I’m a humanitarian worker and I’ve been working on protracted conflict for the last 13 years. A protracted conflict is generally defined as a long-term, low intensity conflict. It is not all out war, also known as violent conflict, although it is considered a pre-condition for it. Colombia, Somalia and Israel are often viewed as textbook examples of protracted conflicts.
The concept stems from a theory initially developed by Edward E Azar who described Protracted social conflict as conflicts that occur, “when communities are deprived of (the) satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity.” Azar continues by highlighting that “the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages. Furthermore, initial conditions (colonial legacy, domestic historical setting, and the multi-communal nature of the society) play important roles in shaping the genesis of protracted social conflict.”
In 2002 I moved to Colombia to work with a UN agency. One of the first things that struck me was the general sense of normalcy in a country that from the outside was perceived as highly dangerous. On arrival most of my colleagues were quick to highlight that soon I would see how things were not as bad as the international media portrayed them, followed by advice such as: “don't take a cab from the street, or you might end up in the bush being sold to the guerrilla”. With nearly three thousand kidnappings and nearly 70 homicides per 100,000 a year and at the time, this advice was not to be taken lightly. People go about their daily lives accepting the status quo as normal.
The Life Peace Institute on its issue on protracted conflict asked “Can you get used to living with war?” Sadly, I quickly learned that the answer to this question is yes. The article continues “Probably, in the same way that you can somehow get used to living with physical pain, with constant stress, with disturbing noises. You get used to it, you bear with it in silence, because you have no other choice. You don’t know of any alternative.” One of my first “field missions” in Colombia was to visit IDPs, aka, internally displaced persons. Displaced by the conflict. There was a small group of wooden houses that particular stuck out to me. Having run out of available land, these houses were built on man-made islands of rubbish over swamplands and connected by planks of wood. What most people don't realize is that many of the IDPs in Colombia come from some of the most fertile regions. For the most part they were, previous to the displacement, farmers who owned land and animals, now reduced to living in planks of wood.
The full obscenity of this only hit me back at the hotel, going over my pictures, and partly this was because while I was there the children were playing and laughing, the ‘homes’, while bare, proudly showcased photographs and other valued mementos on their walls. Everyone went about their business, as if living on fake rubbish islands was normal. Which brings me to my second realization at the time: not only can a person get used to living with war, it is surprisingly easy for the surrounding world to get used to it and protracted conflict, where there are no massive explosions and massacres to show for it, are particularly easy to get used to. What once seemed unthinkable becomes normal. I once counted over 50 soldiers standing on the sides of the road on my thirty minute ride from home to the office. Move on people, nothing to see here.
Humans adjust. It is for this reason that protracted conflicts easily become the forgotten wars. Unless there are international interests involved, such as is the case of Israel or Colombia, these conflicts become the backdrop hardly ever making headlines. The Western Sahara conflict comes to mind.
Since I had kids I’ve tried to stay out of trouble spots. The fact that aidwork is no longer perceived as neutral has made working in these “hot spots” more complex and ultimately dangerous. So it was with much surprise that I realised, watching the 8 o’clock news on my sofa, that I am –once again, and without my knowledge- living in a protracted conflict country.
You might wonder how this could happen. How can you not-know that you are living in a conflict. And while you do that, you are probably reviewing in your mind mental pictures of the news that you have seen. All I can tell you is what I was seeing: recent footage from Baltimore, which until last week was nicknamed (by me) yawn city.
 Azar, E., The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory & Cases, Aldershot, Dartmouth, 1990 p12.
Life and Peace Institute, April 2010, New Routes Volume 15 http://www.life-peace.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/nr_2011_03.pdf