Archive | February, 2013

An update genevois

27 Feb

Dear all,

I recently attended a meeting of the Inter Quaker Criminal Justice Liaison Group (also known as IQCJLG, one of many acronyms I encounter on a daily basis), formed by different Quaker organisations and individuals worldwide who work on Criminal Justice issues.  I found this particularly interesting as whilst Quakers may often have similar objectives, their specific focus may well differ between different contexts and it was interesting and useful to find out what Friends are working on, to share contacts and information. A number of the participants will represent Friends’ interests and concerns under the Friends World Committee for Consultation (QUNO’s parent body) in the UN Crime Commission in Vienna this April. As the meeting was in Friends House in London I was also able to take the opportunity to meet up with fellow Peaceworkers Owen and Rhiannon, who I had not seen since the blissful days at Woodbrooke Study Centre back in August.

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The winter in Geneva has not been as bitterly cold as we were lead to believe, I think last year’s lows of minus 12 degrees were exceptional. The emergence of crocuses and daffodils in the Quaker House garden herald the impending arrival of spring, whilst the odd snowflake reminds us not to be too hasty in our anticipation of warmer times. I haven’t yet ventured into the mountains, which many have chastised me for, so we are planning to go ‘snow-shoeing’ this weekend. I’m working my way up to skiing… possibly. Certainly the lifestyle here is generally a very healthy one (my monthly unlimited swimming pass must be heavily subsidised as it costs just £14) despite the endless fondue. On my recent trip to Spain I met a Ecuadorian lady who told me she wanted to leave the country (like the 40,000 people who fled the financial crisis there in the first six months of last year) and head for Switzerland, hoping that she can tap into some of the wealth and opportunities that reside here. Geneva’s 40% expat population certainly make it an interesting place to socialise, I found myself running between two parties last weekend and speaking four different languages at both – definitely an advantage of living here!

The next session of the UN Human Rights Council has just begun, when the vast corridors of the UN become alive with activity, exhibitions, events, networking opportunities, political negotiations and new resolutions. We are holding a side event on the issue of children of prisoners, to disseminate the results of the EU-funded COPING project that QUNO was involved in for the last three years.

A plus,

Haifa

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Being On The Right Journey…

25 Feb

Dear Readers,
Dear Friends,

All too often I find the fact that I sit in a comfortable and warm London office, reading, researching and writing about violent conflicts that are taking place “out there”, to be a strange and sometimes alienating experience. Not that I am unaware that violent conflict does in fact also exist and take place right outside my very own London doorstep, but quite honestly- I am hardly personally affected by it. I, in contrast to many other people in this city, live in a secure London. A warm London. A roof-over-my-head London. A London with enough food, with access to internet, university libraries and a gas meter that never just shuts down in the middle of the night. I feel safe in London.

I however spend my days reading about war, violence, conflict and suffering. And it affects me. But never has it had a greater impact than recently. 2 things happened: Mali & Jamaica.

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I am from Niger and I lived in Burkina Faso for 5 years. Both those countries border Mali. When my mother was working for Save the Children in Burkina Faso she used to take me on work trips to Mali with her. I have been to the capital Bamako, I’ve seen the world famous Dogon country, Gao, Djenne and other places…

The picture above is of the famous mosque of that “mythical” but real place Timbouctou.

Due to a complex set of circumstances there is war in Mali now. This violent conflict has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee the country and hundreds of thousands more to be internally displaced. The French intervened and thought they would be out in a matter of weeks. Months later, there is now talk of an American base to be established in my country Niger from which they are planning to start launching drones into Mali.

Together with a colleague of mine at the Oxford Research Group I wrote an op-ed piece on Mali that was published by Channel 4 News in 2 parts. You may read it here if you are interested in more details:

Part 1:http://www.channel4.com/news/mali-why-western-intervention-is-destined-to-fail
Part 2:http://www.channel4.com/news/mali-another-long-war

Needless to say, my family in Niger are concerned about their safety and the security situation in our country. Many people such as my father depend on the few tourists who come every year to experience the Sahara. Others are employed as drivers for local and international NGOs. At the moment however there are neither tourists nor are any foreign NGOs working outside of the capital Niamey.

If you google image Mali you will no longer see pictures of the beautiful desert.

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Jamaica- another place of extreme beauty, another place I call my home, another place where daily violence is affecting the lives of thousands of people.

I just got back from spending 2 weeks in Kingston, Jamaica. I went to visit my husband and his family and to meet people and network as I hope to be moving there soon, perhaps by the beginning of next year.

I attended the University of the West Indies in Kingston for a semester in 2008 and have gone back fairly regularly since then. Jamaica to most will evoke Bob Marley, reggae music, beach, sun, Rastafari and rum. Do not get me wrong, it is of course all of the above. But it is also so much more.

Jamaica has a population of approximately 2.7 million and one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. it also has one of the world’s highest percentages of extra-judiciary police killings. The number of people killed by police has been going down. In the first 12 days of 2013 however, 18 Jamaicans died at the hands of law enforcement officers. The overall murder rate is also said to be decreasing. Last year (2012) 1,087 people were killed.

Ironically, although Jamaica has such a big problem of violent crime and so much work needs to be done, it is not important enough geo-politically for donor countries. Being a “middle income country” (which of course says nothing about income DISTRIBUTION) it is not prioritised and local as well as international NGOs working in the field of violence prevention find it difficult to get any funding for their projects.

Even the Quakers (There are 14 Quaker meetings in Jamaica) have no violence prevention program running in any Jamaican community at large. They only recently started a peace education programme in one Quaker school in the parish of Portland. the programme is being funded and run by Canadian Friends.

I met with some Friends of the Worthington Meeting House while I was in Kingston and although there is a great need for work to be done they confirmed to me that they do not have the funding to do it.

Both the situation in Mali as well as the reality of what I experience every time I go back to Jamaica saddens me deeply. However, I also feel like I have gained renewed strength. I see the importance of the work QPSW does and the great opportunity I have been offered by being a Peaceworker. I may not know where working at ORG in London is going to lead me to next and what exactly I will be doing in the years to come … I do however feel like I am on the right journey.

Thank you.

In Friendship,

Alissa.

Being the change we want to see happen

12 Feb

 

Dear readers,

For those of you who may not know this, two weeks ago yesterday, on Sunday 27th January, the central market of Bujumbura became no more. As it disintegrated and went up in flames, so did the sanity of many people who worked there. You see, this was no mere place of trading. In addition to being at the very heart of the Burundian economy, as one of the main supplier of goods and produce to the entire country, it was also the place where many salesmen and women, kept a significant amount of cash and personal belongings. For many, putting their earnings in a bank was inconceivable due to the exorbitant levy attached to doing so, and keeping money and other valuable goods at home, was deemed unsafe due to crime.

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The Bujumbura central market burning (picture by Bruce Niyondiko).

Reports on the death toll, have remained largely divided to date. It has been widely speculated though, that four lives have been claimed by the fire. It is generally believed they were lost, as the victims attempted to salvage whatever they could, whilst the blaze was still raging. Hospitals are filled with traders who remain in a state of shock, as they struggle to deal with the fact that their livelihood has been completely wiped out, before their very eyes. With the market now being officially closed, the government is currently in the process of preparing new grounds, which would serve as a temporary place of trading.

Rumours abound that the fire had been premeditated. It was initially suggested though, that an electrical spark was the accidental cause. This however was not a convincing explanation, for the significant section of the population which still remembers, the fires which destroyed other major markets throughout the country. The latest devastation occurred as recently as January 2012 and just like the market of Bujumbura, Kamenge’s market burnt on a Sunday.

Sadly, the notion that such abhorrent act could have been deliberate is not unimaginable, given the current state of affairs of the country. It certainly would not be the first time, that loss to such extent if not greater, would have been caused in pursuit of the most selfish and evil ends. This breaks one’s heart.

We are encouraged to be the change that we want to see happen. But where does one start, when there is so much that is wrong and so much that needs fixing?

On a much brighter note, over the past few months I have been involved in a little politics, through Quakers organisations involvement, in transitional justice. HROC along with THARS, MIPAREC, FWA, UMUGANI GROUP and AFSC (who are all part of the Quaker Peace Network – QPN), has been working on recommendations for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) in the country. The recommendations urged the drafters of the TRC and its mandate, to take into account various factors which are considered most conducive, to sustainable peace and development. Upon being granted audience with the National Assemblee, in January, a delegation was chosen to present our suggestions. I was afforded the privilege of being part of that delegation. To be honest with you, I started feeling honoured from the very first moment I was given the opportunity, to partake in discussions pertaining to the content of the recommendations.  A great sense of duty was what I felt also, as I wished to contribute to the betterment of the hearts and lives, of my people.

Another highlight to the start of the year, has been meeting the Sangabandi group. Composed of students who range in age, from 13 to 23 years, Sangabandi has been meeting regularly within the grounds of the Friends Church in Kamenge, for group activities. For the past couple of years, they have been particularly involved in cultivating a peace garden, which has produced fruitful harvests, at various times. HROC has been covering the group’s school fees, since 2007. The students have generally done well, gone on to graduate and to university, whilst others have followed vocational studies. As we hardly have enough funds to cover their fees for next term, I have been tasked with writing grant proposals for that very purpose. I am most anxious to secure those funds, as the group has so much potential and is made of very smart and wonderful individuals. Unless we are able to help them, they will be forced to drop out which would be most awful.

Last week, I went to Ruyigi with my colleagues, where HROC has a goat project. This wonderful project is really all about, harmonious living and bringing people of different ethnic group and communities, together. Giving them a common purpose (the goat), which will have the result of creating friendships and understanding. This project was conceived, as a means of complementing the impact the trauma healing workshops, have had on participants.

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Me, stroking some adorable goats.

So, individuals are paired up and one is given a goat, whilst the other will receive the offspring of the latter’s goat, at a later stage. The person currently not in possession of the animal will pay regular visits, to the person owning one. These visits will be to ascertain, that the goat is well taken care of and thus able when the time comes, to produce another healthy goat. By virtue of these meetings however, the current and future owners, will gradually find themselves forming a relationship, which goes beyond talks of goats. A sense of trust will be generated and a bond created. On that day in Ruyigi, goats were publicly handed between people. The names of the previous owners and new recipients were read aloud and pictures were taken, of the both of them holding together the goat, which has brought them together. It was truly a sight to see. People would applaud and cheer after each exchange and all the new recipients, would give their goats a new name, which was linked to what this goat swap, meant to them personally.  It was a very joyful environment to be in and it was clear that all present, were happy to see others happy. Truly, a simple and yet very effective way of bring together, people who would not normally meet or have anything in common.

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Women happy to be giving and receiving a goat.

I shall leave it at that for now and hope you are all feeling blessed.

Edith

J

Memories of a Childhood Interrupted in Afghanistan

5 Feb

Dear readers,

I am cross-posting this article from the UN Dispatch blog because it deserves to be read more widely. The author is Noorjahan Akbar, an Afghan women’s rights activist. I post it here with the intention of making clearer the issues, realities and women in Afghanistan face – the very same issues, realities and women that my work is involved with.

By Noorjahan Akbar – Afghan women’s rights activist, co-founder of Young Women for Change author for UN Dispatch and Afghanistan correspondent for A Safe World for Women.

I was born in an apartment building in Kabul, where we had inconsistent power and running water. My mother tells me that I used to love water and would scream, “Water is here. Power is here” every time we would get running water. I would run to the tap and make myself wet. Hours of playing with water had bought me the nickname “MAheecha,” the little fish. My grandmother called me “Maarcha,” the little snake, because I did not crawl like normal babies. I rolled across the floor. I don’t remember any of this and I have built an image of my baby self based on the stories I heard from my mother, grandmother and father, but this was my childhood.

My mother often jokes that I brought war to Afghanistan. Forty days after my birth, the rockets and bombs begin hitting Kabul. Strange men who were not even from Kabul fired at each other from the hills located on two sides of Kabul for four years. They survived. Millions of women, men and children died. The bearded men attacked the city and we suffered. Immediately, women were forced to wear huge scarves and walk with fear. Women were kidnapped from the streets on the way to university. Every few months, a slaughter house where women’s cut-off breasts were stacked on top of each other would be found.

War hit my sisters and me before we could comprehend it. When I was little, I thought war was a big monster with spiky blue skin and a big left nostril that he nourishes with the smell of blood. War hit women, including my mother, the hardest even though they had no part in it. My mother had met War when she was a blooming rose and enjoyed over-the-wall talks with her friends. My entire life, I have watched the colours of this rose fade while struggling and resisting. I have heard about how she had to leave university and the dream of becoming a midwife when War first hit her life. I have seen her leave her home, her books, her friends, her life, her everything-familiar in search of a peaceful house for her children. I have seen her be forced to change from her skirt into a burqa by those who attacked her city and robbed any sense of security. I have seen the grief in my mother’s silence as others would talk politics, gossip about the evils of the war and drink lots of tea to stay warm. I have seen some of the petals of this rose drop on the wood heater and burn as the winter wind blew harshly through the holes of our old wooden door.

The thorny fingers of war touched me in 1991 when I was forty days old. I have lived with war and watched the bricks of our home fall. As the attacks increased we ran out of our apartment, down the stairs and out of the block. We ran far from home as my father’s personal library was burning in fire. We ran far from home as my sister Pari’s new little red shoe fell into a hole and she began crying for it. We ran so far that we become refugees in our own country. We ran far, leaving everything behind as the shoeless tribes of war attacked our houses and took it apart seam by seam, wood by wood, brick by brick.

We moved to Mazar-e-Sharif, located in northern Afghanistan. War had not yet reached that far. My father taught literature and held poetry nights. He also ran a newspaper and taught us to read Gulistan and Maanawani, classic poetry.  My mother worked in the little garden close to our house. We had a kind old neighbour who had two daughters and a garden with walnut and apple trees. The girls, my two older sisters, the neighbour girls, and I would spend most of our days lost under the trees making toys out of the mud. We used pieces of wood and left-over cloth from our mothers’ sewing experiments to make dolls that always looked happy.

But peace always disappears faster than war and it takes with it muddy toys before they are dried up by the sun and the handmade dolls before we held their wedding parties. Peace was interrupted once again and then again and again, several times over the course of my life and we moved from city to city, from country to country searching for peace, though we had forgotten what it felt like.

Even now, rarely does a week go by without news of suicide blasts or airstrikes and now it is even more complicated as I review in my head the few options we seem to have and contemplate how else one is able to be free without a fight against oppression. And I understand that that fight can be non-violent, but I think it is a much tougher choice to make remain peaceful if your family is the one blown-up to pieces by a suicide attacker or a drone, or if your freedoms are being dealt at the High Peace Council’s negotiation table. How do you draw the line between compromising with something evil, negotiating all that you believe to be your rights and remaining peaceful? How do you remain peaceful when others kill, torture, rape, hang, beat, and compromise the rights of your sisters? How do you make peace with a group of thugs who kill a woman and then yell out “Allah o Akbar” in joy? How do you make peace with someone who does not accept you and the other daughters of this country as equal humans with dignity and the right to access to justice? And if you do not want peace with them, what is your other option if the justice system, negotiations and the war all seem non-functional and inefficient.

Peace might sound like a glorious thing if you are not the one with a gun pointing at you, or if you are sitting comfortably in Canada dreaming of tulips and sunflowers, but here in Afghanistan, where peace can be a death sentence to the freedoms of all women, how can you accept a peace deal and if not, how do you live in war? And how do you know that there will be peace if there is no justice? How do you give up on the dream of making the lawless and chaotic world a place where justice is more powerful than guns and women are valued more than a group of ruthless thugs with guns without threatening peace? How do you choose which child to sacrifice, your rights or peace, when the entire world seems to have given up on justice? Things are much more complicated now and I do not have any of the answers, but I often find myself searching for the 40 days of childhood I had before war touched my home.

Source: http://www.undispatch.com/just-40-days-of-childhood-before-war-gripped-my-country

Tackling militarism is quite a big job! How I avoid feeling overwhelmed

3 Feb

Documenting and challenging the militarisation of young people – the process(es) through which the embracing of a military outlook and military approaches is encouraged – is the main focus of my work at my two placement organisations, War Resisters’ International and ForcesWatch.

This is quite a job! Militaries are huge organisations and public support for them and their work is pretty strong, at least in the UK.

However, I’m convinced that what I’m doing at ForcesWatch and WRI, speaking out, will make some positive difference. So I work hard.

Here are some ways I stay motivated:

–  If I feel like a piece of work isn’t progressing much I’ll try to switch to something else, ideally which doesn’t involved reading from a computer screen

–  Getting outdoors: perhaps it’s my turn to make lunch for me and my colleagues, or there might be some food scraps to put in our rooftop wormery (they survived the cold and snow, and seem to be doing pretty well!)

–   As Rhiannon said at a talk she, Alissa, and I gave at Colchester Quaker Meeting last Sunday, we Peaceworkers give each other a lot of support, encouragement, good advice and friendship.

–  My colleagues are also great. And there are many other people I have met or been in contact with in these first five months: academics, campaigners, students etc all doing inspiring work towards peace. I take a lot of encouragement from this.

– Although I’m very committed to my projects, I try not to over-work. Good distractions are the play and the local food project I’m involved with. And I make sure I get some ‘down time’ with my family and friends too.

–  Good old Quaker silence for reflection and introspection

Thanks for reading,

Owen

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