Photo Credit: Jakob Rubner
Michèle Ndedi Batchandji is a 2019 graduate from IHEID in Geneva with a Master in Development Studies; her thesis was on ‘Access to Education for orphans in Yemen’. Michèle has worked at NORRAG in the SDC backstopping Team and is now a consultant in project implementation in the Office for Africa at the International Trade Center (ITC). You can continue the converSation with Michèle via firstname.lastname@example.org and via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelendedi/
Today, in all the major armed conflicts, civilians represent the highest number of casualties. According to Action on Armed Violence, the countries with the highest death toll of civilians are Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. These wars have all intermittently received high media coverage in the United States and in Europe, with the exception of Yemen. The Yemeni conflict only had its moment in the spotlight for a couple of months when images of starving children were widely circulated. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic—and despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2532 calling for cessation of hostilities in all conflict zones—even less attention is being paid to the situation of Yemen, while attacks and retaliations continue and the story goes on…
OK, but what is actually going on in that country? The war in Yemen is considered one of the deadliest wars of the past year, so let’s just look at some facts quickly: In Yemen, out of 30.5 million inhabitants, 24.1 million (80%) are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 12 million are children. Nearly every child in Yemen needs assistance. Schools and hospitals are often under attack. In 2018, some international organizations were calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; now, with the compound effects of Covid-19, the situation can only deteriorate
So it seems tragic but what can we do, right? I cannot pretend to have an answer, but I think we can start by caring. OK, and how? The first step might be to start by being aware of what is happening there. At the basis, Yemen is a country like any other, whose citizens have rights to food, water, shelter, sleep as well as to health, employment and social stability. Thus, our immediate role can be to research, read, write, and to not remain indifferent.
One thing is certain though, that it will remain difficult to talk about actions with long-term impacts until a ceasefire is reached between the parties. Democratic institutions across the world have tried to end military support to belligerents with no real success for now. That means that citizens have to redouble its efforts and pressure on their governments. WE can help. We can all contribute by signing petitions, which will help in keeping the plight of Yemini people on government priority lists. Multilateral organizations have a major role to play by upholding the pressure on both parties to stop the fighting, and to establish more inclusive peace processes with advisory groups which will include more youth and women, who do not only represent the vast majority of the population but also are the first victims of this conflict.
So, let’s try to act, each at our level. The only fact that almost all children in Yemen need assistance can be a good motivation, don’t you think?
Sonali Wanigabaduge is a lawyer and media professional from Sri Lanka. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law, at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and writes in her spare time. She can be reached at email@example.com
Back when I was 10 years old, vegetarianism wasn’t a widely practised concept in Sri Lanka, at least not to the knowledge of my 10 year old self. Lavanya, my intelligent friend from school had never eaten meat in her life! She said she wasn’t supposed to, because she was born a Tamil Hindu Brahmin.
It puzzled me constantly, how she’d steadfastly refuse a piece of chocolate cake because it was ‘contaminated’ with egg, and so mechanically look away while all of us lesser mortals would fight for a second and third piece whenever it was someone’s birthday at school.
I used to love my tuck-shop lunches. The hot dogs, the mini chicken rolls, and the cakes, everything was heavenly. But Lavanya would obediently sit by her desk during the interval and eat her home-made idly – tender rice cakes, with a spicy green sambol made of ground coriander leaves and spices. I would be mind-boggled, and I’d constantly tell my mother about Lavanya’s food.
But Ammi, even Lavanya’s dog is vegetarian!
I’d exclaim in disbelief, whilst munching loudly on spicy mutton curry, fried fish, dhal and fried rice made with a lavish mix of diced sausages and egg.
Ammi was born to a Sinhalese Buddhist family in the deep South of Sri Lanka, and had come to Colombo only after she turned 18. Hers had been a traditional education – simple, linear, and oblivious to the ethnically diverse tapestry of the country, its nuances and its socio-political ebb and flow.
As I was getting ready for my class party that day, Ammi stood by the kitchen, preparing fish cutlets for 25 people – a mix of flavoured, cooked fish, mixed with potato, onions and carrot, battered and deep fried into little balls. I noticed she had set aside some potato dough which she started frying first.
I made some vegetarian cutlets for Lavanya. I fried them first so there’s no contact with the fish paste.
