Brave steps towards peace
Scoring goals in Burundi
‘I was in the middle,’ recalls Adrien Tuyaga. ‘Each side wanted me to join them and participate in the violence. I thought I would be killing my mother if I joined the Hutus and betraying my father if I joined the Tutsis. This is how I started to think of ways to pull people together.’
Adrien comes from Burundi, a country ripped apart by a fratricidal war that has claimed the lives of over 200,000 people. Like neighbouring Rwanda, the conflict in Burundi is popularly portrayed as one in which ‘age old’ ethnic enmity between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority routinely manifests itself in extreme violence. In reality, the conflict is the result of a deliberate and calculated use of violence by members of a small self-appointed and self-advancing élite, acting in the name of the two main ethnic groups in their ongoing struggle for political power.
With a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father who was killed during the first genocide massacres of 1972, Adrien wasn’t prepared to do as so many young men of his age had done and take sides in the conflict. Instead he began organizing football matches between Tutsi and Hutu youth. ‘I targeted the youth leaders because they could start or stop the violence. It didn’t matter how well they could play soccer,’ Adrien explains. The matches were a hit so Adrien began organizing a tournament involving mixed teams – Hutu and Tutsi together on the same side, playing against other Hutus and Tutsis. In this way the seemingly impenetrable barriers that separated the two groups began to fall away.
Adrien, who by now had formed a small organization called JAMAA – which means ‘Friends’ in Swahili – then began bringing together many of the Hutu and Tutsi youth to talk about the violence that many of them had participated in. ‘Look. I didn’t profit from any of the killings,’ says Emile, once an active member of a Tutsi militia. ‘I was poor before and I am poor now. The politicians told us to kill and now we have to pick up the pieces.’
This ‘trauma counselling’ was complemented by efforts to reintegrate the youths back into their communities by providing jobs, training and seed-funding for small income-generating projects with financial help from abroad.
Now, whenever tensions escalate in the city, Adrien and his friends quickly mobilize, targeting the youth most likely to be sucked into the violence. ‘Stay in solidarity, keep peace as your objective, protect it,’ was the message JAMAA recently took to the streets in response to mounting tensions in the capital city, Bujumbura. ‘The message was understood,’ says Adrien. ‘The leaders [of the militias] turned from violence to peace.’
Making space for peace in Aceh
‘The military were edgy, the villagers scared and I was feeling pretty apprehensive myself.’ Peace Brigades International volunteer Tony Sheldon is recounting the tension following a gun-battle moments after he arrived in the small town of Blang Pidie in South Aceh, Indonesia. The battle was just another event in the three-decade-long war between the Indonesian military and Acehenese separatists seeking independence.
Tony and another peace volunteer were in town to provide unarmed protective accompaniment to Syarifah Murlina, a lawyer from the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, as she investigated the recent disappearance of a man called Koes Sofian. It was now 10 days since Koes had gone missing. The concern was that he would be killed in military custody. As district head of a solidarity group for survivors of torture, Koes had come under suspicion from security forces for his defence of Acehenese human rights.
From a local police officer, the team learnt that only metres behind the local police station was an unofficial military post staffed by the Indonesian Special Forces. A furious vice-commander met the two peace volunteers and the lawyer as they approached the military post. ‘Obviously,’ said Tony, attempting to hose down the soldier’s anger, ‘your job is extremely difficult, dangerous and underpaid, no doubt made harder by interfering and ungrateful locals.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ replied the Special Forces officer, starting to relax. ‘If you could confirm Koes Sofian’s whereabouts,’ interjected the lawyer, ‘unwanted higher-level intervention could be temporarily avoided.’ Shortly afterwards a dazed and severely beaten Koes Sofian was led limping from the military post. Only when he realized that the three were there to help did his one functioning eye show a spark of recognition. He then reached out and grabbed a peace volunteer’s hand.
Mustering all his diplomatic skills, Tony spoke calmly and deliberately to the officer about Koes. ‘Mr Sofian has now been assisting you 24 hours a day for 10 days. Do you anticipate that the investigations will be finished soon?’ The vice-commander hesitated momentarily then nodded. As Koes was led back to the camp, he turned his battered face to the trio and smiled. Although he would not be released for another 10 weeks, he – unlike countless others who disappear into military custody – would return to his family alive.
Approximately 80 Peace Brigade volunteers like Tony Sheldon are working in conflict zones across the world to ‘make space for peace’. ‘Local people are courageously defending human rights,’ says Tony. ‘It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to walk beside them.’
Myth busting in Ahmedabad
The newspapers call it the ‘massacre’ state. In February of this year in Gujarat, north-west India, violence on a level not seen since Partition was sparked when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set alight, allegedly by Muslim fanatics, in the town of Godhra, resulting in 58 deaths. In the nearby city of Ahmedabad Hindu militants swiftly set about exacting revenge, burning down Muslim houses and Mosques, killing Muslim neighbours and attacking Muslim communities, many of whom lived in the slums that encircle the city. By some estimates around 2,000 people were killed and over 100,000 were displaced.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ was the assessment of Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Ahmedabad for many years and who has seen the carnage left by rioting before, including the 1968 Mumbai riots, those of 1969 throughout Gujarat, and the Delhi anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
Until recently Father Prakash was the Director of Saint Xavier’s Social Service Society, a small non-governmental relief organization working in some of Ahmedabad’s many slums where he spearheaded a number of initiatives aimed at promoting interfaith harmony. One of the most inspiring has been the setting up of informal ‘peace committees’ whose primary job is to counter inflammatory propaganda spread mostly by Hindu extremists and designed to encourage violence against Muslims. As soon as a rumour begins to circulate, the peace committees spring into action, holding a community meeting in the slums to determine how the rumour started, by whom and why. In this way the community meetings act as a safety valve, allowing the local people to come together, ask questions and learn the truth. With rumours travelling at lightning speed through the twisted alleys of the city’s slums, the ‘myth busting’ work of the peace committees is a potent antidote to the fears and mistrust that often lead to violence.
Now Father Prakash has set up his own organization, Prashant, which means ‘all-pervasive peace.’ Through think-tanks he brings together influential Hindu, Christian and Muslim leaders who are encouraged to reflect on the violence in the state and seek solutions to religious and cultural intolerance. Through the print media, television and public talks his myth-busting work continues.
All agree that the recent violence in Gujarat has set back the work of organizations such as Saint Xavier’s and Prashant by years. And yet Father Prakash, known to his friends as the incorrigible optimist, remains upbeat. ‘If we had a presence in every slum in the city,’ he says, ‘imagine what could be achieved. Imagine!’