In 2015, the anti-ISIS coalition bombed a munitions factory in the middle of the city of Hawija (Iraq). In the factory were so many explosives stored that the explosion destroyed a neighbourhood. Researchers from the Iraqi NGO Al-Ghad, Dutch peace organisation PAX and Utrecht University have mapped out the consequences of the attack, and have concluded that, seven years later, the attack still has an enormous impact. And that, based on lessons learned from previous conflicts, failure to acknowledge the civilian suffering can create a fertile ground for new terrorist groups.
The attack on Hawija, for which The Netherlands as part of the Coalition bore responsibility, was one of more than 34,000 air strikes that an international coalition, led by the United States, carried out over Iraq and Syria. Although the wider Coalition describe the war against ISIS as the 'most precise war in history', civilians in Syria and Iraq were confronted with bombardments that did not always turn out to be so precise and led to many civilian casualties.
Al-Ghad, PAX and the research programme Intimacies of Remote Warfare of Utrecht University researched in detail the impact of one airstrike on the local population in Hawija. This was done through interviews with 119 victims, conversations with 40 key figures from society like the mayor of Hawija, 4 focus group discussions, field visits and literature research. Based on this, the researchers conclude that one bomb resulted in more than 85 civilian casualties and hundreds of serious injuries. Damage was reported to 1,200 companies and shops and 6,000 houses. Because ISIS was still in power two years after the attack, people had little or no access to medical care, clean water and electricity and could barely escape. This has long-lasting effects, such as disability and psychological trauma, economic damage, displacement, an increase in child labour, and poor access to schooling.
Apologies and compensation
Most of the interviewees feel let down, the research shows. Partly because the compensation of 4.4 million Euros that the Netherlands promised for reconstruction, because of their involvement in the air raid, has not yet led to concrete reconstruction activities that meet the needs of victims. Victims who spoke with the researcher want an official apology from the Dutch government for the bombing and sufficient compensation to cover the costs caused by the Dutch air raid. The lack of an apology and actual reconstruction has a great impact on the perception of Hawija's residents. It contributes to an anti-Western sentiment and, according to the researchers, can form a breeding ground for the next terrorist organisation.
Based on the research, the researchers therefore recommend that representatives of the Dutch government visit Hawija to apologise to the population. In addition, according to the researchers, it is important that the Netherlands recognises the damage done to individual citizens and the community and offers to compensate for it.
In their report After the strike: Exposing the civilian harm effects of the 2015 Dutch airstrike on Hawija, the researchers warn policymakers about the immediate and long-term effects of warfare in populated areas where rebels are in power. By drawing lessons from previous wars in which civilians were killed and based on their research, they recommend that prior to military operations, proper research should be conducted into possible civilian suffering. They also recommend that the Parliament be informed in a timely manner about what participation in military coalitions means for civilian suffering on the ground, so that this becomes part of the political debate.
Public meeting in De Balie
On 13 April, a meeting about the research results will take place in debate centre De Balie in Amsterdam. The researchers involved will talk to, among others, New York Times journalist Azmat Khan who is writing a book about the American 'air wars'; Dutch journalist Danny Ghosen who made a documentary about the Dutch attack on Hawija and lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld who is assisting eleven victims in a lawsuit against the Dutch state. Those interested can order a ticket via De Balie or follow the meeting online (20.00-21.30 hrs). The meeting will be held in English.