University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

The city as a unit is the expression of a sum greater than its parts: homes, centers of community and culture, roads to work and school, infrastructure and architecture, and the people living there; it is both political and politicized. The city is politicized in the act(s) of construction, destruction, and reconstruction, and political in its relevance to the state and, increasingly, to the international. The destruction of the city by modern warfare produces and perpetrates multiple forms of personal and political violence.

When cities become the site of war, civilians are disproportionately affected. Beyond the immediate and high level of casualties, inhabitants are internally displaced, often more than once. The ability to work or go to school is curtailed, access to healthcare, food and proper sanitation is limited, and the frequency of attacks heightens trauma and fear. The consequences of this destruction on the city and its people are likely to be generational. The shift to pay more attention to the destruction of the city in armed conflict is slow but not absent; still, the scale and intensity of the destruction should warrant greater attention.

The project of recognizing and remedying the experiences of the city’s inhabitants requires an acknowledgement of the harm done to those who suffered and the families of those who died, as well as the damage done to everyday spaces of the city itself. The destruction of the city has devastating consequences in both the short and long term; in the short term, targeting the city causes personal, economic, and psychosocial harm. Long term, it provides significant challenges to peace, as the city space requires extensive and expensive reconstruction, if indeed that is even possible.

In Gaza—an area of 141 square miles that “amalgamates cities, villages and refugee camps into an isolated urban continuum”—almost all habitable buildings, communal spaces, and homes have been destroyed. Pehr Lodhammar, the former United Nations Mine Action Service chief for Iraq, estimates that, to date, Israel’s bombing of Gaza has created 37 million tons of debris. “Based on the current [amount] of debris in Gaza, with 100 trucks we are talking about 14 years of work … to remove it,” he said. The genocide of the Palestinians, which has now left much of the population of Gaza displaced, more than 35,000 dead (at the time of writing), and millions facing imminent famine, cannot be separated from a history of colonialism and the 1948 Nakba. Nadi Abusaada argues that “the process of reconstruction must transcend the replication of conditions that precipitated the recent surge of violence.” And yet, in December 2023, members of the international establishment met in London to discuss the reconstruction of Gaza.

However politically significant and strategic, the city – unless it is one with which we have a personal connection – often will not hold the same affective power and sympathy as a widely recognizable monument or icon of history. The destruction of beautiful and ancient cities is mourned as it provokes the imagination of those beyond the city. Senior representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in a blog on urban warfare, acknowledged that the “world watched with horror as beloved and near-mythical cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa, Palmyra and Homs were destroyed by intense urban battles, their inhabitants killed, maimed, and displaced.” Bogdan Bogdanović, an architect and the former mayor of Belgrade, wrote about the murder of the city during wars in the former Yugoslavia, observing that “what makes the situation even more monstrous is that the cities involved are beautiful, magnificent cities.” All cities have unique features and characteristics. Still, most cities also lack the exceptionalism to make their destruction more profound and ‘grievable.’ Yet, even if the world mourns only for the destruction of the “beautiful” city, each city is home to many people who attach meaning to both beautiful and everyday spaces. Residents of the city, both current and past, experience the effects of its destruction and mourn its loss.

The words to express the loss of everyday, unremarkable places that hold such personal significance are just beginning to move into discussions about war and peace. Ievgeniia Gubkina, an architect from Kharkiv, Ukraine, writes, “We need to shift focus away from a naive understanding of heritage as ‘significant objects’ and move it towards dwelling and people’s everyday routine.” Failing to remember or acknowledge is a form of continual violence that can perpetuate trauma. The feeling of loss is real and tangible. To reach a sustainable and meaningful peace, it is necessary to recognize and respond to the destruction and loss of the city.

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Written by Jenna Sapiano, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.