Peace and Security


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Peace and Security

J. Gehring: Thoughts on War and Peace in Monrovia

In Liberia, life is very basic. Food, paper, electricity — they are not to be taken for granted. It has been awhile since I have been in this area of Africa, but this nation has experienced 20 years of bloody civil war.

Our Peace Conference is drawing some very good representatives from Liberia and Sierra Leone and a few from Guinea. All have suffered violence that flows back an forth like raw sewage on the incoming and outgoing tides. You can not have peace in all, if peace is missing in one of these nations.

It is not a good sign of a countries health when you see three times more UN planes at the airport than commercial planes. Or when the UN Peace Keepers and Non Government Relief agency workers outnumber tourists 50-1, or even 1000-1.

Nicholas Cage is in a movie where he is a gun runner and it shows scenes from working in Liberia and Sierra Leone ... it is too close to reality.

Yet, as the people hustle to survive, they still manage to get through difficult times with an incredible spirit; resilience is a gift from God earned through suffering.

February 9

The three-day Peace Conference is being held at the City Hall of the capital city Monrovia. There is no running water and the electricity is powered by generators that consume huge amounts of fuel on a daily basis. Why is their no power? One rebel soldier decided to drop thermal bombs down the shafts of the hydroelectric plant and the huge turbines whose free motion allows the power to be generated are melted together. Repairs may not be possible, the dam may have to be reconstructed, which takes time and money.

People gather according to African time, which is very elastic and seems to stretch far beyond the tight time constraints of urban life in the West. The speaker announces we are beginning our 10:00 meeting and my watch reads 10:45. My eyes are good but my vision is too narrow, despite what my watch reads, it is now under the watchful eyes of African time which begins when we begin.

The hall was filled with 130 people and expanded to 170 as they trickled in to be just in time (Africa time). These large events have a certain protocol--a polite format is followed as dignitaries offer welcoming remarks. A message from Dr. Kwak was read by Mr. Taj Hamad, and then the recently elected lady President's message was read by the newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, who came to speak on her behalf. Among the audience were 20 Liberian Parliamentarians who came and went due to the sessions of Congress which were going on. Paramount Chiefs from Liberia and Sierra Leone were present, who, by the end of the day, were looking for various ways in which we could work together, especially on the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention. The NGO community was a part of the sponsorship of this event and USAID, Oxfam, the Better Future Foundation, and the UN DP were all helpful in offering various types of support. The UN has assisted this conference with airlifts from Sierra Leone to bring their delegation, as well as providing vehicles for airport pickups, and other ways.

The next two sessions were designed so that we could share the vision, core values and methodology of the Universal Peace Federation and then outline how Peace Councils could be set up in Liberia. I made the first presentation and Ambassador Gerald Coleman presented the second part. The real excitement of the conference was in the questions which seemed to continue for a rather long time, but since this is Africa maybe it was really on time? We all seemed to be having a very good time.

The afternoon exchanges showed me the heart, concern and love these people have for their country. The Liberian national anthem sings of gratitude towards God and the spirit in their voices showed how firmly people are hoping and believing in their country.

Concerning neighboring Sierra Leone, a Senator and a Sierra Leone Princess shared how their family and many, many others in Sierra Leone have children with one Muslim and one Christian parent. The Princess said it was the joint prayers of the Christian and Muslims that saved their nation during the times of terror during their Civil War. She calls it the "Miracle of Interreligious Tolerance."

The Senator shared that her family was raised on a diet of respect, and that it is natural to share in each other's traditions and prayers. She related to the audience that it is a rather common sight for a Muslim to stop by a church to pray, or a Christian to join the fasting period. The daily life experience of religious harmony in Sierra Leone is so needed in other parts of the world. I sense that this rich understanding that is part of the daily life for many people will become more and more appreciated. The day will come when Sierra Leone will send goodwill peace ambassadors to all corners of the world.

That first day, on my way home, a little, little, dynamic boy was playing by the side of the road. We noticed each other and I gave him a salute. He saluted back. I then waved and he waved back. We drove off, still waving to each other. There is an openness in the heart of the people that is not exclusive to any age group.

February 10

History has often offered people and nations times of plenty and times of want. The nation of Liberia is the first African nation that gained its independence from colonial rule. It grew as a result of organizations in the United States that worked to send freed slaves back to Africa, and this area was selected as the site for settlement. By 1845 it had grown to become an independent country. One central problem in setting up the settlement was that people already lived in the land and they were not a part of the plan. The former slaves kept their links with America. Many of the leaders sent their children to college in the States. This group, who spoke English, were the leaders of government and formed the economic power base for the country. The three major ethnic groups that had migrated into the area because of instability in their regions were often treated as second-class citizens.

