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Al Jazeera, July 31, 2013

Civilian casualties up 23 percent in Afghanistan: UN report

New UN report shows women and children are increasingly caught in the war's crossfire

By Bethany Matta

Kandahar, Afghanistan - The Afghan boy was returning from his sister's house when he saw three men planting something in the ground. As he approached he tripped a wire, and seconds later a land mine blew off his leg.

"I blame the Taliban for this,” 16-year-old Khalil, who goes by one name, told Al Jazeera. "The Taliban saw me coming towards the mine, but they did not warn me. They plant a lot of mines in the area. Once they planted a mine in front of our house.”

Khalil is just one of many civilian victims caught in the crossfire of the increasingly deadly 11-year-old Afghan war. The number of Afghan civilian casualties has surged 23 percent in the first six months of 2013 - with women and children bearing the brunt of the conflict, a new UN report says.

The number of children killed during that period jumped by 30 percent, compared to the first six months of 2012, according to the report released Wednesday.

Civilian deaths and injuries totaled 3,852 for the first six months of the year with 1,319 people killed - a 14 percent increase compared to the previous period - and 2,533 civilians wounded, a 28 percent increase.

16-year-old Khalil lost his leg after tripping a Taliban improvised explosive device
16-year-old Khalil lost his leg after tripping a Taliban improvised explosive device. (Photo: Bethany Matta/Al Jazeera)

"Children were particularly affected by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, and women in ground engagements,” Georgette Gagnon, a UN special representative, told Al Jazeera.

The latest figures reverse the decline in casualties recorded in 2012, and mark a return to the high number of civilian casualties documented in 2011 - the most deadly year for Afghans so far since the US-led invasion in October 2001.

Gagnon said most victims died while going about their daily business, such as fetching water, or going to school or work.

Part of the reason for increasing civilian casualties is that more fighting is occurring in more areas across the country between Afghan security forces and anti-government elements, the UN official said, a trend echoed in a recent Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) report.

"Often civilians, including women and children, are caught in the crossfire from straying mortars or guns, or whatever the conflicting parties are using. This is why we have seen quite an increase in deaths from this kind of tactic," Gagnon said.

Anti-government fighters

Nearly 75 percent of all casualties were caused by anti-government groups such as the Taliban, said the UN report - a 16 percent increase compared to the same period in 2012.

Afghan and international forces were responsible for 9 percent of the total casualties. Fighting on the ground accounted for 12 percent of the casualties, and 4 percent was attributed to unexploded weapons - of which the vast percentage of victims were children.

The Taliban called the report "totally biased" in a statement issued to reporters.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Al Jazeera before deploying fighters for military operations, the mujahedin first trains them to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

"We do not send them out to fight without proper training. Before starting any fighting, they are trained on avoiding civilian casualties. We also inform the local people in the area if we are going to hold military operations there," said Mujahid.

He said the Taliban was reviewing 200 reported civilian casualty cases. "We are carefully reviewing them and if our fighters are found guilty, we will severely punish them. We have many examples of when our fighters were guilty and we punished them."

According to the UN, the number one factor contributing to the escalating number of civilian casualties is the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks. Ground fighting between Afghan security forces and anti-government groups was listed as the second biggest cause.

Targeted killings by anti-government forces - which have increased by 29 percent compared to the previous year - was the third-highest factor. Religious leaders, mosques, civilian government employees, government buildings and courthouses were among the most targeted, the report said.

Afghan/Nato responsibility

It also documented a 16 percent rise in civilian casualties caused by Afghan and international forces, with a decrease in civilian deaths, but sharp jump in civilian injuries caused by military activities.

Casualties caused by NATO air strikes dropped by 30 percent compared to the same period in 2012, however, women and children accounted for more than half the casualties in such incidents.

Two recent air strikes alone in eastern Kunar province resulted in 22 civilian deaths, mostly women and children.

The Afghan Local Police continues to commit human rights violations against civilians - up 61 percent compared to the same period in 2012, the report said. Murder, torture, rape, threats, intimidation, harassment, forced labour, extortion and illegal taxation were among the police violations.

The rise in violence across Afghanistan also means humanitarian workers must also carefully navigate the conflict. An attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in May killed a staff member, which resulted in the withdrawal of some international staff, and a discontinuation of some activities.

"We have to adapt our working model and procedures to reduce the overall exposure to risk," said Jacques de Maio, ICRC's head of operations for South Asia. "Regrettably, this will have an adverse effect on the quality and the quantity of some of our services."

Hospitals across the country are becoming overwhelmed with the increased number of patients.

"The number of war-related cases we are receiving at Mirwais has definitely increased in the past four months," Mirwais hospital director in Kandahar Farhad Dawod told Al Jazeera. "Day-by-day, the number of patients increases and we are also dealing with shortages of medical equipment compared to last year."

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first six months of the year 59,315 Afghans were forced to leave their homes because of the conflict - up 3 percent compared to the 2012 period.

Neighbouring Iran and Pakistan house the majority of Afghans fleeing the conflict.

Just this week, Pakistan extended the stay of 1.6 million Afghan refugees residing in the country until 2015. However, the UN says that besides those Afghans, more than 1 million unregistered Afghans are living in the country who are not eligible to stay. Their return home is a major concern for the UN, as it would further strain Afghanistan's already frail state.

For Khalil who lost his leg in the IED attack, he said he can't make sense of the war and the carnage it causes.

"I don't know why we are oppressed all the time,” the teenager said. "They closed the school down and now the government is using our school as a checkpoint … I wanted to become successful, but it doesn't look like I can achieve that now.”

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