Late 2020 saw the beginning of the devastating war in Tigray and the occupation of a disputed region on the Ethiopia–Sudan border – Al Fashaga – by the Sudanese army. These shocks disrupted settled patterns of land ownership and control in both Ethiopia’s volatile north and Sudan’s borderlands, historically the heart of the sesame and oilseed production that is economically vital to both countries.
These seemingly harmless cash crops are now embedded in local, subnational and national political contestations in both countries. Sesame value chains are being reshaped, with power and profits being used to entrench the grip of political and armed actors who are reinforcing new patterns of land control and driving informal and illicit trade – impacting the coping mechanisms of local communities and threatening to fuel further conflict.
Regional rivalries drive contestation over the Ethiopia supply chain
Internal borders between most of Ethiopia’s regions are marked by boundary disputes, which often degenerate into violent conflict. The most important is between the Tigray and Amhara regions. Since the war began in 2020, the Amhara region has annexed vast areas of western and southern Tigray, which the Amhara region claims were taken from them by Tigray 30 years ago, after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated ethnic coalition came to power.
Ethiopia’s exports of spices, oilseeds and pulses brought in over half a billion dollars in 2021, roughly a quarter of the country’s total export revenues and second only to coffee. The sector has been rocked by the war in the north, which accounted for much of Ethiopia’s sesame production, with an estimated 500,000 hectares of sesame fields taken out of cultivation during the 2021 growing season. Conflict has exacerbated a steady decline in formal revenues from sesame exports, dropping over $115 million from 2016 to 2021.
Alongside falling production, the previously integrated value chain has been disrupted and decentralized by political fragmentation and land competition between Amharas and Tigrayans. Before the war, the agricultural sector in Western Tigray/Welkait was dominated by Tigrayan business interests, through the TPLF’s regional endowment fund EFFORT, a business conglomerate including subsidiaries such as Guna Trading House, and Hiwot Agricultural Mechanization.
The taking of the area by Amhara forces in late 2020 saw the control over agricultural supply chains shift to actors from the Amhara region, amid contestation between regional officials, businessmen and security actors, backed by political elites. Thousands of displaced ethnic Tigrayan inhabitants of the area have been replaced by ethnic Amharas, enticed to settle there by the Amhara regional government’s offer of grants and leases for land which promise better livelihoods. The sesame they farm is now largely exported through informal and illicit channels, with profits used to reinforce de facto regional control.
But there is also contestation within the Amhara region over the land and sesame supply chain between sub-regional elites from Gojjam, Gondar and indigenous Welkaites. Welkaites, who were marginalized under TPLF rule, believed that by aligning themselves with powerful Amharas they would reclaim land and influence. But this has not been fully realized, with the local administration reliant on Amhara region subsidies, rather than the federal budget. With little support from the federal government, local Welkait officials are strengthening their ties with Eritrea.
At the national level, regional contestation over the control over Western Tigray/Welkait feeds into shifting political alliances between the Amhara, Tigrayans and Oromo which threaten the sustainability of the peace agreement struck between the federal government and TPLF in November 2022 – despite efforts by the government to defer the thorny issue.
While the constitutional return of the land to Tigray remains unlikely anytime soon, there is a feeling that Amhara control over Western Tigray/Welkait is no longer certain. The Ethiopian government’s pursuit of peace with Tigray may lead it to turn away from the Amhara region, despite their alliance during and before the war, which could result in a renewed showdown between Amhara and Tigrayan forces.
The prospect of losing territory could also heighten Amhara nationalist claims on Al Fashaga – the loss of which was partly offset by gaining Western Tigray/Welkait – leading to renewed conflagration with Sudan, outside of federal direction. Eritrea’s presence and alliance with Amhara militias remains a concern, given Asmara’s demonstrable ability to inflame tensions.
Sudan’s securocrats battle over resources to entrench political power
The war in northern Ethiopia was also used opportunistically by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) to take control of the fertile Al Fashaga borderland. This roughly 250 sq km area had been awarded to Sudan when the boundary was initially demarcated by the British in 1903, a ruling that remained contested by Ethiopia. An uneasy truce had seen Ethiopian farmers cultivate the land under nominal Sudanese administration; a settlement that collapsed in 2020 when thousands of predominantly Amhara farmers were evicted.
Local Sudanese farmers have also lost out – with some not compensated for the loss of lands to their own military, with land given to people from other parts of the country, and through lost relationships with Ethiopian farmers, labourers and investors.
The Sudanese military now allegedly controls more than 90 per cent of the disputed areas and security-linked companies and investors have moved into the lucrative sesame sector, re-routing the supply chain, which used to flow largely through Ethiopian markets. These companies are connected to Sudan’s Military Industrial Corporation, a vast conglomerate of business subsidiaries controlled by SAF – which is headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
The commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo (or Hemedti), also has interests in agriculture, through his family business Al-Junaid. Both sit at the top of Sudan’s Sovereign Council. Hemedti’s competition with Burhan has seen him develop relations with Ethiopia’s prime minister – counter-balanced by recent rapprochement between Abiy and Burhan – as well as senior Amhara leaders, including over business activities.
Moreover, competition between Sudanese security actors fuels volatile political rivalries, and further entrenches military control of economic resources, undermining civilians at a time when pro-democracy forces are seeking to restore a reform-minded government. One of the key challenges for a new civilian government will be to quickly build up a domestic revenue base to compete with the economic heft of the country’s prominent security institutions, which will demand taking on military-controlled holdings in civic sectors such as agriculture, including sesame.
Informal and illicit trade reinforces conflict dynamics
This context has driven the informalization of trade, with cash crops such as sesame increasingly exported outside of formal channels and connected to other illicit cross-border activities between Ethiopia and Sudan. Indications are that sesame production in Western Tigray/Welkait has recovered significantly during the current 2022/23 harvest season. However, rather than contributing much needed currency to soften Ethiopia’s forex crisis, the Amhara elite-controlled supply chain is primarily being used to secure a variety of regional interests.
Uncertainty is a condition that all individuals experience, and it is something that we all, to differing extents, encounter every day. There are some situations and incidents, however, that might elicit intense and long-lasting feelings of uncertainty in people. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us experienced uncertainty at a much higher level than we were used to. Job security, access to medical care, and daily routines all came under attack as governments worldwide sought to cope with the constantly evolving virus and the body of scientific knowledge that grew alongside it. For those who have experienced conflict, however, enduring intense trauma and uncertainty can be a common part of life.[i] Individuals from conflict-affected places who have, for instance, also experienced violence, are often subjected to displacement, and to a sudden and dramatic change in their lives, which can be accompanied by a dearth of information.[ii]
As part of the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, a multi-disciplinary team of experts at King’s College London is seeking to understand the factors that shape violent and peaceful behaviours in conflict zones. We know that uncertainty plays a role in shaping both social functioning and susceptibility to violent ideologies.[iii] In conflict-affected populations, where uncertainty is prevalent, it is therefore crucial to examine how this process takes place in order to help stop it.
