Statement At State And Foreign Operations Subcommittee Hearing On Assistance For Civilian Victims Of War

Twenty-one years ago I visited a field hospital in the jungle bordering Nicaragua and Honduras. It was during the war between the Contras and Sandinistas, and it was civilians who bore the brunt of the casualties. 

There was a young boy there who had adopted the hospital as his home. He had lost a leg from a landmine and had only a homemade wooden crutch. 

He had no idea who had put the landmine on the trail where he walked near his home, but it made no difference. His life was ruined.

It was meeting that boy which led to what later became known – thanks to the thoughtfulness of Senator Mitch McConnell – as the Leahy War Victims Fund. It responds to the fact that unlike a century ago when armies fought armies and civilian casualties were the exception not the rule, since then the trend has been the opposite.  Today it is overwhelmingly civilians who suffer the casualties.  

According to a U.S. Institute of Peace Report, the numbers of civilians who have died in armed conflicts in just the past couple of decades is staggering. Nearly 200,000 civilians were killed in Bosnia; between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans perished in the genocide; at least 200,000 people have died in Darfur; nearly 5 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and many thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians have died in the wars in those countries. These are just a few examples.

The Leahy War Victims Fund has supported programs to assist people severely disabled in armed conflicts around the world.   

I want to thank USAID, and all the Leahy Fund partners, for the 20 years they have made this program what it is. It has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and it has shown a compassionate side of the United States.

Dirk Djikerman, Acting Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, is here to describe the work of the Leahy Fund and other USAID programs that assist civilian casualties of war. Thank you for being here.

Ca Van Tran, President of Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped, will testify about the work they have done, supported by the Leahy Fund in Vietnam. He is accompanied by two beneficiaries of the program. I welcome you here.

Since 9/11, the U.S. Government has established at least three other programs to assist civilian casualties of war that share similarities and are complimentary to the Leahy Fund.

In 2002, after repeated bombing mistakes in Afghanistan resulting in civilian casualties, I included funding for USAID to establish a program to provide assistance to the victims. 

This program, called the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, helps families and communities that have suffered losses as a result of U.S. military operations. 

Erica Gaston, a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict will testify about her report – “Losing the People” – about civilian casualties and the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq we knew we would need a similar program there. Very quickly, civilian casualties began to add up and – like in Afghanistan – anger towards the United States by the very people we were there to protect. 

A program was established, inspired by a young California woman, Marla Ruzicka, who died tragically in a car bombing in Baghdad in 2005. That program, also administered by USAID and four implementing partners, has provided similar aid to innocent victims of U.S. military operations. It was officially named the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.

John Chromy, Vice President of Cooperative Housing Foundation International, one of the Marla Fund partners, will describe their work.

And finally, there are programs in Afghanistan and Iraq funded by the Department of Defense, which provide “condolence” cash payments to the families of civilians who have been killed or injured, or whose property has been damaged or destroyed, as a result of U.S. combat operations. 

These payments were authorized by U.S. commanders in the field as an ad hoc response to the combat exemption in the Foreign Claims Act. 

Although we invited the Pentagon to testify today so we could hear how its condolence payments are complimentary to, and coordinated with, the other programs I have mentioned, they declined. 

I regret that. I strongly support condolence payments. I think more people should be aware of them. The increasing outcry over civilian casualties in Afghanistan illustrates that both the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program and condolence payments are critical to the success of our mission.

I do appreciate that Jon Tracy, a former officer with the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, is here to testify about his experience with condolence payments in Iraq during his tour of duty there.  

With that, let’s hear from our witnesses. We will begin with Mr. Djikerman. We will make your written statement part of the hearing record.

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