Meet the peacemakers
Heroes with paintbrushes
Omaid Sharifi, artist, Afghanistan
After 39 years of war in his home country, it perplexed artist Omaid Sharifi that all those held up as heroes in Afghanistan were men with guns. He had a different idea about who should be celebrated.
Along with fellow artists, Sharifi co-founded the Artlords collective to start projecting a nonviolent, hopeful message for their battle-scarred country. The Everyday Heroes project was one of their first pieces of street art, depicting Kabul’s municipal workers ‘who get up at 5am to sweep the streets of our city’ and then the ‘good nurses, good teachers, good independent journalists – people who are peaceful, hardworking, and not corrupt’.
The Artlords use the ‘blast’ walls that criss-cross Kabul as their canvas. Designed to protect the powerful from the suicide attacks that plague the city, the barriers truncate its streets and symbolize an ever-deteriorating security situation and lack of protection for ordinary civilians. The artists’ collective has imbued the blast walls with new meaning, decorating them with doves to welcome a Peace march into the city last June. A recent mural lionizes Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun activist nicknamed the Muslim Gandhi; another depicts Fatemah Qaderyan, the captain of an all-girls robotics engineering team, while other murals condemn abuse against women.
The Artlords say they want to ‘visualize communities’ desire to move from war to peace’ while uplifting and uniting Afghans. Artlords’ volunteers involve citizens directly in making art, with a paint-by-numbers method that encourages passers-by to participate. ‘Many were shy, saying they had never held a brush before, but once they started, there was no stopping them,’ says Sharifi, who explains that because street art is almost unknown in Afghanistan this adds to the appeal. ‘Kids, labourers, police officers, guys on their way to the mosque – all sorts of citizens joined in. They were laughing, giddy, yet very concentrated on their task… I think it made them forget the constant violence, the never-ending attacks.’
‘We use art to say we are more than war. We have a history. We have creative minds. We have things worth preserving.’ HH
Reconciliation, not revenge
Bushra Awad and Robi Damelin, mothers, Palestine and Israel
After Israeli soldiers killed her teenage son outside her home on the West Bank, Bushra Awad shut herself away for three years, consumed by grief and thoughts of revenge. When a friend suggested she join the Parents Circle – an organization of bereaved parents from either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict – she rejected the idea outright: ‘How could I shake the hand that killed my son?’
But her friend, insistent, sprung a meeting with Israeli mother Robi Damelin, whose 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper six years before Mahmoud died. The intense pain they shared as mothers who had lost their children convinced Awad to join Damelin, and campaign for an end to the bloodshed.
Some 600 families belong to the Parents Circle, which believes that reconciliation across the divide is the first, necessary step to end the conflict. Without it, Damelin says, ‘all we will have is another ceasefire until the next time’. To this end, Damelin and Awad have demonstrated, donated blood together and publicly shared their stories of loss and reconciliation.
‘When I met bereaved Palestinian mothers I recognized what a force we could be if we spoke with the same voice,’ Damelin recalls. The death threats and ‘ugly letters’ from Israelis who accuse her of colluding with terrorists only encourages her to keep working to change attitudes and establish the chance of dialogue. ‘We need to talk to people who don’t agree with us or else they will only get more radical,’ she says.
Between them, the Circle’s members have experienced a collection of life-shattering tragedies: Palestinian children out in family cars shot dead by settlers; Israeli teens killed by suicide bombers in Tel Aviv night clubs. The families don’t focus myopically on forgiveness as such, but more on redirecting the pain of loss away from revenge and channelling it creatively into the basis for hope. Within this, they do not lose sight of justice. Damelin remembers how, as soon as her son died, she was ‘telling the Israelis to get out of the occupied territories’. The Circle believes that any political solution relies on human rights for all and the establishment of two states for two peoples. HH
Talking down the military
Jay Sutherland, student, Scotland
When the British Army came to speak at his school in Ayrshire, Scotland, Jay Sutherland was disturbed by how no-one questioned it. At 16 years old, inspired by the long-standing activism of the Quakers, among others, he set up Scotland Against Militarism (SAM) to challenge what he describes as ‘a deeply embedded military culture stretching back to the inception of the British Empire’.
Sutherland campaigns especially in deprived areas of Scotland that the British army deliberately targets for recruitment. ‘Young people have been led to believe the army is this super-hero lifestyle,’ he says. ‘The latest adverts make it sound like a holiday, with phrases such as “travel the world”. In reality it’s extremely harsh and unforgiving.’ He’s concerned schoolchildren are being pushed towards roles they don’t fully understand. Britain is the only European country that still recruits 16-year-olds and, while the army cannot actually recruit teenagers under the age of 15 and seven months, Sutherland sees promotion of the army as an underhand warm-up act. ‘I’ve seen kids aged 11-12 being taught lessons by BAE Systems and arms dealers – they instil the idea that this is somehow normal.’
