Just Because We Do Not Know.

People Power (Philippines, 1986)

People Power (Philippines, 1986)

I used to wonder what an individual could do in the face of war and conflict. Decisions on international politics and foreign policy are made at such a high level that I felt there was nothing I could do about it.

But in reality, there are many ways to affect change, and some are very practical – and creative.

Have you heard of “third-party intervention” and “unarmed civilian peacekeeping” (UCP) in conflicts? I was first introduced to the concepts last year while studying for the Certificate in Nonviolence Studies at the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Through the work of organizations such as Peace Brigates International and Nonviolent Peaceforce, hundreds of volunteers have traveled to conflict zones to defuse violence and protect human rights workers. Interesting, right?

Here I want to share a story of Karen Ridd from the book, Search For A Nonviolent Future, written by the founder of Metta Center, Michael Negler.  It is a little long, but I think you will enjoy it. (You can also download the book in PDF.)

In 1989 Karen and four other international volunteers were working with a group called Peace Brigades International (PBI) when they were suddenly arrested by the Salvadoran National Guard. Three of the five were Spanish nationals, and they were promptly deported, leaving Karen, who was Canadian, and her friend Marcela Rodriguez, who was from Colombia, to face whatever was coming. Fortunately, Karen had had time to call the Canadian consul and alert another PBI volunteer who happened to call in at the right moment.This was some comfort, as was the civility—at first—of the soldiers, but no one from the team had had to face arrest before (to date, no international volunteer has been killed in Central America despite the enormous violence all around them) and from another room Marcela heard the soldiers describing them as “terrorists from the Episcopal church.” Their spirits did not improve when the two women, along with other detainees, were loaded onto a truck, taken to an army barracks, blindfolded, and subjected to five hours’ interrogation about their alleged connection with the guerilla FMLN, while sounds of torture and the sobbing of victims came from nearby rooms. Karen knew that PBI would quickly alert their worldwide network about the arrests, but she also knew that time was short—there was no telling what would happen in that barracks if someone didn’t get them out before nightfall.

PBI had in fact activated its worldwide network, and before long hundreds of people were sending faxes to the Canadian and Colombian embassies, calling and sending e-mail messages to their representatives  to urge Karen and Marcela’s immediate release. All this got no response at all from the Colombian embassy, but Canada brought official pressure on the Salvadoran government, no doubt hinting that its extensive trade relations with El Salvador could be compromised if Karen were not released immediately. Whatever it was that got through to whoever was in charge, Karen found herself walking across the barrack grounds toward a waiting embassy official a few hours later, a free woman. But when the soldiers had removed her blindfold inside the barracks she had caught a glimpse of Marcela, face to the wall, a “perfect image of dehumanization.” Glad as Karen was to be alive, something tugged at her. Feeling terrible, she made some excuses to the exasperated Canadian official who had come all the way from San Salvador to get her, turned, and walked back into the barracks, not knowing what would happen to her in there, but knowing it could not be worse than walking out on a friend.

The soldiers were startled, and almost as exasperated. They handcuffed her again. In the next room, a soldier banged Marcela’s head into the wall and said that some “white bitch” was stupid enough to walk back in there, and “Now you’re going to see the treatment a terrorist deserves!” No more mister nice guy. But Karen’s gesture was having a strange effect on the men. They talked to Karen, despite themselves, and she tried to explain why she had returned: “You know what it’s like to be separated from a compañero.” That got to them. Shortly after, they released Karen and Marcela. The two women walked out together under the stars, hand in hand.

It is amazing we do not see stories like this one in our media. I can only speculate why that is the case, but one thing is certain: we do not know how and why the power of nonviolence works.

Violence is easy. You hit someone, or shoot a gun at the target, and the damage is visible. It is countable, tangible, and reportable.  But when it comes to stories like that of Karen’s, and how her presence affected the soldiers, we are clueless.  Because we do not know enough about it, these stories are dismissed as anecdotal, or that she was just lucky.  It is the amazing power of human spirit and psychology we are yet to explore deep enough.

Imagine if we see stories like this one in our news every day.  Maybe more people will have faith in the humanity.

On a practical end, if you are like me and inspired to perhaps volunteer for groups like PBI, there are many resources.  Another group is called Meta Peace Team, and they provide training sessions throughout the U.S. I am hoping to organize one in NYC in the near future, so if you are interested, please contact me!

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