on with great dedication.

 Corruption was cited quite widely as a reason that is preventing people from getting help. Is that something that has an impact on what the ICRC is doing in these countries?  

True, many of the people interviewed cited corruption as being a potential impediment to safe and predictable access to humanitarian aid. The research doesn’t reveal who they think is corrupt and it doesn’t lay blame. However, it’s a striking finding and comes as a very strong reminder of all the precautions that one must put into place in the implementation of programmes, both during the evaluation phase and in carrying them out, in order to ensure that populations do not face discrimination or these forms of blockages. I think that this requires further close attention on our part.


 In general terms, what difference will this research make?  

There are two big differences that this research will bring to our way of working. The first is a reminder of how important it is to place people at the very centre of our analysis and action. It is only by taking seriously the way in which people see their own situations that we will find a response that’s up to the standard of their needs and expectations.

Humanitarian organizations approach people a nd assess their needs, but tend to do this very much from the perspective of their own expertise. If we turn that around and take the person as the starting point, it becomes a much more sincere and in-depth approach, and I think that is an important finding. We need to adapt our programming to that reality.

Secondly, communicating around the impact of warfare on affected populations is a key responsibility of an organization like the ICRC. Being able to do that based on how the people see their needs, as opposed to our own views and assessments, adds a qualitative dimension to our claim to be able to carry the voices of the victims of war and armed violence to broader audiences.

This is a step towards acknowledging our accountability towards the people that we are there to serve.


See also:Our world. Views from the field. The impact of conflicts and armed violence on civilians