The Human Costs of War

Paul Grossrieder

13th July 2002

"One-time Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross."


source: ICRC

Scilla Elworthy


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Though we often focus on the technical aspects of wars, such as how they are fought, who conducts them, and what causes them to break out, it is rare that consideration is given to the core of the problem of war. It is rare that armed conflict is presented in terms of its tragic effects on individuals and communities. Perhaps the reason for this is to be found in the very culture of war, which was long considered a matter for professionals. Indeed, until the Second World War, it was true that war concerned principally, if not only, combatants and other military personnel. Accordingly, war was viewed as a series of heroic acts that had only minor effects on civilians. From Homer's Achilles to the towering generals of the First World War, the great virtues of the victors, as humans and as warriors, were celebrated. The sufferings of the people, including women, the elderly and children, were viewed as slight and unintended. In addition, far fewer people were affected then than today. The wars of religion were of course horrific, and marked by unspeakable massacres, but in those wars too the victors were untroubled by such tragedies, since they fought in the name of divine justice and truth.


From the wars of independence to today's international terrorism, the situation has changed. Civilian populations have frequently become the focus of conflicts: combatants take them hostage, and the civilian victims no longer suffer only as a result of the fighting between armies, but are themselves directly targeted. Since 1945, 84% of the people killed in wars have been civilians, and the average annual number of deaths has been over half a million.


I shall therefore limit my comments to current conflicts, describe and analyse the many kinds of problems they cause in human terms. The concrete inhumanity of the wars will appear. What would anthropologists arriving from another planet and noting the human cost of today's wars have to say? How can any sense be made of the 24 million people displaced within their own countries, or of the 18 million forced to flee to foreign lands? The displacement and emigration are a direct result of the conflicts. They undermine all efforts undertaken to improve people's lives within their own countries.


According to a survey carried out by the ICRC in a dozen countries, [1] more and more wars are being fought against civilians, especially unarmed civilians. In Colombia, Angola, the Balkans, and eastern Congo for example, people have regularly been terrorized by groups of combatants. Displaced people, acting heads of households, and children separated from their parents are among the victims of this terror. More and more people go "missing", while women are bought and sold. Some refugees and displaced people have been able to return home after long periods of conflict, as in Cambodia, Mozambique or El Salvador. But others, such as all Palestinian refugees since 1948, retain this "status" for a very long time — indeed, for far too long. Over a million Afghans are living in Pakistan because of a war that began in 1979.


Women and children, the first victims in today's wars

Security is a major problem for women and children, who are especially likely to be forced to leave their homes and left to their own devices, without anyone to protect them from ill-treatment of all kinds. Conflicts destroy society's very foundations and engender a subculture of violence where conduct without regard for any rule becomes the norm.


Women are subject to sexual violence, which can be a form of torture, a means of obtaining information or a punishment for acts actually or supposedly committed. Sexual violence can also be used to destroy ethnic identity, or even as a means of war: "Rape and sexual violence [have] been used to assert dominance over your enemy. Since women's sexuality is seen as being under the protection of the men of the community, its defilement is an act of domination asserting power over the males of the other community or group that is under attack." [2]



Women who have been raped suffer both physical and social repercussions. If, for cultural reasons or under duress, they have no other choice but to have their child, they may be ill treated in their community or completely ostracized. They may be accused of prostitution, adultery or bringing dishonour upon their families. Children who are born in these circumstances are also often excluded from society.


At the time of the massive displacements from Kosovo to Albania, UNHCR noted that there was trafficking in women for the sex trade. This is one of the problems that can result from population movements in conflict situations. In some cases, civilians have been forced to leave their homes and property by parties threatening them with attack as part of an ethnic- cleansing campaign, or using them as human shields.


The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 80% of displaced people are women and children, which suggests that they are the most vulnerable people and the first to be threatened by combatants. Sometimes, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, men are prevented from fleeing for ethnic policy reasons. In camps, it is difficult for women to carry out their traditional roles of preparing meals and caring for the sick. On a regular basis, their lives are severely disrupted. Women's showers, for example, may be located too near those of the men, which deprives them of privacy as they wash. In camps in Tanzania, UNHCR attempted to offer single women better protection by providing them with orange tents; in reality, this put them in greater danger, as the tents made them easier to locate.


Civilians' freedom of movement is also impeded in times of conflict owing to mines, military roadblocks and snipers, the immediate result of which is that it becomes difficult to obtain food, water and traditional herbs. Once again, women are especially exposed to danger as they are expected to perform tasks traditionally falling to men, such as cultivating fields, conducting business, and feeding livestock.


Access to food and water is sometimes restricted for military reasons. Heads of households (women or older children) should, however, be able to move about to perform basic tasks for the sake of the family's survival. Sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council "to maintain or restore international peace and security" (Charter of the United Nations, Art. 39) are also among the obstacles to these tasks being accomplished. Since the end of the Second World War, the UN has imposed more and more economic sanctions (such as those against South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Rwanda and Sudan). The risk of famine resulting from the sanctions should be taken into consideration by the Security Council before any application of Article 41 of the Charter.


