ISSUE 36
WINTER 2001/2002
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

good deeds

 
 


ONLINE contents

- god bless america
- challenge to afghan media
- child soldiers
- good deeds
- conflict and the search for peace
- gender and armed conflict
- state of the global vilage




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After September 11, a US academic made a suggestion. 'What if America took the 40 billion dollars being spent on fixing up New York, the 20 billion put aside to bale out bankrupted airlines, and the untold billions to be spent on the forthcoming war on terror, and divided a big chunk of it among the Palestinians and the Israelis to build an infrastructure for peace? It would buy lots of desalination plants, schools, and maybe some of the less hard-line settlers as well. And,' he said, 'add a few billion more for the children in Iraq suffering under the boycott that has left the dictator in place but them hungry and sick.'

A strong point rather than a firm proposal; but still, on this heart-warming principle, the money spent on bombing could have restored Afghanistan's housing and economy, bought factional peace, reversed the displacement of a million civilians, and prevented thousands of lives being lost - innocent lives, like those in the twin towers.

War really doesn't work, though some people persist in thinking it does. War never eliminates itself; it can only be ended - abolished - by peaceful means. And there have already been successful local attempts to prevent, distance, diminish and reverse the effects of violent conflict. Unsung examples are happening all the time. Somewhere, right now, someone is refusing to fight, or protesting nonviolently, or defusing a conflict, or helping an enemy and becoming a friend. By their nature, these acts aren't made a fuss of. Nobody goes home saying 'I turned the other cheek today - yee-hah!' (Maybe they should.)

Fortunately some anti-war activity does get noticed, and even chronicled. We do have examples to learn from and follow - plenty from the last strife-filled decade alone. Some can be found on the internet; some have been thumb-nailed in a useful book called 'War Prevention Works'. Here are some of the stories we need to be telling.


nonviolent resistance
When Slobodan Milosevic stripped universities of autonomy, students at Belgrade University began spontaneously to boycott classes. Soon they had public support - particularly when force was used to suppress them. The government backed off, some sacked staff were reinstated, and 'Otpor!' ('Resistance!') was born. In December 1998 it was publicly launched, with its widespread graffiti, ubiquitous symbol of a clenched fist, and kick-off leaflet 'Bite the System'. (One newspaper printed the leaflet on its front page, and was severely penalised; its editor was murdered a few months later.)

Otpor!'s call was for democracy, human rights, and the removal of the dictator. It had no leaders or hierarchy, only members in agreement on its nonviolent tactics. A particular feature was open criticism and ridicule of the regime. In 18 months the membership had swelled to 70,000, all infuriating Milosevic. He cracked down with more arrests, beatings, propaganda smears, and suppression of independent media.

NATO bombs provided further serious interference with opposition activity and protest, but still support for Otpor! grew - internationally as well. Early in 2000, a US conflict-solving organisation set up a seminar on nonviolent resistance especially for Otpor! Activists learned how to organise strikes and to find their way into the regime's 'pillars of support' - state-owned media, the police, the judicial system - to gain early warning of the regime's plans.

So when Milosevic suddenly announced elections, Otpor! were ready with 60 tonnes of pro-democracy election material to disperse: stickers ('He's finished!'), T-shirts, leaflets, spray cans for slogan-painting. Together with opposition groups (now united in a huge 'Go to Vote' campaign), Otpor! helped persuade the public that it was safe to vote against the President. Otpor! also trained thousands of election monitors - two for every polling station - to make sure results weren't rigged.

They were even ready for Milosevic's response to electoral defeat. When he declared the result annulled, Otpor! members gathered in public places across the country, and the public rallied to their support. The nonviolent uprising that followed was well-organised, barely-resisted, and worked. 'Through marches and mockery, physical courage and mental agility,' said an observer, 'Otpor! grew into the mass underground movement at the disciplined core of the revolution that really changed Serbia'.


mediation
There are more than 12m Roma, with around 6m in Central and Eastern Europe. Since they began migrating from India to Europe over 800 years ago, most Roma have experienced denial of citizenship and human rights, abject poverty, persecution, and murder. Over 1.5 million died in Nazi camps. Many are treated as pariahs to this day.

