The end of battlefield neutrality?

Contemporary war has ended the long practise of respect for the rights of non-combatants int he battlefield, say experts and jouranlists.

Aid workers and journalists no longer safe from attack

The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad lies in ruins after a massive suicide bomb explosion in August, 2003 that killed UN special representative Sérgio Vieira de Melo amd 21 others -- the worst single attack on aid agencies in modern times. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)
War has always been hell — especially for professional soldiers and civilians who live near combat zones.

Modern war spreads its deadly net much wider, and more ambiguously. Not only are more civilians than soldiers dying in recent conflicts, but journalists, aid workers and humanitarian officials are increasingly targets.

Once they were neutral participants in the world's wars — observers, bringers of succour, advocates for humanitarian codes of conduct, gatherers of information. No more. One thousand media workers have died in war zones in the past 10 years. Not even United Nations or Red Cross workers are safe. Dozens have been killed since the turn of the millennium, and the toll among smaller, less well known aid organizations and charities is even higher.

Local employees of charities and relief agencies are especially hard-hit, targetted and threatened on an almost daily basis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur.

Attacks on aid

August 2008: Three women with U.S.-based International Rescue Committee — a Canadian, a British-Canadian dual citizen and a Trinidadian-American —  killed in ambush in Logar, Afghanistan, with their Afghan driver.

July 2007: Two Afghans shot dead in ambush in Logar, also IRC workers.

April 2007: Two French and three Afghan aid workers abducted, apparently for ransom, in Nimroz, Southern Afghanistan.

August 2006: 17 Sri Lankans working on tsunami relief for Action Against Hunger executed in north of country; case still unresolved.

June 2004: Ambush of Médecins Sans Frontières convoy by suspected Taliban leaves five dead, organization pulls out.

October 2003: Unprecedented bomb attack on International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad leads to partial ICRC pull out.

August 2003: Suicide bomber blows himself up outside United Nations office in Baghdad, killing UN envoy to Iraq Sergio Viera de Mello and 22 others.

Most of the 23 aid workers killed in Afghanistan in the first eight months of 2008 were Afghans, although the deadly ambush of three Western women working for the International Rescue Commission in August was the worst single attack on foreigners in several years.

Dr. Mark Leith, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, studies war and peace from a psychological perspective. There's an insane and dangerous new dynamic at work on the world's battlefields, he said.

War is 'outmoded'

"War has broken down," Leith said. "It's outmoded. It makes no more sense in an evolutionary way, yet we continue to fight and deal with conflict as if it were still logical, an extension of politics and statecraft."

Contemporary conflict always involves irregular forces that don't wear uniforms. Battles are not fought in predetermined spots where armies jockey for position and follow the military equivalent of Marquis of Queensbury rules.

"Look at Afghanistan," Leith said. "Everybody is terrified of everybody else. As a psychiatrist, it's classic paranoia." NATO soldiers can't easily tell Taliban fighters from local men, who frequently carry guns for protection. Nor do Taliban militants differentiate between journalists or aid workers, and NATO troops, Leith said. "It's a murky hall of mirrors."

A photo of the late Daniel Pearl released by his kidnappers in Pakistan in late 2001, before they brutally murdered and beheaded him. He was a widely respected reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was investigating a Pakistani Islamist organization at the time he was abducted. (Canadian Press)
As for journalists, old beliefs in their neutrality and impartiality no longer offer protection in a conflict. Rodney Pinder of the International News Safety Institute, a working journalist for more than 30 years, said he's saddened and angered by the situation in the field.

"In the '60s and '70s, reporters were somehow regarded by all sides as tellers of the story, people who got out their version, and were allowed to operate safely in war zones," Pinder told CBC news. "Now, with the Internet and easy video making, everyone with a grudge or a grievance thinks they don't need journalists, that telling a balanced tale is an aggressive act."

More than one thousand journalists have been killed in war zones in the past 10 years, Pinder said. That makes the news when the victim is from a wealthy country, or a big media outlet, but mostly, he said, slain reporters are local people who take far more risks for far less reward than their Western counterparts.

"I often ask myself, why would any Iraqi want to be a journalist or cameraman, but they do and they die or get wounded and targeted every day — 100 since the invasion. It's appalling."

Getting there first

The French aid worker, named only as Celine, who was abducted and held for several weeks by the Taliban in Afghanistan before being released in April of 2007.
Aid and humanitarian officials have close working relationships with journalists in war zones. Unarmed and eager to be regarded as neutral, they work to help victims of combat, or to get their stories out to a wider world in hopes of a compassionate response. A sort of competition can often be seen among aid workers trying to reach suffering or victimized populations, and to share the information.

Stephen Matthews is a "first responder" to international catastrophes for the charity World Vision Canada. He has spent much of the past ten years in war zones, from Rwanda to Afghanistan, Iraq to Angola. It's getting tougher out there, he said, and more dangerous.

"A huge degree of overt politicization has taken place," Matthews said. "There's a trench mindset in the field among combatants and if you're not in the trench with them, if you're working with or even nearby the other side, then you're a target."

By the numbers: targeting journalists

O: Number of journalists killed in Iraq before 2003, the year the U.S. invaded.

164: Number of journalists killed from 2003 until end of 2007.

73: Percentage of journalists killed in line of duty who are murdered.

33: Percentage of journalists killed in past ten years who were covering war.

1,064: Total number of media personnel killed in the past ten years.

Figures: Committee to Protect Journalists, International News Safety Institute

The suicide bombing of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad in 2003 was a tipping point for humanitarian work, Matthews said.

"It was all downhill after that," he said. "We crossed the threshold when the number one cause of death in the field for people like me stopped being traffic accidents and started being related to combat."

Trust the goose bumps

The key, according to both Matthews and Pinder, is proper training and an understanding in news media and aid agency management that no objective is worth the life of an employee.

That is the gist of "hostile environment courses" that are now de rigueur for almost anyone assigned to a non-combat role in a war zone. Most are conducted by former soldiers and it's become a multimillion-dollar business.

"It's all about common sense, trusting your instincts, whether you're a seasoned military man or a journalist. When those hairs go up on the back of your neck, you pay attention," said Gaz Purssey of the British firm Centurion International, which trains people for work in conflict zones.

Purssey spent 22 years in the Royal Marines. He fought in the Falklands War and other conflicts and has travelled to most of the world's modern hotspots as a trainer and security expert for media companies and aid agencies.

"It's all about staying safe and protecting yourself and others from harm and frankly, that means knowing your enemy and knowing that they don't view you as some sort of neutral. You're a threat and you can't forget that."

As wars and conflict proliferate, so does the demand for media coverage and relief from suffering. There's no clear consensus on ways to alleviate  and minimize risk.

Training, caution and sensitive management all help, but as long as human beings put themselves in harm's way, some will be harmed.