It is often tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair as the United Nations, founded after World War II to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” seems helpless to even slow down the killing in conflicts around the world.
In February, Mennonite Central Committee staff in Beirut invited me to come meet with Syrian partners building peace in the middle of war. With the Security Council deadlocked and the Syrian refugee crisis rapidly overwhelming neighboring accommodations, I was eager to find an alternative story.
One evening we drove to the mountain town of Broumana, not far from the Syrian border. In an ancient hotel was assembled a gathering of Syrian activists and organizers pulled together by two MCC partners, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, and Mobaderoon.
“The Scream of a Human” was the theme of the program, which brought together these young Syrians from Christian, Sunni Muslim and Alawite backgrounds to affirm their common humanity in the search for peace. The room was packed for a program of poetry and music. The music brought the audience together around the pain of war and their common longing for peace. Although the poetry and music communicated clearly across the cultural and linguistic barriers, I was very happy for translation when we got to the “testimony” part of the program.
The feeling in the room was electric as one young man told of his strong support of the government and distrust and hatred of anyone who backed the rebels. Another man recalled his fervent support for the rebels and hate and distrust of anyone on the government side. Both men then told how they went to a Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue retreat, where they had spent several days living together, studying conflict resolution and becoming friends.
The inspiration for this work came from several members of Mobaderoon who, with the support of MCC, had participated in the Eastern Mennonite University Summer Peacebuilding Institute in Harrisonburg, Va., the past two summers. Upon returning to Syria, they tested their peacebuilding theories in the ultimate crucible: their own communities in the middle of a war.
They talked about how most Syrians on all sides are sick of the war and only want to live in peace with their neighbors. Several people spoke excitedly about communities in which the citizens were able to establish local cease-fires. They explained that in areas where combatants on both sides were local Syrians, people were able to agree to a cease-fire.
When I asked what people outside Syria could do to support their local peace efforts, they pleaded for me to pressure all outside countries to stop sending arms or soldiers. If the flow of weapons and fighters from outside were to cease, they assured me, the Syrian people would be able to make peace among themselves. If the U.N. could propose a cease-fire and total arms embargo for both the government and all rebel groups, the people of Syria would be able to find peace.
In perhaps the most startling revelation, the young activists explained that Mobaderoon has more requests from communities all over Syria to do peacebuilding workshops than they can fill. I promised my prayers and support as they bring the hope of peace in the midst of the darkness and devastation of war.
Doug Hostetter directs the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office.