August 2011

 

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Firefly of the Battlefield: Peace Initiatives by the Victims’ Families in Dang

Shree Ram Chaudhary


Introduction

While living in peace is at the heart of all civilizations, conflict has been a means of social transformation. Since ancient times, there have been conflicts, both large and small, that have led to changes in society. Such positive conflict contributes towards achieving lasting peace, and, in practice, ordinary citizens have the responsibility of transforming society through their own sacrifice. It seems to be an almost natural process, however, that conflict becomes violent whenever injustice and tyranny take hold.

As peace workers, our spirit is the voice of the people, and our main objective is to be an advocate for the poor; for Dalits, or Untouchables; and for Janajatis—people with their own language and culture who are outside of the Hindu caste system in Nepal, i.e., largely indigenous people.

This motivation is why I have tried to share their painful past and hopeful future in this essay. Beyond this aim, the experience of women and children tormented by the conflict in the country is given special consideration. In addition, this essay tries to address the issue of ordinary people as the means of social transformation, even during a conflict. How did they gain enough courage to live peacefully and inspire others to maintain peace in such chaos, for example? This essay also offers some approaches on how to deal with violent situations, particularly where crossfire occurs daily at the local level. It shows moreover the intersection of both conflict victims and working individuals and organizations to bring about change. Lastly, it provides some social changes which have occurred based on my working experience as well as multiple peace activities in which I have taken part.

Encounter with Armed Conflict

When the armed conflict was at its peak in Dang District in the midwestern part of Nepal, the government drew up strong policies against the Maoists and initiated various search campaigns in Dang. The Maoists were equally ruthless, and violent encounters between these two forces—the Nepal army and Maoist rebels—became routine. This series of events made the ethnic Tharu youth nervous and feel vulnerable. Since a majority of victims of such incidents were Dalits, Tharus or people from other marginalized groups, they began asking various questions. They began discussing the reasons behind the victimhood of the marginalized groups and started analyzing why the government, and even the Maoists, were prejudiced against them. Thinking along these lines led the youth to become organized and to decide to work toward conflict transformation.

It was within this context of conflict that the Society for Environmental and Economic Development (SEED) was born. As a result, it had to tolerate tensions and challenges from both the Maoists and security forces time and time again. On any pretext, the Maoists tortured SEED staff, ordered them to come to the jungle at night and asked for detailed information about the organization’s work. They also threatened to abduct members of the organization or to forbid the organization to operate if its members did not join their groups. Meanwhile, government forces repeatedly conducted searches at SEED and accused its work of being pro-Maoist. I specifically remember one particular incident.

It was on April 3, 2004, that representatives of the U.N. Review Mission and myself were traveling to Kauwaghari by car. Maoists stopped us at Phoolbari-6, Dhakana, and were about to set the car on fire. When I told them the purpose of our visit, they took no action and even promised to help us. When we began our work, we encountered lots of obstacles. We had to meet with both Maoists and the government administration on the same day to inform them of our work plans, which gave rise to substantial risk. Despite the critical situation, we were successful in accomplishing our objectives since we were working for the victims of both sides and we had a clear vision of what we were doing. We worked without favoritism toward either side.”

Although SEED received threats and people everywhere were often suspicious of its motives, it never flinched from its aims and objectives. Identifying solutions for such external problems, it worked intensively and effectively in the community, seeking with great patience to end the conflict and to promote peacebuilding between the guns of the warring parties. The Manpur Village Development Committee (VDC) made a room available for SEED to establish an office. When the Maoists destroyed the VDC building in December 2002, the organization had to bear a loss of about 50,000 rupees (US$692). Eventually, the Maoists begged to be pardoned, which made SEED more confident to work in dangerous circumstances.

Non-violent Initiatives for Peacebuilding

Because of the unstable and dangerous situation in Dang District during the conflict, discussions were initially held with the local authorities, VDC members and victims of the conflict on how to work together to build peace and transform the conflict. During the conflict, it was difficult to work with both victims and the authorities, but it became necessary to identify ways to minimize the hazards of the conflict. With suggestions, inspiration and support from local groups, SEED started its work, beginning on a small scale.

In the first year, three VDCs expressed a commitment to work jointly with the organization. With the active participation of local people and based upon local knowledge and suggestions, various strategies to support conflict victims were developed, which were largely comprised of a three-month knitting and painting training program for female victims. During this training, bereaved women from six VDCs had an opportunity to share their grievances. This program thus helped us to understand the anguish and sorrow of conflict victims and to get to know them better.

The Janajati Development National Assembly, impressed by the work SEED had begun with the Tharu community and the search for their historic identity and status, offered to work in partnership with SEED. The collection and documentation of Tharu history, traditionally transferred from one generation to another orally, has now been completed.

Similarly, partnerships with local, national and international organizations increased. In partnership with ActionAid Nepal, for example, we decided to continue to work for peacebuilding in Dang, and the program that began in 2003 still exists. SEED also had the opportunity to gain experience in partnership with the U.K. Dept. for International Development (DFID) through its community support program from 2003 to 2004. It also worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2003 as part of the Support Peace and Development Initiatives (SPDI) program. In partnership with Shaplaneer in Japan, SEED conducted a workshop to share experiences and an educational tour for freed bonded laborers, or Kamaiyas, in 2005. Since July 2006, an education program for conflict-affected children has been conducted in partnership with Save the Children Japan. It has also worked with the district development committee, district health office and Rapti Eye Hospital.

During its initial five years, SEED programs focused on psychosocial counseling, holding peace rallies, support for conflict victims’ families, organizing joint feasts and a Zone of Peace campaign in some schools as well as broadcasting a peace message through the local radio station. We also helped innocent conflict victims file cases with the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) about the violation of their rights.

The success of the non-violent people’s movement in April 2006 and the surrender of power by the absolute monarchy, followed by several agreements among the Seven Party Alliance and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN [Maoist]), led to new possibilities to end the violence and build peace. Consequently, we changed our strategy as the activities now focused on organizing and mobilizing conflict victims for compensation, voter education, model Constitution writing and consultation meetings at different levels. At the same time, we initiated the Education for All (EFA) campaign with a number of awareness-raising programs. These activities helped in the peace process and increased the awareness of people on how to claim their rights.

A Reflection on Changing Dynamics

Arranging support for conflict victims, the poor, Dalits and Janajatis was challenging. Developing strategies in support of such people was risky due to the conflict between the Maoists and the government. Because of the local domination of the Maoists and the military operations of both sides, one question was ever present: How to support the victims of both sides? This challenge was the greatest strategic question SEED faced. Moreover, it attempted to adequately respond to this vital question when, at the same time, it also sought to work intensively during the conflict with the support and cooperation of local conflict victims, underprivileged groups, Dalits and Janajatis at a time when other organizations were reducing their activities due to the conflict.

By experiencing the pain and bitterness of conflict-hit communities, SEED was brought closer to the affected families every day. When SEED began its programs, women and children used to turn away or look at the floor while sharing their experiences; some used to even leave without speaking. Furthermore, some children tried to hide in their homes whenever they saw new faces since they thought that strangers were either Maoists or soldiers of the Nepal army.

In short, those affected by the conflict and their communities were unwilling to talk with unfamiliar faces. Those seeking to share their pain were therefore unable to talk and could only cry. There was no option but to listen and wait patiently; but after a while, SEED gained the confidence of the people, and victims became intimate with the organization and shared their thoughts and feelings. In this way, it created a comfortable environment for the organization to work in all sectors. In addition, the organization considered how to bring happiness back to these people and undertook advocacy for their civil liberties.

Where we developed a relationship with a community and gained the confidence of the people, we were able to work there in any situation. As we came closer to the people, their support and cooperation for our work increased. The local people had effective access to information, counseling and assistance and began having faith and reliance on SEED. The organization was also able to provide moral and physical support to the people in the event of any problem. Public auditing increased the transparency of the organization and thus its acceptance among the people. Moreover, including committed local youth in the SEED team made it much easier to work in difficult situations, visit the field at any time, determine the truth of any reported incidents and respond accordingly.

An example emerges from the diary of Devendra Chaudhary, a social mobilizer: “I was in Kauwaghari village on June 16, 2002. Military people had surrounded the village to make a search. I did not have an identity card and was very frightened, but the women of the village saved my life by telling the military men that I was their brother. This incident inspired me to be in the field even during difficult times.”

Conclusion

SEED utilized local knowledge, skills, resources and approaches as a priority during our work. This decision allowed us to learn from the local people; and although we had no former experience of working in conflict areas, we realized that people were the best source of knowledge. As a result, we decided that our work would be based on the following understanding and approach:

  • to work to arouse hope and optimism in conflict victims;
  • to have proportional representation of Dalits, Janajatis and women in the central committee, executive board and as members of the organization;
  • to form a partnership with the VDCs from the point of the organization’s registration;
  • to establish peace from the grassroots level by utilizing local resources, skills and capacities;
  • to focus on those who were most victimized, especially women and children conflict victims;
  • to work in geographically remote and underprivileged communities that have been ignored by the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs);
  • to create an environment to unite all conflict victims who are in difficult circumstances due to the violence and who are thus unable to trust anyone;
  • to work through women’s forums to assist victims to share both their pain and their joys with each other.