It was nearly sunset on Easter Saturday when I met Marie Dz’dza. She was sitting on a set of steps in a hospital compound in the town of Bunia. Near her was her mother, Jesinne Dhewedza, and her niece, six-year-old Irene Mave. Two weeks earlier, I might have noticed any number of things about them — Dz’dza’s prominent cheekbones, Mave’s smile, Dhewedza’s graying hair. Instead, my attention was focused on what had been taken from them when men with machetes fell upon their village. Dhewedza now had six fingers instead of 10; Mave, one arm instead of two; and Dz’dza’s arms ended just below the elbow.
They were victims of an outbreak of hyper-violence that had swept through the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Province in the first months of this year, part of a constellation of conflicts affecting a country long plagued by such violence. The three of them were also among the millions of victims of the wars of the last century that have disproportionately affected civilians.
The end of World War I, that war to end all wars a century ago, marked the passing of conflicts in which soldiers’ deaths outnumbered those of civilians. Since then, noncombatants, people like Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, have borne the brunt of war. As it happens, this grim anniversary year coincides with one of my own. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my recent reporting on an ethnic-cleansing campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Vice News marked roughly 12 years since I first began interviewing people who had lost parts of themselves to armed conflicts. Over that span, I’ve regularly witnessed the way war’s barbarism is inscribed on the bodies of men, women, and children. I’ve seen civilian victims who have lost eyes and ears, hands and feet, arms and legs — people who are now a living testament to our inhumanity.
While I’ve spoken to many hundreds of war victims and chronicled atrocities from Afghanistan to Cameroon to South Sudan, interviews with people whom war has literally reshaped have often stuck with me, though few more vividly than those in the 2008 TomDispatch piece reposted below. A decade ago, reporting from Vietnam for this website, I interviewed two men who had lost legs to the “American War” almost 40 years earlier. The generosity of readers led to a happy result: those two survivors received new prosthetics — hardly compensation for what they had lost, but perhaps the bare minimum we owe to the civilian casualties of our conflicts; the bare minimum, in fact, that the world owes all the victims, including Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, from conflicts that were supposed to have been over and done with a century ago, but which, sadly enough, churn on today, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and Congo.
The article that follows flowed far more from the questions those survivors of war asked me than the ones I asked them. It also taught me something about another bare minimum we owe to the victims of our wars: listening to them. Sadly, since this piece was published in 2008, a decade’s worth of new war victims have been added to the pages of humanity’s most appalling ledger. Who will chronicle all of their stories? And even if someone did, would we have the courage to read them?