Human Rights

New findings revealed of social, psychological effects of urban warfare

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut


Syria International Committee for the Red Cross communications head Pawel Krzysiek stands beside a poster announcing the 'I Saw My City Die' report, which documents the toll of urban warfare on city residents. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on June 14th presented the findings of a new report examining the social and psychological effects of urban warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

"I Saw My City Die" includes the testimonies of urban residents who have lived through armed conflict. It reveals that more than half of all civilian casualties caused by wars in recent years have occurred in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Syria ICRC communications head Pawel Krzysiek spoke with Al-Mashareq in Beirut about the report and its findings.

Al-Mashareq: What is the purpose of the report?

Pawel Krzysiek: The "I Saw My City Die" report is a research [study] conducted by the ICRC over the past three years in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to examine the social and psychological effects suffered by residents living in the midst of armed conflicts within cities.

The report was based on the testimonies of residents of Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq and Taiz in Yemen.

Adults, children, men, women and the elderly spoke of their daily suffering and the terror they experienced during battles that raged inside and around their homes and in the streets, schools and hospitals, and of being besieged among fighters and living amid the sound of exploding ordnance.

The report presents live testimonies of the tragedies they are facing, brought on by the daily shelling and loss of loved ones in the ongoing war.

Al-Mashareq: Why was the focus solely on cities?

Krzysiek: Because the impact of war and conflict within cities is more severe than in rural areas. There is a big difference between the wars fought within cities and those fought in rural areas.

Battles and clashes inside cities, including artillery and missile strikes, take place building to building and street to street. Military targets within cities are very close to residents, and very often located in their midst.

Al-Mashareq: What is the most important conclusion of the report in terms of social and psychological effects?

Krzysiek: Psychological and social effects are the same in all conflict zones. In addition to the fear and terror that is visible in their behaviour, [civilians] also speak of their need for water, food, medicine and health care.

Mothers express deep concern for their children’s safety, for their mere presence in areas fraught with danger and death. Meanwhile, children know only war. They live in extreme fear, panic and terror.

This varies from person to person, as some express how they feel, while children do not say much, as they are gripped with fear and cry constantly.

The psychological and social effects on residents are the same or similar in both urban and rural areas.

Al-Mashareq: What about the city of Aleppo, which is part of the study?

Krzysiek: The city of Aleppo is large and has a population of about two million. No area or neighbourhood in it was spared, because what happened there was street and window warfare, right over the heads of civilians.

All of this left deep psychological effects and serious wounds. The people of Aleppo spoke about their daily lives during the fighting and how they acted.

They talked about their needs and Aleppo’s needs, which are enormous, because its infrastructure is destroyed, as are most of its buildings.

Al-Mashareq: Did the report include other Syrian regions?

Krzysiek: The research also examined the displacement activity and emerging economic problems faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the psychological effects that has had on them.

The report also covered areas that were besieged until recently, such as Madaya, Zabadani and Daraya. It noted that social needs [there] are different from those in cities, owing to the difference in the form and methods of fighting.

Al-Mashareq: Did the report reveal the number of human casualties?

Krzysiek: The report revealed that half of all casualties of war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen were civilians.

Our research revealed that urban warfare caused 70% of the total number of civilian deaths. This is a frightening percentage, and reflects the devastating impact of the ongoing battles. [...]

The report also examined the massive displacement from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as 17 million Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis are known to have been internally and externally displaced.

As for the losses in terms of infrastructure and buildings, the scale of the destruction is enormous, due the nature of urban fighting, where combatants do not distinguish between military targets and infrastructure, and target these buildings directly.

Al-Mashareq: What does the report conclude?

Krzysiek: It concluded that psychological problems will not end when the wars end, and will rather last for many years, requiring local authorities and humanitarian organisations to develop programmes to address the psychological effects of war.

The report also highlighted the importance of rebuilding the infrastructure and providing public services.

It called on the parties to the conflict and states backing them to respect international humanitarian law, which emphasises the need to treat civilians as neutral in conflicts and not target them.

The report we prepared is an instrument that provides a picture of the current situation in those cities, and emphasises the necessity that solutions include a strong response to all the needs.

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