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Major Aid Group Worries About Rise in Rate of Civilian War Victims

Humanitarian aid workers say they are troubled by the rise in the number of civilian victims of war and armed conflict today. The medical relief organization, Doctors Without Borders, says taking care of civilian victims is becoming harder and more confusing in a world where conflicts have so many different layers. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim reports.

Veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson says that the best way to ensure one's safety in many wars around the world today is to be a soldier or a rebel. It may sound absurd, he said at a recent discussion in New York with aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, but statistically he believes it rings true.

Anderson says historians estimate about 300 civilians died in the American Civil War. In World War I, he says, the civilian mortality rate was about five percent of total deaths, and about 40 percent in World War II. The Vietnam War resulted in about 75 percent civilian deaths, he says, and in almost all wars since Vietnam, civilian fatalities have been upwards of 90 percent.

Dr. Greg Elder attributes this new phenomenon partly to what he calls an increasingly blurred line between combatants and non-combatants. The Doctors Without Borders' physician, currently based in Nigeria, says civilians who support rebel groups or aid and fuel rebels, for example, have become targets.

"The consequence of that is a counter-insurgency against these rebel groups in places like Sudan," said dr. Elder. "The way to isolate rebel groups is to root out their support base, which basically means cleansing territory of the civilians and so these people are displaced, they're caught up in the violence."

Dr. Elder and his colleague, Nicolas de Torrenté, say the result is more civilian casualties. And while humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders are there to help casualties of war, sometimes the victims are distrustful.

De Torrenté has worked in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia and Afghanistan. As executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States, he says the group is independent and free of any political influences, but he understands why some victims are fearful.

"When you have international forces who are involved and are carrying out military operations, political operations and others, and you have organizations that are coming from the same countries just trying to provide humanitarian assistance, it's very hard to establish a clear perception of separation," said Nicolas de Torrenté.

De Torrenté says Iraq is an example of what he calls the daily struggle for humanitarian space. Given the level of violence there, he says, humanitarian groups cannot function and they are not always trusted. But, he adds, aid groups are making a difference.

De Torrenté says it is easy to forget that in Darfur today there are close to 80 humanitarian organizations on the ground and that close to two million people are benefiting from the assistance.

"The situation is bleak of course," he said. "They are in displaced camps, they can't return to their homes, there's insecurity, but there is the humanitarian lifeline, and it's functioning. And I think we have to affirm and insist on that."

De Torrenté says support for humanitarian assistance needs to be strengthened and sustained. With high numbers of civilian deaths in the past decade in Liberia, Darfur and Congo, De Torrenté says humanitarian aid should be defended much more strongly than it is today.