“Before we came to the city,we led a simple life,” says
José, one of millions of Colombians forced to flee
conflict. “We grew bananas, cassava and corn. Having
enough to eat was never a problem.” Tears well in his
eyes when he tells ICRC researchers that his children now
subsist on bread and water.
Forced displacement is one of the most serious consequences
of conflict, according to a global research study commissioned
by ICRC as part of the Our world. Your move. campaign. In
Colombia alone, millions of people had to abandon their homes,
their land, their crops, their animals and familiar wellestablished
ways of life to endure a life of poverty in big cities.
Our world. Views from the field. studied the experiences
and opinions of civilians living with the everyday reality
of armed conflict.
The research concentrated on some of the most troubled places
in the world — representative of today’s Solferinos — where
people experience armed conflict, armed violence or their
aftermath. These countries were Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic
Republic of the Congo (DRC), Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia
and the Philippines. The study provides clear insight into
how people experience armed conflict and its long-term impact
on their lives. It also uncovers some valuable findings for
the ICRC in conducting its humanitarian work, says Pierre
Krähenbühl, ICRC’s director of operations.
“These figures represent millions of people who are
struggling to provide for their children, who have been forced
to flee their villages under threat, or who live in constant
fear that someone they care for will be killed, assaulted
or disappear. The research is a step towards acknowledging
our accountability towards the people that we are there to
The big picture
Approximately 4,000 civilians were asked to relate their
personal experiences through an opinion survey. In most cases,
interviews were conducted face-to-face as the infrastructure
in many of the countries rendered telecommunications inaccessible.
Of those interviewed, 44 per cent said they had witnessed
armed conflict first hand and one in three had seen a relative
killed. Across the eight countries, the research revealed
a bleak picture. More than half of those interviewed — 56
per cent — had been forced to leave their homes and
almost half had lost contact with a close relative. One in
five said they had lost their means of income.
It also became clear through the research that displacement,
separation from family members and lack of access to basic
necessities were among people’s most common experiences
and biggest fears.
Limited access to services such as water, electricity and
health care emerged as a widespread problem, particularly
in Afghanistan and Haiti, where well over half of the people
directly affected by armed violence said they had experienced
a lack of these basic necessities.
The consequences of armed conflict or violence were felt
beyond those who were immediately affected. In total, twothirds
of people (66 per cent) had been affected in some way — either
personally or due to these wider consequences — and
this included almost everyone in Haiti (98 per cent), Afghanistan
(96 per cent), Lebanon (96 per cent) and Liberia (96 per
The individual stories
To gain a more in-depth and personal understanding of people’s
true experiences of war, the ICRC complemented the opinion
survey by conducting person-to-person and focus-group interviews.
This was a very important stage of the research process.
It was invaluable to sit down and hear from the people themselves
about the reality of living through these traumatic events.
Similarly, the people involved in the interviews appreciated
the opportunities to share their views.
In each country surveyed, the ICRC focused on the most vulnerable
civilians, such as internally displaced persons, separated
families, people injured by anti-personnel landmines and ‘first
responders’ (e.g., health workers). The interviews
covered a range of related issues including people’s
needs, fears and expectations. Also under discussion was
their experience of the ‘humanitarian gesture’ in
times of need. Other questions focused on the law of war,
the conduct of armed groups and people’s thoughts on
the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions. The interviews
also uncovered interesting general perceptions of humanitarian
organizations and views about respect for health personnel
The emotional impact
Time and again, regardless of the country, similar stories
emerged. Armed conflict was considered a vicious cycle that
breeds poverty and further violence. Irrespective of the
reason for conflict, there was a shared frustration with
being dragged into a conflict that civilians believed was
is completely ‘undeserved’ by them. Secondly,
a predominant feeling emerged that armed conflict served
no purpose whatsoever; instead, it only led to heavy losses.
The research showed clearly that civilians caught up in conflict
continually experienced a range of intense emotionssuch as
fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, helplessness and even
dissociation of their feelings as a way to cope with their
Those directly affected by armed conflict or armed violence
faced a range of dangers to their lives, health, livelihoods,
liberty, self-respect and state of mind.
A woman in Georgia, whose son was missing, told of her extreme
distress. “I was like a crazy person for four months.
I stopped working. I was not even cooking food for the rest
of my family. Life stopped. Neighbours and relatives could
not make me change this attitude. I was thinking of burning
our house: why do anything if my son was not with me?”