When people are displaced, they find themselves without the kitchen utensils and stoves needed to prepare food. They may also lack water, for example because their camp is located outside the area supplied or because the water available is barely adequate to cover the needs of the resident population. A lack of water affects the displaced people's hygiene and consequently their health, as they may suffer from such ailments as diarrhoea, typhus, cholera, hepatitis A, etc


Conflicts also result in women and children taking charge of agricultural production. In view of the traditional division of labour between men and women, this represents a considerable change of role for women. Even positive social changes such as this one are sometimes accompanied by tensions, however. After the genocide in Rwanda, for example, great concern arose about the absence of property rights for widows, who were thus at risk of being evicted from their farms or prevented from returning to them. During 15 years of war in Sri Lanka, according to the Marga Institute, wheat production decreased by 27%, onion and potato production by 64% and the quantity of fish caught by 63%.


Displaced civilians are generally forced to abandon their livestock and other goods. When this happens, they must seek another livelihood. In the Congo, in 1994, it was the women who started small commercial activities, such as sales of bread and fish. The aim of course was to regain a measure of economic independence.


Life in camps for displaced persons involves health problems, in particular communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS among women who have had to engage in sexual relations in exchange for food. Displacements within infected areas contribute to renewed outbreaks of malaria. Civilians can be injured in connection with fighting and yet not admitted to hospitals, which are primarily reserved for combatants. Mine injuries and amputations cause severe psychological trauma.


In human terms, the worst consequences of war are connected with the break-up of the family and the collapse of the educational system. Family members are often separated and without news of each other. At the end of a conflict, some will be declared "missing". Although it is families that are directly affected, whole societies are deeply shattered and relations among groups that were enemies during the conflict are further damaged. "Suppressing grief can lead to an inability to deal with other traumas of armed conflict, to lack of healing and to prolongation of the conflict and of hostilities and divisions within communities; it can even lead to an unwillingness for reconciliation between different sides." [3]


The lack of teaching in schools during wars has disastrous consequences on society as a whole, and especially on young people. In Angola, for example, the school system in the countryside has been practically non-existent for some 30 years. The only training of any kind that has persisted concerns the male population only and consists merely of combat training. Girls are left to their own devices and are illiterate.


The sufferings of host communities

Despite their suffering, those driven from their homes are outnumbered by other victims of war. The communities that play host to them, whether within or outside their own country, are often extremely poor — which does not prevent them from being very hospitable. At the end of 1996, thousands of people from Kivu offered what little they had to those who were fleeing from eastern Zaire. Throughout the 1990s war in Liberia, those who fled the fighting were supported by poor rural communities just as much as by international aid.


In 1994, almost all jobs for unqualified workers in the town of Goma were taken by refugees who had just arrived there. With help from aid organizations, they were able to accept salaries that were only one half or even one third of the — already low — salaries of resident workers.


Communities that play host to displaced people and refugees may well be the group that is most forgotten.


Children who kill

Children are not always innocent victims. In Rwanda, more than 40 children have been accused of genocide. According to the Machel Report, 200,000 children across the world were involved, often voluntarily, in no fewer than 24 conflicts in the 1990s.


In Sierra Leone in 1995, the Revolutionary United Front went from one village to another recruiting children and forced them to be present at, or even to take part in, the execution of their families. They were then drugged and taken to neighbouring villages to continue killing. [4]


Psycho-social suffering

The psycho-social suffering caused by war has only recently been widely recognized. In Mozambique, 44% of women have witnessed a murder, 25% have been separated from their children and 30% have been tortured. [5] Men, women and children who have experienced war suffer among other things from the deep personal wounds resulting from the loss of family members or friends, and of personal objects and sources of income, the impact of which generally cannot be measured in strict economic terms. For such people, life can lose all meaning, and beliefs and ideals can be called into question. They have witnessed or have had to take part in atrocities, or have themselves been subjected to torture or rape. The survivors may feel guilty that they have survived or suffer from not having done more to prevent acts of violence against others. All this can cause unbearable trauma. By way of illustration, let us quote the account of a Sarajevo resident: "I am afraid", he said. "I can no longer go through a tunnel or cross a bridge. In the tram, I am sometimes dizzy, and I feel like I want to kill myself or the other passengers. I am constantly haunted by visions of fighting. My mind is unstable and unwell. My life is ruined." [6]


Hostage populations

Thus far, I have considered only the "direct" human cost, so to speak, of war, i.e. the harm caused by today's conflicts to civilian individuals and groups. But an even more tragic situation arises when parties to the conflict, for the sake of economic advantage or military victory, take entire civilian populations hostage for long periods of time. In Angola, for example, the government and the armed opposition both condemned innocent civilians to famine. Now, hordes of barefooted people are coming out of the bush who are totally destitute and famished. "In Angola, both [the government and Unita] waged a ruthless war and carried out a scorched-earth policy that involved taking civilian populations hostage [...]. Dazed and skeleton-like, tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for aid to be brought to them." [7] This is the result in human terms of the so-called "humanitarian blocade" imposed on the population under the control of the rebel movement.