A renewed surge of prejudice in the 1990s produced violent anti-Roma attacks which authorities did little to suppress. One place seriously affected was the industrial town of Most in the Czech Republic, where Roma citizens lived segregated in poor areas with little or no access to social services, education or jobs.

In 1997, an organisation called Partners-Czech set up a project to help the Roma in a particularly impoverished and isolated district of Most. A representative group of Roma citizens, social workers, city officials, teachers, police officers, and education administrators was formed, encouraged to define their concerns open-mindedly, and given training in communication and conflict management. In the process, people began to understand each other better.

Development of real understanding and fruitful communication led to practical action. The Roma cleaned up their neighbourhood and planted trees to make it more pleasant. Common sense solutions were found for rent-payment difficulties. Local Czech authorities agreed to stop cutting off water and electricity for payment defaults. More, they began employing Roma to repair and maintain derelict buildings on the Roma estate.

By degrees community prejudice against the Roma began to melt, and violent incidents, on the edge of spiralling, declined. It wasn't long before these Roma citizens were meeting Roma from other deprived areas, telling them how taking responsibility for their neighbourhood gained respect and offers of help in other ways. A simple step like this had made it easier for Roma and Czechs to work together on the larger issues, such as education and security.

Similar 'Partners' projects have been set up in Romania and Hungary. Again, the crucial intervention of a skilled mediator, and training in peaceful problem-solving, dismantled a cycle of violence. The Roma have at last begun to find a political voice in Europe.


dialogue
Transylvania was under Hungarian rule for nearly 1000 years, until 1918 when it and its majority of Romanian-speaking people were made part of modern Romania. Relations between Transylvanian Romanians and the 1.7m Transylvanian Hungarian minority have been tense; violent nationalist clashes have been frequent.

In 1992 the recently-founded Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), under a native Transylvanian director, began to defuse the deteriorating situation. PER invited political representatives of both groups - who had scarcely even met each other - to define their national interests, with the proviso that the definitions must take into account the possibility of compromise. After a fiery start, both sides agreed that dialogue was a must: they would meet, and go on meeting - which they did, in a variety of international venues. PER invited international observers to attend, not as watchdogs or judges but to ensure Romania's awareness of being part of 'the larger world outside'. The people began to see what they might lose, economically, politically, socially, 'if inter-ethnic conflicts were left unmanaged'.

By 1993 an important symbolic move had been agreed: the reinstatement of bilingual public signs. So had an important political one: the creation of an effective council of national minorities. By 1996 there was Hungarian representation in the Romanian coalition government. When a new government was elected in 2000, with no coalition partners and a huge Romanian nationalist vote, it nevertheless resolved to make sure the Hungarian minority didn't lose out in future agreements. 'You taught us the art of dialogue,' said the leaders involved in the talks.


distancing war
In Colombia's long-running civil war, in which government forces struggle with guerrillas and paramilitaries while the US army vainly attempts to end the drugs trade by force, the real victims are, as ever, civilians. In 1997 a group of displaced villagers came up with the idea of creating neutral 'peace zones', in which a non-partisan civilian population would be respected by the fighters and left alone. As a result, the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado was created. Members of the community agreed to work for justice and for the collective good of the group. They agreed not to participate in war in any way, nor to involve themselves with anyone waging war (including the legitimate government). They also agreed not to carry weapons.

Having worked out their guidelines, they set up committees with specific responsibilities: education, health, culture. They also created a council to co-ordinate the community's work for peace, including nonviolent resolution of disputes. International observers, many drawn from the peace movement, have acted as monitors and publicisers of the enterprise.

The idea has caught on. By the beginning of 2001 there were 20 such communities in north-west Colombia, enabling thousands of people to return to their homes in conflict areas; and Colombians in other areas have been calling for similar communities for themselves.

Not only the citizens have returned; so have international NGOs driven out by the violence. Public statements of respect for the zones have been made by some guerrilla leaders and by the Colombian army. The Colombian people are learning to claim their own peace.


instituting peace
In 1991, when Somaliland claimed independence from Somalia and failed to find a capable government, the traditional councils of elders acted together to bring peace from the grass-roots. They set up a series of nearly 50 conferences open to everyone, aiming to establish peace and reconciliation. The first conferences addressed clan conflict and other local issues; later, regional issues were the topic; finally they looked at the interests of all Somaliland.

