Sunday, July 30, 2006

Nonviolent Peaceforce Representative Speaks in San Diego

Group Trains Peacemakers, Brings Locals Together to Solve Problems


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Linda Dunn is a short, quiet-seeming woman who’s old enough that when she spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest July 20 she introduced her husband Mike and said they’d been together 48 years. But, in addition to serving with the Quaker church in Riverside, where the Dunns live, she’s also on the cutting edge of a new approach to peacemaking. She’s part of an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce [sic] whose goal is to train 500 paid, professional peacemakers for service throughout the world by 2008 — and last summer she and her daughter Diane went to Sri Lanka, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s first target country, to be a part of the effort.

Dunn led an elaborate presentation at the church that included a 12-minute video on the group, a PowerPoint slide show on its efforts in Sri Lanka and introductions to seven local activists involved with the Nonviolent Peaceforce chapter in San Diego. She described the mission of Nonviolent Peaceforce as to protect human rights, deter violence and, instead of taking the place of local individuals and organizations, to work with them and create space for them to do their jobs and stay alive.

Though Sri Lanka’s situation is virtually unknown in the U.S. — as are most of the world’s conflicts in which this country is not directly involved, Dunn rather glumly stated — it has one of the most intractable political situations in the world. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, but about 20 percent of the people are Tamils, most of them Hindus and many of whose families were brought to the island to work on tea plantations when the place was still called Ceylon and ruled by Britain. In addition, there’s a significant Muslim community and some Christians and believers in other religions.

Much of the conflict comes from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Army, colloquially known as the “Tamil Tigers,” with a reputation for brutality and recruiting children at festivals. According to Dunn, the average age of a Tamil Tiger is 16 and many of them are 12 or even younger. The Sinhalese and Tamil languages are so different they’re even written with separate alphabets, Dunn explained — and many of the slides she showed featured signs written in three separate tongues, Sinhalese, Tamil and English, with three different alphabets.

Sri Lanka has had to deal with civil war for about 20 years — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the 2004 tsunami did enormous damage to the country and its infrastructure. While much of the reporting on the tsunami told a silver-lining story of Sinhalese and Tamils coming together to help treat the injured and clean up the damage, Dunn said that effect was short-lived and “there has been trouble since.”

According to the United Nations organization UNICEF, the Tamil Tigers recruited 700 children in 2003 alone. Dunn’s slide had the word “recruited” in quotes — which made it look that the children were actually being kidnapped — but Dunn added that this wasn’t entirely true. She said many of their parents shared the nationalistic goals of the Tigers and acknowledged that one of their responsibilities to the movement was to furnish one of their kids to join the Tamil armed forces. But whether the children are taken with the approval of their parents or not, Dunn stressed, it still destroys their lives.

“When children are taken from their families, they lose their hope, innocence and chance for life,” Dunn explained. “The women, if released, have a much harder time being re-integrated into society than the men. Sri Lankan women have very long hair, and the first thing that happens to them in the army is they cut their hair.” Therefore, she added, any short-haired woman in a Tamil community will become an outcast and be unable to marry or have any role in her village again.

Dunn’s team were suddenly confronted with this volatile issue when 26 children were recruited from the grounds of a Hindu temple during a religious festival in 2005.”The field team members actually did help get those 26 children returned and re-integrated into society,” Dunn said. “We were the only NGO [non-governmental organization] invited to the meeting because we were the only one without our own agenda. What they [local activists] do is at great personal risk in this culture of silence.”

Another example Dunn gave for how Nonviolent Peaceforce works took place in the largely Hindu town of Trincomolee. “The Sinhalese Auto Drivers’ Association put up a large statue of Buddha in the middle of the Hindu area,” she recalled. The resulting riots, with “a lot of grenades being thrown,” took at least one life and destroyed many homes. “Nonviolent Peaceforce teams were well known enough to patrol the streets at night and engage the appropriate authorities and community leaders,” Dunn recalled.

The solution was finally brokered by a Buddhist monk who agreed to come to Trincomolee and mediate — but who needed the protection of her group’s field team to make it through Tamil territory and get to the village in the first place. The monk turned out to be the biggest loser in the confrontation; when his superiors in the order found out he’d been involved in negotiations with Tamils, “he was demoted and assigned to a spot in the middle of nowhere, where we fear for his safety,” Dunn said.

Nonviolent Peaceforce was originally founded in 1999 by two veteran activists, Dick Hartsough and Mel Duncan. “I’ve known Dick for about 35 years,” Dunn said. “I remember him telling of how he first got involved in the civil rights movement as a white student in a primarily Black college. He was involved in a sit-in when the white resistance was growing in numbers and in viciousness. After a while, a few determined men came in to the diner where he was involved in the sit-in, and one man raised a knife behind him and said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Dick said, ‘Do what you must, but know that whatever you do, I will love you.’ The man’s hand began to shake, the knife began to shake, and it dropped to the floor.”

The group came about when Duncan and Hartsough, who’d independently thought of the idea for it, met at a conference of peace activists in the Hague. Duncan went from meeting to meeting at the conference and was unable to get anyone to give him a chance to speak and outline the concept. “His wife said, ‘Maybe you’re not meant to talk. Maybe you’re meant to listen,’” Dunn said. “Then he heard Dick speak and describe the same vision he had — and they’ve been working together ever since.”

One of the goals of Nonviolent Peaceforce is to make its teams “as geographically, ethnically and religiously diverse” as possible, Dunn explained. “It’s important for the people [in the host country] to see people of various races and religions living and working together.” Dunn said that of the 177 recruits worldwide since December 28, 2005, 45 have been women, 132 men, and most have come from Africa (70, including five Arabs), Europe (39) and Asia (33). Relatively few have come from North America, she explained, because “North American applicants often don’t have the language skills.”

According to Dunn, Nonviolent Peaceforce hopes to start operating in a second country by the end of this year. “Areas under consideration include Mindanao in the Philippines, northern Uganda and southern Sudan, and Colombia,” she said. “We’re working to recruit and train 150 people and have 500 people by the end of 2008. There are trainers being trained to work at four sites worldwide. One of our big problems is getting people visas since the U.S. doesn’t want to let some of our people in.” Dunn said that the cost of this program is $1.8 million per year — about what it costs to run the U.S. military for two minutes.

For more information on Nonviolent Peaceforce, or to make a donation, visit their Web site at