Sarah Holewinski: The Pragmatic Activist - OZY | A Modern Media Company


War is hell, but Holewinski is trying to make it less so.

“I sort of woke up one day and said I love armed conflict. I love war,” says Sarah Holewinski. “This is what I want to do: I want to do war.”

It’s an odd thing to hear from a human rights activist, especially a petite, Ivy-League-educated bibliophile with a thick mane of hair and a friendly smile. Though neither soldier nor military strategist, Holeswinski does indeed “do” war. Together with the organization she directs, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, based in Washington, D.C., Holewinski intends to “shift the entire way wars are waged.” That means lobbying policymakers, top brass and guerrilla leaders on behalf of people caught up in crossfire, as well as chemical weapons, drone strikes and errant bullets.

Unlike many humanitarian organizations, which explicitly oppose war, the Center skews to staunchly pragmatic. “We’re not out there saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to war — but instead, that once you engage in war, you have to be clear about civilian harm and responsibilities to civilians,” says Holewinski. In other words, it’s not a peacenik-y sort of place. It’s more about policy papers than leaflets. And as a result, the Center is one of the few organizations that war-makers actually listen to. It aims to help warring parties track civilian casualties, use methods that minimize harm, and make amends when people are hurt.  

A few years ago, General David Petreus, then commanding international forces in Afghanistan, called Holewinski up for lunch– and to talk about mitigating civilian harm. “It made me proud to have someone at that level at the U.S. military really understand humanity in war,” she says. Holewinski has also logged her time in the trenches, literally. While advising African Union troops who were trying to rout out al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, she got caught in a firefight.

Sarah Holewinski speaking at the Oslo Global Conference on Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law

Sarah Holewinski speaking at the Oslo Global Conference on Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law.

Source Kilian Munch/Norwegian MFA

“I’d never seen anything like it, and I hope to never see anything like that again,” she says. “That visceral reaction you get from hearing and feeling the mortars go off, and hearing the sniper fire, and knowing from the officers around you that it is incredibly close.”

The experience stoked her compassion for the troops, even as she lobbied to make their techniques more humane: “I saw what soldiers go through — and they go through it for years on end.”

We’re not out there saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to war — but instead, that once you engage in war, you have to be clear about civilian harm and responsibilities to civilians.

Holewinski talks fast and in full paragraphs — perhaps a function of her hyper-literacy. She reads two to three novels a week to decompress and restoke the inner fires. “There are times when all of us want to crawl into a hole, and my little hole is fiction,” she says.

Partly because of the enormous death toll of the Vietnam War, the Geneva Conventions have since 1977 declared acts of war likely to cause “excessive” civilian harm a breach of the laws of war. Putting that notion into practice in the age of drone strikes, deadly gas and high-tech warfare, however, isn’t easy. Just getting militaries to track civilian casualties is a challenge: For the first years of the Iraq War, the U.S. military claimed not to. (“We don’t do body counts,” General Tommy Franks famously said.) 

It was around that time that Holewinski’s organization began, with a 25-year-old peace activist named Marla Ruzicka. She traveled to Afghanistan after the US invasion, and at the height of the Iraq war, she knocked on doors throughout Baghdad — rather like a census taker — to document civilian deaths. Her network of volunteers compiled the first verified list of civilians harmed by American munitions. (Most estimates of violent civilian deaths in Iraq since the war start at 100,000; “excess” deaths have been estimated between 650,000 and more than a million.) Ruzicka used her list to press for compensation, and her efforts eventually garnered the support of Sen. Patrick Leahy and other legislators, who appropriated millions of dollars to help civilians recover. Ruzicka and her Iraqi translator were killed in a 2005 suicide attack on the Baghdad Airport Road. 

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.  

– Kenyan proverb

At the time, Holewinski was a Columbia masters student in security policy, and working part-time at Human Rights Watch. She was already a policy phenom, having moonlighted as a White House AIDS policy adviser while in college (“I rollerbladed back and forth from Georgetown to the White House,” she says), and when colleagues suggested she take over Ruzicka’s organization, she jumped. It had no money and no permanent staff, but, Holewinski says, “At 28, you’re like — yeah, that sounds good!”  

Not that she regrets it. Under her watch, the organization has expanded to work not just with the United States military, but also with NATO and African Union troops and in Libya, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iraq, among other countries. Its mission remains fundamentally the same: to help civilians harmed in war — “a simple idea that no one had thought of” — and its posture is sympathetic to warring parties. Supporters include the journalist Sebastian Junger and the Open Society Institute.

“She makes it look easy but she’s really very crafty,” says Anil Soni, who chairs the Center’s board. The key, he says, is that she approaches her work without ego or self-righteousness. There’s also the matter of her “guillotine-like intellect,” he says.

“We found and I found personally that if I went to a three-star general and said, ‘What you’re doing is wrong, and you’re harming these civilians, and here’s a picture of dead civilians,’ they’ll turn off immediately,” says Holewinski. So there’s no naming and shaming.

The work is not without controversy. For as long as the humanitarian movement has existed, those who try to mitigate the costs of war have been accused of enabling it or prettifying it. If you want to end civilian casualties in war, after all, the best thing would be to end war.

Then again, pacificist activism likely won’t eliminate war in our lifetimes. Holewinski cites a Kenyan proverb to illustrate her work: “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” she says. “That’s what war is. And the elephants will continue to fight.” 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!