In 1980, a poorly educated army sergeant led a coup and executed on the white sand beaches the Liberian-American leadership. Sergeant Doe ruled like a man who would kill to get what he wanted. Unfortunately, he was overthrown and executed by a person of at least equal ruthlessness. There is much more to share about the past decades that gives some of the reasons why this calm and moderately successful country spiraled rapidly into anarchy, violence and bloody chaos.

Civil war created over one million refugees and many stayed in Sierra Leone. When the civil war spilled over into Sierra Leone, the one million Liberian refugees packed in camps outside Freetown had to flee again, and were joined by an equal amount of refugees from Sierra Leone. Neighboring Guinea soon became packed with refugees and it was not long before the welcome of Guinea turned sour as problems and tension grew in the overcrowded camps. These three nations — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — are comprised of tribal peoples who lived in this region before European mapmakers claimed that they lived in separate nations. In so many ways the fate of these nations is tied together. During the chaos in Liberia, 300,000 died. One out of three families in this country has been touched by a death during the dark days and violent nights.

Today, 15,000 UN Peace keepers and workers are in Liberia and the city is full of many simply constructed hotels to keep these paying customers. Lingering outside convenience stores, hanging around waiting for a sympathetic heart, are younger men who have lost limbs from the fighting. This is one side of the picture of the remains of 15 years of fighting followed by ten years of transitional chaos. The other side of the equation could be felt in the City Hall where the Universal Peace Federation was holding a peace conference with many of the nation's leading activists, chiefs and religious leaders.

The Second Day

The leaders at this meeting spent the second day of the conference outlining the situations that currently threaten to move the nation backward into chaos. Building a solid peace is like climbing a slippery mountain with track spikes. At any moment you can either go one step higher or slip rapidly down hill. One speaker shared his view that 'we should not believe that by simply electing a President the nation has found peace.'

Problems that run through the civil society are like potential brush fires that must be kept under vigilant care. We are gathered here to put out the sparks before they return to fire.

The 150 leaders from organizations that included the World Conference for Religion and Peace, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and numerous NGO's, Paramount Chiefs, plus scholars and religious leaders, shared ideas on how they could work together on the nation’s problems. The only quick solutions were the potential changes in people's attitudes. Patience was urged for the enormous task of rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. Yet, by changing hearts, minds and attitudes the nation can be pointed in the right direction for healing and reconciliation. Participants from Sierra Leone included members of their Truth and Reconciliation Committee and they shared many of the lessons learned since rebels in their country put down their weapons. Since communication has not been smooth within Liberia or between its neighbors, this meeting has served as a way to share best practices and gain a greater awareness of the situations that the nation is facing as a whole.

February 11

It was a very good finish to the conference with participants walking away on a high and motivated to work together in efforts to bring peace and stability. Meanwhile, the radio is announcing the formation of a National Peace Council, the major newspaper is covering each day's developments. The President received us via former VP Johnson today at her office. It was a good short, warm meeting.

The House of Representative, through the National Committee on Peace and Reconciliation, sent a formal letter to the Chairman of UPF and requested a Peace Embassy be built to house a parliament of peace workers. The head of the committee along with a dozen congressmen signed the request.

Tonight we had a special closing banquet with traditional dancers and some delicious spiritual music. Ambassador for Peace Awards were given. The spirit was high. The Russian UN leader said this is a very good beginning but he added, "It is only the beginning".

The radio, newspapers and local TV have been telling the story of the Peace Councils and the Universal Peace Federation.

If stability can be planted here it could set up a wave of peace making and peace building critical for the stability of a substantial portion of Africa.

With so many from this region understanding deeply the principle of cross-cultural marriage they already have some deep foundation rooted in the culture.

Many people gave thanks to God and to the organizers of this great event.

One short story. A key woman leader and representative from Sierra Leone was sharing with me. I asked her to restart the Women's Federation for World Peace in Sierra Leone and she responded, "When you asked me the hair on my arms stood up! This means the Holy Spirit is telling me I have to do it!"

Well, God does work through mysterious ways. Some day, if you see my hair standing up after one of your talks you will understand why.

Blessings from Liberia

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