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Peacebuilding: The Art of Human Appreciation

21 October 2010 19 Comments

Milet Mendoza Photo Credit: Institute for Peace and Justice

Milet Mendoza

“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.

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19 Comments to “Peacebuilding: The Art of Human Appreciation”
  1. Joan Goddard says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and your insights, Milet.
    And thank you for your ongoing work!

  2. Filemon G. Romero says:

    While I have known your story but this is sends a very powerful message that can be both inspirational and motivational for those of us who still continue to work in the Muslim areas. I have just been to South Ubian lately to do training in Coastal Resource Management and saw for myself what you termed as poverty due to none empowerment. Working with you and with Fr. Rey has challenged me to go on with my advocacy: Peace through environmental management and community empowerment.

    Keep on the good work and continue sharing your thoughts and insights.

  3. Rev. Fr. John Attah says:

    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. Milet what an inspiring phrase! Your story is quite educative. It contains a very strong lesson for all peace workers. keep it up

  4. Thank you for sharing with us. The point you make ” I want to remember the positive things that inspire people.” Humans are naturally creators and positive and we are energized and enriched by those things. Our cultures have removed us from this, but it is who we are if we listen to our hearts and see our interconnectedness with each other and nature.
    Peace & Best Wishes

  5. Rose Gordon says:

    Thank you for beautiful words, and a beautiful heart. Stories of courage and resiliency are, for me, as nurturing as the mountains and rivers; sunrises and sunsets…and as essential.

  6. Pamela Poon says:

    Milet: Thank you for your comments. I am in awe of the compassion that you felt when confronted by desperate people in a violent situation. I and my family were assaulted at knifepoint by four masked robbers just outside of Kathmandu a few months ago. My first thought was for the safety of my daughter (19) who was experiencing her first violent encounter. I and my husband pled for some rationality on the part of the robbers, and I even ended up shaming them for their resort to violence. In their own language, we explained that we were aid workers, guests in their country and that we were shocked to be treated this way. Later, after the adrenalin and terror were over, I was broken hearted that the past conflict had brought people to do such things. Local villagers explained that these attacks were now common, and locals were not immune. I grieve for the loss of the traditional values of kindness and hospitality towards strangers that were so prevalent when I first worked here 25 years ago. The challenge for all of us is to continue to bring hope to lives that are still shadowed in darkness from conflict. Your comments were much appreciated.

  7. ziya tarkan kozan says:

    thanks for your work, i read with outstanding will..

  8. Thank you Milet for sharing this story. This is inspiring and a lesson learnt to young peacebuilders like myself. I like the idea of highlighting postive things that gives hope and resilence. I have also learnt from you that peacebuilding is an art of human appreciation and to see communities we work with as partners and not just recipients/ beneficiaries.
    God bless you for your contributions to humanity!

  9. tahir malik says:

    amazing story – how true. if only we can understand what this implies and not keep on implying what we think we know, many issues will be solved.

  10. Stephen Gonsalves says:

    Thank you Milet for your helpful insights in Peacebuilding. It reminds me of my own situation in Purulia, India. Initially, I had thought that Peacebuilding was that flowery feeling of Peace and calmness, but not so. In the face of armed conflict we are called to pursue on because of the conviction that Peace ultimately prevails. Thank you and blessings on you as you serve those in the midst of upheaval and misery because of conflict.

  11. ernie m pineda says:

    Like others, we heard your story first hand when you came to visit us last year in The netherlands… we really admired your courage and faith.
    Please continue your endless efforts in sharing your knowledge and experienced to others so they may be able to share also to those who are in need. Good luck and God Bless.

    ernie and lina

  12. Rpnp Ilagan Pacia says:

    Ms Milet,, really I admire you, for your courage , love and care … we know that povery and ignorance are evident in our daily lives., we encounter kids begging in the highly polluted city st, homeless families not knowing were to get the next meal, and young girl to prostitution to help their families., however in order to change everything we need to be more united amongst ourselves, we need to work together in amidst our differences, there should be unity in diversity,

  13. Kate Uche Mkparu says:

    Thanks a lot for such words of encouragement.It really shows your large heart for people no matter their religion. I pray that God will help us to live peacefully with others. It is really a thing of the heart.

  14. Dr. Potre D. Diampuan says:

    Your story is very inspiring indeed. You have a big heart. Even under a terrifying situation, you had space both in your heart and in your mind to understand. What is greater than that greatness of understanding?

  15. Alaha Ahrar says:

    I am sure everyone appreciates your humanitarian services.
    Thank you very much,

  16. GBENGA GBARADA says:

    Millet, thank you for this illuminating insight into using peacebuilding as a construct for transforming a culture of violence into peace. As peace worker we are to build a realstic hope of a better tomorrow into victims of circumstance. It is obvious that they are disenchanted with the unfairness of their environment hence their resolve to unleash the ogre of violence. We come in as peace worker to reconstruct their psyche and inbue in them the nessity of a turn around of the predicaments through our interventionary programmes. I sincerely believe that making the necessity of making them to see the hope of living in the midst of didsaster should be the basis of our interventions.

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