Generally, you don’t have violent conflicts linked to pastoralism in Cameroon. There is a very organised system of managing transhumance. The timing of this seasonal pastoral movement, including movement of Nigerian pastoralists crossing into Cameroon, is controlled by the Ministry of Livestock. During the designated period of transhumance, farming activities along transhumance corridors, around watering points and in mixed farming zones are halted. If there is destruction of crops within that period, pastoralists are not liable.
Cameroonian pastoralists have complained that cross-border pastoralists come with diseases, but compulsory vaccination reduces this problem, which might otherwise result in conflict.
In cases where the movement of pastoralists does lead to disputes, there are also mechanisms in Cameroon to prevent and resolve conflict. Where crops are destroyed during transhumance, the Agro-Pastoral Commission, which is a state organ, intervenes to resolve the dispute between farmers and herders.
There are also dialogue platforms which facilitate dialogue between the aggrieved parties to resolve disputes. What is good about these is that the conflict is often resolved at the community level without the involvement of the police or the law courts. Where both parties agree on the findings of the dialogue, this has helped to bring about peaceful coexistence between the farmers and pastoralists.
In the public discourse in Nigeria, the way the media talks about pastoralism and transhumance is negative. They have a blanket term, ‘Fulani herdsman’, which is used widely in the media as a negative stereotype. In Cameroon, the term ‘Fulani herdsman’ isn’t used. If there is destruction, it’s not put on a tribal basis. In Nigeria, the blame is on cattle owners. In Cameroon the blame is more on the herdsman for leaving the cattle loose. When the blame is shifted people understand, they don’t attack whole communities and fewer farmer-herder conflicts are recorded.
When we’re talking about pastoral movements it’s important to understand the context and history. Before the partition of Africa by the colonial masters, there were no borders between Nigeria and Cameroon, there were just kingdoms. So, pastoralists feel that this is their land and that they can graze their livestock anywhere they wish. They also have kinship relationships with other pastoralists across national borders. In my case, the majority of my clan are in Nigeria. But with independence and the creation of states this movement across the borders by pastoralists and their livestock is being restricted.
In the last eight years, pastoralists have started moving in greater numbers from Nigeria into Cameroon and subsequently into the Central African Republic (CAR).
In the past, the population density in Nigeria was much lower. Today, high demographic pressure, coupled with the mechanisation of agriculture, means that more land is needed for crop production and grazing land is being taken away. Land grabbing by elites in traditional grazing areas has worsened the situation. Pressure on land, reduced pasture and watering points, in combination with violent farmer-herder conflicts are pushing pastoralists to move into Cameroon and the Central African Republic. In CAR there is less pressure on land; there are still vast rangelands, water and good pasture.
Some of the pastoralists we interviewed said that CAR is better than where they’d come from even though there is an armed conflict going on. They told us that they can negotiate with armed groups and pay an annual tax to graze their livestock. Nevertheless, at times the conflict in CAR can be disruptive to pastoral activities – when there is difficulty in Central Africa they come back into Cameroon, then when the situation normalises, they go back to Central Africa.
Although pastoral movement is well managed in Cameroon and is generally peaceful, the increase in the number of pastoralists coming in from Nigeria is adding to pressure and tensions in some areas. In the Northern region of Cameroon, where we did part of our fieldwork, availability of land is decreasing. The region is a population hotspot, and with the crisis of Boko Haram, many more people have migrated there from the Extreme North of Cameroon, around Lake Chad. There are also other pressures on land. As more pastoralists cross the border into Cameroon from Nigeria the potential for tension increases.
One source of tension is between migrant herders and agro-pastoralists, who are semi-settled, and who have a little livestock around their farms. They often complain that migrants’ animals come with diseases and sometimes destroy crops. This is a potential source of conflict with agro-pastoralists and with sedentary farmers. If the influx of livestock from Nigeria continues in large numbers, it may lead to violent conflicts in the future.
Recently a lot of mining has been happening along transhumance corridors and around national parks. This is also a cause for concern as mining pits are a death trap for livestock. There is also industrial agriculture, with foreign companies buying up large chunks of land or elites grabbing land along corridors. Palm, cocoa and tea plantations are being created, reducing the available rangelands and pushing more local pastoralists towards Central Africa.
In addition to all the negative impacts, there are positives. Migrant pastoralists have brought wealth to local economies. They have driven down the prices of beef in Cameroon, they buy crops from farmers and stimulate business activities. They also pay taxes to the councils.
Firstly, I think there should be better regional policy to encourage and support cross border transhumance. There is the ECOWAS protocol and African Union Charter on pastoralism, which include rules governing transhumance, but these should be properly enforced. Governments, and individual states, should also be encouraged to have bilateral and trilateral protocols.
There is also an urgent need to improve pastoral infrastructure, particularly in Nigeria. This is where donors and international NGOs can support. Lack of pasture and watering points are the main push factors for pastoralists moving out of Nigeria but a big bore hole in one area can save thousands of migrating cattle. This infrastructure will reduce movement, or at least help with managing movement. This in turn would reduce conflict. It is important that livestock development projects listen to pastoralists’ concerns and priorities and not be determined by the political priorities of elites. Governments should also be encouraged to preserve and restore pastoral zones and support livestock production.
This article was originally published on Conciliation Resources’ website.
I’m Dr Rajan Basra, and I’m a post-doctoral researcher on the XCEPT team at King’s College London (KCL). My research focus is on terrorism, especially how prisons manage offenders who are suspected, or convicted, of terrorism offences. Over the last two years, I’ve been interviewing ex-prisoners, and I’ve been looking at what this can tell us about the role prisons might play in radicalisation.
Since starting work on XCEPT, I’ve also been interviewing people who have been affected by terrorism, specifically the families of men who were kidnapped by jihadist groups in an incident in Lebanon in 2014. That’s been incredibly eye-opening. To date, most of my research has focused on the perpetrators. I’ve been so much more interested in the people behind the violence. What’s motivating them? What’s their life story? Why are they doing this? How are they doing this? Shifting attention to looking at people affected by that violence, and to hear their stories, has been fascinating.
Before joining XCEPT, my research focused mostly on jihadis in Europe. For my PhD, which I completed in the Department of War Studies at KCL, I was looking at people who were part of the jihadist movement and who had histories of criminality. Sometimes they’d also spent time in prison for criminal offences – what you’d consider ‘regular’ criminal offences – and had been radicalised in prison, or they’d networked with extremists there. I wanted to see what influence criminality has on jihadist extremism/radicalisation. I found that it can affect the narratives people tell, and also the spaces (prison) where radicalisation occurs.
It’s a fascinating area of study, but my interest was really sparked in 2011. I was traveling in the Middle East, and it just so happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. I spent a month in Syria, and I was lucky enough to meet some of the very first protestors in the country. These people were literally protesting for 5 or 10 minutes after Friday prayers, and even doing that was such an act of defiance because they were risking their lives, risking arrest and torture or disappearance. By chance, I had the opportunity to speak with some of these people. I remember meeting one man in Syria, and I said to him, ‘So what do you do?’, and he said, ‘If you’d asked me a week ago, I would say that I’m an architect, but if you asked me today, I’d say that I’m a revolutionary’.
After leaving Syria, I kept a close eye on what was happening in the country, in the very towns that I had visited, and as I saw that conflict descend into a civil war, and then the emergence of IS, I decided I wanted to take a closer look to understand what was going on. That led me to do an MA in Terrorism Studies at KCL, and then I stayed on to do my PhD.
This interest isn’t exclusive to me though. You see how popular true crime is as a genre. I think everyone has this curiosity – maybe even a morbid curiosity – about how human beings can treat other human beings, even if that’s in really depraved and horrific ways. People want to understand what drives someone to do that, to want to kill another person, and terrorism is all about that. Terrorists are not just killing someone for the sake of killing them. They’re doing it to send a message to a broader audience. I find it so interesting looking at what drives people to commit such acts of violence, examining their motivations, what those messages are, and what they hope to achieve.
This is where it gets a bit tricky, because if you say you understand where someone’s coming from, then people can accuse you of being an apologist, or legitimising a terrorist’s motivation, their cause, or the way they behave. That’s not true, obviously. I do think it’s important to look deeper at the human beings involved, to understand what has happened in their life that’s led them to this point. It’s easy to dismiss someone as simply being ‘evil’, but I think we all start from the premise that no-one is born that way – something has happened that has brought them to this stage. It could be a combination of many different things, such as someone’s environment or personality, or cultural or situational factors.
One of the holy grails in terrorism studies is to better understand it so you can help prevent it, but preventing terrorism is so multi-faceted and so complicated, just like the whole phenomenon is. If we can better understand the circumstances that have led someone to engage in terrorism, then maybe it is possible to improve prevention, and that’s why I think it’s so important to try and make sense of these motivations.
I hope that the work we’re doing on prisons will help to fill a gap in existing literature. A lot of research on the subject looks at the experience of prisoners through the lens of court documents, policy documents, and media reports, but rarely does it involve speaking with people who have been through it. To speak to people who have actually lived through the experience, and know what it’s like to be in an IS prison wing, is something that’s really invaluable. Prisons have been a running thread throughout the history of terrorism, but within the field it’s still somewhat overlooked. My colleague, Dr Craig Larkin, and I have interviewed dozens of ex-prisoners in Lebanon, and I think this will give a detailed and nuanced look at extremists, or suspected extremists, who live in prison, and how their time inside shapes their experiences and their lives.
I do think prisons can play an important role, because whenever you look at any terrorist movement in history, their members have almost always spent time in prison. If it wasn’t informative in shaping their views, it’s where they ended up after they acted upon their views. Even when you look at history more generally, people have had their ideas shaped by their time spent in prison. Hitler, for example, wrote Mein Kampf while he was incarcerated. Jihadi propaganda often talks about freeing prisoners, and the issue of imprisoned comrades is a strong cause for militant groups around the world, regardless of ideology or location. Clearly, it’s an important issue, and that’s why I think our research is so important, as I hope it will shed some light on what it’s actually like to be inside prison, and why it matters so much.
For me personally, my fieldwork interviewing victims of terrorism in Lebanon has been some of the most satisfying work that I’ve ever done. To get the opportunity to speak to people who have lived through these incredible experiences, both good and bad, has been a real privilege. I do consider it a genuine honour to have been able to sit down with people and listen to their stories. That’s been the most interesting, and the most challenging, part of working on XCEPT.
I’m really proud of everything our team is doing, and the promise of being able to contribute something new to current understandings of the intersection between conflict, trauma, peacebuilding, and violence is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few years bring.
Find out more about Dr Basra’s research into prisons
As the conflict in Syria passes its 12th anniversary, one civil society body is trying to pave the way to peace. The Council of the Syrian Charter calls for social cohesion built around a common social heritage that transcends political affiliation.
Listen to the podcast here.
XCEPT is proud to present stand-out research published by the XCEPT consortium during 2022. Below you can find highlights from our research on conflict-affected borderlands, how conflicts connect across borders, conflict dynamics, the drivers of violent and peaceful behaviour, and the use of innovative methodologies in conflict settings.
XCEPT Research on Borderlands
RESEARCH REPORT, THE ASIA FOUNDATION, RIFT VALLEY INSTITUTE, CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER
Border Towns, Markets and Conflict
This report aims to amplify a grounded understanding of the everyday reality of communities in fragile border areas and how conflict shapes their lives. Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, RIFT VALLEY INSTITUTE
Fixing the Price: The Politics of the Khat Trade Between Ethiopia and Somaliland
Ethiopian authorities doubled the price of khat for exports to Somaliland and Djibouti in April 2022. Following much controversy, the decision was reversed a few months later. What was behind this trade price ‘fix’, and why does it matter? Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, RIFT VALLEY INSTITUTE
War, Migration, and Work: Agricultural Labour and Cross-border Migration from Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan
This study examines the history of labour migration and labour relations in present-day South Sudan’s Bahr el-Ghazal borderlands with Darfur and Kordofan (regions of present-day Sudan). Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, RIFT VALLEY INSTITUTE
Purchasing Insecurity: The African Red Sea Region and the Global Food Trade
Focusing on the late 19th and 20th centuries, this report examines the historical origins of the Red Sea region’s structural food insecurity, linking the current crisis to the rinderpest epizootic (1887 – 1889), destabilisation of the rural economy, and accelerating process of urbanisation that transformed the African Red Sea Region. Read more
BLOG, TRIAS CONSULT
Broken Borderlands: How Conflict is Changing Communities on the Edge of Nations Communities living on either side of national borders often forge deep cultural and economic ties but suffer acutely when countries clash. Borders hardened by continued conflict risk destroying community relations that once thrived despite differences. Read more
Frontier Farming: Along the War-Torn Ethiopia-Sudan Border, Agriculture, Politics, and Conflict are Increasingly Entwined
The capture of fertile agricultural land in Western Tigray and the eastern Sudanese Al Fashaga region sheds light on how profits from cash crops help feed politics and conflict. Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER
Border Nation: The Reshaping of the Syrian-Turkish Borderlands
After a decade of civil war, Syria’s border with Turkey is divided. Yet long-term stability will require a peace agreement that treats the border as an indivisible whole. Read more
POLICY BRIEF, CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER
Reckless Abandon: Why Tunisia Can No Longer Delay a Border Free Trade Zone
Tunisia’s planned free trade zone in Ben Guerdane has stalled while similar projects in Libya have advanced. If Tunisian authorities move quickly to revitalize the plan, they can boost the economy and give hope to the marginalised border population. Read more
XCEPT Research on Conflict Dynamics
RESEARCH REPORT, ALCIS
Changing the Rules of the Game: How the Taliban Regulated Cross-Border Trade and Upended Afghanistan’s Political Economy
This research reveals just how fundamentally the rules that govern cross-border trade have changed since the Taliban takeover, upending the political economy of Afghanistan in the process. Read more
BLOG, THE ASIA FOUNDATION
The Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis and Responses in Cox’s Bazar: Five Years On
In August 2022 it will be five years since the start of one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, yet the political and security dynamics surrounding Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh remain unstable. Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, CHATHAM HOUSE
Moving Medicine in Iraq: Networks Fuelling Everyday Conflict
A system involving doctors, pharmacists, political parties, armed groups, and businesspeople fuels corruption and conflict in a medicine supply chain which kills people every year. Read more
RESEARCH REPORT, CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER
The Pitfalls of Saudi Arabia’s Security-Centric Strategy in Yemen
Saudi Arabia’s security is contingent on Yemen’s stability and economic prosperity. As such, Riyadh should help revive Yemen’s moribund economy in both the borderlands and the inland agricultural sector. Read more
BLOG, CHATHAM HOUSE
How the Captagon Trade Impacts Border Communities in Lebanon and Syria
Any policy designed to counter the growing Captagon trade must take into account its impact on local border communities. Read more
PODCAST, CHATHAM HOUSE
Africa Aware: Relations between Ethiopia and Sudan with Ahmed Soliman, Abel Abate Demissie, Kholood Khair and Yusuf Hassan
This episode of Africa Aware examines the relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan. Listen here
XCEPT Research on Violent and Peaceful Behaviour
RESEARCH REPORT, XCEPT
Youth Disrupted: Impact of Conflict and Violent Extremism on Adolescents in Northeast Syria
This study explores the impact of conflict and violent extremism on adolescents in northeast Syria to inform efforts to support recovery and prevent resurgent violence and violent extremism. Read more
REVIEW OF EVIDENCE, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON
Prison-Based Interventions Targeting Violent Extremist Detainees
Little is understood about how prisons influences terrorists. This research explores which interventions have been most effective in rehabilitating violent extremists. Read more
POLICY BRIEF, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON
The Role of Trauma and Mental Health in Violent Extremism
This paper assesses the impact of mental health and trauma on radicalisation and violent extremism. It argues that large-scale interdisciplinary research on non-ideological risk factors would benefit deradicalisation and prevention programming. Read more
POLICY BRIEF, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON
Mass Media and Persuasion: Evidence-Based Lessons for Strategic Communications in Countering Violent Extremism
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has invested heavily in strategic communications. However, there is a weak evidence base to determine whether any of these efforts have their desired impact. Read more
BLOG, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON
Bringing Loyalist and Opposition Factions Together: The Prospects for Reconciliation in New Syria
Western visions for post-war Syria often entail disarmament and reintegration of Islamist groups. There is, however, less discussion about how the legacies of state authoritarianism in regime or loyalist areas will likely hinder reconciliation. Read more
XCEPT Research on Methodologies
PRACTICE PAPER, THE ASIA FOUNDATION
Community-Driven Approaches to Research in Contexts of Protracted Crisis
This paper summarises the methodologies and approaches developed and the lessons that have surfaced from working with Rohingya populations living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Read more
How Can Researchers Better Navigate the Profits and Perils of Satellite and Open-Source Investigations?
Satellite and open-source data are revolutionising conflict research. But these fast-accelerating research methods come with their own set of risks and require careful handling. Read more
BLOG, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON
Do No (Self) Harm: Acknowledging Researcher Vulnerability in Research Ethics
This commentary explores why the welfare of the researcher frequently slips through the net of the ethical principle to ‘do no harm’. Read more
“People don’t want to go back to the past … but some people have to deal with the past.” This reflection formulated by youth in Northern Ireland reminds us of the long-lasting impact of conflict and begs the question whether the impact of trauma, and the weight of a violent past, can also be felt by those who did not directly live it. This question has recently been met with growing interest in different disciplines. In conflict settings in particular, the legacy of trauma is often seen as either supporting peace efforts or fueling further violence.
What is (inter)generational Trauma?
Research on intergenerational trauma, also referred to as transgenerational or historical trauma, is generally understood as exploring how legacies of historical and cultural events impact future generations. More widely, it examines how traumatic events, such as war, violence, and genocide, affect the children, grandchildren, and future genealogies of survivors. These legacies can affect individuals, family environments, community social ecologies, and wider historical narratives.
Researchers across disciplines look at these trauma legacies in different ways. In the 1960s, intergenerational or historical trauma was first researched by examining long-lasting trauma among Holocaust survivors and their families through a focus on traumatic memory. Since then, the study of intergenerational trauma has developed in different scholarly directions, providing us with a better understanding of the process of intergenerational trauma and its impact. One area of research has focused on the aftermath of violence, particularly recent studies examining the intergenerational traumatic effects of slavery and colonialism, and has brought with it recognition that trauma impacts communities beyond immediate survivors.
Biology, Family and Social Environment
Studies from clinical, societal, and historical perspectives have helped us understand intergenerational trauma specifically during or after conflict. For example, in a 2014 UCL study, researchers examined the intergenerational impact of war on children. They argued that, while the immediate effects of war on children were well studied, little was understood about the ways in which conflict could impact children across generations. They wanted to find out what the social and cultural environment could tell us about the multigenerational transmission of trauma. By examining exposure to violence, trauma, and stress, the researchers found associated impact in how these experiences affected further generations.
Maternal exposure to violence, specifically, suggests consequences on children’s health. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children born out of conflict-related sexual violence are more likely to experience community stigma, which in turn can affect their mental health. In Gaza, researchers found “a strong association between maternal symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, and PTSD symptoms in children”. This research encourages practitioners to consider stress and trauma in conflict experienced by parents, and mothers specifically, as factors influencing health and wellbeing outcomes of their children, in both conflict and non-conflict settings.
Beyond maternal impact, several studies have explored the legacy of parental and family culture in transgenerational trauma. Several studies exploring how trauma can be transmitted among refugee families acknowledge the significant role played by parents and families in how trauma is processed by children. This suggests that children whose parents have experienced traumatic events are more susceptible to mental health difficulties. But what might this look like in practice? Trauma experienced can create psychological, social, and economic challenges that impact the environment in which children develop. Survival mode is the way in which this struggle has been described by Ukrainian descendants of the 1932–1933 Holodomor genocide: a “constellation of emotions, inner states and trauma-based coping strategies emerged in the survivors during the genocide period and were subsequently transmitted into the second and third generations.” While research remains limited, the result of this transmission is consequential. The physical health and wellbeing of survivors can be impacted by events that took place decades earlier.
Historical Narratives and Cultural Trauma
Given the transmission of trauma within families, historical legacies of trauma matter. If the experiences of parents, and the environment in which children are brought up, impacts their mental health, so do the stories they tell. For Holocaust survivors, this fact has long been acknowledged. Memory and Holocaust studies have illuminated how children carry the burden of their parents’ trauma and help us reflect on how trauma is processed in families and how stories from the war are told. Memory and migration researchers further consider how narratives of war, of migration, and of trauma, can be transmitted through family and community histories.
Professor Joy Damousi explores the transmission of war experiences among Greek migrants and the ways in which WW2 trauma narratives are transmitted to second generation migrants. The author suggests that the ways these narratives are shared by those who lived them is a piece of the puzzle to understand migrant experiences. In other words, historical narratives of war and trauma influence the lives of migrants beyond first generations. In Australia, these experiences have been linked to a culture of silence impacting social inclusion and dislocation. Through witnessing the trauma histories of their parents and families, children can be passed on the experience of conflict. In a book entitled Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma, Professor Gabriele Schwab considers transgenerational memory and asks how children may remember events they have not lived themselves. In his work on “postmemory” among Lebanese youth, Dr Craig Larkin offers some insights. Referred to as a socially experienced phenomenon or a traumatic rupture, he suggests that postmemory is the way in which the current generation is connected to, and distanced from, its collective, and potentially traumatic, past. Transgenerational trauma is experienced in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war and contributes to explaining the continuation of communal animosities and feelings of dislocation among local communities. Years after violence has ended, these generational trauma stories remain.
Beyond an individual’s biology and their environment, social processes and narratives can shape generation after generation. Although some of the evidence remains thin, particularly when it comes to specific transmission mechanisms of trauma across generations (biological, social, psychological), there is a wide recognition that such processes take place. As we have seen, the experience of children after conflict is strongly influenced by the experiences of their parents. The historical narratives told after conflict can shape upcoming generations, even after migration. There is no one way that trauma is transmitted, just as there is no one way of experiencing trauma. Transgenerational trauma can find its roots in an individual’s biology, in the experiences of parents, or in the ways in which a society deals with the aftermath of conflict. Further research is required to identify how intergenerational trauma is transmitted and, therefore, how it can be addressed. Finding answers to these questions will help inform relevant policy responses for communities suffering cycles of violence and for societies still dealing with the legacies of the past.
This article was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation’s website.
 Another area of research developed in recent years is epigenetics. The field has focused on transgenerational trauma and yielded intense debate. For a discussion and overview of the debate on this question, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/health/mind-epigenetics-genes.html or https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190326-what-is-epigenetics. Importantly, further research testing biological, individual, and societal mechanisms of transmission, such as biological, individual, and societal pathways, should nonetheless continue.
What might Ukraine’s gun-toting grannies have in common with South Sudanese cattle raiders? At first glance, not much. The first are elderly, civilian women, taking up arms under exceptional circumstances to defend their homeland from Russian aggression. The second are young men, taking part in an enduring cultural practice that has become increasingly militarised, politicised and violent. One ostensibly contradicts gender and age-based norms concerning who ‘should’ fight and who should not, whilst the other seemingly conforms to those stereotypes. We associate the first with ‘peaceful civilians’, the second with ‘violent fighters’.
Yet these two groups have more in common than we might assume. Both are part of historical patterns where those who take up arms occupy multiple roles in society, and both represent the blurring of fighter-civilian identities that shape contemporary conflict and post-conflict dynamics.
The merging of fighter-civilian roles is not a new phenomenon – what is ‘new’ is the attempt to separate them. This separation, however, can pose problems, especially when it comes to building peace.
Holding the label of a ‘combatant’ or a ‘civilian’ can determine whether a person is able to access certain support programmes. Categorising people as fighters may thus exclude them from interventions aimed at helping people deal with their conflict-related trauma and behaviours. Tackling these is fundamental to reducing violence and promoting social cohesion, and so, if we don’t acknowledge the complex identities and dynamics surrounding those living in conflict zones, we risk undermining progress towards peace. If we can unpack this blurring of civilian-combatant identity, it will help us develop more nuanced, inclusive approaches to peace building.
The civilian-combatant distinction often disappears on the ground
But what do we actually mean by ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’? For much of ancient and early modern history, the construction of separate soldier-civilian identities was non-existent. The Pharaonic army of Ancient Egypt was essentially made up of ‘seasonal soldiers’ who lived in barracks during the campaigning season but returned to the fields afterwards. Similarly, in the Hoplite armies of Ancient Greece, fighting was mostly done by ‘amateur militias’ who, rather than being mythologised fearless warriors, were citizen-soldiers who on occasion panicked and fled the battlefield.
Throughout history, there has been a blurring of military and civilian zones. Africa’s pre-colonial period was marked by cyclical episodes of violence, where military and ‘civil’ spheres merged without clear-cut distinctions of difference. Within societies, military organisations formed and developed in response to the needs of the community they were part of. Armies were made up of farmers, herders, and administrators, and were often assembled ad-hoc to deal with specific emergencies. When the armies were no longer needed, they disbanded, and the ‘soldiers’ returned to their normal occupations. Individuals were not identified solely as ’warriors’, but rather held multiple roles and occupations in society.
It wasn’t until the development of standing armies in 17th century Europe that a more distinct sense of military identity was born, and it was only in the early 19th century that ‘civilian’ was used to specifically describe a ‘non-military man’. Whilst the term ‘combatant’ has been in use since the 12th century, the idea of military distinction based on military specialism (and professionalism) is thought to be a ‘modern’ concept.
Today, the distinction between civilians and combatants stands clear. It determines military Rules of Engagement and Just War. It is the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law, and it aims to protect those not involved in fighting: the civilians.
For those on the ground, however, the line is not quite so clear-cut. Patterns of militarisation in the pre-colonial past were shaped by the political, social and economic environments in which violence took place, and the same stands true today.
Take the South Sudanese cattle raiders. Cattle raiding has a long history in South Sudan, but the exploitation of these local conflicts has seen the armed herders brought into wider political movements. Now, raiders are heavily armed, and the practice is often deadly.
In Eastern Congo, members of non-state armed groups often have to rely on ‘civilian’ sources of livelihood for daily survival—activities that lie outside their armed group. These include brewing and selling alcohol, making charcoal, selling firewood, farming, and manual labour.
Building on a long tradition of coalesced identities where warrior and ‘civilian’ roles intertwined, today’s ‘fighters’ are often driven by context and community need – such as, for example, Ukraine’s grannies.
Simplistic distinctions risk excluding populations from relevant support
What do these fluid, overlapping identities mean in practice? Firstly, programmes and interventions need to recognise that categorising individuals as either combatants or civilians is reductive. It reinforces binary notions of ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’ where the reality is much more complex. Identities are often mixed, and acknowledging only one aspect means acknowledging only one aspect of a person’s experience. As history has shown us, those living in conflict zones simultaneously navigate multiple civilian and combatant identities, and that is still the case today.
Secondly, the existence of these two distinct lenses suggests there is a hierarchy of those who are seen as ‘deserving’ of recovery: one which is constructed around the notion of victimcy and ‘civilianhood’. In the Global South, for example, a ‘civilian’ is likely to be eligible for trauma interventions, but a ‘fighter’ is not. Conversely, ‘combatants’ are enrolled into Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes, but ‘civilians’ are not. It’s estimated that between 20-50% of former fighters in fragile and conflicted affected areas suffer from trauma and elevated levels of aggression, yet less than ten studies have specifically examined and addressed their mental health needs.[i] In comparison, a Google Scholar search of “trauma interventions for civilians after war” yields over 20,000 results. To help societies recover from the spill-over effects of violent conflict, policymakers need to ensure that all parties, whether civilian or combatant, are assessed for trauma and aggression so that they can access relevant support.
Finally, the blurring of civilian-combatant identities has implications for policies aimed at demobilising and reintegrating former fighters. To date, most DDR programmes prioritise occupational and socioeconomic elements over psychological support for mental health or cognitive disorders. A need for mental health support is not just the preserve of ‘civilians’, however, but also needs to include those labelled ‘combatants’. If we are to achieve peace, it is important to help people make sense of their own roles in, and experiences of, violent conflict. Policymakers must ensure that efforts to assist former fighters focus as much on addressing their behavioural, relational and cognitive needs as their economic ones. Conflict and post-conflict dynamics are complex, and it is vital that support and peace interventions can account for this.
