On this World Humanitarian Day we address the need to protect civilians in an increasingly complex armed conflict.
According to the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) the number of civilians killed due to conflict has continued to surpass 10,000 people annually over the past four years and tragically there is a record number killed over the first half of 2018.
There are three things that are striking in the particular context of Afghanistan: the increasing intensity of the instruments of war in areas of active conflict, with subsequent devastating impact on civilians most notably children; the direct targeting of civilians by some non-state armed groups, and the inaccessibility to those in need.
In Lashkargah, Helmand, I talked to children hospitalized at the Emergency Hospital for war wounded. They told the horrific story of what was supposed to be a happy home-coming after displacement. Running excited into their homes turned into a life-changing tragedy. The entrance to their house was booby-trapped and they explained how they went “flying through the air”; the explosion caused major bodily harm. Although there is a world-wide ban on landmines, new devices put together in fighters’ homes cause more devastation than ever before. The impact of the blast is larger than with traditional land mines and survivors are often left with half their bodies impacted, either down to the waist or along the side of the body. Overall most of the victims of remnants of war are children.
In Kunduz civilians are traumatized by airstrikes, psycho-social workers at the hospital telling me they have seen children who are “frozen”; unable to move in fear. Many displaced say that they did not have any warning of impending airstrikes; this increases, significantly and unacceptably, civilian exposure. Fathers in Asadabad, Kunar, tell the same horrific stories after cross border shelling hit their village. According to them, even moving the children to the provincial capital did not improve the mental health of some of their children who remain highly anxious.
Direct targeting of civilians is striking in the anti-education campaign implemented by one of the non-state armed groups in Nangarhar Province. Developments there are rightfully referred to as “education under attack” with dozens of schools attacked since the start of June 2018 with no end in sight. Attacking schools or education institutions not only undermines the human right of access to education but undermines the very social fabric of villages under siege.
Of course the scenarios mentioned are not reflected in the numbers reported by UNAMA on casualties of the conflict. We should take these figures as a warning that the impact of the conflict on civilians is far-reaching and a better way of addressing pressing needs is warranted. Protection of civilians is one of the most arduous humanitarian tasks but it is our key task. Without the protection of civilians the humanitarian community does not fulfill its obligation towards the people we serve. Better protection mapping in areas of concern and engagement with survivors and parties to the conflict should lead to significant improvements in the protection of civilians.
When we refer to UNAMA’s figures without a follow up strategy - I call this the Afghanistan “number crisis”. By repeating them (only) and having a human rights section deal with “the issue” the humanitarian community really falls short of its obligation to strengthen its role in the protection of the most vulnerable. This being said, all engagement must follow informed risk mapping. We all note the sad numbers of aid workers that are killed and injured and the Afghans remain amongst the most committed and brave of aid workers I have seen. Their protection, as civilians and as aid workers is paramount.
Humanitarian aid workers are neutral and independent, working from the premises of impartiality. Their sole aim is to help those in need. Parties to a conflict have the obligation to provide access to people in need of life-saving assistance to humanitarian aid workers and to guarantee their safety in doing so.
Esmée de Jong
Head of Office