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Interview with David Hartsough


The country is Guatemala. The year is 1985. Since 1978, the military machine (built with help from the US) has indiscriminately killed as many as 100,000 Guatemalans. Their bodies have been found piled up in ravines, dumped at roadsides or buried in mass graves. A Mutual Support Group has been formed to bring back into the light the disappeared and dead. In March, then again in April, two of their leaders were seized, tortured, and murdered: Hector Gomez, burned with a blowtorch on the stomach and elsewhere; Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, found dead with bite marks on her breasts and her two-year-old son with his fingernails pulled out.

‘Their two remaining leaders – both women – came to Peace Brigades International and said: “We must continue to speak out but we don’t want to die,”’ David Hartsough remembers. He had been invited to Guatemala by his friend, Alain Richard – a Franciscan working in a team of three with Peace Brigades International. He and the team agreed to accompany the remaining two leaders 24 hours a day, providing an international presence that would effectively deter a military out of control. That presence – always non-violent – gave the two leaders safe space in which to continue their work.

‘Their courage inspired others. And they didn’t die. Walking down the street with these courageous people was one of the scariest things I’ve done.’ And that, coming from David Hartsough, is saying something.

David – a North American Quaker – has been a peace activist since he shook hands with Martin Luther King at the age of 15. At 20 in the Arlington, Virginia, sit-ins in which black activists pressured shop owners to desegregate lunch counters by sitting peacefully in restaurant seats, he was confronted by a switchblade-wielding white telling him that he had two seconds to leave. ‘I’ll still try to love you, but do what you think is right,’ David told his attacker. The attacker’s jaw dropped, then he left.

Now 64, David has just returned to his home in San Francisco after working in Sri Lanka and the Philippines on a ground-breaking experiment for peace. For he – and the members of the Nonviolent Peaceforce that he helped establish – now offer non-violent bodyguards not just to individual human rights and civil society activists, but to whole communities.

Their 11-member pilot project team has been working in Sri Lanka where the civil war has claimed 65,000 lives. The oldest member of the team – a Vietnam Veteran – celebrated his 61st birthday there. Peace talks between Sri Lanka’s three warring factions broke down in April 2002, so assassinations and disappearances continue.

‘Several of us went to Vakery – a tiny town where armed confrontation was likely to occur [between warring factions of the Tamil Tigers]. Interestingly, a lot of international agencies (including the UN) were saying, “Stay out of that area. It’s too dangerous.” Together with local community leaders, we negotiated so that civilians could take cover in the school and church if fighting broke out. And on Good Friday, armed conflict did break out. Thousands had to flee their homes. They took sanctuary in that school and church.’

‘Some friends in the UN are saying: “This is great work. You do it for six to eight years effectively, then we’ll do it.”’

Sri Lanka is just the start. ‘The Nonviolent Peaceforce now has support groups in 90 countries – half in the global South.’ The organization recruits field workers – ordinary people who’ve had experience in working for peaceful change – whom they pay and train. ‘It’ll cost $1.7 million to run this year: less than the amount that the US military spends every two minutes.’

The commitment to build a Nonviolent Peaceforce developed in The Hague when 9,000 peace activists gathered to appeal for peace as the US began bombing in the former Yugoslavia. When confronted with conflicts like this one: ‘The choices were limited: do nothing, or start bombing and send in the troops. Many of us there committed ourselves to building a third alternative: sending in unarmed peacemakers.’

I ask David about how you can really stop a government like Milosevic’s with the guns, money and commitment to wiping out ethnic minorities.

Some friends in the UN are saying: “This is great work. You do it for six to eight years effectively, then we’ll do it”

‘There are places we can go where we can really make a difference – places where both sides care about what the rest of the world thinks. If one side doesn’t care, it’s much more difficult. Even in Indonesia – where the military is a loose cannon – non-violent intervention has successfully protected many in the civil society of Aceh.’

Uganda is on the list of possibilities. So too are Burma, North Korea, the Philippines and Palestine. Almost one in five of the world’s 191 nations is experiencing bloody conflict.

‘The goal is to have 2,000 Nonviolent Peaceforce field workers by the end of this decade. Frankly, the fact that there’s an international community now struggling for peaceful change makes me much less fearful for the future.’

David Hartsough talked with Chris Richards

New Internationalist issue 370 magazine cover This article is from the August 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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