• 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.

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    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

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LIBYA: The remnants of war

By Liz Lucas

“Happy shooting” seems to be the new normal here.  It’s been over a month since Tripoli fell and from my hotel I can still hear the bullets that soldiers shoot into the air each night.  In other towns throughout the country it is the same.

The celebratory shooting is new to Libya.  “There really isn’t much of a history of this here in Libya,” said a woman in the town of Zintan.  “But now there are so many weapons, so much excitement, and many soldiers are bored.  It is a problem.”

It’s more than an annoyance.  Media reports indicate that others have been harmed by stray bullets from the victory shootings, some in their own backyard. Civilians have told us they are worried about the situation.  “Bullets that go up also come down,” one resident told me, a sentiment that has been repeated by many.

There are so many guns in Libya, many in the hands of people who had never handled a weapon before this year.  Office workers, students, construction workers are carrying AKs in the street.  Medical workers in different areas of the country have told our team about accidents—in one place there were nine injuries reported this week from accidental shootings.  A girl playing with a gun shot her father, a boy of twelve shot his thumb off, a man shot himself in the foot.  Stories like this are becoming too common.

But it looks like the military councils are beginning to listen.  In Tripoli, I heard they’ve started to charge a fee of 300 Libyan dinars to soldiers caught “happy shooting.”  Residents are also taking it into their own hands with groups lobbying for a safer city. In other areas, guns are turned into police stations and registration has begun.  These are huge steps, especially in a country that is still in the midst of war.

But even tonight, despite the outrage and laws, I am still being rocked to sleep by the sounds of bullets shooting the sky.

Read more about our work in Libya here: TELL ME MORE

Donate to support our work in Libya here: DONATE NOW

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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.

HUFFINGTON POST: Driving Afghanistan: The Winding Road to an Afghan Takeover

By Sarah Holewinski

I wouldn’t drive a car without working brakes. And I need a wheel to steer, and a speedometer to tell me when I’m not following the speed limit.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will assume responsibility for the security and stability of their own country by 2014. But as a big moving vehicle ramping up to a high speed, it’s missing some of the major controls it needs to protect its own population and not cause even more harm. 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.

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.

Kabul Notebook: Searching for More than Just Talk On Civilian Casualties (from Huffington Post)

KABUL, Afghanistan – I arrived back in Kabul this week. With the snow already melting, many fear that spring – and with it a spring offensive by the Taliban – is already on its way. If past years are any guide, those bearing the lasting costs of an escalation in the conflict will be the civilian population. The CIVIC report we released last week goes in depth on what happens to families caught in the conflict, and what warring parties can do to help them recover. Now the trick is getting someone to pay attention.

Increased fighting last year led to a 40% increase in civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. The Afghan population is tired of watching their friends, family members, and communities torn apart by conflict, and often without any response from an international community that came into Afghanistan with promises of help and peace. I interviewed a man a few months ago who lost several family members and his home to airstrikes in the southern province of Kandahar: “We are not happy with the coalition forces or the AGEs. We are stuck in the middle of them and we cannot escape,” he told me. There’s a great photo New York Times slideshow, the Wounded of Afghanistan, by photojournalist Lynsey Addario that captures more than any words can what Afghan civilians have already suffered in the conflict.

NATO countries have the money for compensation and victim assistance programs, and at least among most countries and the Afghan government, there seems to be the will to do something. After all, the amounts needed for victim support pale in comparison to other military expenditures, and providing some help and recognition can have quite a big “hearts and minds” impact. At the least they can forestall some of the community resentment and anger that happens when civilian losses go unrecognized and ignored.

Sadly, money and good intentions seem to go only so far in Afghanistan. On the one hand people tell me civilian casualties and compensation – now a regular part of President Hamid Karzai’s re-election stump speech – have become too politicized. But then a UN official told me compensation and assistance mechanisms are not a high enough priority vis-a-vis other urgent human rights issues to get any kind of sustained attention and resources. And in between these two perspectives, thousands of affected families continue to struggle on their own for recognition and help.

To read original post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-gaston/kabul-notebook-searching_b_170966.html

Losing the People: The Cost and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan (From the Huffington Post) –

KABUL, Afghanistan – For the last year, I have been living in Afghanistan interviewing civilians harmed in the conflict for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). We spoke with 143 survivors of airstrikes, suicide bombings, IEDs, convoy shootings, and other incidents of war. What they told me, as well as what more than 80 military, governmental and humanitarian actors I spoke with said, became the basis for a new report we released last week:

Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recently released figures estimating an almost 40% increase in the number of civilian deaths in 2008. CIVIC’s report builds on statistics like this by being the first report to look closely at civilian harm, efforts to provide help from the warring parties, how civilians feel and how these critical efforts can be improved.

While a troop surge for Afghanistan is being strategized, recent poll numbers indicate that the Afghan public’s support for the United States, and for more international troops in Afghanistan, is at an all time low. Having spoken to those families who directly bear the costs of the ongoing conflict, it’s no wonder why. Families repeatedly told me their grief at losing a loved one, at suffering a disability, at losing their homes, or being uprooted from their communities by conflict – and their anger that they saw no recognition or concern from those international troops whom they blamed for these losses. I spoke with one man who watched 47 of his neighbors and extended family killed in a US airstrike in July 2008. He was angered at the lack of basic respect demonstrated by the US military, who denied the loss of life. “In our culture if something happens to someone – they are killed, their property is destroyed – you come and apologize.”

From Kandahar to Herat, from refugee camp tents to bullet-pocked living rooms, affected families told me over and over how the incident shattered their lives, their communities, and not just in the immediate aftermath but for years to come. They needed help to get back on their feet, they wanted an apology, and they wanted it from those they held responsible – the international community.

Sadly, those that actually received compensation or other help were the minority. Far more often, civilians said they were only given promises of assistance, or that the assistance they received was too little, too late.

Providing compensation and basic respect and recognition to families who have lost a loved one, been injured, or lost a home, is only one piece of the challenge in Afghanistan of course. But in the eyes of the Afghan public it is at the core of their concerns. Billions are spent to win and rebuild Afghanistan particularly by the United States. But it only takes seeing one family ignored to turn the population against the United States and international forces. A 15-year old boy who lost his sister in the same July 2008 airstrike told me: “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.”

To get it right in Afghanistan, we need to do a better job of listening to what Afghans say they need and want. Let’s start with being more responsive to one of their simplest requests: limit civilian harm, show basic respect and dignity where harm does occur, and help out those families who will pay the real, human costs of the newly proposed troop surge.