By Mariyahl Mahilmany Hoole, Grant Proposal Specialist, Generations For Peace
It is 2010, and we are travelling down a silent road. This road is as old as my parents, my grandparents, and their parents before them, and yet is has been built anew again and again over the scars and craters of Sri Lanka’s civil war. There is no one else around us. Not a single tree stands, no birds remain to sing. Soldiers flicker by at short intervals, standing watchfully against a deceased enemy. As the sun sets, the dying fields begin to glow red. Beneath them, soaked into this soil of my home, is the blood of a people, trapped and killed without reason in the final months of war. They died together by the thousand, and yet blanketed in the distracting silence of war, they died alone.
These are the fields where peace building failed.
As the miles pass, its broken pieces press into my memory. The 3-year old girl, learning to pray every night over the shoes of her abducted father. A circle of bereaved mothers in a detainment camp, tears forming in their eyes as they stroke my face, each one telling me in numbed pain that I look exactly like a lost daughter. Visiting my former schoolmates being held without cause in a high-security prison, to learn their father had been killed and their mother was being tortured.
I am sitting in a school afterhours with a young woman my age, as the light dances in to the room through the shrapnel holes in the wall. She is telling me her great love story – of the young man who picked up and followed her with each displacement, until her father finally gave his permission for their marriage. They had a few happy years together as husband and wife. When she returned to her mother’s home to give birth to their third child, she could not have known that the road – this very road – would be closed at the border to separate them, nor that she would never see him again.
A few months after the war ended, she received a call from a stranger who had been one of the trapped civilian crowd. He told her of an arm he had stumbled on in the bloodied dirt. A phone number was scrawled on it in ink. Above it was a message, asking, “If I die here, please tell my wife.”
I have wandered many roads since then, trying to remember the meaning of peace.
How do we, as peace builders, make sense of war? How do we confront the wearying weight of history, and choose every day to take on the responsibility of change? How do we maintain hope and purpose when we are, quite simply, exhausted? How do we encounter the human consequences of our failure and continue untarnished in mind and heart?
I have been working for a while now at Generations For Peace (GFP), where I found myself among a family of young peace builders for the first time. Many of them have experienced violence and conflict, and seen the devastation it leaves among those we care deeply about. Yet still this team of global volunteers – 8900 strong and counting – continues unyielding in its commitment to create change in our own communities. So before the road once again rises before me, I would like to share a few lessons I have learned among you, my fellow peace builders, as we try to make peace with our legacies of war.
From “Fixer” to “Changer”: When we see human suffering in our daily lives, we react with an overwhelming need to fix broken systems, to right the world’s wrongs. We soon realise that this is a work that has no end. And we find that not everything can be fixed. A mother cannot reclaim her daughter from the earth, a people’s history of injustice cannot be undone. But – everything can be changed. Sorrow can find meaning in being heard, injustice in our past can lead to resilience in our tomorrow. And that is our role as peace builders. That shift in our thinking – from fixers to changers – is small, but it makes the difference between frustration and possibility, paralysis and growth.
Hope big but plan small: We as peace builders exist on the sustenance of hope. Over time, however, the relentless weight of violence can cause even our strongest hope to bend low. Those volunteers who have completed GFP’s conflict analyses know that changing our societies’ large intractable conflicts is more manageable when this is broken down into small pieces – communities, relationships, human needs. This is because peace becomes more real when you hope big but plan small. We soon find that the most important changes for peace come from small things – an open ear that reminds someone of their humanity, a conversation that creates an alternative vision of the future, or simply an encouraging word that helps another find the potential within themselves. Our small acts, so easily overlooked amidst the demanding pressures of conflict and violence, do indeed have the power to create concrete shifts and changes in our communities, which find life in this transforming hope.
Create Space for Possibility: Peace building, by nature, asks us to work amidst forces like violence, suspicion, and instability. The intensity of this conflict environment means that opportunities for peace building remain rare, while those we pursue may often be met with defeat. Seeing our hopes fail again and again can fill us with despair, especially if we witness our failures affect those in our communities. If we simply wait for the right opportunity, therefore, we will not succeed in our work. Instead, we need to actively cultivate an environment of possibility. At GFP, we do this by trying new methods, exploring new alliances, inviting feedback, learning broadly, reflecting collectively, and discussing our work with as many people we can reach, knowing that a tipping point will come and a moment of change will catch hold. As we do this, we gradually also evolve to meet our challenges, and build a community to support our effort. Creating space for possibility asks us to be open-minded and available; while the uncertainty that coexists with possibility demands both resilient faith and hard work. But through exploration, we expand our limits, discovering creativity, persistence, growth – and new opportunities for peace – in even the most difficult of times.
The Value of Time: This, for me, has been the hardest lesson to learn. I think it is difficult for many of us who witness intense suffering in our communities, especially when we understand the power that causes it and the potency of its effects. But as I look back, I have come to appreciate the value of time. I’ve seen how time can bring forth changes we cannot even anticipate, our vision bounded as it is by the here and now. With time, I’ve watched with relief as the work of years past has gradually yielded changes of consequence – policies rewritten, homes returned, the vulnerable protected, divisions overcome, and lives saved. I understand now that the immediacy I so desperately wanted was not made for lasting peace. Whether in systems, communities, or individuals, peace must develop its roots slowly and naturally, so its changes can grow strong through generations. Perhaps this is a lesson that each of us must learn on our own, in our own time. But with this perspective, painful experiences of the past have quietly found their purpose, by grafting it back on to this work we do.
Being Human is OK: As peace builders in war, we are often needed to be strong for others, or asked to confront situations of violence that we can barely comprehend. This is how we give of ourselves in our communities. Unless we are careful, however, our openness to sharing the pain of others can irreparably wound our own minds and hearts. There is no perfect boundary between caring for others and safeguarding ourselves. But if we are to remain resilient enough to responsibly bear witness to war, then we must also give ourselves the right to be human. We should allow ourselves to step back when we are overwhelmed, respecting our vulnerabilities and giving ourselves space to heal. We need to make time for the things that refresh us and make our hearts whole. Most importantly we need a community of people among whom we will not be alone. This, for me, is GFP. I cannot say how much it has meant to find this family of pragmatic young idealists who are equally determined in their commitment to making peace from war. Sharing our effort has relieved the weight I carried from Sri Lanka; sharing understanding, I can express the sorrow that I keep silent in the outside world. Here, among them, I have learned how to return to myself.
The athlete and artist Donald Brown visited us at GFP recently, leaving his words resounding amidst our stories of war. “If we search for peace without having peace within,” he told us, ‘we leave our quest for peace in pieces.” Our work as peace builders cannot be separated from our hearts. By striving to create peace in the world, we hurt, grow, and change in response; but gradually, we develop strength to give from the peace we keep alive within. This is how we become our own stories of change. Our privilege as peace builders, however, is that our stories do not have an end. They join the stories of all those who come together with the same hope, creating something bigger than ourselves which, we know, will truly last.
*Before arriving at GFP, Mariyahl worked in peacebuilding during active conflict in Sri Lanka; and in its immediate aftermath, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork among communities which had been trapped in the final battle zones.
Building peace in Sri Lanka: find out how our volunteers are utilising the power of sport-based programmes and activities in efforts to strengthen relationships in the post-conflict era. Interviews and footage were filmed in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, some of the worst-affected districts during the war.