THE individual stories are dreadful: of families killed together in their sleep by exploding artillery shells, of thousands forced from their homes. Civilians in northern Sri Lanka are caught between advancing government soldiers and the crumbling forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
On Tuesday February 3rd the Red Cross in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, reported that a hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu town, in an area controlled by the Tigers, had been shelled again, after attacks at the weekend killed several patients. Aid workers and United Nations staff say the institution is a refuge for civilians. Sri Lanka’s rulers denied responsibility for the shelling, suggesting that the Tigers may themselves be destroying buildings, perhaps for reasons of propaganda.
Some 250,000 civilians are trapped in the north of Sri Lanka where the Tigers, suffering military defeats in recent months, are still being pummelled by government troops. As the Tigers lose control of territory-the government claims just 600 rebels are now fighting-they may yet switch strategy to guerrilla fighting, which in turn would leave civilians vulnerable.
Although the government in Colombo says it is poised to crush the Tigers, it is reluctant to let journalists or other independent observers report directly on the fighting, saying it is unable to guarantee their safety, but presumably also to avoid unfavourable commentary on the fate of civilians. Its strategy is not unusual. Israel’s army also kept reporters at bay during its assault in late December and January on the densely populated Gaza Strip, when attacks on Hamas militants also inflicted great misery on civilians. Of some 1,300 people killed in Gaza, probably more than half were civilians. The UN and the Red Cross sharply criticised Israel’s strategy, which appeared designed to punish civilians through the destruction of local infrastructure, as well as to stop Hamas fighters launching rockets into Israel.
The governments of Sri Lanka and Israel both deny any intention to hurt civilians, but critics allege that civilian deaths were not incidental to recent fighting but represented, at the least, a lack of care for non-combatants and, at worst, a form of collective punishment for those suspected of sympathising with militants. Elsewhere deliberate attacks on civilians have proven to be an appalling, if relatively effective, method of warfare. In eastern Congo competing militias, largely representing rival ethnic groups (notably Hutus and Tutsis) and governments (of Congo itself and of neighbouring Rwanda), have attacked, mutilated and displaced civilians as a means of getting control of mineral-rich territory.
Widespread assaults on women in which victims are mass raped and disfigured, but not killed, seem to be a deliberate strategy to spread terror and trauma among Congolese who are seen as supporters of rival militias. A large majority of the several million people who have died as a result of fighting in eastern Congo in the past decade or so are civilians. Similarly in western Sudan, in Darfur, most military encounters (whether bombing raids by government aircraft, or ground attacks by warlords) are one-sided assaults on unarmed non-combatants.
Deliberate attacks on the unarmed are of course nothing new. The second world war saw mass murder (in the Holocaust, notably) or wilful killing (the nuclear strike on Hiroshima, the firebombing of Dresden, the siege of Stalingrad) of tens of millions of non-combatants. Since then civilians have died in their millions in genocides (in Cambodia and Rwanda, for example) and non-combatants have been targeted as a part of “ethnic cleansing”, as in the Balkans wars of the 1990s when Serbs, Croats and Bosnians vied for territory.
But the nature of war appears to be changing, as interstate conflict has become rare to the point of extinction, leaving violent clashes in which civilians are particularly vulnerable. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank, the past five years have seen almost no formal military clash between states, unless one counts the brief confrontation last year between Russia and Georgia, largely in the disputed territory of South Ossetia. Other forms of fighting continue, including those between groups backed by rival governments, for example with Ethiopian soldiers fighting a self-declared government of Islamists in Somalia. But the number of large conflicts appears to be declining slightly (see chart).
Even the number of civil wars that pit governments against rebel movements may be declining, as governments increasingly get the upper hand, as in Iraq, Colombia and Sri Lanka. That leaves conflicts that rage in weak and failing states (as in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan), or in ungoverned space (in parts of Somalia), where rival non-state actors, terrorist groups, militants and warlords do battle. In such circumstances the lot of civilians may be the most miserable, and their conditions the hardest for anyone, outsider or local, to alleviate.