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Davis: Our common denominator

“Two forces are in constant battle inside each of us, and in the world,” a grandfather tells his young grandson: “Good and Evil.”

“But which will win?” asks the boy.

“The one we feed.”

Rwandan author and lecturer Joseph Sebarenzi shared this story with more than 55 of us from 25 countries as part of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program in Brattleboro recently.

We were completing the first of three weeks in a graduate program at the School for International Training. We’d been through workshops, films, lectures and coursework on peace-building in battle-weary nations.

“Can there be true reconciliation without justice?” we asked. And we considered how stereotypes of the “other” are manipulated by politicians, the media and other forces in society.

Even in the days just before renewed violence exploded between Shiite and Sunni factions in Iraq, we were looking at ongoing human-rights struggles and oppressive regimes in nations some of us knew little about.

But Sebarenzi’s talk came after a particularly heart-wrenching CONTACT session in which the “cycle of violence” chart, discussed a couple of hours earlier, was replicated on the carpet of our large meeting room.

Having already identified our own prejudices and revealing them to one another, we were asked to place ourselves wherever in the cycle of our own conflicts that we were now feeling: fear, self-blame, anger, sadness, memorializing, teaching tolerance or desire for revenge.

Each of the Rwandan, Liberian, Tibetan, South Sudanese, Indian, Burmese and other students had staked out positions near signs marking the cycle stages.

Like some of the other Americans in the group — including an ex-Marine confronting his combat attitudes and actions — I looked around the room, considering where I belonged.

I thought of the films we’d seen just seen about horrendous carnage in Bosnia, in Nigeria and Liberia, nations where religious and ethnic groups had lived peacefully for centuries before turning violent.

I looked at the faces around the room — black and brown and yellow and white — faces of friends whose eyes we’d searched deeply for a few days and thought of news accounts of recent honor killings, kidnappings and attacks. I sat at “mourning/grief.”

The knot in my own stomach was tied, too, with sadness about what our own country is seeing: growing economic injustice, a swelling minority prison population and a breakdown of democratic institutions fed by increasing political and social polarization. Even Greenfield’s political debate has grown shrill and fractious.

Slowly, each of us was asked to explain this moment’s anger, grief, fear, confusion.

“I ask myself, ‘Why did it happen?’” asked a Rwandan woman, seated near “suppression of grief.” Like many in this program, she works for a nonprofit organization aimed at reconciling the ethnic divide in her nation.

A man from one battle-worn African country seated near “Anger/why me?” said, “Since I was born, I can never be happy ... sometimes I just cry, because of the suffering. Without peace, nothing will be better in my country.”

I placed my arm around him to comfort him.

A Tibetan refugee explained his inner conflict between forgiveness and longing for his homeland to be free; a young Yemeni shared his frustration at watching the “Arab spring” melt away; and several women broke down in anguish as they revealed having been raped or witnessing their daughters being sexually violated by militia groups.

The Marine, seated at “rehumanizing the enemy” told us that after Sept. 11, “I hated Muslims, I didn’t even see them as humans. ... I didn’t look on terrorists as people, I looked on them as targets.”

When it came time to act on an order to kill a suspected Somali terrorist enjoying a meal with his wife and two young sons, “We laughed because it was so easy. ... I’d joined thinking if I could kill enough terrorists, the war would be over. I created three more,” he said, holding back tears.

At the time, just before the “peace” in Iraq broke into the seemingly never-ending struggle between Shiite and Sunni, we’d focused on how the cycle of violence plays out, again and again, between ethnic groups that most of us can hardly differentiate, between religions or tribes or other divisions that barely make sense.

The violence that erupts between those sects or tribes is never truly about those apparent differences, CONTACT leader Paula Green of Leverett made clear, but is often manipulated by leaders corrupted by their own power. The underlying cause of violent conflicts — more prone to restart where there’s been a history of violence — is injustice.

Even now, we’ve heard the call for sending troops back to Iraq, which would feed the cycle anew. SIT’s graduate program aims to teach the world’s people to actively work for peace.

In an exercise a couple of days later, we’d disagree with one another and be conflicted within ourselves: Is violence ever justifiable in conflict? What defines “last resort?”

But comforting each other and looking deeply at these faces, we can see the absolute unity of humanity.

We need to feed our goodness and try to truly break the cycle of violence.

Davis, The Recorder’s senior reporter, has been a news staffer at newspaper since 1976. He specializes in covering regional issues including business and the environment.

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