Why the women wept

By estevens
A woman living in Zamzam camp. Elders have watched the collapse of traditions that supported peaceful coexistence among the tribes traditions an Oxfam partner is helping revive.

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30 September 2009

There is a question that haunts survivors of civil wars: how can I live with my neighbor? Negotiating high-level peace agreements may be tough, but try negotiating water rights with the same people who killed your loved ones.

Living side by side in North Darfur’s northeastern region of Mellit are three major tribes - the Berti, the Zayadia, and the Meidob – who chose different paths and allies in the Darfur conflict. Neighbors became wartime adversaries, and access to water, firewood, and grazing and agricultural lands – once a symbol of peaceful coexistence – became flashpoints. The age-old system of keeping the peace among the tribes gave way to fear and violence, killings and reprisals.

It was into this setting that Ahmed Adam Yousif launched a year-long project aimed at reviving the peace. Yousif is the director of the Ajaweed Organization for Peace and Reconciliation, an Oxfam partner. He brought to the task strong relationships with tribal leaders and the skills of an ajaweed – a respected traditional mediator.

Trying out each others’ moves

Yousif and his organization began by helping the Mellit communities form large tribal peace committees. After a period of discussion and training in conflict resolution, the groups created a single body to represent all three tribes.

Next came the activities: the peace committees sponsored inter-tribal drama productions in the high schools, song and dance performances, and sporting events in which each tribe first competed against the others and then intermingled.

“We were waiting to see who was going to kill each other,” says Yousif, gravely.

Meanwhile, with the help of Ajaweed intermediaries, the inter-tribal committee began discussing areas of dispute.

Over the course of the year, there were exchange visits among the communities, and then the big event: a fair, in which each tribe shared its handicrafts, food, songs, and dances. At first, says Yousif, people would sing their own songs and perform their own dances, but after awhile they started trying out each others’ moves.

Sometimes, he noticed older women crying at these events. They grew up at a time when the tribes lived together as neighbors, sharing celebrations and visits, and intermarrying, as well, but lately their days have been defined by isolation and fear. Overwhelming relief moved them to tears, he thinks. “When they see what’s going on, they remember the past, and they can’t control themselves.”


The end of a mission

Standing on a cabinet next to Yousif’s desk sits a tall whiteboard displaying a statement in flowing Arabic letters. It is a declaration of commitment, signed by the chief of each tribe in February 2009, pledging them to promote peaceful coexistence, trust, cooperation, stability, prosperity, and good human relations. It is a monumental achievement for Ajaweed and the tribes, but there’s more.

In July of this year, the chiefs sat down for a three-day meeting to resolve an array of provoking problems – the theft of livestock, murder, and disputes over grazing lands and water sources.  If Yousif was still waiting to see who would kill whom, he was doing it from outside the room, because now the group was functioning without the softening influence of intermediaries. And the meeting was a success.

“By this, we came to the end of our mission,” says Yousif. The tribal leaders no longer needed a helping hand to resolve their most grievous differences.

As for the impact on the lives of community members, “We couldn’t believe the outcome,” says Yousif. “Life had become normal. Markets flourished. Roads opened.  People moved freely and had access to water sources, farms, and forests. The entire picture had changed for the better.”

Security had returned to their lives, and it wasn’t from the barrel of a gun. “Security is not tanks and armies and machine guns,” says Yousif. “It is perception.”


Building on hope

If all this seems too good to be true, it is important to understand that for hundreds of years, these tribes have employed effective means of easing tensions, and preventing destabilizing reprisals when violence does erupt. Yousif and Ajaweed didn’t step in to reinvent the wheel; they simply created the space for the communities to revive their own peace-building traditions.

Around the world, hopes for the future of Darfur hang on peace talks and peacekeepers, and the work of grassroots peacemakers is far below the radar. Yet, Ajaweed and the tribal committees have brought a measure of peace to tens of thousands of people in North Darfur. Now Yousif has set his sights of the troubled regions of Kutum and Kebkabiya, working from the hope and belief that war-torn communities there and everywhere have the desire and the strength to commit themselves to peace.