When Julia Murphy arrived in Afghanistan in 2019 she knew that her mission would be challenging. The country has been ravaged by years of violence, which has impacted every aspect of life for the people living there.
However, one thing that the Red Cross delegate couldn’t have predicted was the arrival of a global pandemic in 2020. The effect of Covid-19 has been felt around the world but, in many countries such as Afghanistan, the virus is an added problem, rather than the only problem.
“The first wave of Covid-19 was quite bad and measures were put in place in big cities. But then, unfortunately, the conflict intensified.
“We have ‘Tea and Talk’ sessions where we invite community leaders and village elders to come to our offices from different districts and we talk to them about the situation on the ground and how civilians in their area are affected by the conflict or other issues. This is our main source of information and at first, we were asking them about the Covid situation, but eventually, we stopped asking that question, because the answer was always the same – they would look at us and say ‘Well, you know there’s a war going on so Covid really isn’t our priority anymore’, which is, of course, understandable. Covid-19 is here but, to put it simply, it’s the least of people’s worries at the moment, particularly in the south where there is heavy fighting ongoing.”
Julia’s role as a PCP (Protection of the Civilian Population) delegate with the ICRC means that she interacts with the civilian population about the impact of the ongoing fighting. For example, her role involves documenting cases of violations of International Humanitarian Law, and speaking with civilians who have been harmed during the conduct of hostilities such as airstrikes, shelling, artillery fire, and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Another crucial element of her role is interacting with the parties to the conflict in an effort to ensure that similar instances of civilian harm can be avoided in the future.
“When we speak to parties to the conflict, our focus is not to accuse them of harming civilians: it’s about opening a dialogue, and helping them understand how their methods of war could have a hugely detrimental impact on the civilian population. We discuss instances where this is happening, and we encourage them to be more careful and have stricter measures about their approach with the aim of reducing harm. For instance, we would work to encourage them to not use mortar shelling in densely populated areas, because these types of weapons are extremely imprecise in terms of targeting, which may mean civilian casualties and collateral damage.
“The bottom line is that all parties agree that civilians should not be harmed during the conflict, so based on that, we can engage in a dialogue with them because we have that common agreement that civilians shouldn’t be harmed.”
While this is not Julia’s first mission overseas, this is her first time working in an active warzone. There was hope that an agreement between the US and the Taliban in February 2020 would ease fighting but since October 2020, the violence, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, has increased dramatically. The consequence of this fighting, she says, has caused lasting and untold damage.
“The impact on the people who live here is really, really bad. In terms of basic services like schools, education has probably been the most affected. There are many areas where there are simply no more schools, so children just can’t get an education. And that’s just one of the issues. Access to healthcare is also deeply impacted by a lack of infrastructure. It’s a country that has had so many years of fighting – and not just active fighting, but also children affected by unexploded ordnances that sometimes date back to the 1980s and for which still cause casualties today. There are so many mines all over the country and that’s also something that’s affecting the development of the society.”
Although Julia was stuck in Europe for a few months due to Covid-19 related travel restrictions, she says that she was eager to get back to Afghanistan, where she is finding her mission interesting, albeit challenging.
“The job itself is about victims of war, so it does mean being faced with death and destruction on a daily basis, and that can get to you after a while. We do have the regional hospital (Mirwais Regional Hospital, which is supported by the ICRC) that we visit regularly to follow up on incidents causing civilian casualties of war. The most challenging thing is when we see children in the hospital, who are so young and already being impacted by the conflict with all sorts of injuries. Some images will stay with me. Recently, we visited a young man who was a victim of an IED blast and lost both his legs and one arm.
We also invite people to our offices who have been caught up in the conflict and who have either been injured themselves or have lost a family member to the conflict; as well as those who have suffered material losses (most notably the loss of livelihood or dwelling). Again, these interviews may be challenging, because of the traumatic experiences that they have lived through. Despite this, the human aspect is the most important in a way, because it connects us to what we’re doing on a daily basis.”