Vol 3 November 2002       


dove of peace


Heroes
of Peace

by Cynthia Travis

with Celeste Adams
 
 
In peacebuilding efforts today we need heroes such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King... These people are significant in helping us come together.

But there are lots of people who get lost. The people who make sacrifices every day for these efforts to be successful. These are the people we need to celebrate. The everyday Gandhis who make it possible.

— Vern Jantzi, Director Conflict Transformation Program at EMU


The Everyday Gandhis™ Project

In the media, we see that violence is increasing and there seems to be no alternative except an adversarial or military solution. And if we stay within that paradigm, that's what we create.

And yet important efforts to create peace are being made by ordinary people all over the world. Believing that more attention needs to be paid to these peacebuilders, I founded Everyday Gandhis, a media initiative designed to draw attention to those who are helping to move society away from conflict toward resolution.

I feel that if we can hear and view stories of peacebuilding — if we know that in Liberia and Uganda, for example, people like Sam Gbaydee Doe and Lam Oryem Cosimos are reintegrating child soldiers back into their communities; that in Nicaragua, the former Contras and Sandanistas are mediating together — we will feel a connection to real people doing positive things. That's the purpose of this project.

Although these peacebuilders are as committed to creating peace as the extremists are to violence, little is being reported in the media about the work that they are doing. So this media project, which includes a documentary film, is designed to help correct this imbalance.

Who are they, these "everyday Gandhis"? They are ordinary people working around the world, across lines of division, to bring about peace and prevent or heal violence in their communities. Because their stories are absent from the mainstream media, we, the public, have the mistaken idea that the world is increasingly violent and that the situation is hopeless.

In reality, thousands of people are risking their lives to live with integrity, and are reaching out to people in conflict.

Five Everyday Gandhis

Uganda: Lam Oryem Cosimos

Lam Oryem CosimosLam's community is in northern Uganda, about twenty-five miles from the border to Sudan. They have had a lot of problems with rebels crossing the border and kidnapping children and conscripting them as child soldiers. The children are taken from their beds in the middle of the night. Later, some of them are sent back into their own villages and forced to kill people in their own families.

Now, Lam has helped mobilize community members in these villages, with the help of some international aid agencies, to bring parents of these children together, and the parents have created patrols and receiving centers. When they do get the kids back who have been child soldiers, they have clinics that do assessments. They also do traditional cleansing ceremonies to help the kids deal with the trauma and reconnect to the village they're from.

Some of the kidnaped girls have been raped and used as sex slaves. When they return home, in addition to the trauma of the violence they've experienced, they often have venereal disease. The villagers have to deal with their ambivalence towards accepting these girls back into the community. They wonder whether they can trust them. "Look what they've done. My daughter can't be married, she's no longer a virgin." It has tremendous cultural consequences for the whole social infrastructure of the community.

Many of the girls also come home with babies. Lam said the villagers got together and asked themselves, "What do we do with these babies? Do we kill them? Do we let them starve just because they've been fathered by these rebels?" Instead, they decided to take them in, accept them, and love them.

The people even voted for amnesty for the rebels, because they felt that the rebels were so marginalized that they had no choice but to continue to be violent unless they were invited back. These are communities that were living at the edge economically and that had already lost the little they had.

When I first met Lam, he was the only one working in peacebuilding in his community. Now he works with two or three key people who have been trained. He has also trained countless members of his community. Sometimes these people work by themselves for many, many years, and then they go back and train each other. These are people who have very consciously chosen non-violence and paid a high price for it. This kind of effort is so much more effective than a top-down or an outside-in kind of approach.

Lam's community of northern Uganda borders Sudan to the north, Kenya to the east, and Congo to the west. Now that they've begun to quiet some of the disturbances on the Sudan side of the border, people in western Kenya are beginning a similar program and have asked Lam's people for training. They also have now received requests for training from Congo and Sudan.

So quite suddenly, this little program — even though it has its ups and downs — has developed the potential to stabilize quite a significant region. This is a real success story! Despite their struggles, it shows the strength of a well-designed, community-based effort.

Kenya: Tecla Wanjala

Tecla WanjalaTecla Wanjala directs PeaceNet Kenya, an umbrella organization that coordinates the efforts of over 200 NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Tecla, the first woman in her village to attend college, has now completed a master's degree in conflict transformation, with an emphasis on community-based trauma healing and reconciliation. Soon she plans to return to her home village in northwestern Kenya, site of some of Kenya's worst ethnic violence during the national elections in the early nineties.

Tecla has developed a pioneering approach to conflict. With the help of an organization called Direct Relief International, she will be able to restock a central local medical clinic and create a mobile clinic to provide basic medical care. She will train local women, especially nurses, in trauma healing and reconciliation counseling, and will train the youth in conflict resolution.

Tecla also is partnering with development aid organizations to provide seeds, farming tools, fertilizers and the like to enable people to become self-sufficient in growing food.

She hopes to contribute to the creation of a comprehensive infrastructure that will break the cycle of violence in her area. Because of the strategic location of her district, Tecla's efforts will greatly increase stability within Kenya and will enable her to link up with the efforts of Lam Oryem Cosimos in northern Uganda.

Bosnia: Michele Herling

Michele Herling, who hails from Santa Fe and Baltimore, is a 54-year-old massage therapist and the creator of Compassionate Touch, a system of self-massage and partner massage that is now being taught in refugee camps and elementary schools in Bosnia. Compassionate Touch also is being taught to elementary school children and at-risk middle school girls in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The mission of Compassionate Touch is "to promote peace through touch, education and healing."

In 1995, after many years of working with people recovering from rape and serious accidents, Michele went to the Nagyatad Refugee Camp, on the Hungarian-Croatian border. When she entered the elders' and young people's unit, she raised her hands in the air to communicate that she was offering massage. For the next ten days, she worked around the clock. She now returns to this camp every year for a month.

She also works with several women's groups and in a number of elementary schools in Zavidovici, a city of ten thousand in central Bosnia. Michele's students in New Mexico create Friendship Bags that Michele takes to Bosnia. The American children send stuffed animals, candy, stickers, toys, pencils, and pens, and include their name and a picture of themselves.

Michele finds many challenges in her work. In particular, she finds it hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of people's need. For Michele, "Massage is about embracing another human being, no matter what they have done or experienced."

Indonesia: Jozef Hehanussa

Jozef HehanussaJozef Hehanussa is a pastor working with inter-religious groups, mediating and fostering understanding between Christians and Muslims. He was born in a town with a Christian majority that had a strong tradition of harmony and good will between Christians and Muslims. They would attend each other's festivities and help each other build homes, churches, and mosques.

Then tensions began to rise in Indonesia, until one day, a simple argument between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger escalated into countrywide fighting, rioting, and killing. Government attempts at intervention made matters worse because of inter-religious and political tensions within the Parliament — and because government leaders are out of touch with the people.

Jozef collaborates with local Muslim community leaders to facilitate mediations. He also helps people who are struggling with economic survival.

Jozef says that being a peacebuilder has changed his life. Now he thinks about other people more than he thinks about himself. He explains that he needs, for example, to maintain peace with his wife, because in order to create peace outside his home, he must first create peace within his home.

Jozef talks about the role of language in shaping our perceptions. He points out that, "In English you write 'I' big and 'you' small. When you mention 'you and I,' 'I' will be the big one and 'you' will be the small one." He suggests that by changing the capital 'I' to a small 'i,' we could begin to see that others are just as important as ourselves.

Pakistan: Hassan Yousufzai

Hassan Yousufzai is a government minister and a leading peacebuilder in the Pakistani government. He sees his job as enforcing the rule of law while reflecting the perspectives of the people so that government policies can be designed in light of grass-roots needs. He continually faces the dilemma of having to work within a military government, while trying to use peacebuilding as a medium of change.

Hassan believes that communication, even with extremist or terrorist groups, is the only way to end violence. He say that the moment you break communication with any group or any party, you are no more a part of peacebuilders; you are a part of the conflict.

"What I am learning through my experience in peace-building," Hassan says, "is that under all circumstances we have to maintain communication, not only to convey our own feelings, but also to understand the other side. Terrorism is a form of communication, just as force of any kind is a form of communication. The key to all these processes is that communication should not be broken under any circumstances."

Hassan's work is varied: He has led campaigns for surrender of heavy weapons from tribal areas, initiated a program for victims of landmines in Afghanistan, developed a program for the protection of the indigenous Kalash people, brought computer literacy to remote provinces, and conducted training in nonviolence and peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Nepal.

Three Peace Building Organizations

EMU's Conflict Transformation Program[1]

I have worked very extensively with the folks at the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), because their model is considered to be the top in the world. They say they are "healing-edge, not cutting-edge." The relief agencies and services believe their approach is outstanding.

The central theme of their peacebuilding work is based on the belief that people in conflict situations know what is needed to solve their problems. They support identified natural peacemakers in the community and bring people into dialogue across lines of division.

A lot of different groups are looking to this program because it's really the first model of sustainable peacebuilding that has come forward in a long time. It is community based, and people in the community are supported in sorting out for themselves who needs to work with whom, and what they need to do to get out of a problem. The program targets people of every possible ethnicity, race, and religion, and develops a rich collaboration.

Compassionate Listening[2]

Gene Knudsen Hoffman developed a program called Compassionate Listening and spent years going to the Middle East simply listening to Palestinians, Israelis, military people, children and grandmothers. She has some spectacular stories (see also our interview with Hoffman, Compassionate Listening).