What Do We Mean by Uncertainty?
When analysing the implications of uncertainty on individuals’ behaviours and decision-making, it is important to differentiate between the diverse theories around uncertainty, among which we can identify two prominent ones. The first is uncertainty-identity theory, a social psychological theory that focuses on how individuals perceive their roles in society. Individuals’ identities are shaped in significant part by the roles they perform in society, such as being a daughter or a son, a husband or a wife, or being defined by the job they do. When individuals experience losses in their positions – losing a job or a partner, for example – their identities are threatened, and they become unsure of who they are. This uncertainty makes them vulnerable to organisations characterised by highly defined in-group/out-group boundaries, norms, goals, and traditions; these groups hold significant power as they provide individuals, who are experiencing uncertainty, with specific identities. People’s choice of joining, for instance, an ultra-fundamentalist religion, or an extremist group, is indeed heavily influenced by their social ecology and group dynamics.[iv] Consequently, the core idea of uncertainty-identity theory is that individuals identify with social groups in order to reduce feelings and perceptions of uncertainty related to themselves, their identity, and future life situations.[v]
On the other side, research has largely focused on Intolerance of Uncertainty (IoU), namely a stable and permanent personality trait that, in contrast to uncertainty-identity, does not arise from specific circumstances or changes.[vi] Instead, individuals with IoU find strongly disturbing those circumstances where they lack the power to predict and control the occurrences around them, such as conflicts or wars, whereas they can conduct normal lives when able to exert control over events in their lives.[vii] This tendency has also been significantly related with diverse anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).[viii] Individuals with high levels of Intolerance of Uncertainty are more prone to engage in maladaptive behaviours – this is also the case with individuals experiencing uncertainty-identity – in the attempt to reduce uncertainty and to increase their control over the circumstances around them.[ix] Joining an extremist group or a cult can reduce this distress and difficulty due to the feelings of community, purpose, values, and coherence that those groups bring.[x] In the context of conflict, it is also important to note that experiences of war can create trauma which leads to more uncertainty intolerance, thus creating situations where people who are intolerant to uncertainty find themselves living in extremely uncertain circumstances.
What is the Relationship Between Uncertainty and Extremist Violence?
Research around both uncertainty-identity theory and Intolerance of Uncertainty has found that individuals largely attempt to reduce uncertainty around their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours.[xi] They do not, however, always embrace positive methods to do this.[xii] Consequently, a new avenue of research has started investigating whether experiencing uncertainty, or having high levels of uncertainty intolerance, can influence individuals’ endorsement of extremist ideologies. This is particularly relevant when individuals are from conflict-affected areas, as terrorist and extremist groups can exploit the chaos and societal instability in these regions in order to acquire power and control, through recruitment of new members, propaganda, and the use of violence.[xiii]
While researching the paramount role of group identification, psychologists Hogg and Adelman found that individuals experiencing uncertainty about themselves were more prone to engage in criminal and extremist activities in an attempt to increase their feelings of certainty.[xiv] Another study similarly found that, when individuals are experiencing acute and chronic uncertainty, they can become significantly attracted to extremist groups and their ideologies, as the latter provides certainty around how an individual needs to behave and what to believe in.[xv] It is also believed that, when individuals experience a crisis, they can become more vulnerable and susceptible to new ideologies and beliefs. Wiktorowicz labels this process ‘cognitive opening’, whereby a personal, economic, or religious change leads someone to attempt to make sense of their life and identity.[xvi] Extremist groups can be attractive in these situations, as they provide individuals with a powerful and strongly defined sense of themselves, as well as with a rigorous structure and leadership.[xvii]
Uncertainty may play a crucial role in the endorsement of violent ideologies, and thus potentially of violent behaviours, as individuals are likely to become vulnerable to extremist groups in their attempts to reduce uncertainty.[xviii] This becomes even more relevant in the context of conflicts, where high levels of uncertainty may be prevalent due to the distressing and violent environments that individuals find themselves in, and where extremist groups are more likely to find shelter, due to the unstable and chaotic security and political situation. When deciding what interventions should be put in place to support individuals in conflict-affected areas, therefore, it is vital that policymakers consider the role that uncertainty may play in a person’s life. Yet, they should also note that uncertainty can manifest in different ways. Where someone has uncertainty-identity, interventions that help to restore a person’s role in society may be beneficial. If an individual has Intolerance of Uncertainty, they can be taught techniques which improve their ability to make decisions in moments of distress. Ultimately, however, policies at the individual level must go hand in hand with interventions to help improve the underlying socio-structural issues which cause instability and uncertainty in the lives of so many, such as in fragile and conflict affected states. Together, this may help turn people away from violent ideologies and extremist groups and create a more secure peace.
[i] Nickerson, Hoffman, J., Keegan, D., Kashyap, S., Argadianti, R., Tricesaria, D., Pestalozzi, Z., Nandyatama, R., Khakbaz, M., Nilasari, N., & Liddell, B. (2023). Intolerance of uncertainty, posttraumatic stress, depression, and fears for the future among displaced refugees. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 94, 102672–102672. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2023.102672
[ii] Nickerson, Hoffman, J., Keegan, D., Kashyap, S., Argadianti, R., Tricesaria, D., Pestalozzi, Z., Nandyatama, R., Khakbaz, M., Nilasari, N., & Liddell, B. (2023). Intolerance of uncertainty, posttraumatic stress, depression, and fears for the future among displaced refugees. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 94, 102672–102672. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2023.102672
[iii] Jonas, E., McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holbrook, C., et al. (2014). “Threat and defense: from anxiety to approach” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. eds. J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, vol. 49 (San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press), 219–286; Hogg, M. A. (2012). Self-uncertainty, social identity, and the solace of extremism. In M. A. Hogg & D. L. Blaylock (Eds.), Extremism and the psychology of uncertainty (pp. 19–35). Boston, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.
[iv] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[v] Hogg, A. M., and Adelman, J. (2013). Uncertainty–identity theory: extreme groups, radical behavior, and authoritarian leadership. J. Soc. Issues 69, 436–454. doi: 10.1111/josi.12023
[vi] Carleton, R., Norton, M., & Asmundson, G. (2007). Fearing the unknown: A short version of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 21(1), 105-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.03.014
[vii] Buhr, K., & Dugas, M. (2002). The intolerance of uncertainty scale: psychometric properties of the English version. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 40(8), 931-945. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(01)00092-4
[viii] Carleton, R., Norton, M., & Asmundson, G. (2007). Fearing the unknown: A short version of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 21(1), 105-117.
