This memo was prepared for a WPF seminar on “New Wars, New Peace” held at the Fletcher School, January 12-13 2012.

In a recent discussion I was challenged on the first part of this title. The challenge asserted that it was clear that conflicts were complex and the role of analysts was to simplify the complexity to facilitate interventions to help people. In response I argue here that in most cases analysts feel that issues in a conflict are indeed complex. However it is not clear that they understand either why this is so or what the implications are of different factors contributing to complexity before they plan their interventions. If analysts construct a view of a conflict according to their own designation of what matters for those experiencing violence without understanding the complexity of people’s circumstances, does this matter for achieving a resolution to a conflict and a move towards peace? To unpack this question, I talk about the Burundian conflict from 1993 to 2005 and the different interpretations of the nature of conflict in Burundi.

The Burundian conflict is often characterized along the lines of a ‘low-intensity conflict with intermittent high-intensity episodes since 1991’ (Spiegel et al. 2007:2188). This characterization applies a conventional armed-conflict view to Burundi. The main reference points in the description are the frequency and intensity of engagement among warring groups and battle-related deaths. This view of conflict is mainly informed by military and security concerns that prioritize military-related issues as the most relevant issues to understand conflict. Corollary to this, security concerns are focused primarily on military–armed groups and combatants. The rest of the society falls under the category of non-combatants or civilians, only relevant insofar as they link with the military/security categories in one way or another. In most cases, for instance, civilians are considered in terms of casualty numbers to assess the intensity of the conflict.

The end of conflict in this view is related to transitioning particular categories of people from military to a civilian life.  This move also underpins the aim of many interventions to re-concentrate the means of violence in a society within the structures of a legitimate state apparatus. In other words, military/security-based concerns determine categories of who and how they matter for international actors in dealing with the conflict. This state of affairs has critical importance for programs designed to deal with the aftermath of the armed-conflict. These categories operate as static groupings of people to be targeted in order to diffuse the conflict conditions. These include combatants, child soldiers, victims and perpetrators of conflict-related crimes. If people cannot show that they somehow fit in or are linked with these categories that matter within the armed-conflict framework, then their needs and demands are not considered to be relevant for many interventions.

Much research in Burundi after the end of the war, including my own, [here I will use war instead of conflict as most Burundians referred to the period as ‘war’] peoples’ views on the war present a different way of thinking about the conflict in the country. Generally, peoples’ reflections on the war are linked with the way conflict processes interacted with their everyday lives. Most people’s experiences of the war were also mediated by their gender positions within their communities. For example, many women relied on their male relations to survive or, in the absence of such support, had to find different sources for their livelihoods. Many men joined fighting as this was often the safest option given the tensions in their communities.

Gender relations also create particular vulnerabilities not only in relation to ethnic differences but also in relation to age, education, marital status and the regional origins of individuals within similar ethnic groups. People’s coping mechanisms also drove changes in gender relations. One important aspect of this was the way people’s experiences of war, particularly experiences of women, impacted their lives after the official end of the war.

In interviews I conducted in Burundi in 2007, people talked about the problems they faced in the aftermath of the war as linked to or a part of the war.  These problems include everyday issues , like poverty, not having enough to eat, land distribution problems within families or within communities, access to housing, health problems including HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and other livelihoods related issues. Many linked their inability to achieve their livelihoods to the war. In these discussions it was clear that they saw a continuous process between the war and their present conditions. For instance, people associated war with the increased number of rapes and with their own experiences of abuse. The continuation of these problems after the end of the war indicated to them that the war had not really ended but had transformed. This situation highlighted different temporalities in thinking about war between international actors and those living in the country. Furthermore, people’s experiences of this particular war also represented a continuation of their experiences of an inter-generational conflict occurring throughout their lives. In their view their lives were impacted by multiple levels of violence and these experiences informed how they experienced this particular war. In other words, people were exposed to violence during the war but their understanding of this violence was linked with the past (pre-war) violence and structural violence they had experienced after the end of the war.  These reflections point out that while the conflict was framed by international actors as finished, the people’s conflict continued.

In light of these differing formulations of an end to conflict, there are a number of critical issues that arise: a) people hold multiple and changing social positions. People’s experiences show that gender norms and values are a central mechanism for understanding the interactions between social positions and conflict. Therefore, those who try to engage with people in conflict according to static categories based on military/security concerns international actors will not understand either why and how people participate in conflicts or what their needs will be after a conflict. b) It is important to understand how international interventions are implicitly gendered in deciding, for instance, how to think about combatants/ex-combatants or about victim and perpetrator categories and for deciding what kind of health interventions might be required for them. c) It matters to understand that armed-conflicts occur in a conflict continuum within a given society. Conflicts should not be considered exceptional self-contained events defined according to their military aspects that could be controlled or end as a self-contained episode. d) A conflict might formally end but it matters whether processes ending the conflict engage with people’s needs in order to be able to move towards peace. Unless these questions are addressed many interventions to come will be ineffective and have unintended and undesirable consequences.

Hakan Secklinelgin is a Senior Lecturer in International Social Policy in Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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