• About CIVIC

    CIVIC is a Washington-based non-profit organization that believes the civilians injured and the families of those killed should be recognized and helped by the warring parties involved.

    On this blog, you will find stories from our travels around the world as we meet with civilians and military, aid organizations and government in our quest to get war victims the help they need.

  • Countries

  • Contributors

    Sarah, Executive Director

    Marla B, Managing Director

    Kristele, Field Director

    Liz, Chief Communications Officer

    Trevor, CIVIC's fellow based in Afghanistan

    Chris, CIVIC's fellow based in Pakistan

    Jon, CIVIC's US military consultant

  • Media Content

Stop Playing the Blame Game: Ex Gratia Payments in the Fog of War

Trevor Keck is CIVIC’s field fellow, based in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is assessing Afghan National Security Force preparedness to protect civilians after NATO and its allies withdraw.

I’m sitting with the father of a young boy killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. His child was eight years old. He told me his story:

Just before dawn on February 8th, helicopters carrying dozens of French and Afghan troops landed in a remote village in Kapisa province located in northeastern Afghanistan. The soldiers searched the villagers’ homes, reportedly looking for weapons caches. Several hours later, a group of young boys were out herding cattle nearby when the commander of the ground operation called in an airstrike. The boys had stopped to light a fire to keep warm from the brutal Afghan winter temperatures when the bombs struck them. All of the eight boys, who were as young as eight years old and no older than eighteen, were killed.

Abdul only broke his stoic appearance once during our interview to fight back tears. His account of the details of the incident was clinical, but Abdul’s emotions emerged when I asked about his son. “He was a very kind person…my heart is broken,” he said. Aja Mal—Abdul’s son—liked school, and aspired to study in Europe or the United States.

According to Abdul, three generals from the US-led security assistance force (ISAF) came to his village to express their condolences several days after the tragic event. The US, British, and French Generals told him and the other villagers that they didn’t intend to kill the boys, and promised to compensate those who had lost their loved ones. A week later, ISAF’s top commander, General John Allen, expressed his “sincere condolences” and affirmed that ISAF will continue to do everything possible to “ensure the safety of the Afghan population.” To date, Abdul has not received any compensation or assistance for the death of his son.

When I asked Abdul what he wants from ISAF, he was firm but fair. He is willing to accept ISAF’s condolences, provided it is followed by the financial compensation or assistance promised to him by the Generals that visited his village. “In Afghanistan, if someone comes to your home [to apologize] you do not get revenge on them,” he explained. “But we also request them to help the families of those killed…If they don’t help our families, we take it as a sign that they did this intentionally. And then people will raise their guns to fight them.”

An Afghan police officer working alongside international forces, Abdul offers an interesting perspective given reports of distrust and outright animosity between international and Afghan forces. “I told them [ISAF], you are our mentors. As long as you [make] such big mistakes, how can you train our forces to be good professionals and to help our country?” Abdul noted.

Abdul echoes the sentiments of other Afghans I have spoken with, who are understandably upset with the increasing rate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Even while the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, many Afghans think ISAF should be doing more to prevent civilian harm, and are more critical when international forces kill civilians – even if by mistake.

While ISAF officials were quick to express their regrets in the wake of the Kapisa incident, the international force is still not certain their actions killed the boys. According to ISAF, a secret informant told coalition forces that insurgents were planning to attack the French and Afghan troops in Kapisa. Through binoculars and other “optical equipment,” the troops claim to have spotted “adult sized” men carrying weapons and moving in a tactical fashion. The French forces on the ground reportedly attacked the insurgents, which was followed by an air strike ordered by the ground commander. After the engagement, ISAF reports that the French troops found the young boys amongst other dead bodies, but are still not certain who is to blame for their deaths.

It has now been three weeks since Aja Mal and the other boys were killed. Still, the families of those killed have not received anything from ISAF beyond spoken condolences. Unfortunately, the disparate narratives of the incident leave me cynical about whether Abdul or any of the other families will receive compensation from ISAF. CIVIC’s past research has found that ISAF often does not compensate individuals killed or injured in “hard cases,” where it is not clear that international forces are to blame or where ISAF is not convinced those killed were civilians. The reason is that compensation is often perceived as an admission of fault or responsibility.

Yet, in these so-called “hard cases,” ISAF may gain more by simply providing timely compensation. Fact-finding is incredibly difficult in war zones, and many times investigations will not be determinative in establishing the truth. Waiting for a long drawn-out investigation to finish may anger or alienate the victims, and undermine the positive impact of any compensation eventually issued.

Ex gratia (meaning “by favor” and thus not obligatory) payments need not necessarily be an admission of fault or responsibility. While questions remain over exactly what happened in the Kapisa incident, ISAF is better off making a judgment call and issuing timely compensation to the families of those killed. The ages of these young boys lead me to doubt that they were belligerents. Even if international forces were not responsible for the boys’ deaths, compensation would be an expression of good will. It could also help mitigate tensions amongst Afghans – whom have already decided that ISAF is to blame for the incident – and ensure that Abdul and the other families are compensated for their tragic loss.

–Trevor Keck

photo courtesy of Erica Gaston/OSI

PAKISTAN: Civilian Victims of Terrorism in Pakistan

By Chris

On New Year’s Day, residents of Shah Hassan Khel – a village outside South Waziristan – gathered to watch two local teams face off in a volleyball match.  Suddenly, a suicide bomber plowed his truck into the crowd.  The explosion was felt 11-miles away and decimated the surrounding neighborhood.  Over 100 people from the village were killed and scores injured.

Civilians in Pakistan suffer not only from military and militant operations, but also from devastating terrorist attacks.  Soon after I arrived three months ago, the military began a major operation in South Waziristan; since then, according to newspaper reports, over 800 people have been killed in terrorist attacks throughout the country.
While this figure also includes law enforcement personnel, most casualties are civilians.

The rise and frequency of terrorist attacks is staggering.  Over the course of 2009, suicide bombers struck in Pakistan every five days on average.  Hardest hit was the Northwest Frontier Province, and particularly its capital, Peshawar.

Driving down Peshawar’s main avenue, Khyber Road, evidence of terrorist attacks is all around.  Every few blocks you’ll pass a building or area that has been hit—the Pearl Continental Hotel, the intelligence agency headquarters, the court complex, the press club, the Khyber bazaar—and so on.  People in Peshawar emphasize that this violence is new and shocking to them; they are jarred just as any American would be if an attack occurred in their hometown.

That victims of terrorism need and deserve assistance is clearly acknowledged by the Pakistani government and public.  Public protests demand an end to violence and assistance for those that have suffered.  In turn, the government has announced a number of packages and programs to assist victims of terrorism.

However, compensation is often politicized and not provided in any regular, systematic manner.  Follow-through on promises of assistance is never certain.  Access and compensation amounts are uneven.  Standardized programs that really respond to the needs of victims are desperately needed. The frequency and severity of terrorist attacks in Pakistan today requires more coordinated and comprehensive policies that ensure victims are not forgotten and their losses are both acknowledged and addressed.

GUEST BLOGGER: Exploding Lebanon

Posted By: Jess K., traveled to Lebanon to speak with cluster munitions victims

My driver expertly navigated his way down the main street of Al Bazouriye, a small town that happens to be the ancestral home of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and where he lived out most of his adolescence after fleeing Beirut during this country’s civil war.

I went to Lebanon to gather testimonials of victims of cluster bombs that Israel used in its 2006 war with Hezbollah. Like many of the villages in south Lebanon, Al Bazouriye (5 miles east of the large southern city Tyre) greatly suffered from falling cluster bombs, largely in the last 72 hours of the conflict. As our car pulled up to a small café in the center of town, really more of a rundown booth with a few plastic chairs arranged outside and occupied by middle-aged men, I was told by my translator that there I could meet a fisherman from the coastal village of En Naqoura. Mohammed is a handsome man of about 35. He wore a black baseball cap with a matching polo shirt, and a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses. He told me that he used to be a fisherman and now drives a taxi. As we sipped our Turkish coffee and ate sweet cookies, Mohammed told me how he lost his hand and an ear from a cluster bomb. He said: “I was pulling in my haul, I grabbed something round, there was a flash, and I fell to the ground. Caught in the net was a cluster bomb. Something left over from 2006.” He pulled up his right sleeve revealing an arm so heavily peppered with the effects of shrapnel that the tattoo of a heart on his bicep is broken by the knotting of scars that reach all the way up to his neck. I can only imagine the difficulty of fishing with one hand.

With average failure rates as high as 25 percent, and much higher in some locations, cluster bomblets like the one Mohammed picked up failed to detonate when they were dropped. They now pose a hazard to civilians. The children here remind me of my young son, who is safely back in the US and needn’t worry if he strays while playing in the grass. In the US, we can go to work without concern that our spouse may not return for dinner because her life has been cut short by a cluster bomblet as she runs a routine errand. But these are the conditions that people in south Lebanon must live with because countries buy, sell and use these terrible weapons.

UPDATE: Shortages in funding for clearing unexploded duds in south Lebanon has forced a halt to operations. CIVIC is pressing international donors, like the United States and Israel, to provide the funding the de-miners need to continue their work. For video taken by CIVIC in Lebanon and Israel, click here. For more on the ban on cluster munitions agreed upon by 107 countries, and take action to help limit the effects of US cluster bombs, click here.

GUEST BLOGGER: “Next time, I will not vote for Karzai; I will vote for my donkey” – Pt. 2

Posted By: Rebecca W., Erica in Afghanistan

Another of Goli’s brothers was shot by the ISAF troops and was taken away to Kandahar Air Field (KAF) for questioning. His mother and father went to KAF to beg for his release and to insist that he was innocent. The military provided him with hospital treatment and released him after establishing that he was not a member of the Taliban. All the other injured family members were taken to the local hospital and the family had to sell half of their land in order to pay for the hospital bills.

Three days after the attacks, the Canadian troops came to the village and apologized for the deaths and injuries and paid money to the villagers. The injured civilians even received a visit in hospital from President Karzai and the governor. Every injured person received 20,000 Afghanis (approx. $430) to help pay for the hospital bills. No money, however, was given to compensate for the deaths or for the loss of property and livestock. Continue reading

GUEST BLOGGER: “Next time, I will not vote for Karzai; I will vote for my donkey” – Pt. 1

Posted By: Rebecca W., Erica in Afghanistan

Goli’s hand is twisted and scarred. His leg and chest is also a knot of scars, threading across his skin. His uncle, Haji, still has his foot in a bandage – two years after the ISAF forces mistakenly bombed their village. And his left leg consists principally of bone and sinew, a mere shadow of the healthy leg that he once used to farm his land.

Goli's injured leg prevents him from earning a living as a farmer, as he once did.

Goli's injured leg.

Two years ago, ISAF forces bombed the village where Goli and Haji lived because the Taliban were nearby, crossing a road from one area to the next. The bombing began at 11pm. Haji described to me how he was sleeping in the courtyard of his house and “saw bright lights like lightning and a loud sound like a bomb.”

Continue reading

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