The bench I was perched on for three hours was pressing painfully into my backside. Sweat was beading on my face despite the shade of the tamarind tree. I was starting to feel dehydrated and lethargic. When will this meeting end? I thought to myself, trying to hide my impatience and frustration while I took notes. This is the routine I go through every Saturday at our community security meetings.
Being an Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeper with Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan can be dramatic – flying in helicopters, taking cover during outbreaks of fighting in the area, coming face to face with a crocodile. Those are the stories I like to share with the folks back home. Daily life here though can also be a tedious grind. The reality of pumping water by hand, living in a tent and using pit latrines everyday can wear down one’s sense of adventure. And don’t evenget me started on the mud during rainy season. Under these conditions patience for uncomfortable hours-long meetings is hard to come by.
NP has been convening these meetings regularly in Pibor County for the past six months, bringing together community members and traditional leaders, local government agents, the police, the military and various representatives of the UN. During the meetings civilians share their security concerns and discuss how to address them with the various security actors. Often it seems that the meetings repeat themselves, and that for each minute of constructive contribution we sit through there is twenty minutes of unproductive speeches.
Yet in spite of their challenges I know that these meetings are a critical part of NP’s work in this community. Before our first meeting the civilians and the police had never met and the community was grateful for the chance to speak to them and other authorities directly regarding the insecurities they were experiencing. For their part, the police appreciated having more information to better do their work. All participants asked NP to make the meeting a regular occurrence. Since then the number of participants, including surrounding village representatives, and issues covered has grown, as has trust.
At these meetings valuable relationships are forged between disparate actors. People who did not have a voice before are now heard. Every meeting NP arranges and attends says, “We’re still here. We still believe in your ability to bring peace to your community.” Peace is not an overnight occurrence. John F. Kennedy said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” I cannot think of a better example of the truth of this statement than our weekly community security meetings.
At last the meeting drew to a close. No major conclusions were reached or break-through solutions arrived at. Rather a few tentative suggestions were made and NP was tasked with raising a couple of issues with Government representatives and the UN and bringing their responses back to the next meeting. Still, as everyone milled around shaking hands the smiles were big and the grips firm. Because they knew there will be another meeting and another, and another.
By Calista Pearce