“I am from the most beautiful city in the world - Aleppo, and I get people talking across divides,” a Syrian woman told a delegation of British visitors to Beirut. They jumped in their chairs: Really? Aleppo? Surely some mistake?
Aleppo is a city that continues to be a major battleground in the Syrian conflict; a city that has been repeatedly bombed, resulting in unimaginable casualties. Had she said “the most destroyed” or “desperate” city in the world, we would have all nodded sagely and sadly.
But her bubbly optimism was strangely unsettling. She continued: “I have an MBA; I wanted to become a Minister. But now I am committed to building peaceful co-existence through dialogue”.
As a child, I remember being amazed by my father’s stories of his war years. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of World War Two, he seemed to undertake many ‘normal’ activities, that he brought home presents for his mother. I had to re-imagine the war, fitting together the horrors (and he saw those too) with the mundane.
So too, all of us have to re-think Syria, putting together the positive energy of people building peace in the midst of the brutality of war.
Last week, I was on a visit to Lebanon with the British Council. We met Syrian refugees whose children attend special English-language classes run by the organisation. Muhammed told us how he and his wife often think about returning to Syria, but every time they decide to return, they hear about another bombing, about more relatives blown to pieces. And they stay in Lebanon, despite the hardships.
And yet, in some parts of Syria, people are actively working for peace. That always seems bizarre: Working for peace while Aleppo and other parts of the country are being smashed? But the people doing this peacebuilding work are not just deeply committed and courageous - they are also hard-headed pragmatists. They are making a difference today and tomorrow in a thousand small ways.
The people doing this peacebuilding work are not just deeply committed and courageous - they are also hard-headed pragmatistsHarriet Lamb
One network of civil society activists (supported by the British Council and International Alert) now boasts 4,000 members who help people meet across divides, to receive psycho-social support and to prevent young people from going to fight.
They all said how at first their family and friends had thought they were mad. Now everyone says they wish they had started their work to build peace all those years ago.
Some of these people are now part of the wider circle around the peace process in Geneva, inputting their views from the community. Their on-the-ground activities help make a final peace deal more likely: the more they can work with communities, the more they can build a consensus for peace, the better. As one woman said: “We need to work at different levels: at the level of the peace table in Geneva, at the UN and at the villages.”
The Colombian example
In case you doubt such work – look no further than the Colombian referendum. The FARC guerrillas and the Government spent over four years hammering out a comprehensive peace deal to end decades of conflict. But it was rejected by the Colombian public in a tight referendum. That is why it matters so much to build the constituency for peace – even before any peace deal is signed.
The more progress we can make now on Syria’s crossing divides, the more chance that any peace deal will hold. Syrian people have been locked in the most devastating conflict for over five years. The ravines of revenge and resentment run deep. So work has to start now to help them talk through their trauma, open out their feelings in a safe place, meet with those on the other side of the war – and consider living and working together again.
We heard of one man whose apartment is right on the dividing line in Aleppo; every day he looks out of his window and wonders how he will live again with those on the other side of that blood-soaked line. So he came to the network for advice on what to do.
This work is not easy and too often overlooked. Which is in part why half of all peace deals collapse after five years. And that is why we all have to redouble our efforts to support all those Syrians preparing for peace. They are crying out for more support.
“Every country is supporting Syrians to kill each other; few countries are supporting Syrians to talk to each other. But the road to peace is in Syria. We must restore our humanity and break the vicious cycle of violence”, as Ciaran Devane, CEO of the British Council and himself Irish, shared with the Syrians in Lebanon. “In Ireland, the military and the negotiators brought an end to the conflict; but it was community activists who won the peace.”
Harriet Lamb is CEO of peacebuilding organisation International Alert. She was previously CEO of Fairtrade International (FLO) and Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation.