By Alison Brettle
Photo: Man from Mundari Tribe, South Sudan. Credit: klublu/Shutterstock.
What might Ukraine’s gun-toting grannies have in common with South Sudanese cattle raiders? At first glance, not much. The first are elderly, civilian women, taking up arms under exceptional circumstances to defend their homeland from Russian aggression. The second are young men, taking part in an enduring cultural practice that has become increasingly militarised, politicised and violent. One ostensibly contradicts gender and age-based norms concerning who ‘should’ fight and who should not, whilst the other seemingly conforms to those stereotypes. We associate the first with ‘peaceful civilians’, the second with ‘violent fighters’.
Yet these two groups have more in common than we might assume. Both are part of historical patterns where those who take up arms occupy multiple roles in society, and both represent the blurring of fighter-civilian identities that shape contemporary conflict and post-conflict dynamics.
The merging of fighter-civilian roles is not a new phenomenon – what is ‘new’ is the attempt to separate them. This separation, however, can pose problems, especially when it comes to building peace.
Holding the label of a ‘combatant’ or a ‘civilian’ can determine whether a person is able to access certain support programmes. Categorising people as fighters may thus exclude them from interventions aimed at helping people deal with their conflict-related trauma and behaviours. Tackling these is fundamental to reducing violence and promoting social cohesion, and so, if we don’t acknowledge the complex identities and dynamics surrounding those living in conflict zones, we risk undermining progress towards peace. If we can unpack this blurring of civilian-combatant identity, it will help us develop more nuanced, inclusive approaches to peace building.
The civilian-combatant distinction often disappears on the ground
But what do we actually mean by ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’? For much of ancient and early modern history, the construction of separate soldier-civilian identities was non-existent. The Pharaonic army of Ancient Egypt was essentially made up of ‘seasonal soldiers’ who lived in barracks during the campaigning season but returned to the fields afterwards. Similarly, in the Hoplite armies of Ancient Greece, fighting was mostly done by ‘amateur militias’ who, rather than being mythologised fearless warriors, were citizen-soldiers who on occasion panicked and fled the battlefield.
Throughout history, there has been a blurring of military and civilian zones. Africa’s pre-colonial period was marked by cyclical episodes of violence, where military and ‘civil’ spheres merged without clear-cut distinctions of difference. Within societies, military organisations formed and developed in response to the needs of the community they were part of. Armies were made up of farmers, herders, and administrators, and were often assembled ad-hoc to deal with specific emergencies. When the armies were no longer needed, they disbanded, and the ‘soldiers’ returned to their normal occupations. Individuals were not identified solely as ’warriors’, but rather held multiple roles and occupations in society.
It wasn’t until the development of standing armies in 17th century Europe that a more distinct sense of military identity was born, and it was only in the early 19th century that ‘civilian’ was used to specifically describe a ‘non-military man’. Whilst the term ‘combatant’ has been in use since the 12th century, the idea of military distinction based on military specialism (and professionalism) is thought to be a ‘modern’ concept.
Today, the distinction between civilians and combatants stands clear. It determines military Rules of Engagement and Just War. It is the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law, and it aims to protect those not involved in fighting: the civilians.
For those on the ground, however, the line is not quite so clear-cut. Patterns of militarisation in the pre-colonial past were shaped by the political, social and economic environments in which violence took place, and the same stands true today.
Take the South Sudanese cattle raiders. Cattle raiding has a long history in South Sudan, but the exploitation of these local conflicts has seen the armed herders brought into wider political movements. Now, raiders are heavily armed, and the practice is often deadly.
In Eastern Congo, members of non-state armed groups often have to rely on ‘civilian’ sources of livelihood for daily survival—activities that lie outside their armed group. These include brewing and selling alcohol, making charcoal, selling firewood, farming, and manual labour.
Building on a long tradition of coalesced identities where warrior and ‘civilian’ roles intertwined, today’s ‘fighters’ are often driven by context and community need – such as, for example, Ukraine’s grannies.
Simplistic distinctions risk excluding populations from relevant support
What do these fluid, overlapping identities mean in practice? Firstly, programmes and interventions need to recognise that categorising individuals as either combatants or civilians is reductive. It reinforces binary notions of ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’ where the reality is much more complex. Identities are often mixed, and acknowledging only one aspect means acknowledging only one aspect of a person’s experience. As history has shown us, those living in conflict zones simultaneously navigate multiple civilian and combatant identities, and that is still the case today.
Secondly, the existence of these two distinct lenses suggests there is a hierarchy of those who are seen as ‘deserving’ of recovery: one which is constructed around the notion of victimcy and ‘civilianhood’. In the Global South, for example, a ‘civilian’ is likely to be eligible for trauma interventions, but a ‘fighter’ is not. Conversely, ‘combatants’ are enrolled into Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes, but ‘civilians’ are not. It’s estimated that between 20-50% of former fighters in fragile and conflicted affected areas suffer from trauma and elevated levels of aggression, yet less than ten studies have specifically examined and addressed their mental health needs. In comparison, a Google Scholar search of “trauma interventions for civilians after war” yields over 20,000 results. To help societies recover from the spill-over effects of violent conflict, policymakers need to ensure that all parties, whether civilian or combatant, are assessed for trauma and aggression so that they can access relevant support.
Finally, the blurring of civilian-combatant identities has implications for policies aimed at demobilising and reintegrating former fighters. To date, most DDR programmes prioritise occupational and socioeconomic elements over psychological support for mental health or cognitive disorders. A need for mental health support is not just the preserve of ‘civilians’, however, but also needs to include those labelled ‘combatants’. If we are to achieve peace, it is important to help people make sense of their own roles in, and experiences of, violent conflict. Policymakers must ensure that efforts to assist former fighters focus as much on addressing their behavioural, relational and cognitive needs as their economic ones. Conflict and post-conflict dynamics are complex, and it is vital that support and peace interventions can account for this.
 Baez, Sandra, Hernando Santamaría-García, and Agustín Ibáñez. “Disarming ex-combatants’ minds: toward situated reintegration process in post-conflict Colombia.” Frontiers in psychology 10 (2019): 73.
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.