• 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

Honoring Marla Ruzicka: One individual who changed war for many

Seven years ago, the world lost a passionate advocate for civilians caught in the crossfire. Today, CIVIC will have a moment of silence in remembrance of our founder Marla Ruzicka and her Iraqi colleague Faiz Ali Salim.  We’ll pause our work at 2 PM EST, and we invite you to do the same.

Marla’s life is an example of the impact one committed individual can have. We honor her legacy every day by working to make warring parties more responsible to civilians in war. We train troops to prevent civilian harm. We work with warring parties to create civilian tracking and response systems, so they learn from mistakes and know who to help. And when military intervention is considered, as it may be in Syria, we remind them of the potential civilian cost.

Please take a moment today to remember her work and commitment to civilians in conflict

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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

In Libya, a legacy up for debate

By Sarah Holewinski

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Gaddafi is gone and NATO’s command center in Naples is closed, but on the legacy of the intervention in Libya, the debate has just begun. Allegations of civilians harmed are haunting NATO as nations opposed to the intervention—namely Russia, China and South Africa—point fingers about civilian casualties and sling phrases like “human right abuses” and “impunity” across the United Nations chamber like more precision guided munitions. The US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice took to Twitter, calling Russia’s actions “a cheap stunt.” Her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, publicly wondered if Rice’s Stanford education shouldn’t make her more eloquent.

In this dispute, the Libyan civilians who died—and the ones who lived—are an afterthought to their political utility. And for Russia, China and South Africa they serve as needed ammunition against a bigger target: the very decision to go into Libya.

Various human rights groups—including Human Rights Watch and my own—have presented evidence of civilian harm to NATO and called on the Alliance to conduct an investigation. The logic goes that NATO has an obligation to carry through on its UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians, beyond the official end of combat operations, by addressing unintended civilian losses. The best way to do that is by conducting investigations. Unfortunately, NATO has reacted defensively—at one point hyperbolically claiming that there were no “confirmed” civilian casualties whatsoever.  This may be true only because NATO refuses to investigate, and thus, confirm them.

In a military operation of this magnitude, civilian harm was a likelihood the UN must have grappled with when authorizing the mandate. It’s also a reality NATO is familiar with. NATO forces in Afghanistan conduct reviews and investigations of civilian casualties increasingly frequently, thanks to pressure to learn from mistakes. Surely those lessons learned could have been shared between theaters; the reason they weren’t remains a mystery.

Regardless, calls for NATO to investigate civilian harm don’t mean the same thing as accusing NATO of overstepping its mandate or violating international law, as Russia, China and South Africa are claiming. Evidence suggests a relatively small number of casualties when compared to similar air operations in the past, and thus far there is no documented evidence of legal violations committed by NATO.

Any nation has the right to ask the UN to review a mandated operation, but to do so here seems redundant since the UN Human Rights Committee already established a Commission of Inquiry to impartially analyze the conduct of all sides, not just NATO. Making one-sided allegations before that investigation is complete is wrong and risks crippling what should be a real process of accountability for any civilian harm caused by any party.

Civilians don’t deserve to be used as political cover to push a non-interventionist agenda. During and after the NATO intervention, we talked to Libyan survivors across the country—some who were able to escape to safer areas, some who lost family members to Gaddafi and others who were harmed by rebel and NATO operations. The overwhelming majority praised the Alliance for ridding their country of Gaddafi, regardless of the losses they suffered.  But they also wanted recognition for what they’d been through. That’s what they deserve.

In denying any civilian harm and refusing to investigate credible evidence to the contrary, NATO risks tarnishing a historic mandate, one that saved a lot of lives. And they’ve given their political enemies exactly the fodder they were looking for.

For its part, NATO still has a chance to set all this right. The Alliance can start by examining the evidence of civilian harm. It should immediately send an expert team to Libya to match targeting protocols with outcomes, assess damaged property and remaining munitions, interview civilian survivors and, when appropriate, make amends to Libyans with provable losses.  A lessons-learned review must include data from Libyan soil— whether the death toll was one or one hundred. Looking to the future, which is in NATO’s best interest to do, an office for civilian harm mitigation should be created in Brussels, to ensure military and civilian leaders pay attention to and plan for civilian casualties before the first plane ever leaves the base.

Civilian harm should never be ignored, but neither should it be politicized in a way that diverts attention from real recognition for civilian survivors. They deserve fewer accusations, less lip service to accountability, and more humble, honest efforts to piece together the ways a military intervention has, good or bad, affected the people it was meant to help.

A Tale of Two Narratives in Afghanistan

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.

