Welcome to our blog, where we share our latest stories, analysis, and information from conflicts around the world.

In Remembrance of Our Founder

When Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) was founded as Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict in 2003, it was as a one-woman mission to get recognition for the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marla Ruzicka believed that the US government should not walk away from the unintended victims of their military operations and set out to ensure that our government didn’t just turn their backs on those they had harmed.

Marla wanted to humanize what the military called "collateral damage." She wanted to show that civilian casualties reported in the media every day were not just numbers, but individuals with friends and families who lives deserved to be recognized and dignified. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, she undertook the dangerous work of documenting thousands of victims of American military operations, ensuring that their stories reached the outside world. She wanted to recognize each victim and recorded their name and their story.

On April 16th, 2005, Marla too became a victim of armed conflict. She and her longtime colleague and translator Faiz Ali Salim were killed in a suicide car bombing on airport road in Baghdad.

In a moving speech about Marla on the Senate floor made days after her death, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. said, “I don’t think I have ever met, and I probably will never meet again, someone so young who gave so much of herself to so many people and who made such a difference doing it.”

Just like the families of victims around the world, Marla’s friends and family struggled to make sense of her loss. Marla lives on in the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program (ACAP) and in the Iraqi War Victims fund that now bears her name, and in the work CIVIC does everyday to ensure that no civilian caught in conflict is ignored or overlooked.

As violence and conflict continue to proliferate around the world, so too does the need for the work Marla started— to make warring parties more responsible to civilians before, during, and after armed conflict. With the growth we have laid out for the next three years, CIVIC’s work, our unique voice, and innovative approach will reach more conflicts, honoring Marla’s extraordinary legacy by protecting more civilians.

On this, the 10th anniversary of Marla’s passing, our thoughts are with her family and all families that are victims of armed conflict.

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Civilian Harm Persists Despite Robust UN Mandate in Eastern DRC

By Kyle Dietrich, Senior Program Manager for Africa and Peacekeeping Programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict

In an unprecedented statement, the United Nations Security Council has called for the “swift neutralization of the FDLR” rebel group in eastern DRC through joint operations by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). While the ongoing threat posed by the FDLR and other rebels is real, the risk of incidental harm to civilians during joint combat operations and the prospect of retaliatory FDLR attacks against civilians are very worrisome. 

The FDLR (a group of roughly 1500 rebels, many of whom are Rwandan Hutus) is widely dispersed across the Kivus and have, in many places, integrated into local communities, making an offensive operation challenging for peacekeepers and risky for civilians. UN operations are designed to be conducted in partnership with the FARDC, who have in their own right been responsible for numerous crimes and abuses against civilians in recent years. To complicate matters, MONUSCO’s leadership and the Congolese government have not seen eye-to-eye on which rebel groups to target, further delaying the full implementation of the UN’s robust mandate.

In authorizing an offensive mandate for MONUSCO, UNSC Resolution 2098 created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which is specifically equipped for “targeted offensive operations” with the responsibility of “neutralizing armed groups and of contributing to reducing the threat posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC.” The mandate further calls on the FIB to “mitigate the risk to civilians before, during, and after any military operation.” This guidance is laudable, but we must ask how the FIB will proactively protect civilians in their campaign to disarm and “neutralize” armed groups, how joint operations with the FARDC will be conducted, and how these will be done in a way that takes measures to mitigate and respond to civilian harm during operations.

Despite some success under its new offensive mandate, including the defeat of M23 rebels in November 2013, MONUSCO peacekeepers have been unable to fully implement their mandate or to effectively prevent attacks against civilians in the country’s remote eastern regions (highlighted by their recent non-engagement against the ADF in Beni, North Kivu). The new push to defeat the largest armed group in the region, the FDLR, comes after most of that group’s members failed to voluntarily disarm by the latest deadline of January 2, 2015. 

While a broader strategy including non-military measures is needed to end the cycles of violence in eastern DRC, armed confrontation with rebel groups has been authorized for MONUSCO to restore peace and security. If offensive operations are conducted, FIB and FARDC forces should, in accordance with the guidance of the UN Secretary General, make every effort to prevent and, where necessary, swiftly recognize, investigate, and respond to any incidental civilian harm caused as a result of their operations. While international law obligates parties to a conflict to provide compensation for violations, MONUSCO and FARDC should also standardize a process to assist civilians that are harmed incidentally in order to strengthen accountability and prevent the further escalation of violence.

One tool that can assist MONUSCO is a “civilian casualty tracking cell”. This cell—consisting of hardware, software, and specialized human resources—was recommended for all offensive peacekeeping operations in a 2013 UNSG report on protection of civilians “as a means of understanding the impact of military operations on civilians and identifying changes in military tactics required to reduce harm to civilians.” A civilian casualty tracking cell would help MONUSCO identify with reliable data the issues of civilian harm attributable to the FARDC and MONUSCO, and to engage all parties at a tactical level to reduce civilian harm. 