[ix] Shihata, S., McEvoy, P. M., & Mullan, B. A. (2018). A Bifactor Model of Intolerance of Uncertainty in Undergraduate and Clinical Samples: Do We Need to Reconsider the Two-Factor Model? Psychological Assessment, 30(7), 893–903. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000540
[x] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[xi] Jonas, E., McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holbrook, C., et al. (2014). “Threat and defense: from anxiety to approach” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. eds. J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, vol. 49 (San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press), 219–286.
[xii] Hogg, M. A. (2014). From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 338 342. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414540168
[xiii] United Nations. (2020). A new era of conflict and violence. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/2020/01/un75_conflict_violence.pdf
[xiv] Hogg, A. M., and Adelman, J. (2013). Uncertainty–identity theory: extreme groups, radical behavior, and authoritarian leadership. J. Soc. Issues 69, 436–454. doi: 10.1111/josi.12023
[xv] Hogg, A. M., and Wagoner, A. J. (2017). “Uncertainty—identity theory” in International encyclopedia of intercultural communication. ed. K. Young Yun (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc), 1–9.
[xvi] Wiktorowicz, Q. (2005). Radical Islam rising: Muslim extremism in the West. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
[xvii] Hogg, M. A. (2014). From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 338 342. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414540168
[xviii] Ozer, & Bertelsen, P. (2019). Countering Radicalization: An Empirical Examination From a Life Psychological Perspective. Peace and Conflict, 25(3), 211–225. https://doi.org/10.1037/pac0000394
Within the realm of conflict zones, translators play a complex role in representing, and sustaining, narratives and the everyday stories of conflict-affected populations. Although a body of literature has focused on the role of language in war and conflict, the process of translation and interpretation in conflict zones has not yet found a fundamental place in war and conflict research.[i] Translation is the process by which a text in one language is re-contextualised into another language, yet it is more than purely linguistic arbitration.[ii] Emotions, culture, and ethics can all influence the outcome of translation, and navigating these in conflict situations can prove to be challenging.
In her book on the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Mona Baker describes translation as ‘the mediation of diffuse symbols, experiences, narratives, and linguistic signs’.[iii] Thus, if we understand conflict zones as contact spaces where distinct cultures meet, clash, and fight with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, then we can begin to understand the challenges faced by translators or interpreters, and the regulations that determine the spaces in which they work.[iv] Who is allowed to speak which language? Who can speak when? When should one be quiet? Accordingly, translation goes beyond linguistic challenges – those working in this field are confronted with political, cultural, emotional, and ethical dilemmas.
Can translation be manipulated?
Telling the stories, and navigating the narratives, of conflict-affected populations encompasses sensitive and controversial challenges, which can manifest in a translator’s political beliefs or ideologies regarding certain matters in the text. One challenge faced is that entrenched ethnic, religious, tribal, and sectarian loyalties can affect the output of a translator or interpreter. In this regard, translation can fall prey to becoming a manipulatory act that promotes or changes the meaning of the source text or interview.[v] These changes may manipulate audiences by presenting an inaccurate or fabricated translation that advances the opinions of the translator or the ideology of the translation agency. A translator’s main aim should be to accurately convey the narratives of the conflict-affected populations, yet often they are faced with enormous moral quandaries in adhering to codes of ethics while also balancing tensions between personal/professional and local/global loyalties.[vi]
Another crucial consideration that is often overlooked is the wellbeing and emotional state of someone working as a translator in conflict zones. Listening to the life stories and traumatic experiences of individuals who have lived through conflict can have an psychological toll, and it requires a great deal of emotional regulation to be able to interpret these individuals’ memories, experiences, hopes, and fears with neutrality.[vii] Translating the experiences of conflict-affected populations as part of the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, I have had to draw on both intuition and resilience to help manage the negative emotional states and responses prompted by such work. Being able to regulate your emotions is an important part of being a successful translator, but it is also important to recognise that translators may experience vicarious trauma, and to ensure that the right support is in place to help those working in this role.[viii]
On the other hand, it is also important to be able to embrace these emotions. The neurologist Antonio R. Damasio argues that “emotions play a critical role in all – also high-level – cognition and decision-making”.[ix] Emotional engagement is a powerful motivating factor that gives translators the chance to feel connected to their job and, most importantly, recall and reflect complex emotions encountered in the realm of conflict zones. One technique that translators may find advantageous in this respect is to keep a diary of their emotions. It gives them an opportunity to vent feelings that they suppress during interpersonal engagements, and, in writing, they may relive these. This enhances the interpretation and translation of the direct word for word emotive responses, so helping to accurately convey the emotions of interviewees.
Understanding local meanings
The English language has around one million words, while Arabic, one of the oldest Afro-Asiatic languages in the world, is hugely derivational, with an incredible lexicon that exceeds twelve million words.[x] When faced with this profusion of vocabulary choices, it is clear that translators are confronted with a difficult task when ensuring the selection of appropriate words and phrases. Working on the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, I have had to be sensitive to vulnerabilities and cultural boundaries before deciding which words to choose in certain circumstances. To translate the word ‘militant’, for instance, when I was working on interview transcripts with the families of Lebanese hostages held by the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or Daesh) and Al Nusra Front, I considered words such as fighter (muqātil), freedom fighter (munādil) or struggler (mukāfih), when referring to non-state Islamist or militant groups, such as ISIL, Free Syrian Army (FSA), Hezbollah, or state actors, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). One lexical choice can affect the perception of an entire sentence, which can put neutrality and impartiality at stake.
There is always a complicated interaction at play between text, reader, and the first and second languages, and translators need to clearly understand the main concept of the text they are working with. One consideration that will help translators to unpick this interaction is the use of critical and reflective thinking skills, which are essential for problem-solving, judgement and decision-making, and controlling one’s feelings.[xi] Critical and reflective thinkers should be trustful, flexible, open-minded, well-informed and wise in making judgements.[xii] In translating research interviews on peacebuilding and reconstruction in Iraq post ISIL, I had to critically examine my lexical choices, and their implications, to ensure that the translation considered and respected the sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and cultural boundaries of the local population. In translating words like peacebuilding (binā al salam), reconciliation (almusalaha), and cohesion (tamasuk), I had to underline the fact that this often-used Western vocabulary is controversial and problematic in Iraqi society because they mean different things to different sectarian and ethnic groups. The use of these phrases could isolate local populations and prevent them from engaging actively in communal dialogues.[xiii] Critical thinking helped me, as a translator, to understand, assess, explain, and make decisions swiftly.
Translating and interpreting the narratives of conflict-affected populations is not a straightforward task. War and conflict studies should place translation at its core and engage in interdisciplinary discussions on emotions, culture, and ethics that influence the translation process. Translation is not only a linguistic-textual operation in which a text in one language is re-contextualised into another language. It is a complicated and multifaceted process that requires various skills – cultural awareness, adaptability, subject knowledge, curiosity, and writing, analysis, and research ability – all of which are vital if a translator is to do justice to the stories of those who have shared them.
