Families trapped under the rubble, children maimed by bombs, hospitals destroyed by air strikes... the tragedy happening in war-torn countries right now highlights the devastating impact of explosive weapons.
There were 15% of civilian casualties in the First World War and 50% in the Second World War. Today, war is waged in cities and 9 out of 10 victims of bombing in populated areas are civilians. Don’t tell me this is “collateral damage”. Since 2016, the cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, Idlib and Donetsk have been literally flattened by massive, disproportionate and indiscriminate bombardments and shelling – tragic proof of a total disregard for civilian lives.
HI has just released a report, The Waiting List, that brings home the loss, death, destruction, suffering and trauma caused by explosive weapons in Syria. It’s a difficult but necessary read.
As a humanitarian I have seen first-hand the impact of bombings on people’s lives. Bombings in populated areas not only kill, injure and traumatise innocent people, they also destroy everything in their path: homes, hospitals, schools, water and electricity systems, and, ultimately: hopes and lives.
The use of explosive weapons in Syria has devastated the national health system which was previously the envy of the region. Syria has been called “the most dangerous place on earth for health-care providers”. In 2018, the World Health Organisation recorded 142 attacks against health facilities in Syria, of which 123 were recorded as using heavy weapons such as missiles, bombs and mortars. We hear time and again parents of sick children being forced to take the impossible decision as to whether it is riskier to travel to a hospital or do nothing. What decision would you take?
What if you were pregnant? Our research found that women now routinely schedule caesarean sections rather than natural births as they are more predictable. Can you imagine having to plan the birth of your child so that it happens during a time when bombing raids are less frequent, transport is available, and when you think that electricity and doctors should be available?
Sadly, we know that the danger will not disappear when the fighting ends. Huge swathes of land in Syria are littered with explosive remnants of war, weapons that haven't exploded on impact. These explosive weapons can stay active for months, even years, just waiting patiently for someone, maybe a small child thinking it’s a toy, to pick them up, before exploding. Experts estimate that it will take at least 30 years to clear.
Meanwhile, the 10.2 million people, roughly half the population of Syria, who live in communities reporting explosive-weapons contamination, will continue to live with the daily danger of triggering an explosive weapon that was left in their garden, their street or their school. Children are at risk - 1 in 5 victims of an explosive remnant of war is a child, and almost half were playing at the time of the accident, often because they could not be in school.
We know that children are particularly vulnerable to blast injuries, and are disproportionately maimed and killed by landmines, improvised explosive devices and other explosive weapons. They are less likely to survive blast injuries due to their stage of development, and when they do, their injuries are frequently for life.
Children also have a higher need for follow up care as they grow out of their wheelchair or artificial limb. A four year old child who has lost a limb may need up to 30 to 40 prosthetic limbs throughout their lifetime. But who will be able to give them proper care when the targeting or damaging of health facilities by aerial bombardment has halved the number of operational health facilities and contributed to a massive exodus of health professionals?
Is there any hope? Moving towards a political declaration
At the beginning of October 2019, 133 states gathered with NGOs from around the world in Vienna to find a political solution to the harm caused to civilians by bombing and shelling in urban areas. By the end of the conference 84 states announced their willingness to work on an international agreement. This was a great first step forward, and a real victory for civil society.
There is still a huge amount of work to be done. Major states, including the UK and the US, remain unwilling to commit to an international agreement. We must work to change their minds.
Will governments act now to put an end to the horror caused by these horrendous weapons? Will they set the train in motion to agree an international political declaration to protect civilians in urban warfare? 90% of the victims of explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. Real success will only be measured by bringing this statistic down from 90% to 0%.
Please, join us in our campaign to Stop Bombing Civilians.
Aleema Shivji, Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion UK