Building Peace in War Zones


Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel/Peace Counts
In Mali’s poverty stricken north, members of ex-enemy tribes now work together on development projects. German donors fund a project only if Tuareg and Songhai tribesmen agree to work together to run the project.

Once again, Father Giovani Presiga is on the phone with a murderer. Calmly he tries to wrangle a life out of a guerrilla commander who has the blood of hundreds of people on his hands. “Let the kid go! He has no money, much less his family!” The victim is from the padre’s parish near the Colombian city of Medellín. Abductions for ransom are one of the main sources of income for both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, second only to trafficking in cocaine. Usually their demands from victims’ families are far too high. The padre has all their cell phone numbers. He negotiates, haggles, pleads, and threatens—sometimes even with the wrath of God on the day of judgment. In most cases, he can bring about the victim’s release. On his initiative, several villages have declared themselves Zones of Peace. Entry with weapons is forbidden.

Presiga is part of a new generation of politically involved individuals who have come of age in the last 15 years. They are looking for solutions in crisis regions, whether in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Balkans, or the Philippines. They are part of an emerging grassroots movement in conflict areas that has the potential to supplement and even supplant Western military and international aid organizations. They bring a uniquely local perspective to solving conflict. Where Western military and international aid agencies often have a proscriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to aid, these individuals are able to exert far more influence through their knowledge of their communities. However, they struggle to raise funds and public awareness. Peace journalism can link these efforts and communicate them to a wider audience.

The multimedia, multidisciplinary project Peace Counts has a simple but unusual mission: we travel to conflict regions and do peace reporting. Our core team of 15 reporters and five photojournalists—some of the best writers and photographers in Germany—travel hundreds of thousands of kilometers to observe peacemakers in conflict zones (50 countries so far). We’ve produced more than 50 documentaries—each chronicling the efforts of a different peacemaker—that we then distribute to mainstream international newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. (Our print stories have reached an estimated 50 million readers.) We call our approach “constructive journalism”: starting with the problem (violent conflicts), but focusing our reporting on possible solutions. We believe journalists can serve a vital function in helping societies learn how to solve conflict, instead of simply compounding media sensationalism.

Pers_Gleich_Figure2.jpg

Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel/Peace Counts
Members of tribes that were once bitter enemies now work together on an irrigation project in northern Mali.

In 2006, we started training journalists in conflict areas—Colombia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Russia, the Ivory Coast—to report on peacebuilders in their home countries. At first, some of the journalists in these regions—many who had traveled far to participate in the training—were skeptical. But we used examples from their countries to convince them that changemakers exist and peace is possible. To date, we have trained roughly 200 peace journalists—men and women—in war zones around the world.

Peace Counts has two main benefits: The general public learns about “secret heroes,” social innovators who model how to build peace in the midst of war. And the peacebuilders get increased visibility and support for their work. For example, after our last project in the Ivory Coast, the local minister for migration and integration invited all the country’s peacebuilders to his home. In the Ivory Coast, it is normally almost impossible for members of civil society to access politicians.

In some situations, however, discretion can be a peacemaker’s most effective weapon. The Abbey of Hagia Maria Sion in Jerusalem, for example, occupies a strategic position on the old city wall near the border between the Jewish West and Arab East Jerusalem. “Israelis and Palestinians can come to us without being seen together,” says the German abbot Benedikt Lindemann. He and 20 monks offer the abbey as a safe place for confidential conversations. Peacemakers from both sides can meet without being branded as traitors. God lives between the front lines.

The German Benedictines preserve their political neutrality in the Middle East conflict—but still get involved. “We always take the side of the weak,” says Abbot Benedikt. True to the order’s motto, ora et labora, the monks pray for peace while providing concrete assistance. They support victims of suicide attacks no less than Palestinian farmers whose land is under threat from illegal Jewish settlement. The Benedictines award a biannual prize to two activists, an Arab and a Jew. Despite numerous crises, they stay put. “We’ll still be here in a hundred years,” the abbot assures us.

Anyone who hopes to resolve conflicts needs a lot of patience. How do you measure success? If world peace is the goal, then every pacifist in history has failed. But today’s pragmatists count it a success when rebels give up their weapons, as in Mali; when an army removes roadblocks, as in the West Bank; when Catholic children in Belfast can walk through a Protestant neighborhood on their way to school; when minefields are cleared and farmers can return to their fields, as in northern Sri Lanka; when former fighters learn civilian trades, as in Uganda. Every improvement is the result of a sometimes tedious and often mortally dangerous struggle. Peacemakers create significant difficulties for those intent on war.

