Sophia's Peace Work

Friday, April 28, 2006

Nonviolent Peaceforce Sri Lanka (NPSL)

If you listen to the news, you might have heard about a suicide bomb attack on a military official in Sri Lanka and that the Sri Lankan military has responded with airstrikes against areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ... the main Tamil military group. This conflict has been going on for (20+ years) and you probably don't hear much about it, nor it's deep roots that date back to the Colonial period of British Ceylon. I'd encourage you to get more than a news snipet about it and read on.

A couple of years ago I was active in an organization called the Nonviolent Peaceforce. They are an international group trying to make a reality of a dream that that Gandhi had of creating a civilian, unarmed peace army that could be utilized in some cases instead of military intervention to a bring conflict to an end. The Peaceforce was designed to build on the work done by many smaller groups such as the Christian Peacemaker Team, Witness for Peace or Peace Brigades International and create a large (2000-member strong), multi-cultural peace force of paid civilian professionals trained in nonviolent conflict intervention. With international support, such a force could be very effective in certain conflict zones.

The Nonviolent Peaceforce is running a pilot project in Sri Lanka, at the request and invitation of local Sri Lankan organizations. Here is their on-the-ground experience with what is happening there right now. Included is a photo of part of the NPSL team.

April 25, 2006

While this report is being prepared, LTTE-controlled sea side areas close to our office in Mutur in the East are being targeted in a coordinated action by the Sri Lankan Navy and Airforce. The bombs and shelling by a naval craft and fighter jets, which can be felt and heard by the team members from their position in the office, are part of a retaliation for the suicide bomb attack on General Fonseka, Chief
Commander of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, at the army headquarters in Colombo earlier today. Meanwhile, the Airforce has assured us that the Mutur town and our team are safe. The town has lost electricity and reports of casualties from the area targeted are coming in slowly but the exact numbers will not be known until the enforced curfew expires.

It appears the suicide bomb was set-off by a young female, who pretended to be pregnant while visiting the army hospital. Early reports inform us that she threw herself on top of the army vehicle with the General, killing his five body guards and three civilians. Twenty-seven people were injured. The General sustained injuries but miraculously survived. This evening the President of Sri Lanka has appeared on national television and asked the people to remain calm. For the moment, Colombo is under curfew until dawn while the army is conducting house searches
in certain areas.

At the moment, it is difficult to predict what will happen next but the incident definitely has decreased further chances of the talks, which are meant to enforce the current Cease Fire Agreement, in Geneva taking place any time soon. Last week, the LTTE temporarily pulled out of the talks, claiming that a level of normality in the East will need to emerge first.

In recent weeks there have been almost daily attacks on the security forces in the East and North. Some of these have also killed and injured civilians, including two NGO workers killed by a claymore mine attack while passing an army convoy. There have also been shootings, killing and retaliation on civilians for the mine attacks blamed on the LTTE, mob killings, burning of houses and shops, gun fights between partners and displacement of communities.

The worst violence has been seen in the Trincomalee district. The violence included a terrible bomb set off in the busy market on April 12th killing at least five persons, including one child. Within minutes, a Sinhala mob came and targeted revenge at mostly Tamil shops, homes and civilians, leaving at least 19 more civilians dead and over 30 shops burned. The ethnic violence continued in other areas where Sinhalese and Tamil communities border. Thousands of villagers from the areas have moved to public places of worship or schools for safety.

In the context of this tension, after witnessing the aftermath of the bombing of the market and assisting several of the injured people to a hospital, our Trinco Team was attacked by an angry crowd of Sinhala youth while returning to the office. The crowd surrounded the NP vehicle which was marked with the NPSL sign and flag. Members of the crowd slapped and punched the driver, Field Team Member Charles Oloo Otieno, who was trying to turn the vehicle and move away from the hostile scene. Parts of the truck were ripped from the side. The team was also threatened with a hand grenade. Before they could leave from the area heavy stones were thrown at the vehicle, smashing the side and back windows. Luckily the team was not seriously physically injured. However, the whole event took place 30 feet (10 meters) from a police/army checkpoint and the forces present made no attempt to intervene. The team recovered quickly from the attack and continued work the next day, hence it provided protection for the delivery of relief to those displaced by the violence.

Due to the diplomatic skills of its local translator, the team managed to reach out to the gang who had attacked them in the days afterwards. Subsequently, their leaders have apologized to our field team members and agreed to take part in a local peace meeting between the communities soon.

The next 48 hours will tell us more about the situation and whether we can expect a further increase in violence or are faced with a serious war scenario. Questions that need to be answered are: Are today's suicide bombing and the subsequent retaliatory attacks by the armed forces indications that the Cease Fire Agreement is officially dead? Will the EU now decide to ban the LTTE, which the government of Sri Lanka has lobbied for, hence further isola ting the LTTE? How will NPSL operate if war breaks out?

For the moment, we are assessing the situation daily and continue to provide protection to civilians, where possible. But the environment we work in is extremely complex and the circumstances are increasingly more dangerous.

