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Building Bridges Across the Divides

It's not just the ethereal scenery that brings people from conflict areas to Caux in Switzerland.

Breakfast time at the international conference centre for Moral Re-Armament in Caux, Switzerland, last August. I find myself sitting down with a Somali peaceworker, an Egyptian involved in development work, the principal of a college in Jamaica, a Swedish man who has assisted in the Somali peace process and a Swiss woman with a concern for the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire).

We are just some of the 530 people attending an eight-day 'Agenda for Reconciliation' conference, on the theme of 'Healing the past, forging the future'. The diversity around my breakfast table is mirrored throughout the conference. There are Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese and Taiwanese, Koreans and Japanese - some slightly uneasy at finding themselves under the same roof. There are Kenyans and Tanzanians, reeling from the shock of the bombs in their capital cities just days ago; political figures from 23 countries who have come to take part in a special politicians' 'round table'; and people attending a series of workshops on 'Europe and its Muslim Communities - seeking the common good'.

Among those who speak in the plenary sessions are a Fijian chief, who was once one of his country's most fanatical racist voices and is now an agent of reconciliation; a Palestinian imam from a refugee camp on the West Bank; a Lebanese judge, who realized during the war that the only hope of recovery was through unity between Muslims and Christians; and a Japanese politician who has brought some of the ashes of his teenage son, tragically killed in an accident, to be buried at Caux.

What brings such an extraordinary mixture of people to this mountain village high above Lake Geneva? For some this is a rare opportunity to step onto a world platform. But many of those who come have no lack of international exposure or conferences to attend. Why this one?

Mato Zovkic, Vicar-General of the archdiocese of Sarajevo in Bosnia, has been coming to conferences at Caux since 1993 - at considerable personal expense. This year, he says, the cost of his flight and stay amounted to four months' salary. He has come partly because the theme of healing and building 'is exactly what we need in Bosnia' - and partly because at Caux, he maintains, people meet on a different basis. 'At other conferences you meet minds, hand over the results of your research and go home. Here you meet hearts, people who offer their experience of reconciliation, of success and failure.'

Caux also offers people like him a chance to break out of the isolation they experience at home. In Bosnia, he says, 'those who strive to keep or re-establish tolerant relations with individuals of other ethnic communities are often looked at by their own fellow ethnics as naive lunatics or traitors. I do not see enough trust-builders in our society.'

Yehezkel Landau, a Jewish academic and Co-Director of the Open House Centre for Jewish-Arab reconciliation in Ramle, Israel, agrees. Caux, he says, encourages people to develop the capacity for 'two-way open-hearted communication' which is essential to trust-building. 'I need to be reinforced in my faith that we human beings are capable of transforming ourselves and our society - there is not enough evidence of this in my daily life. Caux nourishes me, it gives me strength.'

This is presumably because he is meeting people of like mind? No, he corrects me - it is because he is meeting people of like heart. 'It's the heart that's the focus here, not the mind - that's why I come. One of the reasons we have such difficulty in overcoming conflicts is because we're so busy coming up with ideas on how to answer them, rather than transforming our feelings. This place makes up for what academia and academic conferences leave out. I would pass up any academic conference to come here.'

In a plenary session of the conference, Landau takes up the issue of Swiss banks' handling of gold stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. 'Gold and money should not be made the focus of our thinking about the past,' he says. 'This is liable to stir up people's prejudices about the Jews; we forget that one human life is worth more than all the gold on this planet.

'Some Jewish leaders press European politicians and bankers to pay restitution for lost Jewish properties and accounts,' he goes on. 'But the other side of the moral coin, usually ignored, is the Palestinians' legitimate claims on us for their displacement and dispossession.' He calls for an immediate end to the Israeli government's policy of demolishing Palestinian homes - 'a crime and an atrocity' - and for a 'peace corps' to help rebuild them. At the same time, he appeals to Muslims to denounce violence perpetrated by their co-religionists.

Fifty years ago, at the end of World War II, Caux played a part in the reconciliation of Europe by providing a forum where former enemies could meet heart to heart. Deeply felt apologies for personal or national attitudes and actions often ensued. Such apologies, says Joseph Montville, Director of the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, can have 'an incredible liberating effect'. 'Acknowledgement of past wrongs is the cornerstone of reconciliation,' he says. 'It affects the psychology of the victims and allows them to feel that there is a common recognition of right and wrong' which makes it possible to live together.

More recent evidence of the power of apology comes from Audrey Kinnear, Senior Policy Officer in the health policy section of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in Australia. She is one of the 'stolen generation' of Aboriginal children, taken from her mother at the age of four in the name of assimilation. She found her mother again at the age of 28 - and had only just begun to get to know her when her mother disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She has never been seen since.

Australia's inquiry into the practice of removing Aboriginal children and the National Sorry Day which followed last May were a healing experience, says Kinnear, even though there was no official apology from the government. 'Telling my story to the inquiry resurfaced a lot of that pain and gave me an opportunity to shed some of it. National Sorry Day helped us to close some of the wounds again. It was people-initiated - Australians wanted to recognize and understand and grieve with us. Our nation needed to weep because of the dark history of Australia, so that we could move forward.' Thanks to that process, she says, 'Our people aren't victims any more.'

Later, presenting a copy of the report of the inquiry to the Caux centre, she paraphrases Tagore, 'Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.'

Many of those attending the session are still singing in the dark. Joseph Lagu, a former Vice-President of Sudan, speaks poignantly of the fighting in his country, now complicated by infighting and cross-alliances between the warring parties. 'It has become so confused and in the process the poor people suffer.' Mammo Wudneh, President of the Writers' Association of Ethiopia, speaks of the rising tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea and its possible consequences for the continent of Africa. Both men have been involved in peace efforts - and both call for outside intervention, not of a military nature but from independent peacemakers who will 'appeal to our conscience'.

Somalia, now a country without central government or the rule of law, has seen 18 unsuccessful peace accords between its warlords in the last seven years. Yusuf Al-Azhari, a former ambassador, describes how, after these 'top-down' attempts failed, he and other peace-workers decided to go to the grass-roots - and met an enthusiastic response from women, religious groups, local chiefs, young people and businessmen. As a result, seven out of Somalia's 18 regions have set up local authorities and five of them, in the north east, make up what 'is considered to be Somalia's first established federal state'. In four of the seven areas the previous warlords have been abandoned by the populace.

The first breakthrough in the Somali conflict came in January 1994, says Al-Azhari, when the advisors to Somalia's different warlords came together in Sweden under MRA's auspices. 'They asked us to evaluate ourselves in the light of MRA's four moral values (absolute honesty, purity, love and unselfishness),' he says. 'When we did this, we saw we were all wrong. When we arrived we were not talking to each other, we were each the enemy of the other. After three days we were hugging each other. It didn't solve everything, but it cracked the ice.' They have worked together ever since.

Forging the future involves more than mediation and reconciliation between enemies. Al-Azhari describes Somalia as a country where 'it feels as if the air you breathe is contaminated by corruption'. Joseph Karanja, from neighbouring Kenya, tells the conference of efforts to fight corruption in his country.

'Eighty per cent of Kenyans go to church, but we are rated the third most corrupt country in the world,' he tells me later. 'This really worried me.' In October 1995 he and a group of colleagues decided to launch a Clean Election Campaign in the run-up to 1997's General Election. With the help of churches, businesspeople, some embassies and the press, they drew up and distributed a manifesto calling for people to vote responsibly and to hold their leaders to account. Thousands pledged themselves to refuse to bribe or be bribed and to eschew violence.

'There was a lot of apathy because it was thought that only crooks stand for parliament,' he says. 'So we encouraged people to persuade good people to stand.' In the process 11 cabinet ministers lost their seats and 120 new MPs - most of them fresh to politics - were elected, to a house of 210.

People also pledged themselves to be vigilant against vote-rigging. In one constituency voters refused to allow ruling party officials to introduce ballot boxes stuffed with votes for their candidate. When the officials returned with riot police and the people still resisted, two young men were shot dead. But the people held their ground - and eventually the officials and police gave up.

The Clean Election Campaign has now been expanded to a Clean Kenya Campaign. With Karanja at Caux is James Mageria, former Vice-President for Africa of the aid agency World Vision International. 'I was so busy dealing with end results, I had no time to deal with the causes,' he says. He has now launched Vision Africa, an initiative to fight the continent's 'bad news' image and restore hope and confidence. Last June he brought thousands of people onto the streets of Nairobi for a Clean Up Week, led by 400 schoolchildren. A competition has now been set up for the city's 645 schools, with prizes for those who keep their areas cleanest.

In all, 15 African countries are represented. The Tanzanian delegation is led by Ambassador Dorah Mbezi, who speaks of her four and a half years involved in peace negotiations in Rwanda. They announce that the seventh in a series of 'All-Africa' MRA conferences will be held in Tanzania in 1999.