“Transition” is the word on the tip of everyone’s lips in Afghanistan these days—a catchphrase I’ve heard employed more than any other since arriving in Kabul about two weeks ago.  Why “Transition?” Because in less than three years time, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are expected to assume responsibility for securing the country and protecting the population.  To prepare for the security transition, US and international military forces have concentrated their efforts on securing southern Afghanistan—the so-called “heartland” of the insurgency—whilst intensifying efforts to train and equip the ANSF.

The message from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—the U.S. led security force in Afghanistan—is that security is improving as a result of these efforts.  Last spring, a Pentagon report concluded that President Obama’s strategy had produced “tangible progress” in Afghanistan. More recently, David Rodriguez, former Commander of ISAF Joint Command, wrote “there are indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.” Talk of progress and security gains has been pervasive in my early Kabul meetings.

But that message stands in stark contrast to what I’m hearing from international and humanitarian organizations.  In its mid-year report released in July 2011, the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan reported that “civilians experienced a downward spiral of protection” during the first half of 2011 with civilian casualties higher than at any other time since 2001. Indeed, nearly 1,500 civilians were killed during the first half of 2011, an increase of 15% from the same period during 2010.  More recently, the U.N. confirmed significant civilian casualties last month largely due to the twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Mazar al Sharif.

ISAF’s rosy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is also at odds with the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which noted that “security gains” have been undercut by “corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan.” The NIE also suggests that the Afghan government “may not be able to survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.”

To be clear, the Taliban and other armed groups are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan  – roughly 80%, according to the U.N.  Despite pledges to avoid killing civilians, armed groups have continued to resort to indiscriminate tactics, including improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks, which combined are responsible for nearly 50% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. For the past two years, armed groups have also increasingly resorted to assassinations, targeting public officials and others who cooperate with ISAF and the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, as civilian casualties caused by armed groups have spiked over the past few years, the number of civilians killed or injured by international military forces has gradually declined, largely due to the policies ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm.  That being said, Afghans want and expect ISAF and the ANSF to improve efforts to protect them from all acts of violence, regardless of which warring party is ultimately responsible.

Afghans I have met since arriving are very worried about the future.  One former government official I spoke with voiced his concern that Afghanistan could slide back into civil war after the bulk of international military forces depart at the end of 2014.  Like many others in the country, he isn’t confident that the ANSF will be able to provide security on their own, and he’s concerned about the proliferation of weapons and armed groups.

Why such disparate narratives and assessments of the security situation?  One reason could be that ISAF is using different metrics than international and nongovernmental organizations. Counterinsurgent forces tend to examine territory held and the quantity of indigenous security forces trained and equipped to measure progress.  And as noted, ISAF has taken very concrete steps to mitigate civilian harm, resulting in fewer civilians killed or injured by international military forces.  Meanwhile, the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations are analyzing overall levels of violence and civilian casualties – which have increased over the past several years.

Another reason may be that ISAF is setting a tone for its departure.  With the U.S. elections less than a year away, the Obama Administration would like to reassure a war weary public that it has turned the Afghan war around.  While not ill – intentioned, the U.S. and its allies may simply be focused on highlighting what they have achieved, including reduced levels of civilian casualties caused by international military forces as well as reinvigorated efforts to improve the “quality” of Afghan security forces.  But the problem still remains – while ISAF has improved its own civilian casualty statistics, the number of civilians harmed or killed in Afghanistan is increasing. Indeed, if “security gains” are to be measured by fewer civilian casualties, then security is deteriorating in Afghanistan.

As international military forces prepare for withdrawal, they should be clear-eyed about the toll the war is taking on civilians and what needs to be done to better protect ordinary Afghans.  Over the next six months, I will be taking this message to ISAF on behalf of CIVIC.   More specifically, I will be assessing the efficacy of the mechanisms ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm as well as urging the Afghan government to take concrete steps to better protect civilians. I hope we’ll soon be able to agree that security is improving in Afghanistan.

-Trevor

Responding to harm in Somalia

Southern Somalia is a hell for civilians living there, and that was true even before the famine that hit the country this summer.

Mogadishu, 2011

Mogadishu, 2011. Photo by Sarah Holewinski

When I was in Mogadishu a few months ago, I saw bombed out buildings in every direction, families huddled in ill-equipped hospitals, and — in one case — a group of kids startled by an Al-Shabaab mortar blast not 100 feet from where they were standing. This is the reality of war, but it doesn’t have to be.

CIVIC and its partners have worked with the African Union toward better civilian protection. And today, we released a report on civilian harm in Somalia that details pragmatic solutions for responding to civilian losses.

The author of the report, Nikolaus Grubeck, spent time in Mogadishu, its outskirts, and the displaced persons camps near the Kenyan border interviewing civilians impacted by the conflict. We hope these insights from Somali civilians and our analysis of what can be done for them will help convince the parties to the conflict to be better and do more for the people caught between them.

