Tactical Survival in Conflict

An OCHA report on “the response strategies of internally displaced people found that their information-gathering systems were often highly developed and far superior to those of the humanitarian community.” So the task at hand is not to develop new tactics for survival but rather to learn from those who have survived and perished in conflict. As a seasoned practitioner with Medecins sans Frontiers stated,

“People will continue to survive as best they can, relying more on their own communities and traditional networks than on [us] … it is not the fault of the displaced persons and refugees, but our system for providing protection and assistance that does not work. They have, after all, had to learn the hard way what it takes to survive.

Sadako Ogata and Amartya Sen echo this sentiment when they write,

“The empowerment of internally displaced persons has not received enough attention, despite the crucial role [they] play in meeting their own needs and influencing the course of conflict. In many situations internally displaced persons develop survival and coping strategies. In some, they and host communities develop self-defense units to ensure that people have time to flee.

To this end, studying and disseminating testimonies of those who survive violence can provide important insights into the numerous tried and true survival tactics. Luck may at times play a role in survival stories. But to quote the French scientist Louis Pasteur, “in the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” In any event, luck can be turned into knowledge, and knowledge into future tactics.

As Casey Barrs writes, communities in crises can learn from survival testimonies; “learn what dispersed and hidden livelihoods look like. They can be shown how they might dismantle their village homes and build temporary huts near their fields as the Vietnamese sometimes did in the face of American airpower. Or use crop colors and canopies that are less noticeable from the air, as Salvadoran peasants sometimes planted.” Understandably, “no sophisticated warning systems were available, so people had to develop their own skills in detecting and identifying aircraft.”

The following short testimonies are taken from the extensive research on civilian protection and humanitarian tactical training carried out by Casey Barrs.

East Timor, 1990s: “When we hid, we always hid in the forest. There were no more villages; the Indonesian Army had burned them all down. Each family hid by itself. We were more secure if we separated into many places in a given area, rather than all camping in one restricted area. There were a few hundred people with us altogether.”

Belorussia, 1940s: “Our camp was spread out in sections over an area of ten kilometers; special scouts would ride over the area to maintain contact between the difficult subunits … we remembered the Biblical phrase ‘should one part of the camp be attacked and overcome, the other part will remain.’ This strategy was used by our forefathers.”

Burma 1990s: “The armed opposition in Burma built early warning systems for civilians to monitor the risks of government attack. Monitoring systems can be as simple as a rotating networks of villagers taking up strategic outlook positions and sending runners to inform neighbors if troops are approaching. However, more advanced early warning systems utilize the radio transmitters of the armed opposition forces to prepare villagers for evacuation.”

El Salvador 1970s: “Salvadorans sometimes did their own preemptive migrations in order to outflank military sweeps. These defensive movements were called guindas. In groups ranging from a few dozen to as many as two or three hundred” the people hid during the day and moved at night, sometimes repeating this for a few weeks. Civilians would also set off firecrackers to warn others when they saw spotter planes. Said one observer, ‘they’re human radar, practical and self-taught; who knows how to do it, but they know that there’ s going to be a military operation.”

Uganda 1990s: “The residents of some threatened villages in Northern Uganda climb the mountainsides each night and sleep under animal hides tanned to look like rocks. Dig underground rooms for supplies and services adjunct to the encampment.”

The iRevolution question: what role can ICTs play in empowering local communities to help them get out of harm’s way?

Patrick Philippe Meier

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