Government and Donors Need to Bolster Support for Victims
There is no safe place in Kabul—you don’t know where the next attack will be. –Mohammad A., shopkeeper who survived an insurgent attack in Kabul, November 13, 2017 Since early 2016, insurgent groups in Afghanistan have sharply escalated their attacks in Kabul and other major urban areas that have left thousands of civilians dead and injured. Suicide attacks, including car and truck bombings, caused at least one-third of these casualties. Hundreds of civilians going about ordinary activities—walking down the street, working in a shop, preparing food at home, or worshipping in a mosque—have experienced sudden and terrifying violence.
The families of those who perish endure tremendous pain and suffering, and often the loss of a breadwinner. Those who survive are frequently left with lasting and debilitating physical and psychological wounds. Many face enduring problems getting health care, counseling, and other assistance.
This report—based largely on Human Rights Watch interviews in late 2017 and early 2018 in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Herat— details a number of the deadly attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan since late 2016, highlighting the continuing impact on affected families and communities. The report concludes with recommendations to insurgent groups and to government authorities responsible for providing support to victims.
In the past two years, the Taliban have intensified their attacks in large urban areas, ostensibly targeting Afghan government and foreign military facilities but using means that cause massive, indiscriminate casualties. These attacks have killed hundreds of civilians. In January 2018, the Taliban claimed responsibility for two large-scale attacks in Kabul that killed at least 125 civilians.
Attacks claimed by groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), have targeted civilian facilities, including many Shia mosques and a cultural center. The sectarian nature of these attacks marks an ominous development in Afghanistan’s armed conflict.
A May 31, 2017 truck bombing in Kabul was the largest single attack in the city during any period of the war, killing possibly 150 or more and injuring hundreds. The sheer size of the bomb and the location of the explosion—a busy traffic intersection in central Kabul—dramatically eroded the confidence of many Afghans in their security, a fear compounded by subsequent attacks. No group claimed responsibility for that attack.
According to statistics compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 2017 recorded the highest number of civilian casualties from suicide attacks and so-called complex attacks in a single year since the mission began documenting them in 2009.
Enduring Harm to Families and Communities
The cost to civilians from these attacks is far greater than the numbers of those killed or injured. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, relatives of individuals killed in insurgent attacks described the cascading negative consequences for victims’ families: the psychological trauma for relatives who witnessed the violence, some of whom had to search hospitals and morgues for the mutilated remains of their relatives; the devastating financial impact for families that have lost a breadwinner; the social consequences, especially for women who are suddenly widowed, becoming dependent on other members of their husband’s family for support and limited in where they can live and work; and the impact on children who have had to leave school, either because the family can no longer afford the cost or because the child must work in order to supplement the family’s income. Each death has a ripple effect on the family network, with spouses, children, parents, and other relatives suffering losses in support, emotional and social security, and income.
For those injured, there are also lasting harms that are not measured by the numbers. Many have ongoing physical health needs and may not be able to afford more expensive treatment beyond what most hospitals in Afghanistan can provide. Many medicines are costly and often out of reach for poorer Afghans. Those with severe physical injuries or acquired disabilities may lose mobility and the ability to work and contribute to the household or go to school. There are limited support services for people with disabilities in Afghanistan, who then become dependent on other family members.
Many of those Human Rights Watch interviewed described serious emotional and psychological trauma as a result of witnessing and surviving such attacks. The last 40 years of protracted conflict, social unrest, and limited mental health services have had a devastating impact on the mental well-being of many Afghans. The escalation in insurgent attacks in the past two years, bringing increased insecurity, uncertainty, violence, and economic hardship, has exacerbated trauma and psychological distress.
Although no statistics are available, Human Rights Watch research suggests a large proportion of those killed and injured have been the very poor. For example, the victims of the January 27, 2018 ambulance bomb in Kabul included street children, peddlers, and kiosk vendors. Those interviewed for this report who were injured in attacks included two mosque custodians, a wedding hall guard, a tailor, a baker, and a taxi driver. All of them described the severe financial hardship they endured after surviving the attack.
Government Support to Victims
Although the Afghan government offers some financial assistance to those injured and to the families of those killed in insurgent attacks, many of those we interviewed said they had received no government assistance despite promises that such aid was forthcoming. Others said that the process for obtaining assistance was prohibitively onerous, or was tainted by corruption, with some receiving assistance and others not.
As attacks have escalated, the growing needs of those affected have overwhelmed nongovernmental services. Nearly everyone with whom we spoke complained that no officials had come to ask them about their situation, or to inquire about their immediate needs and long-term medical recovery. Whatever animosity they felt toward those who had carried out the attack, they also described feeling abandoned by the government and the international community. Every person we interviewed described living with fear that other loved ones would die or be injured in the next catastrophic attack. The uncertainty of never knowing when or where the next attack would be increases anxiety and exacerbates psychological distress.
The Taliban claim they do not target civilians or carry out indiscriminate attacks, but actually protect civilians as an Islamic and Afghan obligation. As detailed in this report, however, their attacks in urban areas have taken a horrific toll on families and communities, and the harm continues to mount long after the attacks. The attacks are tearing at the families and lives that the Taliban have pledged to protect.
Both the Taliban and other insurgent groups should end attacks that fail to discriminate properly between civilians and combatants, as well as attacks that can be expected to cause disproportionate harm to civilians. They should cease all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian objects—including schools, hospitals, places of worship, and homes not in use for military purposes—as well as perfidious attacks, in which the attacker feigns protected civilian status to carry out an attack, such as using an ambulance to conceal bombs. Insurgent commanders who order or are otherwise responsible for serious laws of war violations should be held to account.
Governments have the responsibility under international law to protect the lives of all those under their jurisdiction and to bring those who commit criminal offenses to justice. Although governments have no obligation to provide redress to victims of insurgent armed attacks, there is a growing consensus, including at the United Nations, on the importance of assistance. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 and reviewed every two years, recognizes the importance of supporting and showing solidarity with victims of terrorism. While there is no recognized international instrument outlining countries’ specific obligations toward terrorism victims, there has been growing recognition that countries should develop national assistance systems that promote the needs of victims and their families and facilitate the normalization of their lives.
In light of this, the Afghan government should seek to formalize through regulation or legislation the current ad hoc system, or create a new program for providing assistance to civilian victims of the conflict, including those injured or those that have lost a family member from insurgent attacks.
The government should launch a campaign to inform the general public about the procedure for obtaining financial assistance or other support. Support should be equitably distributed, and complaints of corruption and discrimination should be promptly investigated. The government should also develop and implement measures to provide psychosocial support to survivors of attacks, whether by insurgents or government and allied forces. Afghanistan’s international donors should support programs to provide financial and other assistance, including psychosocial services, to civilian victims of attacks by all parties to the conflict.
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