Learning Peace

In this country of ethical and religious conflicts, rival parties have come together for the first time to learn peaceful conflict resolution at a workshop organized by a Beirut NGO. Christina Förch reports

Beirut witnessed civil war-like scenes on January 25, 2007, when students at the Beirut Arab University began street fighting. Many were wounded and one person died.

The conflict ended only with the intervention of the Lebanese army. Political leaders, professors, and the parents of students were shocked. The internal political battles in Lebanon – the Hisbollah and its allies have been demanding the resignation of the pro-Western government – had once again gotten out of control.

Learning from the long civil war

What unites leaders, professors and the parents of students is having lived through the sixteen-year-long civil war in Lebanon. It is a wound that the students have not directly experienced – they were just children when the civil war ended. And that's apparently why they are more willing to resort to violence.

The professors drew their own conclusions: They forbid all political discussions and events on campus. It was a terrible strategy, says Fadi Abi Allam, director of the non-governmental organization "Permanent Peace Movement." Politics is part of student life, he maintains. Students must learn instead to manage conflict peacefully.

And this is what Abi Allam is trying to teach them. Just two months after the violent clashes he has begun a workshop that brings together student representatives of all political factions for a roundtable. The event is titled "The Practice of Peaceful Conflict Resolution."

It took a lot of time and energy for Abi Allam to convince the leaders of the feuding parties to send students to his workshop. And he had to promise them one thing in particular: there would be no talk about politics. "The students would have been attacking one another again," says Abi Allam.

The students must realize that conflicts are part of human life—and they must learn to deal peacefully with them.

"Violence is normal to us"

But peace is not a given in Lebanon. Wars and conflicts are a part of the history of the Orient and shape everyday life in many places.

Ahmad Hassan, a 22-year-old law student and member of Kamal Nassar's party, was there when students began clashing at Beirut's Arab University. "Violence is normal to us," he says. But this is not something that he is willing to simply accept. That’s why he joined the workshop.

In three days 30 students will learn how to define and recognize conflict, how to negotiate, and how to find a fair solution acceptable to all sides. The students must also learn how to make compromises instead of attacking one another. Brain-storming sessions and games with maps are part of the lessons.

Abi Allam wants to ensure that students engage in an exchange with others beyond their own political faction. This was difficult on the first day, but by the second day some trust had already developed. And trust is the cornerstone of peaceful conflict resolution.

In the map games, students worked together "beyond the boundaries of their political allegiance." This was a step in the right direction.

Tools for conflict prevention

"We haven't had any trouble getting along at the workshop," says Elsy Ouiess from the "Lebanese Forces." This is because politics stays out of the discussion. Instead, the students learn the tools of conflict prevention and resolution.

Twenty-two-year-old Bashar Lakis says that all Lebanese people, not just youths, must realize the dangers of civil war. His party is willing to engage in dialogue, he maintains.

But opponents of the Hizbollah representatives don't quite believe him. So far the "Party of God" has been very obstinate at the national level. It seems not only the students but also Lebanese politicians are in need of an intensive workshop in peaceful conflict resolution.

But many youths are convinced they can play an important role within their parties. Mohamad Wassi from the Baath party already has experience as an election aid. "We young people have influence – at the universities, at demonstrations and conferences," he says.

Knowledge transfer to everyday life

Abi Allam knows that his workshop is just a drop in the bucket. But it is a first step in the right direction. His goal is to organize many other similar activities.

The ideal is to have regular events like this at universities and also within the political parties. He would like to see the students attending his workshop now become involved in future events.

And he also hopes for something else. He wants to see the students take what they have learned in these three days and apply it to their everyday lives. As a trainer, that's all he can hope for.

Christina Förch

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White


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