Cities Have Become Battlefields. How Can We Protect Against Urbicide?

Op-ed: We must reckon with the human toll of urban warfare, from Mariupol to Gaza, and begin to take civilian harm mitigation seriously.

The destruction of buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine

The destruction of buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Julia Rekamie / Unsplash)

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Two months ago, “20 Days in Mariupol” won Best Documentary Feature Film at the Academy Awards. Set at the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the film captures the Russian attack on and siege of Mariupol, a Ukrainian industrial city of 450,000 inhabitants.

A grim testament to the horrors of urban warfare, the film begins with Ukrainian firemen extinguishing a fire in a bombed home as the crew attempts to interview a terrified older woman. The crew races through hospital corridors following a family whose 4-year-old child, Evangelina, has been wounded by an explosion at a playground. We are in the operating room as Evangelina dies. The documentary takes viewers to a destroyed maternity hospital where first responders are evacuating women. Iryna, a pregnant woman, and her child die too. City streets and hospital halls run slick with blood; soon enough, municipal workers must dig a mass grave to accommodate the accumulating fatalities.

These tragedies, caused by Russian shells and bombs, are both particular to its invasion of Ukraine as well as indistinguishable from those in city after city, country after country, decade after decade. Seoul and Pyongyang in the 1950s, Hue in the 1960s, Beirut in the 1970s, Halabja in the 1980s, Sarajevo and Grozny in the 1990s, New York City and Fallujah in the 2000s, Aleppo and Mosul in the 2010s and Mariupol, Bucha, Kfar Aza, Be’eri and Gaza in the 2020s – to name a few. Why must we watch the same film again and again?

War is universally awful, but it becomes especially heinous when it enters the densely populated and constructed confines of urban spaces. We now have many words for this, words often as ugly as the ideas they represent. Urbicide is the destruction of the city; domicide, of housing and dwellings; educide or scholasticide, of educational facilities; ecocide, of the natural environment; and, of course, genocide, the destruction of a population, in whole or in part.

These terms hint at what a city is: a system of systems like homes, power and water utilities, healthcare, transportation, public administration, private commerce and other social and physical infrastructure that sustains healthy, efficient and productive life among many thousands — or millions — of people. As harms to these systems cumulate, so too do human vulnerability, trauma and displacement. Whether deliberate or incidental, war’s destruction of urban systems has cataclysmic effects.

The last decade offers multiple examples that lay bare the dynamics of urban warfare. Mosul in Iraq, Mariupol in Ukraine and Gaza in Palestine are among the most salient and documented.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, captured Mosul in 2014. Following an extensive campaign to defeat ISIS, the Iraqi military began a siege to reconquer Mosul from the terrorist organization in October 2016, aided by U.S. advisors and airpower. The battle lasted nearly nine months, until July 2017 — four months longer than the battle of Stalingrad. By the end of the operation, 44% of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents had been displaced, between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians had been killed (at least 3,200 by anti-ISIS coalition forces) and 70% of the city had been damaged or destroyed.

The battle for Mariupol was shorter but no less ferocious. Over three months starting in February 2022, the Russian military encircled, bombed and shelled the city to seize it from the Ukrainian army. According to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the fighting displaced 350,000 of 450,000 pre-war residents and damaged or destroyed 90% of residential buildings. While the U.N. confirmed more than 1,300 civilian deaths, the Ukrainian government claimed more than 25,000 civilian fatalities, one resident in 20.

The most recent set of urbicides began on Oct. 7, 2023, with Hamas’ attack on Israel. Palestinian militants engulfed smaller border communities like Nir Oz, Kfar Aza and Be’eri (with populations ranging from approximately 400 to 1,000) and made inroads in regional towns like Sderot (population: 33,000) before being repelled. Hamas’ operation targeted these concentrated populations through murder, sexual violence and kidnapping, ultimately killing around 1,200 people and taking hostage more than 250. (More than half remain prisoner in Gaza.) These acts could amount to genocide and constitute numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Following Oct. 7, Israel responded through an aerial and ground assault on the Gaza Strip. Gaza itself is not a city, but rather a dense agglomeration of multiple cities — the largest being, from north to south, Jabalia, Gaza City, Deir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah — surrounded by smaller cities and more sparsely populated rural areas. Gaza had 2.2 million inhabitants in 2023 and a population density a third greater than Chicago’s. (The current assault on Gaza is only the latest and vastest Israeli operation in the territory, and follows at least four major wars in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021. The initial siege of Gaza began in 2007.)

