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Wiping Clean the Dust of Violence to see the Peace Within

Rye Barcott’s (2011) autobiography, It Happened on the Way to War (New York: Bloomsbury), describes his “path to peace” as he journeys from an undergraduate using the ethnic violence in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya as a senior thesis topic to his enlistment in the Marine Corps and the subsequent tours of duty in Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Along that route he identifies some crucial lessons learned. “What I didn’t realize then was that the appropriate levels of force, as well as support, were always difficult to identify because they were based on fluid realities concealed by the fog of war” (266).

That phrase, the fog of war,” became the title of a documentary on the Vietnam War and the realization by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, late in life, that the U.S. had it “wrong” and we were dealing with a civil war, not a “domino” Cold War piece orchestrated by Moscow and Beijing that, if lost, would “topple” other countries in Southeast Asia. Originally the phrase was coined by Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz to describe the “fog” of complexities and uncertainties that engulf battles, military engagements of all sorts, and war generally.

Barcott describes similar insights that his father got as a Marine during the Vietnam War: “He walked the suspected Viet Cong to a nearby artillery battery and turned him over to the commanding officer for interrogation. However, he never received any feedback or intelligence about the suspect despite his many follow-up requests for information. Forty years later, Dad reflected, ‘Uncertainty abounded. Feedback from upper echelons was unreliable and scarce. Members of each unit seemed uninterested in anything but their own primary task. Few officers spent time acquiring and sharing possible new knowledge about the enemy and the nature of our conflict’” (260).

Thinking about his own wartime experiences juxtaposed with what he learned building a non-profit organization to work on health and leadership empowerment in the slums of Kenya, Barcott concludes that “(our) Horn of Africa Task Force convened multiple sources of American power and influence to win ‘hearts and minds’ in a troubled region that we believed was highly susceptible to transnational terrorism. It was an impressive group, and it was what I thought America needed to be doing around the world. Shoot less, give more (242)…Long-term military engagements were often fatally flawed because they lacked continuity and regional expertise” (245).

A different metaphor

The stories from young people in Burundi who lived through some of the genocide, war and violence that lead up to independence in 1962 and thereafter echo this same need for insights into a peaceful way through the uncertainty of conflicts. Because they grew up n these wars, threats, and dislocations, these university students do have the “continuity and regional expertise” to see the essential importance of a commitment to sustainable peace and development.

As opposed to waiting for the “fog” of war to lift, a different metaphor—wiping off the “dust” that obscures the peace within—describes a more active process of peace keeping (separating combatants), peacemaking (defining the terms for maintaining the peace), and peace building (all those skills of communication, negotiation, mediation cooperation, consensus building, etc.) that can prevent the outbreak of hostilities.

As children we had no problems

Toissaint Mutagorama was born in 1983 and in 2012 was completing his second year as a computer science major at the University of Ngozi (UNG). He would like to be a programmer or engineer in the future. He identifies as a Tutsi. “In 1993 during the war, I lost my sister and we were refugees upcountry. We never returned to the capitol city of Bujumbura. We were very fearful during that period. Before 1993 as children we had no problems. We didn’t know if we were Hutus or Tutsis. After 1993 there were conflicts and tensions. After the president was killed, the Hutus wanted revenge. My sister was butchered. My father escaped but my uncles and grandfather were killed.

Mutagorama’s analysis points to the complexities surrounding these conflicts and violence. “Burundi is difficult to understand. There was not an ethnic problem before 1993. We have one language and one culture. Some say it’s the body (physical features—Tutsi were thought to be taller and with a more angular nose) that matters. One of my cousins looked like a Hutu but was killed. The other cousin claimed to be Hutu and was left alone.

Some insist that poverty was a primary source of tension. Mutagorama disagrees but does acknowledge the intersection of factors. “Poverty is not the issue. It was not a problem at the time of the war. However, because of poverty, people think less about ethnicity.”

More salient for many was the explosive history of ethnic conflicts that stemmed from the imposition of minority Tutsi rule by first the German colonizers and then the Belgians. Independence in 1962 heightened tensions with the majority Hutu and lead to the most horrific of genocidal campaigns as the Tutsi dominated military designed its own version of a “final solution” to eliminate the educated Hutu leadership. A series of wars followed.

Mutagorama describes what he remembers from living in Burundi’s capital city. “From 1994-1996, there were some living quarters for Tutsi in Bujumbura and others for Hutus, and you could be killed for crossing these ethnic boundaries. Some politicians provided weapons or money to attack the ‘enemy.’ The killings then happened for revenge.” According to Mutagorama, the answer lies, in part, in our schools and universities where we could do more to wipe off the dust of conflict and “teach about peace. Those who don’t go to school often cause problems.”

I’m not sure who began the conflict

Clilamyde Mengengwa was born in 1988 and identifies as Burundian and Tutsi. His memories reflect the uncertainties in the “fog of war.” “In Ngozi there were few troubles although we heard of people killing each other. I’m not sure who began the conflict. The Tutsis had guns. The Hutus wanted revenge. I had uncles killed. Others became refugees but no one was killed in my brother’s family.”

He then describes the mix of factors that helped clear the dust of conflict—some people stepped forward to challenge the rush to war and others fled while various nations in the region stepped in to help negotiate an end to the fighting. “Why was Ngozi peaceful? In my region some Hutus wanted to attack Tutsis but others said, ‘Wait. Why do you want to do this?’ Some refugees went to Rwanda, some to Tanzania. The rebels fought with the government troops. Tanzania helped Burundi move to discussions and the Arusha Accords.”

Mengengwa sees the benefits of a collective effort to stop the violence and teach an alternative ethic. “The University of Ngozi is a good place to teach peace and reconciliation. We are supposed to be intelligent here” (and be able to respond when) politicians come to preach hatred and violence. Those with wisdom can teach others. We have to forgive each other. We need to change those minds that seek revenge. I have hope for the future. My classmates begin to understand that there is no need to continue the conflict. Our responsibility is to teach peace and reconciliation, step by step.

“Having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good idea. Remembering the past must be considered within a wise process, learning from others. Our student Association for Communicating Sustainable Peace and Development at the University can go out into the community but we need to know how to best approach people. Like the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and the Quaker Peacekeepers we need to teach peace and reconciliation within a system.”

Shifting metaphors allows us to see more clearly how human action can be so essential to peace keeping, peacemaking, and peace building. Waiting for the “fog of war” to lift makes way for wiping away the “dust” of violence to see the peace within.

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