One morning, the politicians report back on their three days of private meetings. This is the second Politicians' Round Table to take place at Caux; its purpose, explains Yukihisa Fujita, an MP from Japan, is to create a 'network of people who share and learn from each other'.

'I was a little bit sceptical because there was no clear-cut agenda,' admits Vladimir Averchev, a member of the Duma from Russia's centrist democratic party, Yabloko. 'Speaking frankly is quite a risk for a politician and this happened during this round table. It's a new experience for me and it has changed something in me.'

Averchev has brought a group from the youth wing of his party to Caux. They tell me they are impressed by the range of nationalities they have met, by the fact that older people treat them as equals and by the way in which everybody takes part in cooking and serving meals, gardening, housework and other jobs. Before coming to Caux, they found the prospect of practical work rather off-putting - now they see it as an essential part of the proceedings.

'I came here with a sense of urgency, because in my region both India and Pakistan have blasted atomic bombs,' says Mohammad Haneef Ramay, former Speaker and former Finance Minister of Punjab State in Pakistan. He calls for international intervention, warning of the possible consequences for the world of confrontation between India and Pakistan. But, he says, he is not leaving without hope.

'When I came there was a big wall between India and Pakistan,' he says. 'Caux has created a window in that wall. I can see through it what my enemy is doing. If I was afraid of him, he is equally afraid of me. And he walks like me, he talks like me, he eats like me, he behaves like me, he feels like me and I must admit that I have already fallen in love with him.'

Two members of Israel's Knesset have been taking part in the round table. Yona Yahav is Jewish; Walid Sadik is Palestinian. One afternoon they host a no-holds-barred question and answer session. Both believe in a step by step approach to peace, and both insist that a genuine democracy is in operation in their country, although they disagree on whether religious fundamentalism is increasing.

'The Palestinian question is an Israeli question, because both entities and both people are like Siamese twins,' Sadik tells the plenary session. 'They will live together or they will die together. In this long struggle, sometimes I feel frustration. But in these days at Caux I have recharged my batteries and renewed some of my values.'

Sir Howard Cooke, the Governor-General of Jamaica, has brought four delegations to Caux conferences in recent years. His aim is to infect leaders at every level of Jamaican society with the spirit of Caux. 'I know of no other institution in the world where you have such a variety of minds, intellects, experience and friendship,' he says. Caux, he says, has taught him about interfaith relations - and Jamaica now has a strong interfaith group.

Kebba Secka, Secretary General of the Islamic Council in Norway, also sees Caux as a special place, because of its 'spirituality and openness'. The openness is not always comfortable, he stresses. 'Some people have been so honest here I have almost ducked under the table. But truthfulness and honesty make people feel secure rather than apprehensive - and if you are in the minority you are often very apprehensive even when you are not aware of it. That's why I come here, and encourage others to come.'

Secka is here this time for the dialogue on Europe and its Muslim communities. The participants include Muslims and members of other communities from Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Bosnia.

In the session I attend, a British Muslim outlines six steps for fighting Islamophobia and a Norwegian imam speaks of the need to combat the ignorance that feeds hatred. A Dutch police officer talks about his force's efforts to recruit Muslims, which have been so successful that there are now Muslim officers in every police station in the country. A Welsh woman, married to a Muslim from Pakistan, speaks gratefully of her years in Pakistan and describes her shame at the way Muslims are treated in Britain. After the series of workshops, several Christians tell its Muslim convenor that they have lost their fear of Islam.

Throughout the conference it is the personal encounters that make the strongest impact. Sometimes we see their results on the platform - when, for instance, some of the Indians and Pakistanis stand together to sing each other's national anthems on their respective independence days; or when Chinese from the mainland and Taiwan, initially suspicious of each other, join together in a demonstration of calligraphy during a cultural evening. Others happen in private - and who can tell what difference they will make?

The conference has been divided into small 'community' groups for discussion. My group includes people from China, Ethiopia, South Africa, Lebanon, Jamaica, India and Britain. On the last day we share our impressions of the week. One speaks of his discovery that he is not alone; another - who comes from a 'stratified' society - of his surprise at finding people from all walks of life working together. One says he will be leaving behind the stress and frustration he arrived with; another his hopelessness. 'Each time I come to Caux I have a sort of question mark in my heart,' says a woman. 'And each time I return home I have a great hope in my heart.'

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.