Marcel C.A. Smits, Project Director Nonviolent Peaceforce Sri Lanka

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Anatomy of a Project Gone Sour

For the past few months I've been working with another Iraqi Environmental NGO (that's non-governmental organization) to bring them and a few staff from the Iraqi Ministry of Education to the U.S. in the summer for trainings in environmental education. I was able to set up a series of invitations for training at several excellant programs for a small group of Iraqis (5 to 6 people). We were trying to target folks from the NGO, a representative from the College of Education (University of Baghdad), a representative from the Curriculum Development Committee at the Ministry, and a representative from the Teacher Training Institute. We also wanted to bring someone from the Ministry of Environment.

Almost six months ago, I went to see the Iraq Project Manager (maybe that's not exactly the correct title but it's something like that) for UNESCO and he told me that they were very interested in the project and that they just needed to see if they had the funding for it. I checked back with him on several occasions and always he told me,

"Yes, we think we can support this ... we just need to have our funding confirmed ... it will happen ... we just need until February (or early-March or mid-March) to confirm that we have the funds."

As you need time to get Iraqis a visa to the U.S., I got more nervous as time went on, but I kept telling the Iraqis (and this was my mistake, I guess) ... "it looks good, it is just a matter of time."

Then I met with them on my last day before leaving for the U.S. I was very nervous ... I was getting to a do or die point for the project. The project manager told me again, "yes we want to fund this ... but we need just two more weeks to finalize the funding. I'm sure it will really be done in two weeks. And ... we also want to talk to our contacts at the Iraqi Ministry of Education ... to confirm that they support the project."

I sighed (quietly) but it still meant that I had just enough time. I was slightly worried by this issue of them talking to their contacts at the Ministry. I didn't know who they meant or if the Iraqi NGO I was working with, who I depended upon for all communication with the Ministry, had made sure that all the right folks at the Ministry were fully informed and supportive of the project. She had indicated that it was supported and so I was still pretty confident that UNESCO would end up funding the project.

At this last meeting, I also was introduced to a new person (let's call him Samir) who has joined the Iraqi Project at UNESCO. Samir is Jordanian and he is actually interested in Environmental Education. He even gave me a book he had written on the subject of Environmental Education in Developing Countries (Note: I found some useful information in it, but it was a dry read at best ... more of a published thesis).

So I went to the U.S. still feeling positive and actually visited some of the training centers I was intending to bring the Iraqis too with the goal of discussing the details of the trip with the trainers.

Then, after two weeks, I contacted the Project Manager at UNESCO. I got no response. So I wrote to Samir, who had also given me his contact information. He responded right away ... and this is what he said.

Dear Sophia,

Thank you for your email-messages. In fact, the Project Manager has left UNESCO to work for the World Bank. Right now I haven’t his contact info in Washington.

As for EE project in Iraq, you proposed a project under the title: “Environmental Education Capacity Building for Iraq”. I studied the proposal, and according to yesterday meeting with the Iraqi MoE planning Directors, I recommend the following:

Instead of doing this project right now, I suggest you prepare a project proposal aims at keeping the school environment clean, healthy, and tidy. Perhaps, the project will entitled: “School Environment Award”. The main project proposed activity may include an annual environmental competition between Iraqi schools. Can we do this.

Yours, Samir

Wow. After all that time and effort, we were blown out of the water and told to do a project on keeping schools clean and tidy (which actually should be the responsibility of the Ministry, I may point out). I've been trying to figure out who these Iraqi MoE Planning Directors are ever since. My inquiries haven't gotten anywere. The Iraqi NGO hasn't been able to enlighten me yet. In my subsequent messages to Samir, I couldn't hide my disappointment and he actually took me to task for trying to force the Iraqis to do what I wanted. He wrote me:

Do not show us that you have your agenda, and we UNESCO are the donors. Do not show us you want to do what you want to do, no matter what is the real situation in Iraqi schools, and what are the real needs in Iraq.

That's was a real blow ... and then I thought ... well, he doesn't know me, he doesn't know all the work I've done in Iraq or the work we put into communicating and working with the Ministry on this project ... he's new here, he doesn't know the history of my conversations with UNESCO and he making some assumptions about me ... probably all he sees is a pushy American woman ... still it was a blow.

I tried to patch it up with him and give him the history behind what I had been doing and tell him who we had been working with ... but I never heard back from him and when I was in Washington, D.C. I met with an organization that has done alot of work with the Ministry of Education and they had very little good to say about working with UNESCO. They weren't surprised when I told them what had happened.

At this point, I have encouraged the Iraqi NGO to write directly to Samir themselves. It seems obvious to me that my continued involvement will only make matters worse. The training facilities have all told me that they would be willing to extend the invitations for next year. I wonder if I have the energy to try again?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Meeting in Dohuk

Well, as predicted, we survived the meeting and it was fairly productive. We were presenting our work over the last two years creating a plan for the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands in southern Iraq. Though the whole thing started badly and for three days we got no sleep, our basic goal of presenting the finalized (almost) Plan to the Iraqi Ministries of Environment, Water Resources, Municipalities & Public Works as well as to some local officials from the marshlands was completed. And we were also able to discuss the new projects and what the Ministries want to do for the coming year. It was at times difficult and contentious (there are many personalities to juggle and everyone has their own agenda) but the final result seems good.