Mohamad El Kari works as a translator for XCEPT. His translation work focuses on security and stability in Lebanon and peacebuilding in Iraq.
[i] Tesseur, W., 2019. Translating and interpreting in danger zones. Journal of War & Culture Studies, 12(3), pp.215-219.
[ii] House, J., 1997. Translation quality assessment: A model revisited. Gunter Narr Verlag.
[iii] Baker, M. ed., 2015. Translating dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian revolution. Routledge.
[iv] Pratt, M.L., 1991. Arts of the contact zone. Profession, pp.33-40.
[v] Hamdan, J.M., Naser, R.S. and Hamdan, H.J., 2021. Arabic-English translation in the Palestinian–Israeli ‘Conflict’: Ideology in the Wings. SKASE Journal of Translation and Interpretation, 14(2), pp.80-96.
[vi] Tryuk, M., 2020. Translating and interpreting in conflict and crisis. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Ethics, pp.398-414.
[vii] Cheng, S., 2022. Exploring the role of translators’ emotion regulation and critical thinking ability in translation performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 13; Hubscher-Davidson, S., 2017. Translation and emotion: A psychological perspective. Routledge.
[viii] Institute of Translation and Interpreting (2021) Position statement on vicarious trauma in interpreters [Online] available at https://www.iti.org.uk/resource/position-statement-on-vicarious-trauma-in-interpreters.html
[ix] Scientific American Mind (2005) Feeling our Emotions [Online] available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/
[x] Abdel Fattah, R. (2022) The translator is a traitor: translation in humanitarian response. [Online] https://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2022/12/20/traitor-translation-humanitarian-response/; Akan, M.F., Karim, M.R. and Chowdhury, A.M.K., 2019. An analysis of Arabic-English translation: Problems and prospects. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 10(1), pp.58-65.
[xi] Cheng, S., 2022. Exploring the role of translators’ emotion regulation and critical thinking ability in translation performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.
[xii] Itmeizeh, M. and Hassan, A., 2020. New approaches to teaching critical thinking skills through a new EFL curriculum. International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, 24(07), pp.8864-8880.
[xiii] XCEPT (2023) Controversies and Challenges of peacebuilding in Nineveh: Revisiting Post-IS reconciliation in Iraq. [Online] https://xcept-research.org/publication/controversies-and-challenges-of-peacebuilding-in-nineveh-revisiting-post-is-reconciliation-in-iraq/
Russia’s involvement in smuggling wheat out of the occupied regions or territories of Ukraine has been widely reported over the past year. In response, the US issued sanctions in September 2022 against Russian proxy officials involved in the theft of Ukrainian grain. While these targeted measures have managed to steer many countries in the Middle East and Africa away from buying the stolen wheat, Syria has become one of its primary destinations.
Due to the sanctions already imposed on both Russia and Syria they do not have many alternative trading partners and are also less concerned about any additional consequences they may face as a result of their cooperation. Their relationship has been further encouraged by Syria’s dire need for wheat in the face of increasing food insecurity, and Damascus’ agreement to overpay Moscow for the commodity in exchange for loans. The role of sanctions in encouraging this cooperation requires careful examination of the sanctions regimes, but without increasing food insecurity in Syria, particularly in wake of the earthquake.
Syrian wheat production
Prior to the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Syria produced around 3.5 million tonnes of wheat per year, enough to meet domestic demand. However, the large-scale damage to agricultural infrastructure, deepening economic crisis, territorial divisions, corruption, displacement, low profitability of agricultural activities and bad weather conditions have nearly halved Syria’s wheat production.
These stresses have significantly impacted the availability of subsidized bread, an essential food staple for many Syrians, forcing millions of Syrians to cut meals or pushing them into debt. The lack of subsidized bread has contributed to the food insecurity faced by 12.1 million Syrians – approximately 50 per cent more than in 2019 – which will be further exacerbated by the impact of the recent earthquakes.
As a result, the Syrian government has become heavily reliant on wheat imports from Russia, which currently range between 1.2 and 1.5 million tonnes a year. Research by the XCEPT project shows that not all the wheat going from, or through, Russia into Syria was legally obtained; occupied Crimea alone exported over 1 million tonnes of wheat to Syria between 2019 and 2022. Sources also highlighted that Moscow’s occupation of parts of Ukraine has significantly increased the overall volume of grains being shipped.
Impact of sanctions regimes
The above findings show that, instead of reducing illicit activities, sanctions against Syria and Russia have apparently increased their cooperation. While many countries would avoid purchasing wheat that may have originated in Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia due to a fear of secondary sanctions, this is less of a concern for a country like Syria which is itself a target of international sanctions.
Russia is also able to sell the stolen wheat to the Syrian government way above market price, as it is currently one of the countries issuing loans to the Syrian government. According to leaked documents, Moscow’s condition for the loans was that the money could only be used to pay specific Russian companies. As the conflict in Syria has led to a decrease in revenue streams and foreign currency, the Syrian government did not have much choice but to accept unfavourable finance conditions to finance the import of essential commodities like wheat. The Syrian government reportedly instructed its officials to award the wheat tenders to Russian companies, regardless of how uncompetitive their offers were.
For example, the Kremlin-linked wheat company OZK sold wheat to Syria at $350 per tonne when the international market price was around $257. Similarly, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous indicated in 2021 that his country imported 1.5 million tonnes of Russian wheat for around $319 per tonne, while the global price of wheat did not surpass $235.
Addressing the conflict supply chain of wheat
Despite substantial wheat imports, the Syrian government is still struggling with dire wheat shortages. XCEPT research indicates that this is due to corruption and nepotism found throughout the wheat supply chain, whereby the elites involved in the wheat trade find ways to profit while millions of Syrians are forced to go hungry. The intersection of the different conflicts, the theft of Ukrainian wheat by Russian entities, and the corruption which is causing food insecurity throughout Syria are all facets of the conflict supply chain of wheat. And this conflict supply chain is fuelling the wars in both Syria and Ukraine. The wheat stolen so far is estimated to be worth $530 million – money used to support the war machines in both countries.
This reality is unlikely to change. Syria’s wheat production in 2023 is expected to remain around 75 per cent lower than pre-2011 levels due to insufficient rainfall and the high cost of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers, seeds and fuel. This means its cereal import needs for this year is forecast at 2.7 million tonnes. This reliance on imports – in addition to the funds diverted to fuel conflict in Syria – almost guarantees Syria will remain a potential market for the stolen grains.