In Lebanon, a man grieved for his son. “During the
war, one can accept that people get killed, but not after
the end of the war when people have returned to their villages
and homes. My heart has died since my son was killed by a
‘Post-conflict needs’ revolve around emotional
and psychological needs. Feeling comfortable in new locations
if displaced (e.g., by being welcomed by a supportive community
and not being discriminated against), receiving support for
the emotional toll of loss of belongings and loved ones immediately,
having opportunities for communication (e.g., having a ‘shoulder
to cry on’ and having their story heard) and getting
in touch with separated family members were considered essential.
What does it mean for the ICRC?
A common theme across all the countries was an overall insatiable
need for humanitarian assistance. However the research also
revealed several areas for improvement. For example, people
said aid needed to be delivered more quickly and on time,
to ensure it reached all those in real need and the civilians
directly rather than through intermediaries. The need to
cover all areas affected by conflict and not just the cities
was also flagged. In all the countries, people said their
families and communities were first to give assistance and
best understood their needs.
Krähenbühl says these findings give a clear direction
for humanitarian assistance. “The importance of being
close to affected communities is something we’ve picked
up on in recent years in our own operational experience.
It is important to enable local health workers, including
our colleagues from National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,
to respond on the ground, because we’ve seen that this
makes a difference for affected populations. The survey underscores
the importance of strengthening the capacity of communities
at a grass-roots level to cope in the face of armed conflict.
We will be focusing on this increasingly in the future.”
Throughout the research, psychological support and counselling
were also considered very important and something that should
be provided by aid organizations. According to respondents,
humanitarian organizations should play a stronger role in
education. Likewise respondents felt humanitarian organizations
should deliver better tools and supplies such as housing
and farming equipment to enable civilians to rebuild their
lives and livelihoods.
A number of barriers to receiving humanitarian assistance
were also highlighted. Corruption, social factors, discrimination,
inaccessible locations, fear of rejection by the community
or by those giving help were often mentioned. Corruption
emerged as the biggest single barrier to receiving aid for
59 per cent of those polled — rising to more than 80
per cent in Colombia, Liberia and the Philippines.
“It’s a striking finding and comes as a very
strong reminder of all the precautions that one must put
into place in the implementation of programmes, both during
the evaluation phase and in carrying them out, in order to
ensure that populations do not face discrimination or these
forms of blockages. I think that this requires further close
attention on our part,” explains Krähenbühl.
For a humanitarian organization such as the ICRC which is
committed to assisting people according to their needs, this
research serves as a reminder to place the individual at
the centre of its approach and to see the situation through
his or her eyes. Listening to a person’s experiences,
needs, worries and expectations is key to ensuring that the
organization tailors its response effectively in order to
better protect and assist people affected by armed conflict
throughout the world.
A 79-year-old is taken by her grandson to visit their abandoned
village on Mindanao Island. Roughly 300,000 people have been
displaced by the fighting, between government forces and
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an armed group, in the
©JAMES NACHTWEY / ICRC / VII
60 years of the
The ICRC marked the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva
Conventions on 12 August by calling on states and armed
groups to respect the rules which protect civilians
as well as sick, wounded or detained combatants. “We
see violations on a regular basis in the field, ranging
from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate
attacks and ill-treatment of prisoners,” said
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger. “Even wars
have limits and if the existing rules were followed
to a greater extent, much of the suffering caused by
armed conflict could be avoided. On a more positive
note, many of these violations are no longer going
unnoticed. Increasingly, those responsible are being
held accountable for their actions and that is a sign
of progress.” The conventions and their Additional
Protocols form the backbone of international humanitarian
law. All 194 countries are party to the conventions,
making them universal. The ICRC also used this historic
occasion to call for further clarifications and developments
of international humanitarian law to respond to the
ever-changing nature of armed conflicts.
Facts and figures
• In Afghanistan, 76 per cent of those who had
personal experience of armed conflict
said they were forced to leave their homes and 61 per
cent said they had lost contact
with a close relative.
• In Liberia, a startling 90 per cent said they
had been displaced, followed by 61 per
cent in Lebanon and 58 per cent in DRC. The loss of
contact with a relative was also
high in Liberia (86 per cent), Lebanon (51 per cent)
and DRC (47 per cent).