On the last day, after the big celebratory dinner, we (the organizers of the whole event) went off to return to our hotel for some much needed sleep. But the driver suggested a short tour of Dohuk (which by the way is only a few miles south of the Turkish Border) ... this tour involved stopping at a local store to pick up a few beers and then heading up to Dohuk Dam. I was stuck in the back of the truck and commented that this was a very "high school" thing to do. We were all punchy and tired but it was a nice way to decompress and end the whole trip.

Now, I'm back in Amman ... still with a load of work to do. Fine by me.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Back in the Middle East and went straight to Iraq

Kurdistan ... Erbil & Dohuk to be exact ... for a big meeting to present the final results of our work over the last two years and plan for the next year. Actually a big clusterfuck really. Everything that could go wrong with it, has gone wrong with it. We're pissed, the people coming to the meeting are pissed. Flights all messed up, reservations messed up, long drives with tired and cranky Iraqis, organizers pissed off at Ministries, Ministries pissed off at organizers. My boss wants to quit it all and just go into business. "I can make a hellavalot of money here, why am I trying to do this and give myself an ulcer!" He's tanking a bit, but he'll pop back. He has some mistaken impression that the ministries should like us. I told him it is far more usual for NGO's to have an adversarial relationship with government. Anyway, we'll recover, this is just how it goes sometimes.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Try, Try Again

I've been traveling in the U.S. seeing family and friends and trying to work as well (it's a major crunch time for my NGO ... big reports to write and edit to meet major deadlines for our grant projects). My life for the past few weeks (besides trying to spend a little quality time with friends and family) has been about searching for an internet signal so that I can keep the lines of communication open with my co-workers. Of course I've been following the situation with my friends at the Christian Peacemaker Team since the death of Tom and the release of Jim, Norman and Harmeet. I know they are going through some major soul searching (Christians peace activists are always doing that as I found out when I stayed with them in 2004 and 2005 ... whew, what a painful but I suppose necessary process of second, third and fourth guessing yourself!). Anyway, I've attached a recent article they wrote on the subject below.

I personally would hate to see CPT go ... my boss once asked a CPT member why he thought they had been able to work in Iraq for so long without any trouble. The CPTer remarked flippantly, "I think its a testiment to our ineffectiveness." But to the families who have given their stories to CPT, to the people in detention that they have tried to help, to the American soldiers to whom they have presented a different model... I think there is no way to judge the critical assistance they have provided. There is even now a Muslim Peacekeeper Team that CPT has tried to help. And who knows what kind of effect it has for Iraqis to just meet Americans who speak to them and visit them without guns or tanks or helicopters.

The fact is that we can and may never know whether what we do is useful or not and I have come to believe that that is not really what is important at all. What is important, what is critical is that we make every effort. We try and we never, despite all the setbacks and all the terrible things that happen to sap our strength, ... we never stop trying.

What Now?
By Peggy Gish, 31 March, 2006

What now for CPT in Iraq, after a three and a half years presence and four months of dealing with a hostage situation, culminating in Tom Fox's death and the safe release of Jim, Norman, and Harmeet? The celebration of the three's release and the mourning for Tom will continue, but it is also important for CPT to make decisions about the Iraq team's future.

As part of this process of discernment, the remaining team in Baghdad has been meeting with Iraqi friends and colleagues from various religious and ethnic
backgrounds who have shared in our work and understand our goals. What we hear varies widely.

We hear the worry our friends have for us as they say, "Now that everybody knows about you, it is too dangerous for you to stay." "We are not so afraid for us, but we are afraid for you. We don't want another of you to die." "The situation in Iraq is getting worse. You should leave until there is a stable government, or until public attention on CPT subsides and then return." Another human rights colleague, however, said "I believe you are very useful here, so wonder why you would leave."

We hear differing opinions about the focus of our work. One person valued most our work with prisoners. Another said, "The most important thing you can do is to tell the truth about the situation here." Others suggest a change of location for of the focus of our work. One human rights worker suggested we focus on building bridges
between the Kurdish north and the central section of Iraq and relocate to an area near the Kurdish region to explore that possibility. Another suggested the south.

One positive voice of support for CPT to remain in Iraq came from a Christian leader who also suggested relocating temporarily to another part of Iraq to explore future direction. He wrinkled up his face in disbelief when we asked if he knows Christians in Iraq who thing our presence is making it unsafe for them. "I would feel bad if something happened to you," he said, "but I would be angry if you disappear. If you care for us just in the good times, I will forget you. If you take care of us in the bad times, I will remember you. You die when you do nothing, but live when you do something. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives."

Referring to Tom, he added, "When we lost our friend, the suffering is hard, but it gives us courage. When they bombed my church, it didn't weaken us; it made us strong. Iraq's recovery may take ten years or more. But we can't wait until the tragedy is over to work, laugh, and hope.

We are not certain where God will lead us, but we find courage and hope when our friends warn us, challenge our assumptions, or push us to be clear, while also offer their continued support and love.