The question whether peace is a realistic aim to strive for is often asked when I speak to people. People wonder if it is not just a dream, an ideal that can’t be reached, a naive wish. They see injustice around them, they read about violence in newspapers and see cruel images of dead children, beheaded journalists and destroyed buildings on television. My question to these people is then: is there another option besides striving for peace? Usually the reaction is: “But how?”
And then I am so happy that there are so many people around us, in the midst of violent conflicts, who show us the proof of alternatives. Pax Christi Flanders, the organisation I work for, has just published a brochure about five ‘peace persons’. These people stood up against the overall discourse of violence and counter violence, against injustice, and they are real, people of flesh and blood. Described are Franz Jägerstätter from Austria, Izzeldin Abuelaish from Palestine, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, Natalya Estemirova from Chechnya and Fr. Ziad Hilal and Fr. Murad Abu Seif from Syria. Diving into their lives and motivation is very inspiring: it shows the enormous power that is created by wanting peace. People from different countries, different situations, different believes, but all with the same burning motivation.
Another person I’ve met recently is Pascal Mugaruka. He was our guest during the Flemish Peace Week (21 September – 2 October 2014) and lives in Goma, East Congo. During his studies at Goma University he discovered the devastating power of discrimination, hatred, exclusion, and he thought of ways to counter this power. A few years ago he created Africa Reconciled, a youth movement that reached already thousands of young people not only in the East of Congo, but also in other regions. Pascal’s message is one of respect for yourself and the other, of finding the strength within yourself to overcome hatred and to reconcile with your fellow countrymen, of creating peace by starting with yourself. His message is not always received with applause, especially not in the Congolese diaspora in Belgium. It is difficult for them to accept that compatriots use violence against each other, that Congolese people kill each other, and that this is hindering the peace process. Congolese tend to point at other nationalities as being the ‘enemy’: “Rwandese and Ugandan fighters are the enemy, they cause the violence in our country. Why should we reconcile with our own people? That is ridiculous.” Despite this resistance, Pascal continues to work step by step towards reconciliation, as a condition for finally reaching peace, security and stability in the country, where he lives. If the cycle of hatred and violence will not be broken, new violence will be the future…
The same process or mechanism is seen in so many conflicts: it is the other who is to blame for the injustice. How difficult it is to see our own part in a conflict. How difficult it is to notice the ‘plank in our own eye’. Also our attitude towards injustice or conflicts we see around us is often one of indifference. How difficult it is to accept the fact that injustice continues if you don’t take action. People get tired of ‘bad’ news, feel powerless when they hear the news about the cruel violence of Islamic State, the plane of Malaysian Airlines that was shot down above Ukrainian territory with 298 deaths as a consequence, the continuation of fighting in Syria, etc. It is indeed a huge mountain of misery, death, pain. But doing nothing is really no option.
What can we do? People as Pascal Mugaruka, or the priests of Jesuit Refugee Service, Ziad Hilal and Murad Abu Seif, who received the Pax Christi International Peace Award, show us what we can do.
The words of Fr. Murad, spoken during the gathering of Pax Christi International in Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina) in June 2014 still sound in my ears: “We have to open our doors. Even for the fiercest enemy. We should stop being afraid, as the fear is hindering us to live. If we open our doors, we show our preparedness to listen, to talk, and only then we can start to build peace, to build a new society.” The words made me shiver, grabbed me by my throat. But in a positive way. Fear also grabs one by the throat, but it blocks progress, constructive alternatives to violence, peace. While these words open a large space, they give hope, you know it is true.
At the moment we build in Belgium an anti-war platform ‘Peace for Ukraine’. It is difficult to maintain the platform on the path of non-violence, even if everybody on the platform knows that violence creates new violence. We have to be compassionate with all, about the misery, the damage, we have to be prepared to listen to everybody, on which side he or she is. The aim of the platform is to create communication among Ukrainians and Russians, to foster dialogue and negotiations with all relevant actors.
I’ve recently met with two monastery sisters from Ukraine, who were looking for tools, experience and mechanisms to counter hatred and revenge ‘at home’. They were very grateful to learn about the origin of Pax Christi, and of the methods we use to reach a level of non-violent conflict resolution. They also told me that finding peace of mind, a peaceful attitude towards the violence in their country, was much more important than receiving humanitarian aid. First the heart and soul.
Constantly meeting people who make a difference, encourages me to continue ‘building peace’, also in our own Belgian society, where there is no war, but many other examples of injustice and violence. The vision, strategy, spirit and methods of active non-violence are not a naive dream or an unrealistic plan: on the contrary! I invite everyone to study it, to incorporate it and implement it. Not a piece of cake, but hard work…
Annemarie Gielen, General Secretary, Pax Christi Flanders