For decades, the Congolese have suffered violent attacks by armed groups and state forces and have looked to the UN and the international community for help. With its increased political backing and offensive mandate, MONUSCO, the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, has been given the challenge to change the tide to proactively protect civilians. While primary responsibility for safeguarding civilians rests with the Congolese government and military, the world is watching to see whether the UN, with its unprecedented offensive mandate, is up to the task to protect Congolese civilians from both armed groups and its own actions. 

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The UN and Casualty Recording: Good Practice and the Need for Action

A new report from Oxford Research Group

Read the full report here. This new report from our colleagues at ORG looks closely at how the United Nations records civilian casualty provides valuable analysis, including a case study on Afghanistan.

According to ORG's website:

This report from the Every Casualty programme explores the current state of casualty recording practice and the use of information about casualties within the UN.

It concludes that when the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. However, casualty recording is not currently a widespread practice within the UN system.

The report recommends that the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued, as this would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve.

This report looks at experiences of, and attitudes towards, casualty recording from the perspectives of UN staff based in New York and Geneva that we interviewed. It includes a case study of UN civilian casualty recording by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit. Finally, the report discusses challenges to UN casualty recording, and how these might be met.

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Infographics: Monetary Payments for Civilian Harm

How much is a life worth? While it's impossible to put a price on life, there is an important conversation to be had around the various levels of payment offered to victims of violence in response to their losses. This report—the product of collaboration between the Amsterdam International Law Clinic at the University of Amsterdam and Center for Civilians in Conflict—maps various programs and their implementation in settings of armed conflict and in response to serious crimes and terrorist attacks. The report’s aim is not to “set a price” on civilian losses, but to evaluate the consistency of current practice in providing monetary payments (both the amounts and the methodology used by the entity offering the payment).

Infographics: Monetary Payments for Civilian Harm

This set of infographics from the CIVIC's Jaime Hawthorne & Caroline Kavit helps compare different monetary payments for civilian harm in international and national practice.

See them here!

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War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

CIVIC's executive director Sarah Holewinski recently contributed civilian harm experiences for the exhibit War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,  currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Caroline Kavit, the author of this post, is a photographer and writer who has recently joined CIVIC as the communications intern. 


Photography shapes the way we perceive warfare. For the majority of people who are far removed from the front line, images serve as a surrogate for reality. Sometimes, a single image is so powerful that it comes to define a conflict, like Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut's photograph of a naked girl running from a napalm strike during the Vietnam War or “Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima,” by Joe Rosenthal. A new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art seeks to shift the photographic history of war away from these "greatest hits" toward an anthology-like approach that encompasses the progression of conflict from instigation to aftermath. 

Bringing together more than 200 photographs of conflict that span 6 continents and 165 years, "War/Photography" is an unprecedented examination and deconstruction of the relationship between wars and the images that portray them. The expansive subject matter has been broken up into chapters that represent the different phases of an armed conflict—recruitment, training, combat, daily routines, homecoming, aftermath, remembrance, and more. Each section is preceded by text, which has the dual-purpose of providing information and punctuating the tone of the exhibit. The writing (which included input from Center for Civilians in Conflict) is measured and meant to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the morality of war and photography's place in it, but the sheer size of the exhibit sends a message about the ubiquitous nature of armed conflicts and the suffering that follows in their wake. 

As a photographer, I read the story on the walls as one of the evolution of the medium from daguerreotype to digital. Photographers have been attracted to the same subject matter throughout the history of conflict, because while the way we fight war has changed the human suffering has remained constant.  With the development of new technologies, photographers have been able to shoot from new points of view in hopes of bringing the viewer closer to the daily realities of armed conflicts. Walking through the exhibit, it is hard not to constantly compare the images despite vast differences in the place and time they were taken.  I found myself mentally coupling photographs based on aesthetics, finding similarities in composition between an image taken in the Crimean War and an image from WWII. However, as I moved through the exhibit I began to see another narrative.

The date photographs were taken ranged from 1846 to spring 2012, but a line of seemingly inevitable sorrow can be traced through all of them. The artistic merit of the images was slowly pushed to the background, and I began connecting the grief. The same scenes of destruction and suffering appeared to take place over and over again throughout the history of warfare. The similarity seen in the almost complete destruction depicted in "Bombardment of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 1st, 1974" by Christine Spengler and "Dresden After Allied Raids, Germany, 1945" by Richard Peter was striking.

These images made decades apart by different photographic processes in different conflicts depict almost identical scenes of heartbreak. I began to see the exhibit as a visual representation of lessons not learned. Civilian harm is inevitable in any conflict, but there are ways to minimize it. This exhibit uniquely visualizes just what is at stake if we do not change the way fighting forces operate and call for the integration of civilian protection into the core of every mission. 