Those five cutlets were the only thing that Lavanya had to eat that day.
I was 26 years old. Life was a blur. We hadn’t breathed easy in eight months. That’s how long it had been since the cancer diagnosis. Logic defied us, yet we traversed on, fumbling to find the best doctors, the best ayurvedic practitioners, and the best priests.
That night, we had driven back home to frantically pack some of Ammi’s medical records and clothes for us to live in for the next few days. The only Intensive Care Unit we had managed to find at such short notice, was a four-hour drive from home. This was where Ammi was being monitored, with the beeping machines, and the haunting silence.
As we started the car to drive back to the hospital, the doctor called, saying Ammi had opened her eyes.
Don’t worry, we gave your mother liquids, he said.
Dr. Lavanya just visited with some Sustagen* milk.
*Sustagen – a brand of nutritional milk often given as an energy booster.
Photo credit: @mana5280
Anna Blanck is a young professional with an MSc in Development from SOAS, and a BFA in Painting from KCAI. She is interested in exploring the relationship of art and development.
Throughout human history, and even before we began to record our endeavors through writing, art has been an expression of the collective condition. The magnitude of power embodied in the artistic voice has given rise to many attempts to wrest control of creative endeavors away from the people. This takes two notorious forms: censorship and propaganda.
We no longer hear very much about these two phenomena, as both have taken a more a subtle shape. Yet the dominant narrative is still embodied through mainstream forms of art, while institutions oppress alternative voices. Hollywood reinforces ideology through plots, protagonists, and antagonists; it also presents an unquestioned dichotomy between the elite participants who may shape the conversation, and the rest who simply receive it. This binary is also present in the world of canonized painters, sculptors, authors, and performers; a monopoly on the legitimate use of creativity.
There is a reason that these suppressive tactics ultimately fail. Artistic expression has the means to immediately re-frame the conversation, and it arises as a natural response to human dilemmas. Time and again, creative people surface to express the turmoil and conflict within society even (or perhaps even more) in the most difficult of situations.
In recent weeks, the world has been crying out that it is finally time to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter. Artists have played an essential role in shaping this demand. Beautiful graphics circulating on Instagram have been raising awareness, spreading information, and maintaining the momentum of the movement. Photographers have been documenting haunting, heartbreaking, important moments at the protests.
Still more important work is being done by the protesters themselves, who have been challenging the dominant imagery, and creating their own. The protesters signs are not only fighting systemic racism but also upending existing limits on the legitimate use of creative expression.
#BlackLivesMatter is only the most recent in a wave of protests that have been steadily increasing in frequency and intensity. With each of these comes a democratization of artistic media as protesters find creative means to communicate their aims and challenge the dominant narrative. Slowly, we are learning en masse that anyone can use art, not just those who are “good” at it. As we learn to reclaim our individual voices, we will become a more powerful force for lasting social change.
Illustration credit: Kathryn Gichini
Being changed forever can happen unexpectedly.
Rwanda, 27 June 2009: My task at the Mutobo demobilization centre that day was complex, but (I had expected) achievable. I was to interview former members of a rebel force that had recently committed a series of horrific atrocities in eastern Congo, part of a United Nations investigation that would contribute to determining the chain of command, and thus responsibility, for war crimes. I had been doing this work for years and felt confident with the backing of an arsenal of international human rights treaties and the bastion of Security Council resolutions that mandated my investigations. I was convinced that within a few weeks—months at most—we would have forensically mapped out who had ordered what, when, and where, and thus be on the way towards something like justice.
Probably: I had already been at this kind of work for too long. Likely: I was exhausted. Yet from that collapsing space of conviction emerged a different kind of possibility: on that day, my refined capacities to judge and my honed skills to ascribe blame instead gave way to seeing more deeply and to listening more completely. Consequently, what I saw and what I heard brought me closer to humanity than I had ever been before.
Captain X was escorted to the table where I was conducting interviews: I first saw his face, without a jaw, that I would learn had been blown out years before by a grenade. Then I heard his voice, which carried a trembling story of devastation, loss and fear. His testimony embodied Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘law of conservation of violence’, which explains how violence—like electricity—will continue to travel the path of least resistance. Captain X and all the countless others were entrenched in systems of structural and global violence from which they had no means of emerging.
The systemic violence that Bourdieu describes lays at the foundations of the social, economic and political structures that organize the societies in which we live. It is transmitted between individuals and across generations—and, crucially, through institutions, laws, policies and practices—and is thus conserved. Such conservation can feel inevitable. Yet we are—right now—living in a moment that calls into question such inevitability. A pandemic has shown us that we can stop. One more killing has shown us that it is enough.
The work of transforming systemic violence can feel grueling. It can be exhausting. Yet it must be done. It is actually easier than we think: it simply starts with that next right action.
Photo credit : Adam Wilson
Before reading any further, please watch this 9 minute video documenting the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.
George Floyd’s supplication is simple and soul-ravaging in its clarity: “I can’t breathe… please.” His life is taken before our eyes, and, as his last breath leaves him, bystanders plead, futilely appealing to a sense of brotherhood in officers who have, for generations, policed the violent and entrenched structures of inequality and injustice.
Barely emerging from the confines of a respiratory viral pandemic, we are confronted with the dystopia of a nation facing centuries-old rage that has been too-long stifled. Protesters are–in this very moment—reckoning with the myths of equality and justice that have only ever been partial. They are also revealing the power of individuals, coming together, willing a bottom up change that is the start of an awakening—the crude and compelling collective consciousness once willed by Franz Fanon—that lies at the foundation of truly transformative social change.
Tonight, protests across the United States continue. There is rage that must come out, that must burn through so many generations of fear and hardship and hate and denial. The time has come for a collective reckoning of no-longer-sustainable injustices.
Beware: this is not only an American story.
We are living in a global moment that has never been experienced before. This rare and fleeting gift of consciousness is at once terrifying but also full of possibility. So what will we do with this possibility?
This global moment is raw and visceral, pulsing with fear, discontent and uncertainty. It is a moment also beseeching us to love—love of the big and universal kind that transforms embers of darkness into light. In a “night already devoid of stars”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once offered us his guidance: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
We are on the precipice of a different kind of world. We are so close to something better… but everyday individual actions will be required to realize meaningful positive social transformation, which will require collectively-sustained courage, imagination, audacity, and grace. This is what we can each practice with our next breath.
Photo credit: Nina Strehl
Annika Erickson-Pearson is the Community and Communications Coordinator at the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform. She is finishing her Master’s in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and focuses her work on urban conflict and gang recovery.
I’ve spent most of the quarantine living in a small house in a small town outside of a small city in a small country. I share this small house with people to varying degrees of immuno-vulnerability. I feel anxiety being around people, even my friends and people I know and trust.
As the world around me reopens, I notice my own feelings change. My first reaction upon hearing that controls would loosen was disappointment. I understand the necessities of creating opportunities for the (small) businesses that make this a thriving community, but I’m terrified of the health implications it has… for this same community.
Covid19 is a peculiar virus, wrapping our destinies all up together into one. The degree to which I take precaution directly impacts the health of the people with whom I live.
Recently, I’ve turned to peacebuilding to help me think through things.
A friend whom I respect recently told me about an agreement she had with four friends during the quarantine. Acknowledging that they were in pursuit of a common good (time together, in person), they each undertook additional precautions to ensure they could be safely together. They were willing to adhere to a set of stricter standards (a cost, to exercise greater caution than usual in day-to-day life) in order to receive a benefit. They built an explicit agreement, committed to it, each giving a little and receiving quite a lot.
Another friend told me a less-successful version of this story. He attempted to pursue a similar plan of action with his friends, but realized one week in that his friends were not understanding “precaution in the same way he did.” What was the difference?
I decided to give this a whirl in my own house and asked that my cohabitators come together for a joint expectation-setting conversation. I had no idea how to structure the conversion, so we fumbled our way through a discussion on the current situation, our fears and hesitations, and aspects we felt confident about. Over the course of the 30 minutes, one person emerged as the more “conservative” in the bunch, advocating for showers upon reentry from being in public, while another the more “liberal,” noting comfort with taking public transportation.
It’s fair to say that different people look at the world, the threat of this virus, and our pathways towards global restoration very differently.
It’s also apparent that in many places, these differences are causing actual conflict. People are protesting in the streets, boycotting businesses for their policies (either too conservative or too liberal), and there even seems to be a growing partisan divide between “mask-wearers” and “mask-abstainers.”
While it might be tempting to think of peacebuilding as a tool that can “only” help us in “places” where there is “actual” “conflict,” we need to reject that framework. (Side note: I’m an American, who moved all the way to international Geneva (Switzerland) to pursue a master’s degree in “development,” whatever that is. I focus on the United States, which, for the record, is in desperate need of peacebuilding and development work.)
Let’s talk about dialogue.
If we go back to the more successful example of my friend and her small group of peers, we see a couple of factors. First, they came together for an actual discussion, face-to-face, on screen or person. Discussants were given the opportunity to contribute, but also were expected to listen to one another. Second, this discussion resulted in the explicit definition of variables. What does “extra precaution” mean? What does “safely together” mean? What is off limits? And third, perhaps unknowingly, these friends created a container for future dialogue. That is, if an agreement was breached, there had already been a precedent set for review and discussion around the breach as opposed to gossip or (passive) aggression. The other example likely failed in part because these steps were not followed.
If our destinies are bound up in one another, we must establish regular and open dialogue, which fosters trust and creates healthy mechanisms for feedback.
We can develop these containers with our roommates, with our partners, with our friends, with our coworkers, with the people we share apartment buildings with, with our neighborhoods, or with our communities. We can go to the people we are suspicious of and ask, “What makes you comfortable? What makes you uncomfortable?”
In our house, we struck a balance between the needs. We decided that for the next two weeks we will enjoy seeing our friends, but see them outside and agree not to go into the homes or apartments of others. We decided to avoid public transportation but be more active about asking for access to the car of one of the house members if we need to get around. We decided that we’ll avoid restaurants for the time being, but reevaluate in two weeks as we see the national statistics. We set up a parameter for a future conversation to review our agreements and adjust given any updates. I can only speak for myself, but I feel safer, less anxious, and more confident, knowing that I am doing my best to look out for those around me and that they are doing the same for me. I trust them.
But can this approach be applied outside of homes or buildings? Can this transcend roommates and coworkers? Of course, I don’t know for sure. But I have an idea.
A friend of mine recently described the situation in his town in the United States. He says it’s come down to a divide between mask-wearers and mask-abstainers, which is creating high tension in the community and even determining which grocery stores are “safe zones” for either side. Of course, as someone who studies conflict, the spatialization of conflict concerns me sincerely. When people start to get protective over their “turf,” our reptilian brain can take over and reduce the likelihood of seeing the “other side” as humans deserving of our attempts to understand.
I wonder if a “grocery store dialogue” could be possible. By this I mean, host a zoom call. Invite grocery store owners from “both sides,” as well as grocery store patrons from “both sides.” Accept those who are willing to commit to civil and thoughtful discourse. Engage a neutral facilitator who is willing to hold all parties accountable to civil discourse. Frame the conversation as both parties sitting on the same side of the table, looking at a common challenge: how can we build a stronger community during the covid19 crisis? Set conversational parameters: if someone starts to yell, they receive an immediate warning that they will be muted if they repeat their yelling, and if they continue to violate the rules of conversation, they are removed. Pose questions to both sides, giving equal time to explain their concerns about the covid19 crisis. Develop a common set of definitions, and eventually, perhaps in future meetings, outline a plan of shared action.
Maybe the concern from some grocers is that 10% of their business comes from patrons who staunchly oppose mask-wearing. Maybe people in the community agree to crowd-fund that 5% of revenue so that the store can become a “masks-only” business, which would bring an additional 5% of business. You won’t know until you ask. And you can’t ask unless there’s a firm but peaceful container for the conversation.
A strong community is just that: a community. A place where people go out of their way to help one another, both in terms of health and economics. Until we begin to better understand the needs of others, we can’t know what “helping them” truly looks like. Peacebuilding can often involve uncomfortable conversations with the “other side”. It helps to remember the alternative, that tensions deepen, the economy suffers, health suffers, and people live in fear and anxiety.
So maybe there’s a “turf” conflict happening where you live. Is there a possibility for dialogue?
Anyone can be a peacebuilder. You just need to start where you are.
Continue the conversation with Annika: