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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

AFGHANISTAN: Heavy toll on civilians in years of war

KABUL, 9 April 2003 (IRIN) - Almost a quarter of a century of war in Afghanistan has taken a heavy toll of the population, estimated at 25 million. Still locked in abject poverty, millions of Afghans have been killed, maimed, displaced or forced to leave their country in a series of some of the most gruesome conflicts of modern times.

There are widely divergent estimates of the dead, but, since 1978, up to two million Afghans have been killed, another two million internally displaced, and some seven million turned into refugees.

Ali Javad, a 45-year-old shopkeeper now living in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, told IRIN that, far from being protected, civilians had been used as human shields by the warring factions in the civil war that followed the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. In his own case, his house had itself had become part of the front line. "At the height of the civil war in 1992, gunmen from one faction used our living room to target opposition positions in the area," he told IRIN recently in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Javad’s apartment in the Russian-built, five-storey Mekrorayan residential complex in the heart of Kabul city was eventually destroyed in the fratricidal fighting following the demise of President Najibullah’s regime in 1992, when rival factions from what had been the country’s Islamic resistance to the Soviet forces began fighting for the control of the capital. "We could not stop them," he said. "They even forced us to give them our own food." Javad has been lucky to get away with his life.

A decade ago, 50-year-old Muhammad Hashim, now a chief mechanic with an aid agency in Kabul, lost his brother to a barrage of rockets fired indiscriminately at the city by an Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. He claimed to be targeting the administration of President Borhanuddin Rabbani, established in 1994 through a Pakistan-brokered agreement, but rejected by sections of the erstwhile mujahedin which had fought Soviet forces, notably Hikmatyar’s.

Although the rockets were supposed to be targeting military installations, they killed thousands of civilians. "Nobody protected us - neither the government nor the huge international human rights organisations," Hashim told IRIN.

In terms of civilian deaths, the struggle for Kabul was overshadowed by the fighting in the north in the late 1990s, when towns, cities and provinces changed hands between the Taliban Islamic Emirate and the rival Northern Alliance. The continuing discoveries of mass graves of civilians in the north bear witness to the intensity and nature of the battles.

Whereas up to two million civilians were killed in fighting during to 20-year war, aid agencies say many more died from the preventable diseases and malnutrition that flourished during the conflict. That legacy remains. Afghanistan has some of the worst human and social indicators in the world, with child and maternal mortality rates particularly high.

In the words of John Sifton, a researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW): "It’s clear that millions of civilians died prematurely because of the fighting in Afghanistan."
Targeting of civilian infrastructure was a favoured tactic of the mujahedin. Meanwhile, the Soviets and their Afghan communist allies also brutalised civilians, bombing villages and burning fields, thereby forcing people to leave.

In the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, rival warlords and factions bent on inflicting maximal damage on one another destroyed the remaining infrastructure, each deeming it necessary as a means of achieving victory over the other. Kabul, the country's most modern city, became a battlefield. Almost half its buildings were destroyed and still lie in ruins.

Although some humanitarian relief was supplied to civilians, the wars in Afghanistan were particularly brutal, according to Simon Chesterman, author of the book 'Civilians in War' and a senior associate with the International Peace Academy in New York. "The notion of 'total war' was meant to be abolished by the Geneva Conventions, but is sometimes used to describe the conflict with Russian occupation forces," he told IRIN. Although there were occasional expressions of concern from outside countries, little was done to remedy the plight of civilians over that period, he said.

Deploring the absence of international concern for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Sifton observed that it had been "the foreign influence which has been one of the most destructive elements of the conflict". As the last battleground of Cold War, the Soviet Union (and, afterwards, Russia and the Central Asian countries) fought against the interests of Pakistan, Iran, China, the US and the West at large. Millions of civilians were mutilated and killed by the small arms and mines supplied by these regional and global powers to their Afghan proxies.

"All these countries involved in Afghanistan in a sense bear the responsibility for the deaths there," Sifton said, adding that the same applied to the refugee camps in Pakistan. "The violence that plagues these places is brought about by outside influence," he asserted.

But with Afghanistan remaining a series of armed city-states and fiefdoms with little loyalty to the new government, the protection of civilians remains a key issue. Regional warlords and their gunmen enforce their own laws and raise revenue any way they can. And millions of landmines and other items of unexploded ordnance still litter the countryside.

Moreover, despite the continuing presence of military forces from the international coalition that ousted the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Taliban renegades persist in rendering parts of the country insecure and dangerous for civilians.

"The key to securing civilian protection in the future is the international community's support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan's national army and police force," Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told IRIN in Kabul. "Until that process is completed, the expansion of an international security force outside of the capital to ensure security all over Afghanistan is required."

The extended deployment of the 4,800-strong International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), which currently guards Kabul alone, has been a fundamental demand by international human rights organisations as a temporary step towards filling the security beyond the confines of the capital and assuring the protection of civilians.

"The international community should work to expand international peacekeeping forces. And, secondly, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of Afghan military forces must go forward," Sifton stressed.

Such demands were highlighted after thousands of ethnic Pashtuns were forced to abandon their homes and fixed assets in the north early last year following the demise of the Taliban, whose ranks had been dominated by Pashtun clerics from the southwestern Kandahar region. In addition to the hazards posed by the unexploded cluster bombs dropped by the US-led coalition, HRW documented many atrocities against Pashtun nomads and farmers in the north.

Meanwhile, Bashir Oryakhel, a schoolteacher in Kabul still vividly remembers past brutalities. "Once, on my way back from school, the fighters stopped civilian men and forced us to dig trenches for them," he told IRIN. "There were even instances when they forced people to walk on paths they suspected of having been mined."

In order to address past grievances and ensure the protection of citizens in any future conflict, Afghans should themselves independently direct the national reconciliation process, according to Chesterman. "Outsiders can suggest options, ranging from truth commissions, local trials, international trials or doing nothing, he said. "The most important thing is that whatever process is put in place is Afghan-led." He also called for the preservation of the evidence of Afghanistan’s recent, bloody past as a first step in that direction.

[This article is one of a series of reports and interviews that comprise a new Web Special on Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict. In it, IRIN explores International Humanitarian Law and principled humanitarian action, the provisions for civilian protection, the problems encountered in achieving this, and the prospects for the future. See web special at]

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict



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