A commitment to peace

By Chris Hufstader

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Eva Kouka's exposure to the destructiveness of war came when she was just a young girl growing up outside Ziguinchor, the main city of Senegal's Casamance region. "I remember clearly one incident when the war started in 1982; my grandmother went to the market, and came running back into the house crying—we could hear gunshots and people fighting."

As the government of Senegal stepped up its counter-insurgency campaign in Casamance, her family was touched in many ways. They were forced to move away from their home at an agricultural technical school where her father was a teacher because the campus was occupied by the military, making them a target for rebels.

"I also saw one of my cousins killed by the rebels, and another one was badly wounded," Kouka said. "So I had to live through this insecurity as the conflict unfolded." Her experience in Casamance inspired her to work on development and social justice, with peace as the focus of her efforts. "I became more aware of the conflict as I grew up and could see the serious poverty here," she said. "It was a direct impact of the conflict in Casamance."

After joining the staff at Oxfam America's office in Dakar in 2003, Kouka began working on the Control Arms campaign when it kicked off that year. In Senegal, the campaign has three goals: Support the Control Arms goal for an international arms ban treaty, push the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) to convert its temporary moratorium on the trade in illegal arms into a binding permanent convention, and finally, get the government of Senegal to update its 1966 law on the possession of weapons to also include the trade in small arms.

Kouka and Oxfam's allies in the Control Arms campaign, including Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms, celebrated a victory in West Africa after ECOWAS voted to make the arms trade ban permanent in the region last June. And although a conference at the UN in June failed to create any meaningful progress in a global arms ban, the UN's General Assembly voted 153-1 (with 24 abstentions) in December to take up the issue in 2007, a tremendous victory for the Control Arms campaign.

The next phase of the Control Arms campaign in Senegal will involve pushing the legislature to ratify the ECOWAS convention on the illegal trade in small arms, and become one of the nine countries needed to sign the convention so it can enter into force.

Working with young people in Senegal proved crucial in the campaign to gain support for the ECOWAS ban within the Senegalese government. Pressure from young people who gathered signatures for national petitions helped make Senegal a leader in the arms convention issue in ECOWAS. "We turned our attention to working with youth, as armed conflict touches them directly," Kouka said. "That is how we came to the Senegal Boy Scout Association. In Casamance we contacted the Scout movement as well as other youth associations in Ziguinchor and Kolda."

Kouka spent numerous weekends training scouts and other youth groups in how to gather signatures for the Control Arms campaign, and working with Oxfam's partners and allies on campaign strategy and organizing. "If you work with students, or Boy Scouts, they are not available during the week—they are only available on the weekends," Kouka said.

But her commitment goes beyond just the practical—she wants to see concrete results. "I like to see work done correctly. I don't like to see things done half way. That is why I make a personal commitment, and invest so much time to do this work. I work with a lot of different partner organizations and allies, and I really want to build good relations with all of them. So whenever they need me I want to be ready to help them, so we can get this work done, whether it is on a weekend or whenever."