• 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

GUEST BLOG: Afghanistan: A Soldier’s Perspective

By Major Dennis Sugrue

It is an unfortunate reality of war that innocent civilians are harmed.  As a US Army Soldier, I recognize the importance of protecting civilians, especially during combat operations.  Despite our care, civilian casualties and property damage do occur.  I recall the great initiative that we took in Afghanistan to make amends and offer closure to harmed civilians and their families.

From 2006-2007, I deployed to northern Kunar Province, Afghanistan. This is a mountainous and exceptionally remote area.  It is accessible by a single road closed periodically due to rain storms.  Rain was infrequent, but came in torrents when it arrived.  As part of my duties, I interacted with Afghan civilians who had been injured or lost property due to military actions.  Victims would arrive at the gate of our base and, in most cases, I would meet with them.  I would listen to their claims, often over tea, and try to determine validity.  I would walk valid claims to our pay officer and often make monetary compensation in that same meeting.  In these sessions, I also tried to learn about their lives and offer them a glimpse into American life by exchanging stories.

To help these victims, the Army offered compensation or solatia payments. Compensation usually takes the form of monetary payment and medical treatment.  Monetary compensations for damaged property, lost livelihoods, or personal injury are somewhat common in Afghanistan.  These payments are consistent with cultural norms and important to economic stability, but they can fall short of “making things better.”  It was my experience that civilians injured in a warzone often want something far simpler and more valuable – closure.  They seek a human connection offering condolence.  A sincere apology does more to offer closure than any payment possibly could.  Solatia activities should have the ultimate goal to provide a sense of closure for the civilians who suffer losses in combat zones.

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GUEST BLOG: Marla, CIVIC, and the idea that wouldn’t die

By Catherine Philp

Nine years ago in the bright Kabul spring, I met a young woman called Marla Ruzicka. She was hard to miss, with her wild blonde hair and animal pyjamas peeking out from the hem of her long kameez.

She was harder still to miss the morning she marched to the gates of the American Embassy with astonished, emboldened Afghan families by her side, to demand compensation and apologies for their loved ones lost in American military action. Continue reading

AFGHANISTAN: Can a medal really save a life?

Posted by:  Marla B

Last week NATO commanders proposed a new idea: a medal for “courageous restraint” if troops avoid using force that could harm an Afghan civilian. Steps like this make it clear their heads and hearts are in the right place, given how important such avoidance is in Afghanistan right now–-both for humanitarian and strategic reasons.

I’m pleased to see consideration of civilians playing such a prominent role in military thinking; it’s certainly long over due there.

But can a medal for a soldier really save an Afghan life?

The first question that comes to mind is “shouldn’t soldiers already be showing ‘courageous restraint?’”  The answer is yes.  The requirements for receiving the medal track with what soldiers should already be doing on the battlefield to abide by international laws and stated NATO values.

So the next logical question is: Do medals really motivate our soldiers? Capt. Edward Graham’s company is part of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and he had a straightforward answer for the Associated Press: “Not a single one of these guys does it for the medals.”  Anyone who knows a soldier knows that to be true.

Then, medals aside, what can international forces do better to avoid and protect civilians in the battlespace?  There are two answers. Better training and improved escalation of force procedures–which, incidentally, top military brass are already talking about.

Analysis and process aren’t quite as flashy as a medal but they’ve often proved to be a lot more effective in saving lives. Better training, for example, will change the chain reaction of split second decisions every soldier has to make each time they are confronted with a perceived threat.

I believe and know from my time training U.S. troops that many of soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan already show ‘courageous restraint’. The danger and unknown variables they face each and every day make their job amongst the most difficult in the world.

The ones that don’t show such restraint don’t need an award to show them the way.  They need better tools and training to ensure their courage in serving actually translates into lives saved.

GUEST BLOG: A View of War Victims From Gardez, Afghanistan

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

I’ve been in Gardez the last week — a small provincial capitol about
two hours south of Kabul. Security is slightly better than this time
last year, when the community was still reeling from nightly
airstrikes in districts just outside of the city. But reports of
targeting and assassination by the Taliban, raids on homes by
international forces and the Afghan army, and sporadic gunfire
exchanges between one or more of the warring parties or criminals are
still common.

Even more concerning, the limited access of many aid workers and the
change in the conflict dynamics means that now as much as ever,
victims of conflict have no way to get help. The Afghan Civilian
Assistance Program is still up and running, and with new staff and
funding authorized they are working hard to reach as many civilians as
possible. But in 2009, the vast majority of civilian deaths have been
due to insurgent attacks, in particular insurgent attacks on Afghan
security forces or government officials. Attacks due to these causes
are not eligible for either ACAP assistance or the limited solatia and
condolence funds that General McChrystal and other US military
officials have been urging troops to use.

Al Qaeda recently announced that it would offer “condolences” for
innocent victims in Afghanistan and other locales. But when you speak
to locals here in Gardez they find the idea that Al Qaeda, the Taliban
or other insurgent groups would give them assistance to be laughable.

AFGHANISTAN: New UN Report: More Than 1,000 Civilians Killed in 2009 (The Huffington Post)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

The UN issued its mid-year review on civilian deaths this morning. More than 1000 Afghan civilians have been killed so far this year — 24% more than in the first part of 2008. Two key take-aways from the report:

1) Numbers of those killed by insurgent attacks are way up (59% of casualties). It’s not just the number of those killed; the overall number of IEDs and suicide attacks has jumped. Just think about what that does for perceptions of (in)stability in months leading up to Afghanistan’s Presidential and provincial elections.