Describing the urbicide of Gaza is a dire exercise. As of mid-May 2024, seven months into the conflict, local health authorities and the U.N. have estimated that more than 35,000 people have been killed and 78,000 wounded by Israel’s attack—that is, more than 1 in every 100 Gazans has been killed and 3 in every 100 wounded, often with amputations or other severe injuries. (Fatalities are likely higher as many bodies still lie buried under rubble.) The war has displaced more than 1.8 million Gazans, a population larger than that of Phoenix or Philadelphia, many of them multiple times. The U.N. World Food Program has warned that famine in Gaza affects more than 500,000 people, with one in every six children under the age of two being acutely malnourished.

The Israeli assault on Gaza, which the New York Times called “pulverizing,” has damaged or destroyed more than 35% of buildings, including 339 educational facilities and 167 religious buildings, and left ample residential neighborhoods uninhabitable. More than 800 attacks on health care facilities and lack of supplies have led 26 of 36 hospitals to cease functioning, with those remaining maintaining bare operations.

Mosul, Mariupol, Oct. 7 and Gaza demonstrate consistent patterns. In each case, the use of heavy weapons like artillery, tanks, aerial bombardment and improvised explosive devices devastated the cityscape and population. This is exacerbated where forces like ISIS and Hamas hide among civilians, which constitutes yet another war crime.

Yet terrorist acts do not excuse adversaries from upholding the international humanitarian law principles of proportionality and distinction. Even high-intensity counterterrorism operations can occur with strong regard for civilian harm mitigation. U.S. coalition operations against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria — a context similar to Mosul — killed 1.7 civilians per 100 airstrikes. Larry Lewis, a civilian harm mitigation expert who advises the U.S. Department of Defense, conservatively estimated that Israeli airstrikes in Gaza killed 54 civilians every 100 attacks. In the current conflict, the Israeli military increased the acceptable number of civilian deaths from “dozens” to “hundreds” and made extensive use of large bombs, making collateral damage both certain and deliberate. Across all cases, inadequate civilian evacuation and aid caused significant additional harm.

Apart from implementing best practices of civilian harm mitigation at the campaign and event levels, international norms and accountability must become stronger to protect cities from conflict.

Given the catastrophic effects of urban warfare, it is necessary to reverse the standard of proof: Rather than having to demonstrate that military operations within a city have violated international law, parties to these operations should have to demonstrate that they have not, such as by providing access and data to independent observers to assess outcomes and recommend and verify improvements. (The U.S. military has adopted similar mechanisms for transparency and learning, making measurable progress in CHM despite being far from perfect.)

Such mechanisms will require increased accountability for parties found to commit crimes. The International Criminal Court’s warrants for two senior Russian military officers whom they determined to have commanded strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and the requested warrants for senior Israeli and Hamas officials send a message, but will require enforcement to demonstrate that urbicide cannot happen with impunity.

It is inevitable that cities are the focal point in war. Cities are centers of economic and social control, political symbols and spaces where less-powerful militaries can nullify some of their enemies’ advantages. Knowing that attacks on cities will recur makes discouraging, mitigating and addressing them all the more important.

Mosul is undergoing slow reconstruction. Mariupol remains under Russian occupation. Israeli communities face the grief of loss and uncertainty around hostages’ fates. Gazans survive in a ghetto of rubble, unsure of when the next bomb will drop or who will rule over them once the war ends. In “20 Days in Mariupol,” a Ukrainian police officer named Vladimir asks the film crew to document the maternity hospital’s destruction to spur international assistance. The narrator’s cynical voiceover responds, despondently: “Vladimir said the footage from the maternity hospital could change the course of the war. But we have seen so many dead people. Dead children. How could more death change anything?”

This is the challenge urbicide gives us: to change something for this city, for the next city, for when it will be our city.

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Giacomo Bagarella is a practitioner of urban and public policy and an independent writer who has published pieces in Foreign Policy, Tech Crunch and Gizmodo. He recently published a book chapter on the relationship between war memorials, civic narratives and urban spaces in East and Southeast Asia. Follow him on X and Medium. All opinions are his own.

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Tags: war

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