• 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

COLOMBIA: Victims: Forgotten in the Colombian Conflict

Posted by: Angelica Zamora

“One dies when he’s forgotten.” This is a verse written by Colombian poet Manuel Mejía Vallejo, and today it seems to be a reality regarding the tragedy of victims in Colombia. This week, the Annual Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that armed conflict in this country – which has already stretched beyond four decades – continues to cause suffering to civilians, and that such victims are at risk of being forgotten.

According to the report, the conflict has moved to remote areas of the country. This does not mean, however, that the number of victims has decreased. Today there are 3.3 million displaced persons in Colombia, making it the state with the highest number of IDPs in the Western hemisphere and the second highest number of displaced persons in the world, after Sudan.

The ICRC report states that the displaced persons are almost “invisible” in rural areas. Inhabitants of the countryside, unable to move freely, remain unseen as well. Relatives of those who have been forced disappeared, victims of sexual violence, and those who remain hostages in the jungles have not received adequate attention. Also, ethnic and Afro-Colombian communities suffer in silence due to the actions of armed actors.

Christophe Beney, Head of Delegation in Colombia of the ICRC, said during the report’s presentation that the “most concerning” cases are extrajudicial executions of civilians committed by the army, so-called “false positives”; these victims are usually young peasants or members of marginalized urban communities who are reported as “enemy combatants killed in battle,” with the objective of demonstrating success of military actions and achieving personal benefits such as days off or promotions.

Recognition of victims remains a critical challenge in the Colombian conflict. The Colombian government frequently denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, minimizing the magnitude of forced internal and cross-border displacement. The government, consistent with this attitude, rejected the conclusions of the ICRC report.

Denying the existence of armed conflict, and the status of victims of such actions, has condemned victims to oblivion. This denial only confirms victims’ beliefs that they do not exist and victimizes, yet again, a highly vulnerable population. The provision of measures to compensate victims and recognize their suffering is a legal and ethical duty of the state. The acknowledgment of victims should be accompanied by public policies that address the complexity of the demands of different categories of victims and provide appropriate measures for their damages.

PAKISTAN: Victims Continue to Struggle in Jalozai

“How much could a wheelchair cost?”  Rubina exclaimed.  “Seven hundred rupees?”  She took 500 rupees, about $7, from her wallet and turned back to Mahia’s tent to give it to her family.

Jalozai Refugee Camp

In 2008, while in her home in Bajaur Agency, shrapnel from tank or artillery shelling struck Mahia in the head, paralyzing her and leaving her unable to speak.  She now lives with her mother, two of more than 100,000 other displaced persons in the Jalozai refugee camp outside Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan.

I was lucky to have Rubina help me conduct interviews in the camp. A housewife from the nearby city of Nowshera, she spoke both Pashtu and English—and as a woman, she could conduct interviews that I could not.

Rubina was shocked by Mahia’s situation.  Without a wheelchair, Mahia’s family has to carry her to the public latrines down the road from their tent.  Outraged that the lack of a simple, inexpensive item could make such a difference in their lives, Rubina felt compelled to offer the family money in the hope that they could purchase a wheelchair.

There are no official figures for civilian casualties in Pakistan.  But in only one day, in one small section of a refugee camp, we came across 24 cases of civilians who had been injured or had lost family members as a result of the fierce fighting between the military and militants.  For many, their injuries or losses have made their lives in the camp even more difficult.

Sabir, a 14 year-old boy, worries about supporting his family without his father.  Last March, fighter jets shot his father when he defied a curfew to search for a way for his family to escape the violence. Sabir’s father made it back to their home, but lost his leg and died within several days from his wounds.  With his father gone and four siblings to look after, Sabir has a lot on his mind for a 14 year-old.  He says he is the only person who can support the family now.

A family tent at Jalozai

Iqbal, 30 years-old with four children, was taking cover from the fighting when his house was struck by a tank shell.  The walls collapsed around him, and he awoke to see one of his legs severed just below his knee.  He now wears a prosthetic thanks to the Red Cross, but finding work with his disability is very difficult, as is traversing the long dirt pathways of the camp.

Indications are that civilian casualties in Pakistan are significant.  In 2009, over 2,400 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks alone.  Counting losses from Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes, civilian casualties in Pakistan likely far exceed those in Afghanistan.  Yet there is no systematic accounting of civilian casualties or assistance for those that are harmed.  Innocent victims like Mahia, Sabir, and Iqbal deserve and expect more.

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.

PAKISTAN: Arrival and Recent Developments

Posted by Chris

Finally arrived in Pakistan last week and began work.  Let me begin by giving you a quick snapshot of the situation here.

