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Polling war victims for a better protection
by Kim Gordon-Bates
From the mountains of Colombia, to the sands of Somalia, within range of mortar fire in Lebanon, and during a harsh winter in Bosnia and Herzegovina, people from all walks of life have come together to talk about war and its limits. Officially launched in October 1998, the ICRC-Greenberg Research's "People on War" campaign has successfully made its way across the globe. Hundreds of people in 16 countries have discussed and debated amongst themselves, thousands of others responded to detailed questionnaires or to in-depth interviews.
The challenge was to set up and oversee an unusual opinion poll, among not only victims of armed violence but all sides to a conflict from regular armies to guerrillas to less traditional combatants. Within months 'opinions from ordinary people' were collected, collated and submitted to a rigorous assessment procedure. This ambitious project, the first of its kind, has certainly left its mark, although the actual treatment of what is a huge quantity of data has taken longer than planned, and to date no country reports have been issued.

Voices of war
Displaced women and children, each with painful memories, recounted their fear at fleeing oncoming armies. Soldiers committed to the cause shook with emotion when talking about the realities of winning a war. A wounded woman explained how she is trying to rebuild her life. Journalists and non-governmental organization (NGO) activists searched for a practical understanding of their responsibilities during war. Self-defence units and vigilante groups relived the nightmare of trying to protect their homes. Aid workers questioned the value of treating wounds while unable to heal divided communities. All spoke emotionally and graphically about their war experiences.

As part of the process, a professional moderator presented hypothetical situations and asked participants how they would respond to it. For instance, in what circumstances would you inflict cruel treatment on a captured enemy. A tell-tale image of the acceptable limits of violence came to light. As one injured Lebanese woman said, "We only want our combatants to hit their combatants. We have suffered from attacks on civilians and we do not accept it."

The People on War survey went deep into people's souls, so deep focus groups sometimes reached cathartic proportions: people regretted the murders and rapes they had committed; former soldiers told of driving armoured personnel carriers through shacks, killing children in the process; civilians told of houses burnt, of having to live with terrible wounds. Yet such stories were only part of the telling-listening process. In many places, tales of restraint and compassion emerged. "I was shot and wounded and I knew the person who hurt me. I later met this man when he was injured and I had to help him," recalls a young Lebanese participant. There were stories of enemy soldiers crossing lines to return the body of a son to a father, people intervening to prevent acts of torture. Often people voiced with conviction the threshold beyond which they would not go - because that would be going beyond the barrier separating "humans from animals". "Despite the fact that the international media are insistent on portraying us as tribes killing one another and despite the murders that have happened on all sides, the majority of people here disapprove of the 'eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth' principle," explains a woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The rules of war
At the same time, the probing revealed participants' knowledge or misunderstanding of international humanitarian law - the universal yardstick of what is right and wrong in war. One participant from Colombia rightly explained, "Suffering is not an abstract notion but something very real that can leave permanent scars. The Geneva Conventions were designed to prevent such excesses. Fighters who inflict unnecessary pain jeopardize the chances of seeing their victory or cause recognized." At the other end of the spectrum, a soldier from Bosnia and Herzegovina stated, "The enemy wanted to scare people by committing criminal acts on civilians. For example, if they burn a house with people inside, it will psychologically affect the others and motivate them to leave. If they acted according to the Geneva Conventions, they would not have achieved anything."

But knowing of the existence of rules, which define the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in war and encapsulate the essential values of humanity, serves as a foundation of hope for many. The knowledge that there is a law, even when the law is being violated, is something victims can cling to. Horrors may be committed, but the very fact that the world describes them as horrors and has devised laws to prevent them say that I, the victim, am in the right.

Kim Gordon-Bates
Kim Gordon-Bates is a press officer at the ICRC.

Who was consulted...
The consultations in the 16 countries are divided as follows: 11 war-affected countries, where the full consultation (focus groups, questionnaires and 'in-depth interviews') was carried out, namely: Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Philippines, South Africa, Lebanon, Georgia-Abkhazia, El Salvador, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Israel/Occupied Territories, in addition to five countries where people live in relative peace and whose opinions would provide an interesting complement to 'voices' from war-torn countries (here the consultation was based purely on a questionnaire with people reached either by phone or in person), namely: USA, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Russia.

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