Peacebuilding: The Art of Human Appreciation
“During my captivity, when I was on bended knees, tied up and very afraid, I looked into the face of the young boy holding a gun to my head and I thought, ‘Oh my God. What have we done to this young boy?’”
In a conflict situation, it is easy to see the structures that have been ruined and the technical side of what needs to be improved. But it is the spirit that has been decimated. Too often the social side is forgotten and the healing process is disregarded as a critical element of development interventions. I think that is why, despite millions of dollars spent, there is still conflict, people are still poor, and people remain un-empowered.
I was returning as an independent humanitarian and peace worker to the Sulu Archipelago, Southern Philippines when I was kidnapped and held captive for two months by Abu Sayyaf in Basilan in 2008. During my captivity, when I was on bended knees, tied up and very afraid, I looked into the face of the young boy holding a gun to my head and I thought, “Oh my God. What have we done to this young boy?”
I had studied the Moro peoples’ history, talked to people, heard stories about violence and revenge — in that moment, everything I knew of the oppression and deprivation people had suffered flashed before my eyes. I felt responsible. In the face of death, the first thing that came to me was to ask for forgiveness. The exact words I said were: “For all the sins of the Christians against the Muslims, I ask for forgiveness.” By doing so, I took upon generations of prejudices, biases, human rights violations, historical inequalities, and missed opportunities.
As they were taping my mouth shut, I said what I thought were going to be my last words: “I just want you to know that my respect for the Muslim people has not diminished because many of them opened their homes to me, adopted me as their sister, as their daughter, as one of them. And because of that I became a better Christian.”
As a humanitarian and a peace worker, I feel strongly that it is not about “I and me,” but “we and us.” My story is part of a bigger story. I share this story because I hope people see the importance of the context, of why people turned out to be like this. I was sure that if I were born in that side of the world, I could be one of them.
Transforming a culture of violence to a culture of peace takes collaborative engagement. We must allow the context within which we find ourselves to define our development engagement. The habit for many of us is to come in as outsiders and have the false assumption that we know better — that we have been given the technical tools and studied all the right steps to go about implementing a project that is time-bound and outcome-focused. Having knowledge and funds mean power. And that power is evident in how you relate with people, who more often than not are seen as beneficiaries or recipients rather than as partners. The paradigm needs to shift so that you come to an area believing that even those who are illiterate or very poor have something to give. They have as much to give, if not more, than you have assumed that you can do.
When you enter a community that has been traumatized and disintegrated, what is important at the end of the day is that you uplift the human dignity of people. Human security is not just where people are now but the hope and the dream that is crystallized when they see their own potential. You draw out the best in people by providing them opportunities to take the primary role in making positive changes.
I was part of a development engagement on the island of Tawi Tawi in the Philippines. With very little money, we were able to repair seven classrooms. The children collected the sand and rinsed it with salt so it could be used for the construction. The mothers cooked the meals for the carpenters. The young boys collected the rainwater. You quantify this collaboration — it doesn’t need to be in the form of money — and it is clear that the community contributed more than we did with our little support. It was important to us to make sure that the community realized this.
I always say that no one is too poor not to give something and no one is too rich not to ask for anything. Everyone has something to give.
Peacebuilding is an art. It is the art of human appreciation. I don’t want to see horrible pictures; I don’t want to tell stories about women abused. You already know these horrible things are a matter of fact; they are all around you. I don’t want to highlight them. This is a way for me to protect myself from becoming de-sensitized and to keep hope alive in my heart. It is the remembrances of goodness and resilience that give hope. I want to remember the positive things that inspire people. So in the moments when people are in despair, like I was as a captive, they can find strength.
It was in the moment of face-to-face encounters with marginalized people and with resilient women that I was transformed. On many occasions, I felt the pain of the other and the joy of the other. My heart pulsated with them. They have become my lampposts in my peace path.
Milet Mendoza is currently a 2010 Women PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.