Hoffman's idea is that once people learn to hear and have the chance to be heard — not judged or pushed to back off on their positions, simply allowed to think what they think and feel what they feel — then change begins to happen. At first, change is subtle, but it may sometimes later become very dramatic. Once people have been heard, they begin to re-evaluate their positions and are able to hear other people's points of view.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman tells a story about meeting with one of the more violent leaders of Hamas when she was last in the Middle East. After she had listened to him, she said, "You know, I have several ideas of what you could do other than violence. If you ever want to hear these ideas, let me know."

The leader said, "You remind me of my mother."

Gene said, "Well, I would love to be your mother!" They became very close, and weeks later, someone sent her a newspaper clipping. It was about a non-violent demonstration, and this leader was participating!

So now when we read a headline about Hamas and the Middle East and suicide bombers, we can also reflect that one of the Hamas leaders is very seriously thinking about non-violence and starting to move in that direction. That can really change how we feel about the crisis there and the headlines that we read. That's the whole purpose of my film project.

Peace Jam[3]

Peace Jam, based in Denver, has brought together a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates who work with high school students from around the world, teaching them non-violence and peace.

In this program, fifteen to eighteen Nobel Peace Prize laureates give two of their weekends each year to working with high school children. These include Jody Williams, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, José Ramos-Horta, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, President Oscar Arias, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire.

The students get to spend time with these extraordinary people, and part of each weekend involves learning about community service.

Peacebuilding at Home

Our work as peacebuilders is actually here in the States right now, trying to prevent a war from happening.

One thing that we can all do is to really ask ourselves where our own hidden resentments and grudges are and see if there is some way that we can begin to soften them. That's better than presuming to tell someone "You have to do this and you must forgive." If we can soften a little bit and admit our own wrongdoing, and start mending a few fences, I think that goes a long way.

Here are some more suggestions for what you can do, both personally and publicly:

  • Search your own heart and take one step, however small, toward forgiving someone you need or want to forgive.


  • Seek out and meet with people from the Iraqi or Middle Eastern community in your area and get to know them, listen to them, and offer support.


  • Hold George Bush, Tony Blair, and Sadam Hussein in your heart with love and compassion. Don't villainize them.


  • Contact us (see EverydayGandhis.com) and contribute or participate in the work we are doing. For example, we are putting together an ad campaign for both local and larger papers (like the LA Times, for example). The focus of the ads will be "Instead of War." We will ask pointed questions and offer specific alternatives.

  • Contribute your own ideas to our website's ongoing list of alternatives to war (see "Instead of War" at EverydayGandhis.com).

  • Demonstrate.


  • Write letters to newspapers, government representatives, and friends.


  • Vote.

There is a saying in conflict resolution circles that it takes as long to get out of a conflict as it took to get in. Four years ago, when I first met Lam Oryem Cosimos, the man who is working to re-integrate the child soldiers of Uganda, he felt that his people had been forgotten, even by God. Nobody wanted to come see them. Nobody wanted to help them.

Today, Lam reflects, "Since we've had children being kidnapped for twelve years, we're more than four years into the healing process. Now I can look at my colleagues and say, 'We only have eight years to go!'"

Cythnia Travis began the Everyday Gandhis™ project after attending a training course at the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Since then, she has put together a book and video made up of a collection of interviews with instructors and participants in the summer peacebuilding Institute at EMU. She also is working on a documentary series for television about peacebuilding efforts.

At the present time, the Everyday Gandhis project is partnering with a number of groups, including among others the Conflict Transformation Program at EMU, Compassionate Listening, Peace Jam, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, PeaceNet Kenya, and Direct Relief International.

Everyday Gandhis is a media initiative of Questions of Balance, LLC, based in Santa Barbara, California (2022 Cliff Drive No. 285, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, 805-965-3391, fax 805-965-4941, email QBalance@aol.com. Questions of Balance is dedicated to creating and disseminating films, videos and instructional materials related to peacebuilding. They are currently putting together a series of audiotapes focused on stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. It will be ready for the holidays.

Travis also recommends that we become aware of FEWER (Forum on Early Warning and Early Response), a global coalition of organizations that aim to provide early warning to violent conflicts and inform peacebuilding efforts. The membership spans Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Eurasia.

For more information, or to order materials, go to EverydayGandhis.com.


Footnotes:

  1. Conflict Transformation Program, Eastern Mennonite University, EMU.edu/ctp. Established in 1994, this program "encourages the building of a just peace at all levels of society, in the United States and abroad." It provides academic and practical training in peacebuilding in collaboration with practitioners from around the world.


  2. You can read Gene Knudsen Hoffman's essays on Compassionate Listening, or download her book, Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook About Conflict Transformation, at CoopComm.org.


  3. PeaceJam is an international education program built around leading Nobel Peace Prize laureates who work personally with youth to pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody. The goal of PeaceJam is to inspire a new generation of peacemakers who will transform their local communities, themselves, and the world.





Top of Page Print Version