"War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from June 29th to September 29th, 2013 and at the Brooklyn Museum from November 8th, 2013 to February 2nd, 2014

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Mali’s Legendary Musicians Silenced by the Conflict: Super Onze

CIVIC’s Director of Country Operations Michael Shaikh was recently in northern Mali to talk to the Malian and French forces, international officials, and civilians. The following is an account of the impact the Malian crisis has on the country’s famous musical traditions. Photo below of a Malian musician and second photo of Super Onze by Tom Martinez.

“The army is here providing security so we can sleep and be safe - but without music I don’t think people will ever be happy again.”

Yehia Mballah Samake, Super Onze band member, Gao, April 27, 2013


Music is a major part of the Malian way of life and for the country’s many musicians, the only way. The members of Super Onze one of northern Mali’s best-known bands, do not live off a monthly paycheck but get their income from the weddings and festivals where they are invited to play. But the band hails from the North’s biggest city, Gao, and ever since hardline Islamists entered their city early last year, there have been no such celebrations.

Implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law as they entered northern Mali, the al Qaeda-affiliated Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French) outlawed one of the biggest pillars of Malian identity – its vibrant music scene – forcing many musicians to flee the North and/or country in fear of their lives.

“When MUJAO entered the city, the message was clear: anyone who plays music would be slaughtered,” explains Yehia Mballah Samake, Super Onze’s lead n’goni player (a three-string predecessor of the modern guitar). “They went and looted instruments; they destroyed the band members’ guitars. They made announcements on the radio that anyone playing music would be killed.”

Having no means of escape, many of the band members of Super Onze stayed in Gao and stopped playing.

“The biggest problem with occupation was that we couldn’t do the daily things that made us happy,” says Samake. “And making music is what makes us happy. Taking an instrument is like taking the weapons of a soldier. It felt like someone was denying us our own existence - this is what we live off.”

Samake now has to rely on donations from supporters to provide for his family – contributions that are minimal compared to what he used to make playing music, but which he accepts, because people give it out of respect for what he used to do. For the love of his music. 

MUJAO’s occupation of the North ended in January of this year when French forces intervened to prevent the militants from overrunning the entire country. But since then, a state of emergency has prevented large gatherings like the ones where Super Onze used to play.

“In the past we never had a wedding celebration without music, but Malians are respecting the state of emergency,” says Samake. “What worries us is that we are not making money; we’re not performing now. We’re not happy; we just sit and watch each other all day long.”

And Mali’s musicians are not the only ones feeling the void:

“There are people who will go crazy without music, not just us, the listeners too. The fact that there was no music affected everyone. People – Malians – need music to stay happy. There was no activity,” he says. “When they put a stop to the music, people became furious and angry and bitter and sad.”

Asaalya, Samake’s father and founder of Super Onze, weighs in:

“It was partly because of the fact that there was no music, that people became more rebellious and fought the invaders.”

While we are talking, the band members begin playing their instruments. A big lady spontaneously walks into the courtyard and begins dancing and humming to the music: 

“This is beautiful. It feels good; it’s good for your health,” she says. “It gives a beat to our walk. When you are dressed well, and you hear this, it changes how you walk. Music, meat and tea, that is all you need in life - If it weren’t for MUJAO we would be dancing like this all day long.”

But despite the ousting of MUJAO and other militants from Gao, the once so lively music scene has been silenced for over a year now. Gao is a multiethnic city, where Tamasheq (also known as Tuareg), Fulani, Songhai, and Arab people have coexisted for generations. But since the crisis, relations between lighter and darker-skinned Malians have strained, as Tamasheq Arabs and others fear reprisals simply because they share the skin same color and ethnicity with the rebels. Ethnic-based retaliation ranging from killings to sexual violence to looting continues to threaten Mali’s social fabric.

“Mali is at war, and it needs to be healed,” says Samake. “The MUJAO were about everything but Islam, they don’t know Islam. When they came, we were denied our freedom to talk. Otherwise we would have told them why we play music. When we play music, we aren’t stealing; we aren’t killing; we are living our lives.”

Without music, a return to peace will be incomplete, he warns. “If there is no music people will never find joy. The army is here providing security so we can sleep and be safe, but without music I don’t think people will ever be happy again.”

Looking at the woman contently lost in the rare occurrence of music, Samake’s spirits are lifted: “Seeing her dance like this, it makes me think of the past when I would play music and not one person, but the whole audience would join in. So the fact that she comes in and sees people gathering and listening to music – that makes me feel whole.

“Once the ban is lifted, I am sure people will start shaking it again.”


You can listen to Super Onze’s music here:

Also see the CIVIC’s Board Member, TIME’s Aryn Baker’s article about the Mali’s silenced musicians here.


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