[i] Baez, Sandra, Hernando Santamaría-García, and Agustín Ibáñez. “Disarming ex-combatants’ minds: toward situated reintegration process in post-conflict Colombia.” Frontiers in psychology 10 (2019): 73.
This article was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation’s website
There are dozens of illegal crossings along the Syria-Lebanon border, through which hundreds of people cross every day along various smuggling routes. The people smuggling is controlled by local smuggling networks and XCEPT field research indicates that some of these are linked to the Syrian security and military services or to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The methods and routes used by the smugglers depend on the motives of the individuals being transported across the border.
The majority of people who arrange to be smuggled across the border do so for financial reasons, including Syrians who are unable to secure the costs of entering Lebanon legally; Syrian refugees in Lebanon who are afraid to lose the few advantages that refugee status gives them; and Lebanese border area residents who cross the border daily.
Smuggling operations for this group of people is concentrated in the countryside of Homs. The roads on these routes are easy, and smugglers use buses or cars, and sometimes motorcycles, to transport people across the border. In these smuggling operations, a group of families is often smuggled together to a specific area within Syrian or Lebanese territory. Travelling on these smuggling routes costs between $100 and $150 per person, depending on the place of origin and destination, while families pay discounted group prices. The security and military forces of the Syrian regime, as well as Hezbollah, often turn a blind eye to this type of smuggling and are satisfied with fees paid to them by the smugglers.
People also arrange to be smuggled across the border for security reasons. This group includes a wide range of political opponents of the Assad regime, armed opposition fighters, persons wanted in criminal cases against whom police search warrants have been issued, as well as deserters from compulsory or reserve military service. This group mostly consists of men between the ages of 18 and 50.
The ‘security’ smuggling routes are more rugged, requiring those crossing the border this way to do so either by walking or riding animals, as well as chaperoning by smugglers or guides. These routes are also more expensive, often costing more than $1,000 per person, and the cost increases depending on two factors: the degree of importance of the person being smuggled to the security and military apparatus of the Syrian regime, and their place of origin and destination.
The most prominent examples of ‘security’ smuggling routes are the roads to and from the Lebanese town of Shebaa and the Syrian town of Tufail. The smuggling networks operating on both routes are linked to Hezbollah, transporting people from Shebaa or Tufail to the Lebanese interior. Demand for people smuggling along these routes often increases with the threat of Syrian regime forces carrying out military operations against reconciliation areas in the countryside of Damascus, Daraa and Quneitra. In recent months, the increased possibility of regime forces storming the towns of Kanaker and Zakia in the Damascus countryside, and Tafas in the Daraa countryside, has seen dozens of people who refused reconciliation or who are wanted by the regime make this journey.
A third smuggling route is the ‘military line’, a more expensive and less common form of people smuggling. This is not the military line used by the Syrian forces during the 1976-2005 period of Syrian guardianship over Lebanon, but a description given to a method of people smuggling carried out by Hezbollah members in their cars, through specific illegal crossings. Through these ‘military lines’, passengers are not subjected to any security oversight by any party on either side of the border. The cost of such a smuggling operation between Beirut and Damascus ranges between $3,000 and $10,000. The majority who choose this route are wealthy people, holders of foreign citizenships, or Syrians residing in Europe as refugees and wishing to visit Syria without obtaining official authorization, as that could result in them losing their refugee status.
Arrests or kidnappings are common in some smuggling operations, targeting people who have tried to evade payment or who use smuggling routes that are not appropriate for their case. Most kidnappings take place in Homs, along the easier smuggling routes. In such cases, smugglers often sell people to kidnapping gangs, who negotiate with their relatives to pay the ransom. After ransom is paid, the gang may offer them a choice: return to Syria or continue the process of being smuggled to Lebanon.
The methods used to smuggle someone between Syria and Lebanon will vary depending on the person’s security situation and their financial status. If a person’s security situation becomes more complicated, the smuggling method changes and the price increases. Smuggling networks seem to have a unified price list for the different types of security concerns, from criminal charges to being wanted by the security and military services. For the right price, it seems, anyone can be smuggled across the border, no matter how much they oppose the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, and no matter what crime they have committed.
This article was originally published on the Chatham House website.