War changes everything, yet nothing about war ever really changes. Towns are seized and lost and seized again. Families bury their young, and then their old, and then their young again. Women and little girls are raped, beaten, and humiliated. Children wake up screaming, and cannot sleep amid the screams. The lines between abused and abuser, militant and freedom fighter, just and unjust, and liberator and occupier blur so as to lose all meaning: They are words we conjure and deploy in the process of picking sides. And for as long as there are sides, there will be war.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that when we say “never again,” we might as well be saying “until we meet again.” As the world reflects on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, blood is spilling in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, and several other war-torn areas where history has not yet judged us – and by “us” I mean those watching from a deniable distance – but likely will.
We forget that getting involved in Rwanda didn’t sound like a terribly good idea at the time. We forget the context that had transformed Somalia into a lesson – still fresh – in postcolonial hubris and made us wary of any future rescue efforts, even as the corpses piled ever higher on the streets of Kigali. And we forget that the genocide is still playing itself out, across Rwanda’s borders, in the form of more than 5 million dead Congolese. It is inevitable that when it comes to humanitarian action in the face of atrocity, we will get things horribly, and murderously, wrong.
But there are some mistakes we don’t have to keep repeating. We ought to know by now, for example, that wars do not foment overnight and that once they start, they are counted in years, not days. This means that short-term emergency efforts and haphazard diplomacy can neither prevent war nor stave off the deluge. In unstable environments, there will always be another wave and with each successive crash there will be fewer and fewer life preservers and able-bodied lifeguards on hand.
Yet this is what we do to those living with war: We give, and then we give less, and then we don’t give a damn. This only makes it easier for conflicts to become intractable and for all sides to become more entrenched and resentful.
Consider South Sudan, whose recent slide into chaos has been met with a surprising lack of consternation given the implications for the region as a whole and the many thousands who have already perished in Sudan’s thatched villages and murky riverbeds.
Now is the time to double down on efforts to bring about a political solution for the South Sudanese people, resolve longstanding land-rights disputes, address basic human needs, promote the rule of law and pave the way for the demilitarization of the country’s youth by ramping up aid spending on employment-generating skills, education, and economic development.
And yet, of the $1.27 billion for which the United Nations has appealed in this crisis in 2014, it has so far secured less than 10 percent.
We should also know that in any war-torn country, the period after hostilities officially end is often as volatile, with as many humanitarian needs, as the period that preceded it. Many thousands more civilians died in Iraq after U.S. President George W. Bush declared victory than during the 2003 air and ground war. The signing of various peace treaties and two internationally monitored elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not stop high levels of rape and murder. And it was the so-called peace, not the war, that proved insurmountable for allied troops in Afghanistan.
War does not begin decisively with a starter’s pistol and end once the circuit is completed. It broods and rumbles and festers and lingers. The best way to ensure war’s departure is through humanitarian interventions that not only save lives, but also give people reasons to live. Hope, in the context of war, is a well-worn cliché, but there is no more direct path to recovery and social stability.
Global attention and financial support for Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide undeniably helped prevent a massive slide back into conflict. Similar investments will be necessary in Syria when the bloodshed stops, to ensure that the Syrian people avoid the prolonged agony well known to families in Sudan, Congo, and Somalia.
Though we continue to say “never again,” human beings show little inclination to stop waging war, so we better learn, and keep on learning, how to mitigate the suffering.
Samantha Nutt is the best-selling author of “Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid,” and is a founder of the humanitarian organization War Child. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).