Press Clip Source: Twincities.com Pioneer Press
Date: February 17, 2016
Written by:Rubén Rosario
Read original article: Here
Mel Duncan was always a peace-loving man, but the light bulb really turned on and stayed on in 1999 during a visit to Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France.
“He told me that my job was to enter the heart of my enemy,” Duncan said of the exiled monk, the only man the late Martin Luther King Jr. ever nominated for a Nobel Peace prize.
“We are beyond the place and time where we can pick sides,” Hanh said that day. “The stakes are much too high. We have to proceed from an understanding of oneness.”
The words stuck with Duncan, a former campaign organizer for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“What he said sent me on a journey to challenge the dualistic way of seeing the world — us versus them, right versus wrong, good versus evil,” he said. That year, from the spare bedroom of his Como Park home, Duncan hatched a plan to create a “nonviolent peace force” with the help of friends and associates from Minnesota, across the country and overseas.
‘A BETTER WAY’
Seventeen years later, the group he helped found is itself being nominated for the coveted peace prize for its mostly unheralded work in global hot spots.
In its nomination letter, the American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker group, cited Nonviolent Peaceforce’s “courageous, innovative and effective work” in protecting vulnerable civilians caught in the crossfire of armed conflicts.
“Conflict is endemic to human communities,” the letter, to be publicly released Monday, continues. “The question for us is how best to engage in the conflict. Nonviolent Peaceforce is demonstrating a better way...”
That way provides unarmed civilian protection and teaches its techniques by reaching out to combatants on both sides of a conflict as well as local leaders and others in the affected regions. The only side they take is that of the civilians.
“We are not human shields. That is not a sustainable way of protecting anybody,” explained Tiffany Easthom, a Canadian national who has been with the group for seven years and who now heads an effort to reach out to civilian grass-roots peace groups in the Middle East, including Syria. “What we do is work to build relationships with a whole range of stakeholders in an environment.”
The group boasts a paid staff of 215, mostly field workers in refugee and displaced-persons camps in South Sudan, Myanmar, the Philippines and Ukraine.
It set up protective teams following a spate of sexual violence against women and young girls in a camp in the Bentiu area of South Sudan. Because of strained resources at the camp, women ventured out to gather firewood and food in areas where military and opposition forces engage in frequent skirmishes. Many were abducted; some were gang-raped.
A risk assessment plan was devised. Commanders on both sides and other non-state “actors” in the region were contacted.
“They don’t want to have (people) witnessing what they are doing,” explained Easthom, who holds a master’s degree in human security and peace-building from Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. “We are not saying that the government should win or the opposition should win, but we let them know that we are worried about the safety and the security of these women.”
The plea was heard. In the past six months, the teams have escorted roughly 6,000 women out of the area. Not one sexual assault or abduction has been reported.
RESCUING CHILD SOLDIERS
Aseervatham Florington, 38, who preceded Easthom last fall as the group’s country director in South Sudan, knows the power unarmed civilian peace negotiators can wield in subtle ways during chaos. He first served as a noncombatant media specialist for one of several paramilitary groups embroiled in civil unrest in his native Sri Lanka during the mid-2000s. He left the country following threats to his life but returned a year later and devoted his life to child protection. That work increasingly involved rescuing children who had been recruited as soldiers by several groups, including his former unit. That work continues in South Sudan, which has a perennial child soldier and exploitation problem.
“The motivation for me to keep going comes from civilians and our clients,” said Florington, who, with Easthom, attended the group’s annual training and brainstorming conference this week in Chaska. “They say, ‘Thank you for saving my life; if you were not there we would have died. You have saved our lives just by being there.’ ”
Duncan describes the dominating foreign policy rhetoric during the presidential campaign as “bipartisan support for violent interventions.”
“When people hear about armed conflict and brutal, horrifying stories, they are taught to either stand back and do nothing, or (to) send in drones, the bombs, the boots on the ground,” he said. “But there are a variety of options, with unarmed civilian protection being one of them. These are often as effective or more effective in situations of violent conflict and often less costly.”
He is emboldened by his group’s efforts from Beirut in making contact with “extraordinary” grass-roots initiatives taking place inside Syria. One group of civilians, the “White Helmets,” have trained themselves to become first responders — pulling out the dead as well as the injured — and repairing mechanical equipment such as small generators at the scene.
“There are right now 4,000 women peace builders throughout the country of Syria and others working across political, geographic and religious divides,” Duncan said. “We don’t hear about them but they are there. Those are the people who deserve our support and need to be at the tables in Geneva.”