By Patrick Kennelly
Three years ago in Bamiyan, a western province of Afghanistan, a multiethnic group of university students gathered for a three month workshop on peacemaking. The group of young leaders met weekly ultimately concluding that peace is impossible in Afghanistan.
Undeterred by their conclusion these young people asked “What do we do to change this reality?”
In answering this question the students decided two critical issues needed to be addressed. First, how do you calm the enflamed ethnic tensions that plague the country? Second, how do you create a culture of peace in a society where the pursuit of peace is associated with wide scale violence and killing?
The university students realized that the decades of war and subsequent exodus of different ethnic groups fleeing conflict upset the power balance and ignited ethnic tensions. In order to tackle this issue the students brought together other students from the over twenty ethnic groups that comprise Afghanistan’s population. They divided into small groups to experiment with communal living. They hoped that by forming community they could restore some of the trust that has been destroyed by the conflict and help each other overcome their fear of others. This project lasted several weeks but then broke down into accusations and conflicts ending with death threats. The project was disbanded and some of the students left the region.
After regrouping, the students decided not to give up. They focused on their second question. Their initial step was to analyze the effect of the numerous invasions by outsiders. In their lifetimes, the students had experiences with the Soviets, the world wide Mujaheddin movement, the Taliban, and the Americans and had learned that foreigners could not be trusted to bring peace to their country, that they needed to acknowledge legitimate fears, and began forming a culture of peace from within Afghanistan.
One of the major concerns for many Afghans is that the pursuit of peace has been connected with political agendas and the wide scale killing of their friends and family. The ICRC reports that 96% of Afghans have been directly affected by the years of violence. In the words of one medical doctor “Peace is a dirty word, derided because Obama won the Nobel peace prize. We know what it is like to be killed for peace. The peace we have seen pursued has no plan. It is not based on love, reconciliation, and truth.” In order to counter this negative association with peace, the group decided to began approaching people and organizations one by one to ask them if they would say no to war.
Slowly, the group has grown from a small group of university students to a collection of organizations, government officials, schools, and civilians who are saying that they are volunteers for peace. They are saying that they will not shout down their critics. They are beginning to take public stands and engage in nonviolent actions that convey their desire to live without war. Recently , they launched a festival of human rights, created singing groups to spread their message to the illiterate, tagged the blast walls with message of peace, created peace parks, and planted trees. The group is encouraged because these items have not been vandalized or destroyed. Instead, the number of peace volunteers has grown. They are inviting the international community to come stand behind them and support their work. However, their message is clear that Afghans need to be in control of their own destiny. There are partners for peace in Afghanistan, and all people need to say no to war.
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