The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helps people affected by armed conflict and violence, protecting lives, relieving suffering, and providing life-saving humanitarian assistance. It is independent, neutral, and rooted in the Geneva Conventions.

Aleppo, great Umayyad mosque. Destructions. (Sana Tarabishi, 2017)
From Mosul, Aleppo and Gaza, to Khartoum, Mariupol and Mogadishu, armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban areas, where high population densities result in countless civilian deaths.

War in cities damages infrastructure, healthcare facilities, markets, and other essential services, and causes psychological trauma, even more so when warring parties abrogate their responsibilities under international humanitarian law. The immense humanitarian consequences are worsened as protracted conflict pushes the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals further from reach.

International humanitarian law, also known as the ’law of war’, is a set of rules aimed at limiting the effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons. It protects persons who are not, or no longer, participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is or the law of armed conflict.

The ICRC demands that those involved in conflict abide by international humanitarian law, and calls on all states to join the 83 that in 2022 agreed to curb the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

    Aleppo, Al-Hazzazeh district. Children play around in the rubble of their neighbourhood which has been the scene of intense clashes. (Hagop Vanesian, 2013)

    When cities are broken by war, the ICRC and its Red Cross and Red Crescent partners adopt a multidisciplinary, integrated approach specifically adapted to the urban context to heal the wounds, quickly responding to the humanitarian needs of affected populations and preventing the collapse of critical infrastructure that can force millions into crisis.

    In Gaza, the ICRC has maintained a presence since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, meaning it is able to respond rapidly when hostilities spike. In May 2021, the ICRC scaled up its economic security projects during and after 11 days of renewed hostilities that left a trail of destruction. Hundreds of family breadwinners were assisted to cover daily expenses, emergency cash handouts were provided, as well as household items for thousands of families , cash-for-work schemes were rapidly implemented to rebuild infrastructure and strengthen livelihoods, and mental health support was provided to help civilians rebuild their fractured lives.

    The work carried out to create the ICRC’s 'Broken Cities' 3D models predated the October 2023 escalation in violence in Israel and Gaza. At the time of publication, the Al Mena tower is still standing but we are trying to establish whether the people interviewed in Gaza are still alive.

    Gaza, Shejaeya. Civilians are fleeing their home. (Al Baba, 2014)
    Gaza, Beit Hanoun. Sitting on rubble of war, a little girl draws in a colouring book. A Gaza resident, she went through numerous traumatic experiences. (Al Rifi, Mohammad, 2021)

    In Iraq, the ICRC has had a sustained presence since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Before the Battle of Mosul began, the ICRC was supporting three healthcare facilities in the city, including Mosul Ibn Sina Teaching Hospital, and 14 others across the province. As war raged in Mosul during 2017, the ICRC extended its financial and material support to 20 healthcare facilities in the city, and a total of 36 across the province, even as funding became ever more constrained. During this difficult and dangerous period ICRC surgical teams deployed to Mosul and surrounding areas, treating thousands of wounded people, and training emergency responders in trauma care and first aid, while also managing and supporting physical rehabilitation centres for war-affected people.

    Mosul, Old City. This child lives on collecting metal from the city’s rubble. The white flag indicates that the area is cleared of mines, but with his friends, he sometimes collects resalable coins in areas that are not cleared. (Mike Mustafa Khalaf, 2021)
    Mosul. Civilians are leaving the Hay Tairan neighbourhood during the second phase of the military offensive to retake the city from armed groups. (André Liohn, 2017)

    In Syria, when local clashes between rebels and state forces evolved into a large-scale conflict in 2012, the ICRC was well-positioned to provide support, drawing on over a half-a-century of working with conflict-affected populations in the country. By 2016, the ICRC’s Syria operation had become its largest, based in Aleppo and working alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to serve people in both government and opposition areas. The ICRC stayed in Aleppo throughout the years of conflict responding to the needs of populations, providing food and household essentials to many millions, as well as clean water, and other items, visiting detainees at prisons, and acting as a neutral intermediary to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians.

    Eastern Aleppo. Farmers are selling their goods for Ramadan. Life has come back but the scars of war are everywhere. (Ali Yousef, 2018)
    Aleppo. The facade of this building collapsed following shelling. Residents make the most of what’s left, with each apartment telling a unique story. (Hagop Vanesian, 2013)