In the 12 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, nearly 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country, seeking refuge in Europe. Approximately another 6 million have been internally displaced. The attention of European policy makers is, understandably, focused on this particular emergency and in helping Ukrainian refugees settle, but they are not the only ones who need help. In 2022, 103 million people worldwide were forced to flee war, violence, and persecution. The numbers are stark. But what happens when attention, money, and interest wane? These people don’t just ‘fade away’.
As part of the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, I have spent the last four months working with a group of ‘forgotten’ refugees: Syrian ex-military officers who now live in Turkey. This research is ongoing, but so far 15 ex-Syrian military officers residing in Turkey have participated in a mix of virtual interviews and online questionnaires. The focus of my research is on how experiences of conflict impact the leadership style of political and military leaders, from both state and non-state armed groups, and whether this foments violent or peaceful behaviour. My research has, however, also shed light on how these men experience refugeehood, and how this can contribute to instances of conflict trauma and mental health problems.
“Life was good at first … but these days it has become very difficult”
The men with whom my team and I have been conducting interviews were high-ranking military officers, who deserted the Syrian Army and fled to Turkey almost a decade ago. They now navigate an increasingly unwelcoming and hostile environment, intensified by the human, economic, and political toll caused by the recent earthquake. A downturn in the Turkish economy that started in 2018, and was exacerbated by Covid, has seen tensions develop between refugee and local communities, with neighbourhoods reporting they have a ”refugee problem”. As one interviewee put it “Life was good at first [in Turkey] but these days it has become very difficult.” It is a pattern that is all too familiar. Citizens of a host country become more unwilling to provide for refugees as the number of them, and the length of time they remain in the country, increases. A 2022 survey found that 66% of Turks think Syrians should return to their homeland.
Many have perceived an increase in levels of discrimination faced by refugees. This can be physical harassment, such as being called derogatory names, but was also described as ‘racist discrimination’, for example, in instances where Syrians have been denied job opportunities because of their nationality. A common theme that emerged from interviews was the worry that the Turkish regime was attempting to make life so “uncomfortable” that Syrians would feel they had no choice but to leave. The arbitrary arrest and deportation of hundreds of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Syria in October last year only increases these very real fears. One interviewee stated bleakly that his foremost concern was the Turkish authorities “forcing immigrants to return to the system of murder, corruption, poor education, poverty and bad morals [in Syria].” As defectors, they fear that if they return to Assad-controlled territory, they will face death or imprisonment.
Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake, anti-Syrian sentiment is reportedly rising, with Syrians being accused of looting and other criminal acts. Given that tensions between Syrian refugees and Turkish authorities and communities are already high, there is a fear that, as grief turns to anger, Syrians are increasingly becoming scapegoats.
Living as refugees
Alongside these fears are the concerns brought about by day-to-day life as a refugee. Just as Turkish citizens are facing economic difficulties, so too are Syrian refugees. When they first arrived, these former high-ranking members of the Syrian military lived in ‘officers camps’ in Hatay province, close to the border with Syria – a space where the sounds and sights of the war, as well as the country they had fled, were still very much in evidence. In the camps food and accommodation were provided, and they were afforded a close-knit community where social ties were maintained with fellow Syrian military personnel. When the camps were disbanded, it signalled an unwillingness on the part of the Turkish authorities to accommodate the refugees, and it forced residents to move into Turkish communities. In many of these areas, tensions between the two communities have spilled over into violence.
Life is now a daily struggle because of the high cost of living and very limited job opportunities. Many live on the threshold of poverty, with a lack of electricity, and some have become so frustrated with the lack of employment that they cross over the border to work in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria. Practical concerns about being able to provide for families intertwine with the daily boredom and anxiety experienced by those unable to work. As one interviewee stated, existing in a “temporary situation is a disturbing situation, [a] person wants stability and a good life for himself and his family.” Another said simply: “I want security and stability and to have my children and grandchildren by my side”. These individuals occupy a liminal space where uncertainty and worry have become daily constants. Living in such heightened uncertainty has been associated with a multitude of stressors and poor mental health outcomes. These daily stressors can exacerbate the impact of previous war-related trauma in shaping mental health outcomes, such as PTSD symptoms.
This uncertainty also links to feelings of humiliation and powerlessness. Less than half of our interviewees were willing to respond to the question “What are your main concerns at the moment?” When we checked with our Syrian fixers why this was the case, they suggested it was due to shame felt by the ex-officers at not being able to support their families in the way they felt they should. The psychological stress caused by such a significant change in position, from being a high-ranking military commander afforded status, land, a house, and cars, to a ‘stateless’ refugee struggling to provide for his family, is difficult to quantify and tends to be ignored by policymakers and academics.
Much of the existing research on the mental health of Syrian refugees in Turkey has focused on civilian, rather than ‘ex-military’, refugees. These studies have found that adult refugees and asylum seekers have high and persistent rates of PTSD, depression and aggression, but we also know that military personnel are particularly vulnerable to higher rates of psychological disorders, as a result of participation in and exposure to violent conflict. Moreover, it is likely that, amongst Syrian former officers, this stress will be exacerbated by gender norms, as they are part of a society that prizes (military) masculinity and ‘manhood’. Patriarchal norms and customs are common in Syrian society. Men are expected to be the main providers and breadwinners, and to be the protectors of the family. If they cannot, this can undermine their sense of identity and manhood, creating tensions within the family and community. Yet this is not just specific to the Syrians we interviewed. It is part of a much wider pattern of male refugee experiences and is an example of the gendered dimensions of refugeehood more generally.
Hopes for the future
This stress and trauma can also lead to a reduced sense of agency – a feeling that events are controlled by others. For the former-military Syrian officers, this was evident when they spoke about their hopes for the future. All our interviewees connected their own personal hopes with those of their country. They see the two as intertwined and centred on the downfall of the Assad regime: “Hope is the fall of the criminal regime and the exit of all occupiers from Syria.” Or, as one former general put it:
“My hope is that the regime will fall, a political transition will be achieved in Syria, the war will end, and a regime in which freedom, justice, democracy and peace will prevail. And if my return takes a long time, I will continue to live outside Syria and bear all the hardships and troubles to preserve my family and keep it away from bombing and targeting by the regime’s aircraft and the planes of Russian criminals.”
A key theme that emerged from our research is the sense that it is the responsibility of the international community to bring about an end to the conflict and that, to date, not enough has been done. Put another way, the Syrian refugees feel that they themselves cannot bring about change. As one stated, “Time depends on the international community, which is silent on the crimes of Assad and Iranian militias.” Or, in the words of another former officer: “… things are moving in the direction of a political solution rather than a military one. Military solutions always take longer, and this is the responsibility of the international community with the guarantor countries.” And, as the war drags on, trust in the ability and will of international institutions to deal constructively with the conflict is being eroded: “The Syrians no longer trust the United Nations or its decisions [because they think] that the matter is governed by the interests of the major countries, and there is no hope for any solution until the next two years, at least.”
