On the train to Edinburgh one Sunday morning last October I was reminded of the scene in ‘Miss Congeniality’ when in response to the question: ‘What is the one most important thing our society needs?’ girls, playing ‘Miss America’ contestants, all answer ‘world peace’.
Yet there I was going to a UN conference on peace; a concept that even a chick-flick had satirised as too farfetched. Men, women, intellectuals, students, charity workers and members of the media were coming together to discuss peace and there was no gold embossed sash in sight. Instead, there was a genuine feeling that peace may actually be possible. The tone of the event did not suggest the pursuit of some farfetched utopia, but a realism that recognised the enormity of the task ahead. As Rukiyah Khatun from the Tutu Foundation said, ‘you need a sense of humour and patience, because without that you’re not going to get anywhere’.
Telling someone you’re talking about peace is a bit like saying you’ve been contemplating the meaning of life. The reaction will usually be similar – a look of confusion followed by a statement along the lines of ‘well, everyone knows world peace is impossible.’ However individuals such as Rukiyah Khatun, Michael Doherty (Director of Peace and Reconciliation Group of Northern Ireland) and Richard Barnes (from the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition) together put forward a powerful case for why it is a crucial conversation for us to have.
Khatun reminded us, ‘we tend to think that peace is the normal situation, but as we look around; fighting is the norm.’ In looking at conflict in places such as Palestine, South Africa and Northern Ireland, a conference like this makes you realise that unrest is not always in distant lands. Michael Doherty’s comments about finding an undetonated bomb a week ago in his hometown of Derry brought this home to us. On sectarian unrest in Northern Ireland, he said, ‘It’s not over, it’s far from over.’ Doherty began to fight for peace after his car was blown up by the IRA: a powerful example of how personal experience can motivate action. In response to a question on how someone can get involved in peace-making, Khatun said, ‘find the thing you’re angry about and just stick with it… if you are that angry you will find a way.’
Listening to Rukiyah, Michael and Richard Barnes speaking about South Africa, Northern Ireland and Palestine, they made it very clear that being passionate is essential. As Khatun said, ‘we are the soldiers for peace here… it is a thankless task’ and in order to do it you have to find your passion.
Peace-keepers seem to be the elusive optimists in a conflict who, in the case of Richard Barnes, tirelessly continue to rebuild houses the fifth time, and then will return, without hesitation, to build them for the sixth after the bulldozers return. Barnes, when speaking about the Palestine-Israel issue mentioned a phrase used widely in Israel: ‘mowing the lawn’. It refers to a tactic used by the Israeli military to control Palestinian confidence when they seem to get a bit too big for their boots. As Barnes attempted to explain, having your house repeatedly bulldozed is a situation almost impossible to comprehend.
Yet, there we were, peacefully in Edinburgh, attempting to understand what a ‘peace-maker’ does, and coming to terms with the complex and sometimes tragic state of the world without being depressed. Sometimes it is a case of admitting defeat, but most of the time it seems to be to smile, pick up another a brick and start building again.