Sister Pauline Acayo, is a large African woman. Large not merely in physical presence, but in the sense her heart is filled with love and compassion. George Gacharo is a young African man. Young not merely in the sense of age, but in the sense he is full of fire and energy for the work he does. Gidon Bromberg looks a bit like an Israeli Peter Sellers. And like Sellers’ comedic nature, his work is subtle and surreptitious in nature and he tells of it with a wry smile.
Sister Pauline, George and Gidon were three of several hundred attendees and speakers last week over five days at the 11th Annual Conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution held at the Sheraton Harbor Island. The conference focused on continuing and post conflict peace work, academics, and assorted practicums for those who work in the field of conflict transformation. Topics in conflict were as diverse as how to successfully mediate custody issues in divorce, changing attitudes about school bullying or a historical overview of the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland.
Sister Pauline, is with Catholic Relief Services in Uganda. Since 1998, she has been working to rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers and international displaced persons (IDPs). To date, she roughly estimates she has heard the stories and worked with over 7500 people, 5000 of which were child soldiers. She has done so despite being held at gun point by rebels and threatened by government troops. As a footnote to her talk, she spoke of the personal emotional and physical trauma she has experienced. And yet, she shyly smiles and acknowledges she will not stop the work she has begun. I was honored to share lunch with her.
George commented he had to travel over 8000 miles to meet Sister Pauline, and yet his work was in neighboring Kenya. Once a rising young political and academic, the 2007 post election violence changed all that. After two months of tribal violence and the death of officially 150,000 fellow Kenyans, and the displacement of a million more, George paired with another academic and photographer to create, Picha Mtaani, the street photograph gallery to provide Kenyans the opportunity to reflect on what had been done to them and by them. As a result, over 2 million young Kenyans have joined Pamoja Tuanweza (Together We Can), a network of social activists and peace makers. He speaks with frustration about the Western counselors who speak of processes of reconciliation and forgiveness, when the wounds are so fresh. Plaintively, he asks those present to give him the courage to go on. I felt an energetic charge when I went to shake his hand, and instead he embraced me and called me brother.
As Gidon passed me on the way to the speaker’s podium, I remarked George would be a tough act to follow, and he smiled. His message was wonderfully simply. Find a commonality between conflicting neighbors and make them self-interested stakeholders. It is what he and nineteen other Israelis, 20 Palestinians and 20 Jordanians have come together to do with the towns which sit along the banks of the River Jordan. The river had become so polluted five years ago, the water is barely usable. Facing political adversity and social ostracizing five years ago, they began their work. In such an arid region, however, water held the key to a détente among neighbors. So successful has the work been, within two years he anticipates a full recovery system in place along the length of the Jordan. The photo of Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli mayors holding hands and standing in the River Jordan (in bathing suits) spoke volumes to the work of a few in the shadow of hate and war. Their efforts are one of a hundred surreptitious peace movements currently in place in the Mideast. He told me, forget the handshakes and peace accords, make the people a part of the process…that is the way to make it lasting.
I listened intently as Geoffrey Corry described the work he has been engaged in for over thirty years in the Northern Ireland peace process, the things which made it work, and the things which remain obstacles. Justine Darling, a graduate student from USD, School of Peace and Justice described her work in starting a restorative justice program on campus and using peace circles as way of enlightening students about such issues as hate crimes and violence against women. Akira Hokamura, a graduate student from Japan and I spent hours discussing cultural differences and ways to implement restorative justice in his culture. Yvette Durazzo held a reception and invitation for us to join Mediators Beyond Borders International, a group of international mediators who partner with various NGO’s worldwide to assist and learn from others how better to work towards reconciliation and peace. It was at this reception I met Wendy Wood who had recently returned from Rwanda, not telling them how to forgive and heal, but learning from those affected by genocide how to forgive and begin healing.
For five days I listened and shared ideas with the truly unknown heroes of peace making. It was a time for us to bask in each other’s accomplishments and prop up each other emotionally and spiritually, as we prepare to re-enter the fray this week…for the most of us, on a shoe string budget. But we find ways, because what is at stake is so very important.
And so I have run out of words, and I end only as I started…Truly, Blessed are the Peace Makers…keep them in your thoughts and prayers. Their success is yours and our children’s.
Those are my thoughts, I welcome yours.