He encourages deeper questioning of what life in the army really means. ‘Many young people without opportunities feel a sense of worthlessness and see the armed forces as the only way out. Every issue is interlinked.’ The teenager tasted victory earlier this year, when Glasgow City Council removed its official logo from a major arms trade fair in the city and pledged not to host another, after campaigning by SAM and other activist groups. The Ministry of Defence also called off Armed Forces Day in Glasgow.
For Sutherland, this success shows that larger-scale change really is possible. Now almost 18 and on his way to university to study politics and international relations, Sutherland intends to continue nonviolent campaigning, especially with youth his own age. His next campaign goal is to scrap nuclear weapons. ‘Peaceful direct action is essential,’ he enthuses. ‘Everyone has the potential to be an anti-militarism activist.’ LW
Radhya al-Mutawakel, human rights defender, Yemen
When Radhya al-Mutawakel and her husband first tried to set up a human rights group in Yemen, in 2007, the government refused. ‘They said you’ll never get a permit, not even if you want to form a dance group,’ she recalls. ‘It was hard work, but we persisted.’ Despite violence, death threats and social-media smear campaigns, the couple have devoted their lives to the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights ever since.
Since full-scale war engulfed Yemen in 2015, Mwatana has trained teams of human rights investigators, half of them women, to document abuses committed by all parties. They log civilian deaths from drone strikes by the Saudi-led coalition; document the Houthi rebels laying landmines, and report extrajudicial executions by the forces of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, allied parties and other armed groups.
‘We have critics on all sides,’ al-Mutawakel, a trained lawyer, tells The Nation, laughing as she describes how the belligerents take turns to mount different hate campaigns. ‘The Houthis will accuse me of being a Saudi spy, for example, but then the Saudis or the Hadi loyalists will say I’m a disgrace to my family or a traitor to my country.’
Alongside building what she calls a ‘human rights memory’ that she believes will be essential to any enduring peace, al-Mutawakel is advocating for new national-level talks that exclude no-one. Her advocacy has reached the highest levels. Addressing the UN Security Council last year, she criticized the US, Britain and France for supporting Saudi Arabia instead of promoting peace in Yemen. She has also taken the West to task for continuing to sell arms to the Saudis, in a flagrant violation of the Arms Trade Treaty.
Although she has thus far escaped long-term detention and arrest, al-Mutawakel’s family has already paid dearly for its commitment. Her father, a political dissident, was assassinated in 2014; ongoing threats have exiled her to the US where she continues her work, away from her husband who continues in-country at great risk.
Despite everything, al-Mutawakel says she remains optimistic. ‘There are no heroes in Yemen… only criminals and victims. And these criminals are failures!’ she says. ‘That’s why peace is possible.’ LW
The great escape
Salic Mai, unarmed peacekeeper, Philippines
Salic Mai is passionate about two things – karate and peace. A martial-arts teacher in his hometown, Marawi city in the autonomous Filipino region of Mindanao, he has earned the local nickname of Sensei (‘Master’ in Japanese).
The head of a large, close-knit family – he has 24 siblings – this energetic 45-year-old is also a dedicated Protection Officer for the Non-Violent Peaceforce (NP), an NGO that specializes in unarmed civilian peacekeeping to protect the most vulnerable in conflict zones, and encouraging dialogue between warring parties. Unlike UN peacekeepers, they have neither body armour nor guns, in a fundamental challenge to the assumption that only armed soldiers can effectively respond to violence, or that armed actors will only respond to violent threats.
Over the past 40 years, incessant fighting between rebel groups and the Philippines military in Mindanao has claimed around 153,000 lives. In May last year, fighters linked to so-called Islamic State seized control of Marawi, and the military laid siege.
As the fighting intensified, Mai escaped the city with his extended family and, despite their protestations, headed straight back in to rescue others. In the window of a four-hour temporary ceasefire, Sensei and other unarmed Peace Corridor volunteers led 179 civilians out of the city to safety. Peace Corridor volunteers stayed active throughout the five-month siege of Marawi, securing safe passage for up to 1,500 civilians; Mai’s family home was razed to the ground during the fighting.
The success of work such as Mai’s in the Philippines – and that of other NP activists in Iraq and South Sudan, where women are breaking cycles of revenge killings – is one of the reasons that Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping is gaining traction internationally. In 2016, NP was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; the UN High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations has said that ‘unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians’.
After the Marawi evacuations, young people were stranded in evacuation centres – ‘a great venue to advocate nonviolence!’, as Mai put it. So he offered them karate classes, of course: ‘a great physical, mental and spiritual discipline.’ LW
Unleash the peacebots
Sanjay Fernandes, interactive designer, Colombia
Educator and electronic music-maker Sanjay Fernandes is convinced that Colombians cannot rely solely on the government to bring about peace. ‘It will depend on all of us,’ he says. An economist and interactive designer by trade, 37-year-old Fernandes is optimistic that his Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) – in essence a computer, internet connection, and students who are ready to learn – can contribute to ‘the greatest challenge my country has ever faced’ by fostering trust and curiosity in communities, and helping to ease ex-combatants back into civilian life.
‘Connecting people across the world is very powerful,’ he says. ‘One of the big reasons we have had conflict for so long is isolation – you’ve been ignored by the state and society so you fight back.’
Since the government signed a bilateral ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, thousands of ex-combatants, including child soldiers, are now living in remote camps across the country. Fernandes and his team have built bamboo SOLE labs at the edges of their settlements. Before SOLE, some ex-combatants had never turned on a computer. ‘They’d been in the jungle for the last 50 years!’ Fernandes points out. ‘So that was a wonderful experience for them.’
The Colombian SOLE was originally devised as an online learning system, inspired by Indian researcher Sugatra Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, which showed that kids found, connected and taught themselves how to use PCs installed in Delhi slums. The ‘self-organized learning’ encourages exchanges between all levels and ages and ‘is a tool people can use to find solutions to their own problems,’ Fernandes says. SOLE also draws in a team of abuelitas or ‘Cloud Grannies’ who Skype in from Spain or elsewhere in Colombia to give encouragement and motivate students. Fernandes and his team plan to reach two million children and young people in the next five years, so they can be, as he puts it, ‘invited to participate in the transformation of this country’.They are currently crowdfunding to expand their operations to 180 municipalities most affected by the armed conflict.
Our world is home to many other ‘peace tech’ innovations, including ‘peacebots’, a flock of online robots who share messages of tolerance on social media, to counteract hate-peddling trolls. As Sanjay puts it, ‘this is [us all] coming together, to ask questions, to connect. Not state-controlled but a different world of humans with humans.’ LW
A natural mender
Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister, Ethiopia
His brothers say that even as a child Abiy Ahmed Ali had a ‘great ability to mend broken friendships’ and ‘brought peace among people’. Ethiopia’s new prime minister is putting these mediation skills to work, making peace at home and abroad at astonishing speed. During his first 100 days in office, Abiy has quickly and quietly closed the chapter on a 20-year-old border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. One of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, the war had claimed 100,000 lives, and resulted in a stagnant peace deal that froze relations between the two countries for 18 years. Relations have normalized at breakneck speed too – flights and communications have resumed, separated families are reunited and embassies opened.
Even more urgently, Abiy is seeking to build peace within his borders – and not a moment too soon. The system of ethno-federalism put in place by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since the 1990s was generating such serious tensions that, in the weeks before Abiy became leader, Foreign Policy reported that ‘even the most seasoned observers were mulling the possibility of a Yugoslav-style fragmentation’. Raised in mainly Muslim Oromia by a Christian Amhara mother, Abiy is fluent in several Ethiopian languages. Casting aside the typical Ethiopian rule book for dealing with dissent, he has responded to the rumbling political crisis by lifting the state of emergency, releasing thousands of opposition prisoners and freeing up the press. He has toured the troubled regions with a message of reconciliation and unity. ‘Difference is not a curse when we listen to each other; and when we agree based on principle, it brings blessings,’ he told parliament.
It’s still early days for Abiy. Hardliners from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who have effectively ruled Ethiopia behind the fig leaf of the EPRDF coalition and dominate the military top brass, may resist any attempt to diminish their power. Abiy has already survived an attempt on his life at a rally in Addis Ababa, to which he responded with the statement that ‘killing others is a defeat’. The pledged withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Badme – the dusty border town at the centre of the peace deal with Eritrea – may be opposed by both the TPLF and Badme’s residents, who cry betrayal.
Abiy does have the credentials of his own military service, including a spell with the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda. And his message that ‘love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles’ has got people listening and talking. He may yet show how inspirational leadership can drastically reduce the risk of armed conflict and successfully take a country down the path of peace. HH
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.