Q. When we talk about armed conflict, isn’t it most important to focus on all those people killed and wounded in the fighting?
Contrary to what we might expect, the majority of people counted in statistics as “dying in wars” die of disease and malnutrition.1 People who depend on farming or animal herding for their living become terribly vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation when acts of war are committed — villages burned, land mines strewn over farmland, wells poisoned, or any of numerous other war “tactics.”
Two sizeable groups are at higher risk. Babies and toddlers often cannot survive in conflict conditions because their immune systems are not yet sufficiently developed to enable them to recover from illness or malnutrition. They may have missed critical vaccinations because of the fighting.2 Diseases that could be quickly cured under normal circumstances are often fatal when people don’t have access to basic supplies. For example, it has become widespread practice for mothers to use Oral Rehydration Therapy to treat babies and young children with severe diarrhea. This has saved countless young lives over the years.3 The necessary supplies — salt, and water that is clean or can be sterilized well enough to be safe to drink — are inexpensive. But they may be hard to come by in combat zones.
Women who are pregnant have additional nutritional needs. That is why, for example, pregnant women are screened for iron deficiency during prenatal health checkups. Those who are low in iron are advised on how they can increase their intake and/or given supplements. But during armed conflict, prenatal appointments may be impossible and sources of iron inaccessible. Women bleed to death because they are severely anemic at the time they give birth. 4
Q. Why do there seem to be so few men in refugee camps? All the news footage I’ve seen shows mostly women and little kids.
Beginning as soon as there are political tensions or rumors of hostilities, there are many points where it is all too easy for families to become separated. Men and older boys may be away from home when fighting begins, having migrated to cities or neighboring regions to look for work,5 and are then unable to return. Even if all family members are home, men and women farm separately in many countries—different crops, different fields. Being half a mile apart when armed men arrive can easily lead to separation.
In an effort to protect the family, fathers may urge mothers to flee immediately with babies and younger children rather than waiting for the family to assemble and leave as a group. Women and children not yet of school age may be the first or the only family members to reach shelters for displaced people. Men and adolescent boys are more likely to be killed during the conflict6 since they are perceived as the greatest military threats. Men and boys “of fighting age” may be rounded up and executed. Women and children killed in the war, on the other hand, are more likely to die of causes such as disease and malnutrition. Many of these deaths may occur after the most intense fighting is over.
Q. Why do so many conflicts start up again after the fighting stops or once there’s a peace agreement, either right away or after a couple of years?
The odds of success for hard-won ceasefires and peace agreements are not especially encouraging – about 50-50. It is quite an understatement to say that the conditions are not usually auspicious. The destruction of homes, farms, and entire villages, combined with a population composed largely of people who are sick, malnourished, and/or grieving loved ones who are dead or missing, create situations where it’s very difficult for peace to take root.
Many post-war societies were very poor to begin with, and people may find themselves with almost nothing after armed conflict subsides. Rebuilding — often with very few resources and the fear that any progress will only be destroyed by renewed fighting — may seem to some survivors to be a hopeless task. Households that are missing a parent, or a young adult who before the war was working and contributing to the support of the family, have particularly constrained options.
And, of course, whatever factors started the fighting in the first place may still be there. They may also be aggravated by a lack of “buy-in” to the terms of the peace agreement. In the absence of genuine commitment to implementing the agreement, leaders and/or local communities are far more likely to take up arms again.7
The chances of sliding back into war may also be heightened by the presence of many ex-combatants who have neither disarmed nor been welcomed back into their communities.8 Post-conflict societies are at risk of losing much of an entire generation of youth. Children have often missed years of education. Those who were forced to participate in the military effort may have seen and done things that their families, or the children themselves, or both, find unforgivable.
One factor critical to efforts to maintain a hard-won peace is ensuring that war survivors have food, shelter, and health care while they are working in their communities to rebuild. In the third episode of The Hunger Reports, we will talk more about the most important and effective areas for the United States, multilateral organizations, and other donors to focus their efforts.