The Devastating Consequences of War: How Conflict Affects Civilians

The Devastating Consequences of War: How Conflict Affects Civilians

We’re familiar with the visual devastation of war. Media outlets present the destruction in confronting detail: the contorted bodies lying in the empty streets, the collapsed buildings after overnight drone strikes, and the close-ups of discarded children’s toys amongst the rubble. The grainy cameras capture people's desperation as they flee with the few possessions they can carry. Even so, we remain at a distance from the lived experience of war, able to empathise but never fully grasp how the trauma and horror of conflict have profound lifelong consequences on those unfortunate enough to live through it. 

War ruptures communities, akin to the most powerful natural disaster. Indiscriminate violence affects entire populations. Vulnerable groups: women, children, teenagers and older people are equally at risk. Many feel a moral duty to stay and fight for their communities–leading to further death and destruction. 

The damage to physical bodies is apparent; the injuries, wounds and amputations from bombs, falling objects, burns, guns and shrapnel. For many people on the frontlines, comparatively minor injuries become life-threatening or permanent disabilities due to t collapse of healthcare systems in the conflict zone. The damage to life and limbs are testament to the cruelty of war. 

The risk of violence, the breakdown of law and order, and the destruction of homes and communities compel displacement.  People and families with dependents seek safety away from a conflict zone. The conditions displaced people encounter are often hardly better than the horror they escape. They experience further violence, exploitation, lack of legal protection and rights, and difficulty accessing essential needs. Displaced people lose the physical and financial security of their homes, possessions, and means of livelihood. They become entirely dependent on the communities they escape to. War forces a lack of control and autonomy that can be as traumatic as damage to a person’s body.

The psychological consequences of war are perverse and pervasive. The experience of war carves itself on minds. Mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involving nightmarish flashbacks,  rumination and detachment are natural and normal responses. Long after a conflict ends, people live on the edge, triggered by noises and other reminders of the destruction they have witnessed.  Civilian populations experience high rates of anxiety and depression and are more prone to substance abuse to calm shattered nerves. Death, injury and the disappearance of people rip families apart. Survivors often experience profound loss. Grief and guilt can minge, sparking hopeless anger and apathy.

War creates traumatised and dysfunctional communities. Death, injury, and widespread displacement leave a social, political and economic vacuum. Conflict promotes political instability, which undermines civic governance, democratic institutions and the provision of essential state services. Nations at war redirect expenditures to cover skyrocketing military expenses, leaving other social services underfunded.  During and after a conflict, the rule of law and civilian protections can weaken, making corruption and mismanagement of state resources more commonplace.

The sickness of the political system merges with economic disruption. During the conflict, normal economic activity and means of livelihood are paralysed: agriculture, trade, manufacturing and service industries suffer. Businesses close, sparking further job losses and economic depression. Upon return, many people find that the means of income they once relied on no longer exist. The cycle of economic depression can linger for a long time, reducing revenues and spreading poverty and dependence–all of which hinder a community’s recovery. 

Rebuilding communities after a war takes years if not decades. The destruction of infrastructure stalls redevelopment and limits potential economic activity. Ongoing Insecurity and unpredictability scare off investors and business interests. The post-conflict environment alienates skilled workers – teachers, doctors, and engineers – essential for community stability and rebuilding. 

Death, massive displacement of people, and ongoing economic and social decline encourage the long-term loss of the human capital necessary for a community's growth and prosperity. Damage to the education sector can mean that the loss of human capital becomes generational, blunting attempts to rebuild and recover and entrenching social and economic deprivation through prolonged unemployment and lack of opportunities.  

The individual psychological trauma of war becomes community trauma. Damaged people inadvertently collectivise their trauma. Relationships can become strained and calculated, social problems increase, and neighbourhoods become more hostile and suspicious. Mass trauma and grief erode community identity as a cloud of despair and economic decay hangs over the community. 

Conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts prevent further suffering. 

Conflict's negative and devastating consequences are well-documented and understood. Conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts aim to mitigate further harm and injustice by supporting communities in ending violence and achieving recovery. These initiatives strive to restore humanity amid inhumane warfare through non-violent practical measures that restore security, opportunities, and hope.

Short-term resolution efforts focus on saving lives and preventing additional destruction. International bodies such as the United Nations (UN) or the African Union (AU) along with countries invested in resolving the conflict, exert pressure and facilitate dialogue between warring parties to seek commitments to cease violence. These dialogues may also involve agreements for a temporary reduction in hostilities, allowing non-combatants to seek safety or delivering humanitarian aid to affected populations. The ability of humanitarian organizations to provide resources and services to alleviate ongoing suffering is always urgent and crucial. The ultimate objective of these diplomatic initiatives is to establish a sustainable peace treaty that defines the rights and responsibilities of each warring party in de-escalating the situation.

Long-term conflict resolution projects aim to prevent the resurgence of violence by addressing the underlying causes of the conflict. Peacebuilding efforts may involve fostering dialogue, promoting understanding, and cooperation between former enemies. Reconciliation processes can support non-violent channels for nations and communities to express grievances and hold those accountable for atrocities. Peacebuilding activities often focus on building robust institutions resilient to future outbreaks of violence. Good governance initiatives emphasize democratic representation, transparency, accountability, and participatory decision-making involving all community members. Establishing legal frameworks that uphold justice, accountability, and human rights protections is essential, particularly for minorities and other vulnerable populations.

Peacebuilding activities are undertaken even in the midst of ongoing conflict, aiming to prevent a further descent into deepening socioeconomic chaos. In Ukraine, for example, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) seeks to maintain socioeconomic resilience despite the ongoing war, acknowledging that decades of socioeconomic development are at risk of being lost. The program involves assisting the Ukrainian government in its crisis response efforts and strengthening civic institutions to uphold social cohesion, protect human rights, and ensure the inclusion of all individuals. By establishing a foundation of good governance and a vibrant civil society, Ukraine will be better equipped to rebuild once immediate hostilities subside. These actions on a national level lay the groundwork for post-war society to support its citizens through their trauma and provide targeted assistance to rebuild lives and communities.

Contemporary peacebuilding and conflict resolution programs recognize the importance of empowering local organizations and community groups to lead in rebuilding a peaceful and prosperous society. While international organizations, governments, and the private sector play vital roles, collaboration and guidance from local, national, and religious groups ensure that peacebuilding activities are feasible, sustainable and meaningful to the communities involved.

The atrocities of war leave a lasting impact on victims that is almost impossible to comprehend. Nations, communities, and individuals affected by conflict cannot recover alone. We are morally obligated to assist those in need and engage in peacebuilding efforts. Supporting the recovery and rebuilding of war-torn regions is our responsibility and leads us towards a more just, compassionate, and optimistic world that we all aspire to.