This description illustrates the degree to which armed conflicts leave their mark on societies, by breaking them up, destroying family unity and leaving hopeless, failed communities.


The human consequences of armed movements' business interests

The end of the Cold War brought about a spectacular decrease in outside support for local wars. As a result, the warring parties in internal conflicts launched business ventures so as to obtain the wherewithal to pursue their war efforts. Were it not for their business interests, the Khmer rouge, for example, could not have survived after Chinese support ended. With accomplices in Thailand, they began to traffic in precious stones, wood, and antiques.


All these activities are illegal. Moreover, the control of resource-rich territories — not the relative well-being of the people living there — is the chief tactical aim of these groups. At the same time, the destruction of the enemy's resources can be another primary objective. This change in local conflicts has also led to the formation in developed countries of diasporas actively supporting rebel movements.


One last scenario is the one that causes local people to suffer most. When armed movements have no resources available to them in the territory where they operate, shortages occur. The factions will use any means necessary to ensure their own survival. They will not hesitate to take whatever they need by force, even if doing so jeopardizes the local economy that is sustaining them. This kind of activity is one of the causes of famine in Somalia and in southern Sudan. [8]


What should be done?

In view of the human disaster caused by wars, reason would seem to require that there be a universal movement to compel all humanity to tackle the causes of war, so as to eradicate it once and for all and put an end to the absurdity of its human consequences. Unfortunately, war is not subject to reason, and the force of emotion, beliefs, and ethnic identity is such that war repeatedly disrupts the lives of nations. To attempt to slow the pace and frequency of this chronic recourse to war, and to "humanize" armed conflicts, remains an all-important duty. How should it be performed?


  • The power of images: the images of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia and Rwanda were part of our mental geography in the 1990s. In Bosnia and Somalia (and to a certain extent, and belatedly, in Rwanda), media coverage eventually prompted diplomatic and military action from Western governments in the summer of 1995. Other conflicts that have been just as destructive, such as those in Colombia, Liberia and Sudan, have not benefited from the same degree of coverage. When the human cost of war is prominently reported, public opinion intensifies its rejection of violence and strongly insists that it be stopped, and that "something be done". This puts pressure on governments.


  • A need to protect civilians: as soon as wars break out, policies should be put in place to protect civilians and prevent the warring parties from targeting them. This amounts to taking the Geneva Conventions seriously. The Conventions remain up to date in terms of their content, but suffer from a lack of political will to make sure they are applied. Changing the subject to the alleged obsoleteness of international humanitarian law is pointless. To do so is but a pretext for not applying the rules. The States Parties, if they so desire, are perfectly capable of respecting these rules and ensuring respect for them. Were they to do so, the human cost of war would be sharply reduced.


  • A need for prevention: if States ever seriously compared the costs of war with those of prevention, they would recommend that their foreign ministries negotiate, in the Security Council for example, preventive deployments of peace-keepers. The cost would be far lower than that of intervening after a conflict has broken out. In Macedonia, for example, prevention peacekeeping troops have cost US$ 8 million. Compared with the US$ 134 million cost of NATO's intervention in Bosnia in 1996, the investment in Macedonia was well worth it.


  • The mobilization of multinational companies: Companies doing business in countries at war should develop codes of conduct and comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. These companies cannot be satisfied with merely respecting the environment; they must also respect the civilian population and local communities.


By way of conclusion, I shall read a few lines to you from the correspondence of Peter Paul Rubens on the horrors of war and "fortress Europe" (which is strikingly topical, now as ever). The passage was written in 1638 when the Franco-Spanish war was laying waste to Flanders and Picardy. Like the Master's paintbrush, it reveals horror, suffering and despair in the face of violence, destruction, the crushing of civilization and general ruin.


      "The principal figure is Mars, who has left the open temple of Janus (which in time of peace,

      according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and bloodstained

      sword, threatening the people with great disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress,

      who, accompanied by her Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold      

      him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her      

      hand. Nearby are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable partners

      of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute, representing

      Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There is also a mother with her child

      in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation, and charity are thwarted by War, which      

      corrupts and destroys everything. In addition, one sees an architect thrown on his back with

      his instruments in his hand, to show that that which in time of peace is constructed for the      

      use and ornamentation of the City, is hurled to the ground by the force of arms and falls to

      ruin. I believe, if I remember rightly, that you will find on the ground under the feet of Mars a

      book as well as a drawing on paper, to imply that he treads underfoot all the arts and letters.

      There ought also to be a bundle of darts or arrows, with the band which held them together

      undone; these when bound form the symbol of Concord. Beside them is the caduceus and

      an olive-branch, attribute of Peace; these also are cast aside. That grief-stricken woman      

      clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other ornaments, is the            

      unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered plunder, outrage, and misery,

      which are so injurious to everyone that it is unnecessary to go into detail."


(Letter from Peter Paul Rubens to Justus Sustermans commenting on his painting The Horrors of War, 12 March 1638.)


Paul Grossrieder

Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross