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Faces of war

May 29, 2004

Each minute, two people are killed in some 70 conflicts worldwide each day. A BBC programme, One Day Of War, followed fighters in 16 of these wars over the same 24-hour period. JONATHAN EYAL reflects on the battles.


LONDON - One day. Sixteen different wars, all happening around the world at the same time, blighting individual lives.

This was the theme of a BBC documentary which aired on Thursday, titled One Day Of War.

No fewer than 70 conflicts of varying intensity are now being waged. By the time you finish reading this article, approximately 20 more people would have perished violently.

The BBC sought to get snapshots taken on the same day of the personal experiences of 16 disparate individuals involved, for one reason or another, in different wars.

People who initiated violence by belonging to various insurgency movements were juxtaposed with soldiers defending the legal status quo by serving in the regular armed forces of recognised states.

Fighters for an ideology spoke together with mercenaries or simple bandits.

The purpose of the show was to reflect war as experienced by individuals, rather than the usual media portrayal of conflicts, which focuses on just abstract military formations and their movements, victories, defeats and strategy.

'We rarely get a sense of who the people are who wake up every day in a war zone wondering if they will ever make it to sunset alive,' said Mr Will Daws, the series producer.

It was a terrific reminder of just how many conflicts still simmer around the world, and how little attention we pay to the individual human tragedies which they invariably entail, rather than their cumulative casualty numbers.

The common sentiment which united all the fighters featured was sheer fatalism. Not one of those interviewed spoke about the possibility of a political settlement to the conflict in which they took part.

And all believed in a simple choice: either dying or killing the enemy.

Who died first was merely a question of luck, an issue over which individuals had little choice. No glory, no great speeches about principles or self-sacrifice, no expression of patriotism.

Death for all of them was almost banal, a mere occupational hazard.

This process of brutalisation usually started early: In the case of Muktar, a Somali militia 'freelancer' whose main occupation was to extract cash from passers-by at gunpoint in order to feed his drug habit, it began at the age of four.

For most of them, war became their only existence. A Colombian Marxist rebel was a grandmother who inducted her subsequent generations into the same profession.

Seldom before has so much misery been portrayed in such a personalised way.

Despite their local differences, a common ingredient underpins most of these confrontations.

Nobody should mourn the end of the Cold War. This period, which fed a massive arms race and created obscene concepts such as 'mutually assured destruction', should remain consigned to history's dustbin.

Millions of people perished during the Cold War in various local conflicts, all of which were aided by either the West or East, and sometimes by both at the same time.

But in a curious way, most of these conflicts were of the 'probing' variety, proxy wars in which one side pin-pricked the other, yet always knew how to draw back from the brink.

The proxies were also kept in check: They were not allowed to destroy their opponents totally and were saved themselves from total destruction.

In the process, borders were usually respected, national sovereignty became the bedrock of international relations and the United Nations carved a niche for itself.

Yet today, no such restraints exist: Nations can disintegrate at will, and often it is difficult to find anyone prepared to pay any attention.

The BBC documentary filmed people in conflicts which go back for decades: in Myanmar, Laos or the Philippines, for instance.

Yet by far the most persistent and numerous conflicts are now in that big loser from the end of the Cold War - Africa.

During the ideological confrontation period, African leaders were courted by both sides. Violence in the Congo in the 1960s threatened a world war, and the country was kept together by a UN presence.

A similar bout of violence in the country today - bloodier, in terms of daily casualties, than either the World War I or II - hardly merits a newspaper headline.

When Nigeria broke up four decades ago, few governments dared recognise an independent Biafra.

But when Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia recently, or when Somalia broke to pieces, the world did not tremble. Most people hardly noticed.

Wholesale slaughter in Rwanda and Burundi merited a wriggling of hands; independent Africa is today's 'lost continent'.

It is fashionable to claim that poverty and underdevelopment are the main causes of such conflicts. To be sure, social disorder is clearly linked to poverty.

Contrary to popular opinion, financial aid has worked, up to a fashion. Since 1960, life expectancy in poor countries has risen from 45 to 64 years.

And the number of poor people has dropped by about 200 million in the past two decades - at a time when the world population has increased by 1.6 billion.

But it is equally true that aid has failed to save the most dysfunctional countries, especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Parts of the African continent are returning to their pre-colonial period, an age of tribal existence, with almost no central authority.

In one of the more interesting images of the BBC show, a UN commander in Congo was shown dutifully protecting children from violence while telling the cameraman that at least some of these youngsters will soon join one of the fighting militias.

Another argument often made is that as national economies become more integrated into the global economy, an interdependent world will, of necessity, lead to growing global cooperation and make military confrontation far less likely.

But globalisation also carries the potential for renewed conflict, partly because the benefits and burdens are distributed in such a spectacularly uneven fashion and partly because those who are poor know, due to the availability of global media, just how poor they are.

In the BBC documentary, a Myanmar rebel was shown wearing a T-shirt with the American flag, while the Colombian communist revolutionary thought nothing of hating the United States, but still wore a pair of Disney socks.

Some symbols have become accepted worldwide, but this has not made the world a friendlier place.

So, unmitigated despair all around? Not exactly: Conflicts in Asia, Europe and Latin America are unlikely, on their own, to create major conflagrations.

And some African countries are beginning to assume responsibility for policing and reconstructing their own continent.

But for the moment, the reality belonged to people such as 14-year-old Muktar from Somalia, shown in the programme as a fearless fighter.

A few days thereafter, he was shot dead by another teenager who was angered that he was woken up too early. One more life gone. Another statistic in a war which has no name and draws little attention.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies in London and a regular contributor to The Straits Times.