Women Cross the Lines: a European regional consultation

by Shelley Anderson

“Saying you are sorry is the beginning of justice, the beginning of the healing process. So many grievances have never been addressed. Immediately the atmosphere changes when someone says “l am sorry. I did not know that this hurt you.” Maria Hadjipavlou Trigeorgis, a Greek Cypriot, was speaking of her work to bridge the divide between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities on Cyprus. Together with Turkish Cypriot activists like Sevgul Uludag, several thousand Cypriots have been trained in conflict resolution skills during the past few years. “We try in our workshops to begin with the development of empathy. You have a right to your story and I won’t judge you. That is a very powerful experience for participants,” said Uludag. On an island where UN peacekeeping forces, stationed for the last 16 years, have been unable to stop periodic violence, such empathy is sorely needed.

Apology as a first step towards reconciliation was recognized, too, by Vesna Terselic of Croatia. “Saying you are sorry is recovering a sense of dignity, of respect,” she said. “When I think of presenting a concept like justice publicly, maybe using the idea of dignity is important. Nationalists teach people that so-and-so hasn’t allowed us our dignity. What is at stake is not national identity, but dignity. The word peace is useless in my country, but people still react and listen when we use words like dignity, respect.”

The women were speaking at the first 1FOR Women Peacemakers Program’s (WPP) consultation for women in conflict situations, held April 2-9, in Budapest, Hungary. This European consultation was the first in a series of three regional consultations, which will culminate in the year 2000 with a fourth intercontinental consultation. The consultations are being organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Women Peacemakers Program (WPP). The WRI Women’s Working Group has input into the WPP via Ellen Elster, who is a member of the WPP international advisory group, and Dorie Wilsnack, who was in the regional consultation’s working group.

Fifteen women from European conflict areas participated in the Budapest consultation. Activists invited from Abkhazia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and North Ossetia were unable to attend, illustrating precisely some of the difficulties that face women working in conflict situations.

“The idea had been to get together women who had substantial experience, both of conflict and of working with it; women who would have a great deal to teach each other and to learn from each other; women who would value support; women who would also be able to pass on the benefits of this opportunity to a wider network of women,” said co-facilitator and former IFOR President Diana Francis. “My impression of all the women present was that they fulfilled each of these criteria….They also seemed to be strongly motivated from the outset, appreciating the importance of this chance to meet together.” Francis shared facilitating with Terselic, of the IFOR group Antiwar Campaign Croatia. Suseela Mathew of the FOR/India also participated in the consultation, as she is involved in preparations for the upcoming WPP Asia-Pacific consultation.

The program included presentations by the co-facilitators on stages in conflict resolution, dialogue, justice and power issues, and the model of social analysis developed by IFOR Honorary Presidents Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr. The difficult but essential to reconciliation issues of identity, responsibility and guilt, were also tackled by participants in small group work. They discussed organizational aims, strengths, weaknesses and needs, with funding being identified as a major need by most participants. There was also a fundraising workshop and hands-on training in using video equipment. During the last sessions, participants worked in small groups, then came back into the larger group to reflect on what would be useful to initiate in the next few months in their organizations, and what steps could he taken to make these changes. In presentations of their small group analysis, many women identified the need to provide civic education for women, and to increase women’s influence in political decision making.

Commonalities and Differences

“It is easy to speak with the women here. They understand what you are saying. We need solidarity, and I feel that here from these women,” said Leila Yunosova, who worked with the Azeri Ministry of Defence in hostage negotiations during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Participants found this sense of trust and of being understood empowering, especially as many shared an experience of being considered traitors because of their work for peace. The consultation helped break down a sense of isolation. This feeling, compounded by a sense of helplessness, blocks many from working for peace. “We work so hard and long, only to have the government destroy all our work in a day,” said Alexandra Zikic of the Center for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution in Serbia. “The kind of things we do never get press coverage, so we always feel we are failing,” said Yaala Cohen of the Israeli women’s group Bat Shalom. “We’ve learned to judge ourselves by the media.”

Another common experience was an increase in gender violence during conflict, especially domestic violence. “Men bring home this macho, gun culture,” said Orla Moloney of Northern Ireland. Christine Acheson, from Northern Ireland’s Protestant community, agreed. She also pointed out that, “Women have learned a great deal about domestic violence, and recovery from it, which can be used in the wider context.”

Acheson also pointed out the differences between newer “crisis” conflicts, such as those in the Caucasus region, and conflicts that may have a lower level of casualties but that have continued for generations, such as the Northern Ireland conflict. Gulnara Shaninian of Armenia’s Democracy Union found the comparison important. “My generation had personal relationships with Azeris, lived side by side as neighbors, had good friendships. This generation only knows enemy images and war. This will make it harder to build peace for the future,” she said. Both Yunosova, and Fatima Yandieva of Ingushetia, were very interested in learning from the Northern Irish participants about the effects of long-term conflict on children. “This is what motivates me, love for the children,” Yandieva said. Yumna Huwari of Palestine, who leads dialogue groups between Palestinian and Israeli women, agreed. “Everyone must take responsibility for a peaceful future.”

Whether finding commonalities or differences, the Budapest consultation confirmed the usefulness of the WPP’s idea of bringing women from communities in conflict together. Plans are underway for the WPP Asia-Pacific consultation this November, in India. More information about the consultations, and the WPP, is available in the WPP newsletter “Cross the Lines”, in English, French or Spanish. A video and booklet on the Budapest consultation is also available from the IFOR office.

Shelley Anderson is program officer for IFOR’s Women Peacemakers Program, and a member of the WRI Women’s Working Group. A 21-minute video of the consultation is available, in either European or North America systems, for US $25 (add $5 if requesting airmail shipment,) / NLG 40/ GBP 15 (excluding mailing costs), payable via European giro, VISA card or cheques drawn on US or British banks. Contact: IFOR, Spoorstraat 38, 1815 BK Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Email: s.anderson@ifor.ccmail.compuserve.com . Proceedings of the consultation are available upon request. For more information about the WPP, the “Cross the Lines” newsletter, published in English, French and Spanish, is available three times a year.