Pers_Gleich_Figure3.jpg

Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel/Peace Counts
Peter McGuire fought for the loyalist side during “The Troubles” in Ireland and did time for kidnapping. Now he’s a social worker, collecting kids from the militant scene and helping them find jobs and build skills. Through Peace Counts, Peter met Joe Doherty, who fought on the other side of the conflict and did time for murder. The two now work together to engage the two sides in conversation, taking advantage of their reputations as legendary terrorists.

Peace Counts, founded eight years ago by German journalists, is supported mainly by the German foreign ministry. The project’s surprising bottom line is that successful peacemakers are entrepreneurs. They realize their visions of a more peaceful society through efficient management—Mahatma Gandhi crossed with Bill Gates.

For Barbara and Henner Papendieck, for example, peace is a question of money. They have lived in northern Mali for 11 years. The arid region still suffers from the effects of the 1990 Tuareg rebellion, when the nomads reproached the government for letting their land sink into desperate poverty. Ongoing drought and grasshopper infestations can fan the flames of discontent at any time.

“True peace can only come when people are visibly doing better,” says Henner Papendieck. He and his wife, in their early 60s, see economic assistance as the most effective solution to the conflict. The couple have been able to direct around €55 million in aid to Mali’s north with the help of the German Society for Technical Cooperation.

The money has strings attached—for both the wandering Tuareg and the Songhai farmers, locked in a bitter and ancient conflict. The Papendiecks approach village and clan elders with a wish list: They have money to give away, but only in places where peace reigns. The elders are invited to advise them. Only where the traditional enemies band together to run projects in harmony do the funds start to flow—for irrigation pumps, pest control, schools and vocational training centers. “With every field that gets an irrigation system and becomes fertile, the people’s hope for the future grows,” says Henner. “They notice that stability pays off for everyone.”

Peacemakers have to know their trade, from raising money to planning projects, motivating employees, maintaining contact with government and foundations, mediating turf battles, informing the public. One of the most important prerequisites, says the Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung, is the capacity to analyze the causes of conflict. Is the point of dispute in Northern Ireland really religion, or is power sharing the real issue? Do Tamils and Sinhalese really hate each other, or was the civil war sparked by an income gap between north and south? Only those who know conflicting parties’ real interests can find solutions where everybody wins.

In past centuries, countries formally declared war on each other. Then armies fought until leaders agreed on a peace. Today a conflict that follows international law is an exception. Civil wars, uprisings, and terrorist attacks set the tone. Violence breaks out more easily in the heart of a society than on its borders. So the traditional tools of diplomacy often fail. Government leaders and conferences can decide whatever they want—separatists, mercenaries, and radical fringe groups write their own rules. The new wars demand a new kind of peacemaker.

Pers_Gleich_Figure4.jpg

Frieder Blickle/Peace Counts
A monastery of German Benedictine monks has declared itself a nonmilitarized zone. The monks provide a space for discrete talks between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

What’s needed are people like Elena Gulmadowa. The 30-year-old Tajik studied medicine. After several years as an obstetrician (ob-gyn), she got the urge to roam. Coincidentally there was a call for volunteers willing to go abroad. She was trained as a diplomat in a three-month intensive course. Her first post was Sarajevo. Then she was sent to Macedonia, where in 2001 the enmity smoldering between Muslim Albanians and Christian Macedonians had caught fire. The brief war laid waste to huge stretches of land.

The distrust between the religions seemed insurmountable. Elena now mediates on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in feuds between the ethnic groups. “In the delivery room I learned to stay cool even when it’s a matter of life and death,” she says. “I can use that knowledge now.” For instance, when the inhabitants of an Albanian village call in panic because they are under fire from Macedonian snipers, and it is night and no one knows how a skirmish could have broken out, Elena calls the Macedonian commander. His unit heard shots and shot back—a village wedding, celebrated as always with rifle salutes. Elena can clear up the misunderstanding. The officer tells his men to hold their fire.

It’s not always so simple to make peace. How much money do Muslims need to rebuild their section of a city, and how much do Christians need? How do you convince parents on both sides to send their children to the same school? Because her father prayed to Allah and her mother to Jesus, Elena is accepted by both sides as a neutral party. Even when negotiations seem endless, she looks to the positive side: “As long as people are talking to each other, they’re not shooting.”