Survival in the Everyday of Armed Violence

Carla Suarez on the strategies civilians use to protect themselves when faced with violence.
By: /
November 27, 2012

There is growing appreciation that civilians are the first and the last to guarantee their own safety in situations of armed conflict. Studies of communities exposed to armed violence reveal that individuals often rely on sophisticated knowledge and assessment of their environment, while simultaneously deploying (and often adapting) their coping strategies to remain safe. They do so despite the failures of state and non-state actors to comply with international humanitarian law, lack of co-ordination and coherence among aid organizations, and significantly under-resourced peacekeeping operations.  Policy-makers need to give more attention to the so-called “self-protection” strategies that scholars and practitioners are beginning to document.

A study carried out by the Cuny Center documented more than 500 different types of self-protection strategies used by individuals and communities in situations of armed violence. It categorized these varied responses into three main types of strategies: avoidance of violence by temporarily or permanently fleeing an insecure area; accommodation with armed groups, whereby the security of civilians is guaranteed in exchange for a good and/or service; and affinity, whereby civilians mobilize old or new networks to galvanize support. While these categorizations are helpful in disentangling varied civilian responses, in practice, people and communities typically use a combination of these strategies.

Other studies have demonstrated the long-term efforts that civilians make to remain (or at least appear) neutral. Erin Baines and Emily Paddon highlight how, in northern Uganda, both soldiers and rebels disguised themselves as the opposite side to test the loyalty of the local population. Civilians had to be quick to recognize the appearances and mannerisms of both sides in order to stay clear of danger.

northern uganda

An internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Northern Uganada.

Oliver Kaplan’s research in Colombia examines how community processes and mechanisms were established to reduce suspicion or fear about possible collaboration with the various armed groups among the local population. Instead of automatically threatening or attacking the individuals or collectives in question, the various armed groups turned to the community leaders to verify whether the persons in question were in fact collaborating with, and/or supporting, a particular group.

Reframing Civilian Protection

One of the main contributions of the emerging research on self-protection is to highlight the agency of individuals and communities affected by armed violence. Scholars and practitioners involved in this work challenge what Frédéric Mégret refers to as the “salvation paradigm,” which neatly categorizes individuals as victims, perpetrators, and/or saviours. These categories are often reinforced by the language and images used to represent local populations during advocacy and fundraising campaigns. As a result, the complex decisions and actions that individuals and groups take to guarantee their safety are largely overlooked.

Civilian protection needs to be understood as a process rather than a commodity that can be delivered (or not) through humanitarian aid, and/or an objective that can be attained through peacekeeping operations. Adopting a more holistic conceptualization and approach to civilian protection is particularly useful in contexts marked by chronic insecurity and crisis, characteristics that are common in contemporary sites of armed violence.

Henrik Vigh’s term “chronicity” is useful, as it takes the idea of a crisis as a moment and reframes it as a persistent condition of instability and unpredictability. Chronicity challenges the typical “pre,” “during,” and “post” temporal and spatial categorizations of conflict. For individuals and collectives surviving in situations of armed violence, the demarcations of war and peace are not necessarily so clear. Chronicity avoids framing conflict in a way that may obscure how civilians are constantly deploying and adapting their coping mechanisms in the context of old and new cycles of violence.

Moving Forward: From Research to Practice?

Scholarly research on civilian self-protection strategies has accumulated a growing inventory of the varied approaches people take, individually and collectively, to navigate through violence. However, several pressing questions remain that must be answered if we are to apply insights from this research. For instance, to what extent can we transmit lessons among various conflict-affected communities, while giving sufficient weight to the historical, political, and socio-economic differences between these contexts? How do we evaluate the “success” of self-protection strategies? And, if the strategies failed in one case study, should we rule them out?

The best place to start is to consider some of the challenges that a revised civilian protection framework may involve. The overall aim should be to strengthen the civilian protection regime by better understanding the strategies individuals and collectives already take to navigate violence, and what could be done to support and/or enhance them.

A major issue among scholars and practitioners concerns the interactions between macro (e.g. humanitarian and peacekeeping) and micro (e.g. individual and community-based) sources of protection. In particular, it is not clear how the strategies that civilians take to protect themselves are influenced or shaped by the responses of the international community. A study conducted by Alex Bellamy and Paul Williams shows that conflict-affected populations are more likely to flee their homes if humanitarians or peacekeepers establish “safe havens” in conflict zones. Yet, distressingly, the empirical record demonstrates that these secure areas can often put civilians in greater physical danger. For instance, in northern Uganda, humanitarian agencies have been criticized for supporting long-term internal displacement through the continuous provision of aid and basic services to the camps. Some scholars and practitioners consider the conditions in these camps a form of “social torture,” pointing to the outbreak of diseases and epidemics and the high mortality rates in these confined settings.

Determining whether macro-level responses may inadvertently contradict and/or compromise micro-level forms of protection is a daunting task. Part of the challenge is to analyze the situation and its outcomes in a retroactive manner. There are two major components to this exercise: first, determining whether the population would have been “better off” without the assistance or response of the international community; and second, envisioning what other strategies civilians would have taken if the situation had been different.

Skeptics will rightly point to the lack of time, resources, and flexibility to think about and provide support in this sequence, especially when communities are being systematically targeted and exposed to violence. Gambling with human lives in order to experiment with a new set of guidelines and procedures poses tremendous risks. Fair enough. However, our concern is that the civilian protection crisis, which is partly a result of the systemic practices of aid organizations and peacekeeping operations, will continue unless the status quo changes. Up until now, most efforts to improve the civilian protection regime have focused predominantly on the institutional practices of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. The missing part of the equation has been the actions individuals and communities take to overcome the threats they face in the context of the everyday.

De-romanticizing Self-Protection

Self-protection will often put civilians in life-or-death situations where they have to make decisions that no one should be forced to make. It is not uncommon to hear stories of neighbours turning against neighbours, revealing their secrets, in order to protect themselves. Women will at times “barter sex” with the high-level commanders of armed groups, in hopes that their loved ones will be spared during war. Parents may be forced to enroll their eldest son in the armed group in order to save their youngest children. These stories are countless – all pointing to excruciating decisions that civilians must make in order to protect themselves and/or their families. Moreover, all of this points to the difficulty in determining what should be considered legitimate (“acceptable”) types of self-protection under the civilian-protection regime.

For instance, should civil defence forces (CDFs), which have emerged in several conflict zones, be included in the previous categorizations? In South Sudan, the famous “Arrow Boys” have been established to prevent and respond to attacks by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). With sophisticated knowledge of the areas in which the LRA is operating, the Arrow Boys have been more successful than regional armies at reducing violence by the LRA.


Arrow Boys training in South Sudan (Paul Ronan).

boys with guns

Some of the Arrow Boys have now acquired guns (Paul Ronan).

However, in other contexts, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, CDFs eventually evolved into rebel groups, perpetuating atrocities against the same communities they initially vowed to protect. Given that CDFs will often turn into sources of insecurity after armed conflicts officially conclude, there is a reasonable reluctance from the international community to support, or even accommodate (and therefore legitimize), these initiatives. Yet, for those trying to survive armed conflict, the lesser evil is an option that is often taken.

In addition, scholars and practitioners of civil conflict are well aware that some individuals and groups find ways to thrive during armed violence. Old scores are often settled as thriving business owners are falsely accused of collaborating with particular armed groups. Black markets quickly emerge, within which goods and services are exchanged to armed groups, which, in turn, prolong wars. The reality is that overcoming violence may also involve thriving from the opportunities that present themselves in these contexts. All of these examples demonstrate the actions that civilians take to protect themselves – and sometimes thrive – during armed conflict, and are often difficult to disentangle and/or countenance. These responses blur the lines between the innocent and the complicit, clear-cut distinctions that underpin the normative and discursive framework of the international civilian-protection agenda.

Final Thoughts

Despite the success that individual and collective strategies have had in reducing the exposure to risk in some situations of armed conflict, they should not be considered the core solution to the current civilian protection crisis. The impressive work of the Local to Global Protection Project, which has conducted cross-comparative research in Sudan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar/Burma, demonstrates that self-protection seldom provides the degree of safety local populations require in the long term. Humanitarian and peacekeeping responses are still desperately needed when it comes to civilian protection. The question is not whether local or international responses are better – instead, the core dilemma is how to increase the synergies between these two levels in order to strengthen the civilian protection regime.