2) While the percentage of civilians killed by ISAF and Afghan forces is down, the number itself is about the same: 308 killed in the first 6 months of 2008; 310 killed in the first 6 months of 2009. This despite the previous ISAF Commanding General’s December 2008 “Tactical Directive” that was supposed to significantly reduce civilian losses. Let’s hope McChrystal’s TD is more effective.

Put these two facts together and you’ve got the statistical grounding for Afghans’ intuitive mistrust of the way things are going. Your average Afghan doesn’t have to look at numbers to know that more civilians are dying each month and that neither the Afghan government nor international forces have been able to protect civilians from insurgents.

In a month where both sides have said they plan to reduce civilian casualties (see here and here), these numbers are a good reality check of how far there is to go.

AFGHANISTAN: Who compensates those the Taliban hurts? (continued from below)

The UN reported that 1160 civilians were killed by Taliban or insurgent activities in 2008, and these are likely only an estimate given that in many Taliban-dominated areas, civilians are afraid to report individual targeting, threats, or other losses. If so many are affected by insurgent parties, what can be done to compensate and help them?

The most obvious question, of course, is what about the insurgents themselves? Although there are certainly examples of non-state actors in other conflicts providing compensation or victim assistance after a conflict incident, we haven’t seen much evidence of this in Afghanistan. One official told us of a Taliban group in the south paying 300,000 afghanis (about $6000) to those killed in conflict, but we were not able to verify this hearsay through any other sources. From using civilians as human shields to aggressively targeting and harassing those who cooperate with the government or the international community, it seems that insurgent tactics in recent years have trended more toward intimidation and fear than “winning hearts and minds” by providing compensation to victims of conflict.

If not the insurgents themselves, then who else could take responsibility for this population? Some of the different international militaries’ compensation and condolence payments, and also the USAID Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, will help victims of suicide attacks on international military convoys. They also typically will help those who are targeted by the Taliban (for example, drivers, translators, others) because they were assisting international military forces. But none of these programs would have helped Mustapha’s pain and suffering.

The Afghan government seems to be the best candidate for this, not only as a warring party but as the warring party with some responsibility for the wellbeing of all its citizens who are caught in the conflict. In fact, the Afghan government has two programs – an executive fund by President Karzai and a ministerial fund called the Martyrs’ and Disabled Fund – that should technically cover victims of pro-government (international military and Afghan government forces) and insurgent forces alike. In practice though, President Karzai’s fund has been used almost exclusively to address harm caused where international forces are involved (The one notable exception has been when it was given following a suicide attack targeting a crowd watching a dog fight in Kandahar province). The Martyrs & Disabled Fund – which provides a type of monthly pension program to the beneficiaries of those killed or to those disabled in any conflict-related incident – also fails to cover this need because significant issues in corruption and implementation prevent it from having much practical impact (for more, see Chapter 5 of CIVIC’s Afghanistan report).

CIVIC has been proposing a common compensation mechanism for Afghanistan. This compensation mechanism could take a lot of different forms, and one possibility is an all-encompassing fund or mechanism that would cover victims of any warring party involved – whether international military, Afghan forces or insurgent groups. Short of that, significant changes in the existing Afghan programs might be a way to get compensation to many of the civilians who are taking the brunt of increased insurgent activity.

Salt in the Wound: The Case for Compensation (from the Huffington Post)

KABUL, Afghanistan – I’ve written generally in the last few blogs about the compensation and victim assistance issues that CIVIC analyzed in our recent report. Let’s take a concrete example of the type of harm and redress we’re talking about. A few months ago, I met several families who lost relatives and friends in a July 2008 US airstrike that mistakenly targeted a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan. Forty-seven were killed, the vast majority women and children. Those visiting the site a few days after the incident described a road scorched and pocked with craters, body parts and bits of wedding veil mixed into the rubble.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, US officials denied any civilian deaths and to this day have never provided the community with an apology or recognition. Communities across Afghanistan heard about the incident and the lack of US follow-up or recognition, generating widespread anger that those who came to Afghanistan promising peace and help killed so many innocent civilians without even a token of respect. An elderly man from the community told me, “People believe ISAF just pours salt in the wound, because of how they acted. People are angry because no representative from ISAF came to see what happened, to apologize that it was a mistake.” One teenage boy who lost his 16-year-old sister in the strike said, “I feel bad and angry when I see international soldiers. I thought that they were coming to help and bring peace but they aren’t paying attention to civilians.”

The irony is that the tools necessary to do right by these families were already there. Most international military forces in Afghanistan – the US included – have non-legally binding slush funds for providing civilians with recognition and help when they are harmed. The United Kingdom gave an estimated £700,000 between April 2006 and October 2008; the U.S. obligated more than $876,137 for troops in the eastern region of Afghanistan between January 2006 and November 2008; Canadian troops paid approximately $243,000 from 2005 to 2008. The Afghan government fund paid in excess of $5 million to victims or their families in 2007.

Sadly, in Afghanistan, good intentions (or at least sound allocations of funding) have been weighed down by liability concerns, bureaucracy, lack of coordination, and lack of initiative. I interviewed 143 civilians for our latest CIVIC report, and only a handful had received any of these compensation or ex gratia payments. Most international troops expect Afghans to come to them when an incident happens. But while troops say they have an “open door” to Afghan civilians, Afghans find that door is barricaded by barbed wire and heavily armed, hostile men. Most troops have funds to give, but there is no common policy among the international forces and no mechanisms for forwarding claims among the 41 different partners of the NATO mission there. So unless an affected family can identify which troops were involved and bring the claim to those troops directly, they have no chance of getting any answers, any help.

The bottom line is that it’s not enough to just fund a compensation mechanism: we need to own it. It’s true, no amount of compensation will bring back a loved one. By the same token, no amount of military or development spending will persuade the Afghan people to support military “outsiders” who treat the deaths of their families, friends and neighbors without recognition or compensation.