This process succeeded in disarming clan militias and sorting out the division of vital resources. Local elders created committees for resolving problems of crime and violence on the spot. These committees kept in close touch, often by radio, thus establishing a crime-prevention network. The people agreed that all past acts of inter-clan aggression should be 'written off', so that they could concentrate on present reconciliation. A law was introduced whereby any entire extended family was responsible for the misdeeds of any of its members; incidents of violence fell almost at once.

The final conference, focused on Somaliland's national interests and the only one to get international funding, lasted several months. Clan leaders representing every group drew up national peace charters and at last created a workable, peace-based national government.

Once-warring clans have developed trust and confidence. Now it's even possible to find herds from different clans grazing together on once-disputed territorial borders. Although violent incidents haven't stopped, they are relatively few, and there's more skill and efficiency in tackling them. The greatest threat, sadly, is from Somalia: the new government struggling to unite the country doesn't accept Somaliland's independence.


undoing the damage
Civil war in Liberia ended in 1997. One tremendous task was to rehabilitate the many child soldiers, psychologically damaged and knowing not much more than how to kill. The task of Liberia's schools was to make sure that peace could be made to last. Otherwise, 'those we fail to reach will end up in the street, robbing and killing at will'.

With help from UNICEF the Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL) had already launched a programme to deal with violence in schools. Now they embarked on a process to help the returning children. First came 'Awareness Building': getting schools and local authorities to accept and support a conflict management committee in each school. 'Capacity Building' followed: training 7 students from each school to act as mediators and 'conflict transformers', taught to stress self-esteem, responsibility, and the value of each individual. A further 25 students from each school were trained in crisis management as well, to deal with incidents as they happened and before they got out of hand.

Each school then set aside a room - funded and furnished by UNICEF - where children could talk out their problems instead of expressing them with violence. A country-wide society for mediators and managers has meant that rehabilitators can keep in touch to exchange information - and comfort. Imagine being part of a school in which at least a third of the students are former fighters, from any one of eight different warring factions - but the CHAL programme is working. Violence is reported to have dropped; the atmosphere has changed. 'I've learned how to control my anger, behaviour and speech,' says one reclaimed child. Such personal achievement lays foundations for a war-free future: these children know what war can do, and reject it.


 
 

War Prevention Works is obtainable from Oxford Research Group, 51 Plantation Road, Oxford, OX2 6JE (01865-242819) and www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk. The book (paperback, large format on glossy paper, no illustrations but simple maps and plenty of eye-catching design) also contains helpful details of web addresses and further information sources. 

 

 and...
Every action for peace suggests ideas to try, maxims to remember. People have discovered that peace talks can buy time for political change to take place. Thinking long-term helps - peace education must trickle down the generations. People can learn that weapons aren't essential to self-defence. Groups in conflict need to find an intermediary whom both can trust, who is unshakeably neutral, and who really listens. If you're mediating for peace, prepare for a long haul and make it clear you'll be part of the scenery for as long as it takes, and longer. Create a talking space in which opposing sides can see each other as human beings, not demons or subhuman beasts. Be prepared to go public about abuse of human rights. Lobby for peace persistently at the highest levels. Help people to learn that they have a stake in peace-building, not war-making: they can 'own' the peace. Listen to and learn from successful category-activists: women, schoolchildren, students, medical workers, aid agents, churches. Seize the moment: learn to spot when a little push can help people cross the line from conflict to peace-making - and when you can be an unarmed presence on the front line, inhibiting cross-fire. Share your peace-making experience: write it down, talk about it, make a film - everyone needs to know that anyone can do it.


...finally
If you've decided to keep a copy of 'War Prevention Works' at hand to give you reassurance, don't be dismayed that some of the examples cited are hedged about with ifs and maybes. These sparks in the darkness are really beacons. You'll also notice that every single action involves the commitment, alone or in groups, of individuals. You. Us. Destroying the war-making ring of power isn't only for hobbits.


Margaret Melicharova

 
        

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