Scilla Elworthy, TFF Associate
August 4, 2007
In every conflict there are some local people who have the guts not to pick up a gun, but take the harder route of nonviolence to try and solve the problems their communities face. This unglamorous, unsung work at the grassroots is just beginning to be recognised as an essential component of any successful peace process.
FIFTY PER CENT of ‘top down’ peace agreements do not stick. Why? Because they have been negotiated without the participation and understanding of all those involved in the conflict – the people on the ground. Governments are just beginning to learn that local people know what works best to prevent war – or stop war – in their own backyard.
Take Sami Velioglu for example. Sami is a British Iraqi who returned to his hometown of Kirkuk two months after the invasion. He was shocked to see people standing in line all day in forty-five degree heat trying to find out where their arrested relatives were, or to get redress for property damaged by troops, or justice for a raped sister. They were being sent home at the end of a day’s waiting, with nothing. Sami said “If we don’t do something, people will take the law into their own hands.”
So Sami set up a centre where people damaged by the conflict could tell their stories and gain redress. He’s witnessed incredible stories of courage, injustice and terrible sadness. His centre has dealt with over 2,500 individual cases, secured a water supply for a camp of 6,000 internally displaced people, and has secured the release of over 100 people wrongfully arrested by the Coalition forces or the Iraqi National Guard.
Sami returned to the UK recently, for a short respite from daily threat. His car, empty at the time, had been hit by a rocket grenade two days previously. “Bombs are an everyday business. Everyone is on their guard and there is a shortage of absolutely everything. But we have to have optimism; there are honest people that deserve to live in better conditions than this.”
Sadly, grassroots organisations in Iraq are rapidly disappearing. “If I ever thought our work wasn’t effective, I would pack it in and stop risking my life, but I know we are still achieving so much.” Sami’s life has frequently been threatened for doing this work. His assistant Mohamed was kidnapped two months ago, and has not been heard of since. Mohamed’s wife gave birth last month, another child without a father in Iraq.
Sami’s work has never been more important, and has been commended by British and US military commanders.
YOU MIGHT THINK that such actions as Sami’s, courageous as they are, are too isolated to make much difference. But right now a world map is being constructed, to highlight and connect peace-builders like Sami, plotting their efforts as small dots of light on the dark canvas of countries at war. Another bright spark is Asha Hagi Elmi, known as ‘The Lioness of Somalia’.
When the Somali peace talks began in 2000, only the clans were recognised as legitimate representation for the people. There were five clans in the war-torn country but not one of them considered women important enough to become part of the negotiations.
The women could have sat back and accepted this as their destiny. But not when their country had been falling apart in wave after wave of violence. And not when a woman like Asha Hagi Elmi was around. So the Sixth Clan was born. And it has paid off for Somali women – who have become a driving force for peace-building in Mogadishu. Through the pressure group ‘Save Somali Women and Children’, founded by Elmi in 1992, they gradually edged their way into the talks. When the peace agreement was signed by Somali warlords in 2004, Elmi was the only woman and the only civilian to sign.
The results have been encouraging. The Federal Charter of Somalia now stipulates that at least 12% of the Parliament must be women – astonishing in a Muslim country. There is also a Ministry for Women and the Family. Elmi herself has been elected to the Pan African Parliament in Johannesburg in May 2006. But right now, as a result of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, she is in exile in Nairobi. But this does not stop her continuing her work.
PEOPLE ON THE frontline of conflict desperately need regular support – they need Champions. Champions are people who live in safe countries and want to link with and fund an unarmed hero in an unsafe country. Champions provide core funding over the long-term to allow people like Henri Bura Ladyi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to commit to peace-building, without having to worry about how to feed his family.
Henri runs the Centre for Resolution Conflicts (CRC) based in Beni in the north east of DRC the past ten years. They mediate in disputes (some long-running, often over land or resources, some between tribes, others between the militia and the government), and train community elders, religious leaders and politicians in alternatives to violence.
Henri tells anincredible story about a group of twenty young men. “These men, discharged from a militia in eastern DRC, found us and asked to learn about our work. We began to train them in peace-building techniques and now these young men are working in their own communities spreading the word of peace. The CRC were able to temporarily engage a peace-worker for just $50 a month to accompany and advise these former militias in their training activities.”
THESE PEACE-BUILDERS use nonviolence as their most powerful tool; they test it, and extend its use, and share their knowledge with others. They are all supported through Peace Direct, named ‘Best New Charity’ in the UK Charity Awards, which is a small organisation supporting people like this in all parts of the world, to promote their work and to learn from it. Much development work worldwide is still based on the idea that Westerners go out and ‘teach’ people in poorer countries how to solve their problems. This idea is now being turned on its head, because the evidence shows that people at the sharp end know best.
Through Peace Direct you can become a Champion, and support someone like Sami, Asha or Henri, by giving £10/month by direct debit. The Man Group plc Charitable Foundation is matching all ‘Champions' donations, so with gift aid as well, your £10 is worth £22.80. Peace Direct 0845 4569714; Development House, 56 Leonard St, London EC2A 4JX www.peacedirect.org
Insight on Conflict maps connect peace-builders worldwide; see their sparkling dots of light on www.Insightonconflict.org
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