Wars happen quickly. One minute you’re on the subway going to work or impatiently standing in line in a bank, and the next a conflict is outside your doorstep. Over the past three decades, I’ve seen the terrifying velocity of war in the Balkans, in Africa, and in the Middle East.
No one ever believes it will happen; that war will come to their community, so no one ever prepares. Worse, the international organizations meant to prevent war do little to ensure mechanisms that support conflict prevention are in place. Usually they’re too busy appeasing member states who commit acts of war.
I always ask people caught in conflicts the same question: “Why did it take you so long to leave?” Or “Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” The answer is nearly always the same: because we never thought it would happen.
I remember summer afternoons in Damascus in 2012, standing on my hotel balcony watching a massive rave below me: partiers were dancing around a pool, beers in hand, rap blaring. On the edge of the city, bombs were falling — I could see the plumes of smoke in the distance. The pool party was an attempt to deny the inevitable and freeze time: a desperate, defiant last chance at normality.
One September night on the Ivory Coast in 2002, I went to bed after a raucous dinner party. I drove home admiring Abidjan, the West African city known as the Paris of Africa. A few hours later, I woke to see red tracer rounds in the blackened sky and child soldiers with Kalashnikovs in my garden.
Overnight, the city collapsed. The television didn’t work — the rebels attacked the TV center. My phone had no signal. Villages were being burnt. Dead bodies were left lying in my street. My guard ran away in terror. A five-year war had begun.
As a conflict analyst, I look at several factors to determine whether or not a country is susceptible. Unstable elections are the first trigger. Referendums that may or may not lead to violence. An erosion of the pillars of democracy; human rights…