-Sarah

When it hits home

By Marla Keenan, Managing Director, CIVIC

Nearly six years ago I began my career here at CIVIC as an advocate for war victims and their loved ones.  Six months ago today in Misrata, Libya while documenting the plight of Libyans in the war, my dear friend Chris Hondros became a war victim himself.

Chris spent his life photographing the human cost of conflict.  He’d been to every major conflict in the past decade and a half (Kosovo, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq and several others).  And now, he’s gone, just like so many he had photographed before.  What a strange and cruel irony.

For years I’d seen the stories of those harmed in war in Chris’ photos, read their stories in numerous books and reports, and even sat in living rooms and listened to them recounted first hand.  I had watched as mothers told about losing their children or wives of their husbands, as tears rolled down their cheeks and tissues whisked across their faces.  I had cried sometimes myself for these people, to see and actually feel how real and raw their emotions were. But I was completely ill prepared for what it was like when it hit home.

I equate it to a personal earthquake.  Not the tremor kind, but the building crushing kind. The rollercoaster of emotion was intense.  There was anger, first at whomever killed him … and then eventually at him for putting himself into such a risky situation. There was profound sadness, for my own loss and for the loss being endured by his family and friends. At his memorial service there was laughter and tears, but mostly a paralyzing numbness.  I felt like my ability to understand even the most simple of things had been taken away.  Nothing made sense, not even my work which had always been very important to me and a place where I felt safe and focused.

As these emotions stabilized a bit, their space has been filled by an even stronger conviction and passion for CIVIC’s work.  I understand intensely – and now personally – the need for every loss of human life in conflict to be recognized.  I understand that everyone deserves to know what happened to their loved one and more clearly why it happened.  I want someone to tell me, and to tell Chris’s fiancée and his mother and his best friends why this happened and that they are sorry and that it wasn’t their intention (assuming in fact it wasn’t). We’ll likely never get that.  But it’s why we do the work we do at CIVIC, because everyone who has lost in war deserves dignity.

For more information about Chris visit: http://www.chrishondrosfund.org/home.html

AFGHANISTAN: Civilians caught in the middle

By Kristele Younes

When civilians die in war, the public is understandably outraged. In Afghanistan, in the past few months, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has come under heavy criticism from President Karzai for a series of incidents that have cost innocent lives. Fueled by the President’s statements, public anger is mounting, which ISAF will be the first to admit is not helpful to the international mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Taliban continue to indiscriminately kill scores of civilians, violating international laws and basic humanity.

War is perhaps never more tragic than when it takes the lives of the most innocent. All incidents of civilian casualties should appeal to our global consciousness. Indeed, even if some harm might be unavoidable because of the very nature of modern warfare, a lot can be done to prevent these tragedies and mitigate the pain caused to victims, their families, and their communities.

ISAF has publicly declared its commitment to minimizing civilian harm in Afghanistan in many statements issued by the highest levels of its chain of command. Indeed, protecting civilians in Afghanistan is not only a moral imperative, but a strategic one for coalition forces. But is enough being done?

In the past year, ISAF has strengthened its system to track each incidence of civilian casualties countrywide, and every incident is investigated either by the field unit or by a special team. This is a welcome step on several levels. First, it shows that ISAF recognizes the importance of keeping track of civilian harm. Second, it could enable the troops to understand what went wrong and prevent future harm. Third, it can help international forces make amends to those hurt by recognizing what civilian losses exist and where they are. But for this system to be truly effective, more needs to be done. Indeed, ISAF needs to be better at reaching out to different actors to gather increased situational awareness and, most importantly, troop-contributing nations must all adopt a uniformed way to compensate those they harm.

For all the system’s flaws, credit must be given to ISAF for its efforts, and statistics show that in the past year, the number of casualties caused by international troops has consistently gone down.  In the period of much talked about transition, though, it is essential that the international community and especially the Afghan government start paying much closer attention to the harm caused (or which could potentially be caused) by Afghan forces. The Afghan army lacks the basic mechanisms to record and investigate civilian harm, let alone compensate for it. ISAF must make it a top priority to help Afghans create trainings and programs parallel to its own. President Karzai must also move away from the war of rhetoric by acknowledging that Afghans have a responsibility in protecting their own civilians, and by ensuring that his armed forces make minimizing harm a top priority.

As for the anti-government forces, which according to the UN were responsible in May 2011 for over 80% of all civilian casualties, they have to wonder if their disregard for civilian harm is the best strategy in seeking national reconciliation and power-sharing. Certainly, Afghans deserve their suffering—and safety—to be a priority for whoever will end up governing them.