After a relatively calm couple of months, the past two weeks have seen a marked increase in violence.  Nearly 200 people were killed in a spate of militant attacks, including many civilians.  This recent wave of attacks began with the bombing of the World Food Program office in Islamabad on 5 Oct.

A few days ago, the Pakistani military began its long-awaited offensive into the militant stronghold of South Waziristan.  Folks around me in Islamabad were right to be worried about retaliatory attacks, given today’s suicide bombings at the University.  The mood is tense.  Security checkpoints have grown and are more thorough, roads have been blocked, and many schools have been closed.

The Pakistanis I speak with all express dismay and anger with the situation.  For them, this level of violence is new.  Terrorist attacks in the cities, like Islamabad and Lahore, were unheard of before last year.

There is very little information about what is going on in Waziristan.  The offensive is all over the newspapers and television, but because of its remote location, the insecurity and restrictions on access imposed by the military, information is very hard to come by.  What is known is that there is intense fighting and tens of thousands of civilians have already fled, while many more remain within the conflict zone.  Some are predicting the operation to last two months.

Civilians will undoubtedly suffer.  We know that from thousands of years of war around the world. Hopefully with improved access and information, we can do more to bring attention to the plight of displaced civilians and those within the conflict zone.  And if history is any lesson, providing civilians with the assistance they need to rebuild their lives will be critical to the Pakistani government’s long-term success in Waziristan.

PAKISTAN: CIVIC Fellow Headed to Pakistan

Posted by Chris, CIVIC Fellow

Hi everyone!  I’m excited to be joining CIVIC and begin working in Pakistan.  After some last minute visa drama, I will be leaving soon for Islamabad.  I’ll be writing here about our work in Pakistan throughout the coming months, but let me begin by introducing myself and explain my interest in CIVIC’s work.  LINK TO CHRIS’ BIO

Though I am new to Pakistan, I have worked extensively on human rights and the laws of war in many different parts of the world.  I worked with the United Nations in Jordan to assist Iraqi refugees, with Human Rights Watch on the negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and, in Gaza, with a Palestinian human rights NGO.

In Gaza, I witnessed the impact of armed conflict on civilians first-hand.  Israeli strikes were an almost daily occurrence and though civilians may not have been targeted, large, modern bombs and ordinance exacted a heavy toll in the dense city blocks and refugee camps.  During the Hamas takeover of the territory, the entire city became a battlefield.   Every civilian was trapped in their home and many were caught in the cross fire as gunmen fought building to building.

Throughout my work, I’ve seen how the greatest burden of conflict is often borne by innocent civilians.  Death, injury, destruction of homes and property, and the loss of livelihood and loved ones are so common in war zones and yet the suffering is difficult to communicate or convey to others a world away.  As a lawyer, I have deep respect for the potential of international law to protect civilians in conflict, however I also recognize that current law says little about those deemed ‘collateral damage’ and even less about how to help those that have been harmed.

This is why I’m so passionate about CIVIC’s work and excited about the opportunities to get help to war survivors in Pakistan.  Conflict there has increased markedly the past couple years, especially in the northwest of the country.  Caught in the middle, many civilians have been harmed or their property destroyed, while millions have fled to escape the fighting.

It will be challenging, but there is a lot of progress to be made.  I’m looking forward to getting started.  In my next posting I’ll explain a bit more about the current situation in Pakistan and what we hope to accomplish.  Until then…

AFGHANISTAN: Senators listen to victims stories

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

This past week in Afghanistan, three US Senators — Patrick Leahy (VT),  Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Mark Warner (VA) – used one afternoon of a packed Congressional assessment visit to sit down with a Afghan family affected by the conflict.  They heard about the family’s experiences and help received through the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program (ACAP), a USAID-sponsored program that provides livelihood support, home reconstruction, job training, or other in-kind assistance to unintended victims of international forces. The Senators invited me along, as the former CIVIC fellow, to discuss broader victim assistance and compensation efforts in Afghanistan. We visited the survivors of a family who were targeted in a nighttime raid by Afghan and international forces in September 2008. During the raid, a grenade had been lobbed into one of the rooms of the home, killing all but the elderly grandfather and one 6-year-old son.

As many of you know from past CIVIC blogs, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with many of the ACAP beneficiaries in my year as a CIVIC fellow in Afghanistan. Each experience is unique and memorable in its own way, but I have to say that there was something special about this Congressional visit. The ACAP program was originally championed by Senator Leahy and his staff. Without his continual support, it might not still be in existence. Watching Senator Leahy himself greeting the family, I remembered the many families who told me to pass their gratitude and their thanks to the people who created and supported the ACAP program. And here was the man himself talking to one of the beneficiaries. I remembered the many war victims who asked me to share what had happened to them with those who had the power to make changes. Even if for only an hour, here were three Senators who listened and took their stories and their message to heart.

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.