We all have a key role to play in promoting peace

Rome hosts an International Conference on peace, forgiveness and reconciliation

All of us should work hard to build and sustain peace. This is the common message recently emphasised at a Conference in Rome by some of the most famous people in the world who have suffered immense injustice, pain, lost their loved ones but managed to forgive.

The International Conference on peace, forgiveness and reconciliation which took place on 2nd December 2009 at the Ara Pacis Museum, coincided with the official launch of “Ara Pacis Initiative: Rome, the capital of Dialogue”.

“Relationships and communities can only be created when individuals choose the path of peace and positive engagement,” said Ms. Leymah Roberta Gbowee, the Executive Director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, Ghana. Ms. Gbowee is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP).

She led Liberian women in forcing the then government of President Charles Taylor and rebels to the negotiation table, a move that officially brought to an end the bloody 14 year civil war in the country.

During the civil war in Liberia, 250,000 people died, one million became internally displaced, 500,000 became refugees. “Rape and other forms of violence were prominent features during this war,” Ms. Gbowee said.

Recalling the atrocity of the war, Ms. Gbowee who was only 17 when the war broke out said: “I moved from a normal 17 year old in a few hours to a caretaker of an entire family. I also moved from a normal 17 year old with all the teenage challenges to a very angry young woman, into an even angrier woman as I grew up. My anger brought me to a place in which I had to critically decide on which side of the war and conflict spectrum I would be.”

She, however, realised that her anger was not taking her anywhere. The question she had to ask herself was: “Do you want to be on the far left as a perpetrator, or do you want to be constantly in the middle as a victim, or do you want to be on the right as a victor?”

“I chose to be a victor,” she said.

The roles we play in a conflict or war depend on our decision on which side we want to be, Ms. Gbowee said.  

Tribeca Film Festival 2008’s Best Documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” was screened during the Conference. Ms. Gbowee is a protagonist in this extraordinary story of a small band of Liberian women who – armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions – came together in the midst of a bloody civil war, took on the warlords, and brought peace to their shattered country. “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” reconstructs the moment through interviews, archival footage and striking images of contemporary Liberia. It is a compelling testimony to the potential of women worldwide to alter the history of nations. Ms. Gbowee appealed to all to be courageous and to “take the path of a true victor, the path of positive engagement.”

Let’s build bridges of understanding, love, respect

“There is no excuse for killing each other,” Mr. Ali Abu Awwad from Al-Tariq – The Palestinian Institution for Development and Democracy told the Conference. He said security can never be achieved by dehumanising people. Whenever there is a conflict, he said, “If you are not part of the problem, we need you to be part of the solution.”

The Conference was also addressed by Ms. Hatidza Mehmedovic, a woman whose life symbolizes the bloody turmoil of Bosnia. The wave of genocide that swept the nation in 1995 claimed the lives of her father, siblings, husband and children.

“Even though I lost all my family members, I desire peace,” she said, adding that “It is only through dialogue that we can forgive.” Observing that there are many who still hold that genocide never took place in Bosnia, she appealed to all to never let genocide happen again in any part of the world.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian obstetrician and gynaecologist whose three daughters and niece were killed by Israeli fire, said: “It’s not good to live with hatred, hatred leads to depression, hypertension.”

Even before the killing of his daughters and niece, Dr. Abuelaish dedicated his life to providing medical care to Israeli and Palestinian patients, and using his contacts to arrange for Gazans to be treated in Israel. He has devoted his life to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. He stressed the importance of forgiveness saying that it is a way to move forward. “Forgiveness opens the door to the future,” he said.

Dr. Abuelaish has now founded the Daughters for Life Foundation in memory of his daughters, said the secure future of Palestine is linked to the secure future of Israel. “The world needs justice, truth and peace,” he said adding that “Instead of building walls, let’s build bridges of understanding, love, respect.”

He observed that conflicts are at times fuelled by the fact that the parties to it don’t really know each other. “The enemy we must fight is the ignorance of each other,” he said.  

Ms. Maria Nicoletta Gaida, President of Glocal Forum Italy/Ara Pacis Initiative, the organiser of the Conference, called on the participants to do everything possible to build a peaceful present and future society. She said young people have a key role to play in building a peaceful society.

By Stephen Ogongo Ongong’a