For this group of ‘forgotten’ refugees then, their hopes for the future rest on the political will of others — the international community in bringing about the end of the Assad regime, and in the Turkish authorities to ensure their safety.
Given the widespread human suffering caused by displacement, policymakers tend to focus more on supporting women and children, particularly when, as in the Ukraine situation, over 90% of refugees are women and children. Yet the experiences of male military refugees can help nuance our understanding of the dynamics of refugeehood. There are gendered dimensions to the fears, anxieties, and stresses caused by living in this kind of uncertainty, but this means that men are just as vulnerable to trauma and psychological distress.
 UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/spotlight/2023/01/2023-a-moment-of-truth-for-global-displacement/
 Interview 9
 Interview 5
 Interview 14
 Interviews 5 and 10
 Interview 12
 Silove D, Ventevogel P, Rees S, The contemporary refugee crisis: an overview of mental health challenges. World Psychiatry. 2017; 16: 130-139
 Sagaltici E, Alpak G and Altindag A (2020) Traumatic life events and severity of posttraumatic stress disorder among Syrian refugees residing in a camp in Turkey. Journal of Loss and Trauma 25, 47–60.
 See for example Blackmore, Rebecca, Jacqueline A. Boyle, Mina Fazel, Sanjeeva Ranasinha, Kylie M. Gray, Grace Fitzgerald, Marie Misso, and Melanie Gibson-Helm. “The prevalence of mental illness in refugees and asylum seekers: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” PLoS medicine 17, no. 9 (2020): e1003337.; and Patanè, Martina, Samrad Ghane, Eirini Karyotaki, Pim Cuijpers, Linda Schoonmade, Lorenzo Tarsitani, and Marit Sijbrandij. “Prevalence of mental disorders in refugees and asylum seekers: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Global Mental Health (2022): 1-14.
 Yalim, Asli Cennet, and Filomena Critelli. “Gender roles among Syrian refugees in resettlement contexts: Revisiting empowerment of refugee women and needs of refugee men.” In Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 96, p. 102670. Pergamon, 2023.
 Rabellino, Daniela, Dalila Burin, Sherain Harricharan, Chantelle Lloyd, Paul A. Frewen, Margaret C. McKinnon, and Ruth A. Lanius. “Altered sense of body ownership and agency in posttraumatic stress disorder and its dissociative subtype: a rubber hand illusion study.” Frontiers in human neuroscience (2018): 163.
 Interview 5
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 Interview 14
The signing of the Framework Agreement (FA) on 5 December 2022 between Sudan’s military leaders and its leading pro-democracy parties is a major step to reversing the damage done by the disastrous military coup in October 2021. The FA removes any formal role for the military in Sudan’s politics. A civilian head of state and prime minister will select the cabinet and chair the Defence and Security Council. The armed forces will be prohibited from non-military business activities and security sector reform will lead to a unified, professional and non-partisan national army. Elections are due to take place at the end of a two-year transitional period.
Signatories included General Abdel Fatah Al Burhan, chair of the Sovereign Council and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), his deputy and Commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and more than 40 civilian entities, including the Forces of Freedom and Change- Central Council (FFC-CC), a few other political parties, former armed movements, civil society organizations and professional associations. However, the agreement has faced criticism from the street for not being sufficiently radical, has been overshadowed at times by heightened tension between the two military leaders, and has seen sabotage attempts by supporters of the Bashir regime.
Building consensus on the Framework Agreement
The agreement meets most of the demands of the anti-coup camp, at least on paper. Yet doubts persist as to whether the military are genuine about handing over power, particularly among the neighbourhood-based resistance committees – the heart of the youth-led mobilization that forced the military to recognize the failure of their power grab. Peaceful protests against the coup have seen 125 killed and over 8,000 injured by government security forces. Many want to see Burhan and Hemedti held accountable.
Doubts persist as to whether the military are genuine about handing over power, particularly among the neighbourhood-based resistance committees.
Recognizing the need to expand popular support, FFC-CC leaders have been reaching out to other pro-democracy forces to build a united civilian front. They report increased buy-in from some resistance committees in the last few months, recognizing that street protests alone were not sufficient to overthrow the coup, and that engagement with the military is necessary to find a way out of the impasse.
The FA offers the only currently available path to embedding civilian politics in Sudan and has received active diplomatic support from UNITAMS, AU and IGAD (who form the Tripartite Mechanism), the Troika of the US, UK and Norway, alongside the EU, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE (who are members of ‘the Quad’ with the US and UK). Broader public participation has also been developed through a series of conferences, facilitated by the Tripartite Mechanism, on five contentious issues – dismantling the old regime, the Juba Peace Agreement, Eastern Sudan, Transitional Justice and Security Sector Reform. Recommendations will be incorporated in a final political agreement.
In a significant breakthrough, both sides have now agreed to begin drafting the final agreement and transitional constitution, with the aim of forming a civilian government by 11 April.
The political process has been overshadowed by increasingly visible tension between Burhan and Hemedti, seen in parallel foreign visits, conflicting public statements, and a heavy military presence in Khartoum. But concerns that SAF and the RSF were heading towards confrontation appear to have been assuaged thanks to international pressure and preliminary agreements reached between military and civilian signatories of the FA on security sector reform and integration. In a significant breakthrough, both sides have now agreed to begin drafting the final agreement and transitional constitution, with the aim of forming a civilian government by 11 April.
Potential spoilers and interests from Sudan’s regions
Progress has been made, but significant challenges remain, notably from supporters of the former Bashir regime in ‘the deep state’ and from Sudan’s historically marginalized peripheries. Old regime elements have been intensifying social media campaigns to derail the agreement and drive a wedge between the SAF and RSF, and have been accused of deliberately inciting instability in the peripheries to undermine the democratic transition.
The Popular Defence Forces, established by the National Islamic Front in the 1990s, have been reactivated under different names in several parts of the country and there are reports of mobilization and recruitment of armed militias in Darfur. The recent public appearance of Ali Karti, the Secretary-General of the Islamic Movement, who has close relations with Islamists in SAF, has also caused renewed concern.
Two Darfuri armed movement leaders who signed the October 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) and are members of the current military-led government, have not signed the FA, allegedly due to concerns about their representation in the next government. Despite intensive efforts to bring them on board, there is continuing disagreement over the inclusion of other members of ‘the Democratic Bloc’, a political alliance backed by Sudan’s influential neighbour Egypt, which is reportedly angry at being excluded from the Quad. The FFC-CC say that the door is open for the two Darfuri leaders and some other political parties, but they will not allow the agreement to be ‘diluted’ with political forces who intend to torpedo the transition, including by imposing a weak prime minister.
Supporters of the pro-democracy movement outside Khartoum, particularly the resistance committees, recognize the organic link between peace and democracy.
Both Burhan and Hemedti have courted support from the regions. Burhan used the 2020 SAF takeover of Al Fashaga in the contested eastern border region with Ethiopia to boost his national standing and secure backing from local tribal leaders; while Hemedti has sought to position himself as a champion of the peripheries, particularly in his Darfur heartlands, while simultaneously advancing his business interests. Competition between them in building domestic powerbases, as well as alliances with neighbouring states, risks reigniting tensions, particularly given deep grievances and contrasting ambitions between and among Sudan’s diverse regional leaders and communities.
Supporters of the pro-democracy movement outside Khartoum, particularly the resistance committees, recognize the organic link between peace and democracy. They also acknowledge that a sustainable settlement demands addressing the roots of conflict in poverty and under-development in Sudan’s regions, alongside mobilizing international finance to implement peace agreements. This in turn depends on political leadership from a reform-minded civilian government. Cementing the FA in the short term offers the best – and perhaps last – chance to make this a reality.
Reaching a final agreement and establishing a civilian government
So, the coming month will be critical for Sudan’s democratic transition and requires high-level international attention. Following a visit to Khartoum in February, Special Envoys and Representatives from France, Germany Norway, the UK, the USA, and the EU pledged to ‘stand united in promoting accountability for those who attempt to undermine or delay Sudan’s transition to democracy’. Continued strong international pressure is essential if a credible reform-minded civilian government is to be established, together with the rapid formation of a Transitional Legislative Assembly, the absence of which was a failing of the last transitional period
Concerted international support for the new government’s priorities will be vital if Sudan’s democratic transformation is to take root.
But this is just the starting point. Any new government will face an extremely complex set of challenges, including managing relations with the military, building legitimacy for the new administration by prioritizing engagement with the public and youth, improving living standards and service delivery, ensuring greater protection for civilians, reforming state institutions and dismantling the deep state, pursuing justice and accountability, launching a constitution-making process for the post-transition period, negotiating a comprehensive peace with two important armed movements that did not sign the JPA, and creating a conducive atmosphere for elections. This is a highly ambitious agenda for a two-year transitional period.
Given military-civilian power dynamics, the potential threat from spoilers, fears of another coup, continued local conflicts, and the humanitarian and economic crisis facing the country, concerted international support for the new government’s priorities will be vital if Sudan’s democratic transformation is to take root.
Hi Beth. Please can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do at XCEPT?
I’m Beth Heron, and I’m the Project Manager for the XCEPT research programme at King’s College London. Our research focus at King’s is looking at what drives people to violent or peaceful behaviour, against the backdrop of conflict-related trauma. To study this, our team is working across four conflict-affected countries, conducting large-scale longitudinal surveys, interviews, and other data collection.
As Project Manager, my role is largely to manage the operational side of this research. This means I oversee the finances, compliance, and contracting, as well as having a handle on our outputs, and managing relationships with our various stakeholders and subcontracted partners in South Sudan and Iraq. At the moment, a big focus of mine is completing a due diligence process that’s required for, who we hope will be, a partner who will work with us to roll out mental health interventions in Iraq. Whilst our researchers lead on determining the strategic direction of our research, it’s important for me to be involved across the project, particularly on strategic planning, so I can ensure the team is working together cohesively and to make sure our priorities are aligned.
One of the really exciting aspects about the work being done at King’s is that the team is so multidisciplinary. Is that difficult to manage?
When this project started, that was one of the things I was most excited about. It’s really fascinating to bring together psychology and conflict researchers, and it’s great to work with such a diverse set of experts. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how creating space for interdisciplinary discussions and outputs to take place is tricky and time-consuming. This is down to the scale of our project and the pace at which it moves – big and quickly! We’re learning all the time about how to bring out interdisciplinary opportunities though, which I’m sure will flourish once we have our first round of large-scale data collected. Having researchers from different disciplines speak on podcasts or at events has sparked some really interesting conversations too. We’ve also been working on ways to encourage collaboration through meetings where everyone has the chance to discuss their work in detail. It sounds very simple, but it’s a great opportunity for our researchers to understand what everyone is working on and to make connections with their own research.
Tell us about your background. What were you doing before you joined XCEPT?
My career began slightly unconventionally considering what I’m now doing. I went to art school in London for my bachelors, but my undergraduate dissertation (about a decade ago!) actually focused on memory, home and liminality, so it’s been very interesting to see similar themes threading through our research at XCEPT. After a brief period volunteering at a charity in northern India, I completed a Master’s in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy, and then spent a few years working at an NGO, tracking civilian casualty allegations against the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, which gave me great practical experience of the point at which research and advocacy meet. After this, I came to King’s to do the Conflict, Security and Development MA. My thesis was on western-derived mental health interventions in conflict-affected settings, and I ended up doing in-depth research on randomised control trials from a sociological and anthropological perspective, so I knew when I joined the XCEPT project that I’d find a lot of the research decision making, as well as the ethical and operational challenges, very interesting. I’ve found it so interesting, in fact, that I’m now working on a PhD proposal on an institutional ethnography of a large-scale mental health research project that’s led by UK universities and conducted in the global south.
XCEPT is a wide-ranging research project with different partners focusing on different aspects of conflict research. The focus of the team at King’s is on conflict-related trauma and how this intersects with behaviour. Why is this important?
Up until now, there’s been little research merging psychology and conflict studies that looks at what drives violence and peace. A great deal of work has been done on grievances and economic motives as drivers of conflict, but examining the behavioural science side, as we’re doing at King’s, is a relatively new way of looking at things, especially on a scale as large as this. We’re still in the early stages of research, but I’m excited to see what this cross-disciplinary approach will achieve, and I’ve no doubt there will be some important findings that will hopefully feed into policy and programming far beyond the UK.
I’ve recently been conducting research, as a second author, with an XCEPT consultant, and interviewees we spoke to really drove home the need for research on how trauma intersects with behaviour. One NGO practitioner drew a direct line between psychological suffering caused by conflict and an increased likelihood of participating in violence, or accepting it as a normal part of society. They felt that efforts toward better infrastructure, sanitation, and services risk being wasted if they simply get destroyed when violence flares up again. Addressing individual and collective trauma in parallel, however, was seen as a way of mitigating this. It was interesting to hear practitioners advocate so directly for mental health interventions, and I think that bringing local communities to the table from the outset to discuss what support is needed is what will really bring the best results.
What do you hope that XCEPT will achieve?
I would like to see a shift towards taking trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and adverse adult experiences more seriously within the countries we’re engaging in. By this, I mean that I hope our research will have an impact on national policies, in terms of acknowledging the way in which violence and trauma influence each other, but also in terms of recognising the prevalence of victim-perpetrator cycles for individuals and communities. Within our research, we’re also exploring themes of poverty, social cohesion, and trust in state institutions, to name a few. The more we can understand about each of these factors and how they interact, the more we can help to build a nuanced picture of what drives violent and peaceful behaviour. Personally, I’d also love to take our findings into the communities where we’re collecting data and try to cultivate rich, candid discussions about how the findings may – and may not – be useful locally and nationally, based on the context. I think this could achieve a lot for the next steps in this kind of research.
In this episode of the ‘Breaking Cycles of Conflict’ mini-series, Dr Gina Vale talks about her research into the role of women in IS. She explains how some moved from domestic roles to frontline combat, why the notion of ‘jihadi brides’ can be reductive, and the challenges and risks of reintegrating IS-affiliated women into society.
Trauma interventions in fragile areas can help to break cycles of conflict, because we know that exposure to violence causes trauma, but that trauma can also cause violence. But these interventions are often delivered for only a narrow group of people deemed to be ‘worthy’ of them. In reality, the distinction between victim and perpetrator in conflict-affected populations isn’t quite so clear cut.
In this episode of the ‘Breaking Cycles of Conflict’ mini-series, Dr Gina Vale interviews Dr Alison Brettle about her research into trauma interventions. Dr Brettle explains what programmes work best in fragile and conflict-affected areas and why the international donor and policy communities need to broaden their conceptualisation of who should be allowed to participate in interventions.
The Libyan city of Kufra is an important trade hub for goods crossing its borders with Sudan and Chad. Since 2011, human smuggling has come to play a complex role in Kufra’s economic development and overall stability, providing counter-intuitive findings for international policymakers.
Kufra’s population comprises two main groups: Arabs and Tebus. The Arab community in Kufra numbers around 55,000 people – of which approximately 42,000 are from the Zway community, and 5,000 from non-Zway tribes – while the indigenous Tebu community consists of around 8,000 people.
Longstanding rifts exist both between and within these communities. While Kufra’s communities were united in their support of the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, they have not agreed on what should come next. The Tebu have sought greater representation in local government while the Zway have sought to maintain sole control of the local governance system.
The divisions within the city are literal as well as figurative. Residential areas are split between Tebu and Zway, and Zway residential areas are also divided by familial branches. While the Gaddafi regime had developed several mixed residential areas and sought integration of the communities in the city’s schools, divisions hardened following the revolution.
In 2014, in response to the Tebu community’s request for greater political representation, Libya’s eastern-based interim government approved the establishment of a separate Tebu local governance authority in Kufra and Rebiana oasis. The Zway community’s response to this perceived threat contributed to a significant outbreak of violence in which over 100 people are believed to have been killed and hundreds more were displaced.
The Zway’s military victory gave them control over the local security sector. The city’s security directorate, akin to police, and the dominant armed faction, Subul al-Salam – affiliated to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of Khalifa Haftar – became armed factions of the Zway community, excluding Kufra’s Tebu minority. The Tebu also failed to achieve their political objectives as their parallel local council was transformed into a committee under the authority of the Zway-run Kufra municipal council in 2017.
The development of cross-border trade
From the 1960s to the 1980s, over 50 major agricultural projects were completed in Kufra, firmly establishing agriculture as a critical element of the local economy. However, the impact of war with nearby Chad (1978-87) saw Kufra become a militarized area. In addition, international sanctions applied following the Lockerbie disaster meant Kufra’s agricultural projects could not secure the necessary replacement parts and many fell into disrepair.
People instead turned to cross-border smuggling as a quick source of income. Historically, Kufra had been a vital waypoint for trade caravans from African Wadai and Kanem-Bornu kingdoms to Egypt. Electronics smuggling and cattle imports during the Gaddafi era meant Kufra residents enjoyed relative economic well-being. These semi-licit activities were encouraged by the customs authority, whose employees came from big cities such as Tripoli and Misrata to compete for work at the lucrative Oweynat desert border crossing.
Human smuggling and trafficking: from conflict to cooperation
From 2012 to 2015, Kufra’s Zway and Tebu communities fiercely competed for control of border crossings and desert routes. In 2012, in an effort to gain exclusive control of the local cross-border economy, the Zway constructed large sand trenches around Kufra to curb Tebu-run cross-border trade, making it impossible to enter and exit Kufra without crossing through fixed checkpoints.
This effective siege of Tebu trade fuelled armed conflict between Tebu and Zway forces and inhibited the development of Kufra’s human trafficking and smuggling sector. However, following the consolidation of Zway control over Kufra in 2015, economic cooperation with the Tebu continued out of necessity.
While the Zway-dominated Subul al-Salam could monopolize the desert routes from Kufra to the Sudanese border, the route to northeast Libya remained difficult to use as a result of the security situation in the northwest. This meant that the Zway would cut deals with the Tebu to secure the movement of irregular migrants east through the Tebu-dominated Rebiana oasis and onward via the Fezzan region. By early 2017, the human smuggling and trafficking networks were operating freely via these routes.
Despite ongoing tensions, the mutually beneficial involvement in human smuggling and trafficking actually appears to have served as a source of stability among rival factions in Kufra.
Municipal funding underwritten by the smuggling sector
The income generated from the smuggling sector has led to reported improvements in the quality of life of Kufra’s residents. This is in part due to the 2017 establishment of the Kufra Construction Fund (KCF), set up by the Zway-controlled municipal council to provide a framework for Subul al-Salam’s expansive engagement in the economy. Negotiated by local Zway elites, the KCF is effectively a deal to split the revenues from the taxation of cross-border trade between Subul al-Salam and the local municipal council. In the face of limited and intermittent support from national government, this is an example of a very different form of decentralization to that envisaged by Western donors.
The KCF provides no effective legal cover in Libyan law. Municipal councils do not have powers to impose movement taxes and, in any case, the flows largely consist of illicit goods. Rather, this is a local solution to mitigate the lack of resources provided by central government.
Stability steeped in violence
The business of human smuggling and trafficking inflict serious harm on the migrants that cross the Kufra region; its detention centre is infamous and human rights abuses are widespread. But for the local population, the sector is also raising living standards and establishing a largely functional – albeit entirely illegal – system of municipal development.
Although the dispute between the Zway and Tebu communities over ancestral ownership of the region remains unresolved, business ties in the human smuggling sector appear to offer the clearest functioning linkages between them.
These developments show that stability – or simply the absence of fighting – does not necessarily mean the absence of conflict. In fact, the sort of stability seen in Kufra is steeped in violence, both structural with respect to the exclusion of the Tebu minority and direct with respect to the violence inflicted on non-Libyan migrants.
Stability of a less violent nature would require a set of economic alternatives to engagement in illicit trade and a social reconciliation that seem more distant now than at any point since 2011. The experience of Kufra also raises difficult questions for policymakers over what sorts of interventions to support in places that have come to thrive on cross-border illicit trade.