President and Founder of Peace-Tech
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: Another story has to do with the work that we did in Cyprus, which is on quite a different scale. We actually helped catalyze a citizen peace building movement there. We started with twenty people, with ten from each side. There had been some bi-communal work before we started working on the island. It was not like we were starting from total ground zero, but what had happened had been isolated and hadn't really followed through very much. When we got there it was virtually impossible for anyone to cross the green line between the two communities. There was no phone communication. If someone did manage to contact someone on the other side they would probably see their names in the headlines the next day, "So-and-so is a traitor, they met with the enemy."
We started and we worked separately for two years with each community, and then we brought them together in a group that we took off the island. There were two highlights. There are many beautiful stories from that, but there are two that I wanted to share. One is when those twenty people came back from their week in England with us, it was a powerful transformational experience for those individuals; it really turned their world upside down. There were some very powerful people in the group, the son of the president on one side, the daughter of the president on the other and other people who had quite a bit of influence. When the Greek Cypriots stepped off the plane they were surprised by being confronted with the right wing media in their circles who attacked them very venomously as traitors as having treated with the enemy, and negotiated behind the back of the government -- every vile thing that they could think of. Untrue things. "You sold us down the river! How could you do such a thing?"
The Greek Cypriot team was so taken aback, they weren't expecting this they weren't totally prepared for it, thought we tried to do some re-entry work to prepare people for the responses that they might get. They were getting threatening phone calls, "We know where your children are." "Don't expect to have a job tomorrow." They couldn't walk out of their house without some television camera there waiting to waylay them. The public was angry, the public got the message that the media was trying to put out and held them in contempt, and attacked them. They got some real negative threats. They kind of recouped, they caught their breath, they said, "It doesn't have to be this way. What did we learn in the workshop, how can we step into this and tell the truth of this experience. Meet the energy and turn this around?"
They contacted the media. They said, "We want to be interviewed. Please interview us. We will be on panels, we will do one on one interviews." They made themselves a presence on the public airwaves, and said, "Here is what we did, which is not what you have said. Here is what we really did, here is what we really said, what we really learned. We didn't give away the shop. We didn't change what we believe but here is what we broadened our experience to include." A very strange thing started to happen. Instead of people coming up to them while they were walking down the street saying, "How dare you." They got strangers coming up to them saying, "Did you really talk to those people? I didn't know you could do that. Could I do it to?" From that question they started making waiting lists, they started putting names down. They had so many people who wanted to be involved that we had to go in and train ultimately fifty trainers to run local citizen dialogue groups that were cross-border dialogue groups. That grew the movement. I am convinced it was because they had the courage to step in front of the camera and say, "Let us tell you the truth of our experience." It took courage because they were getting death threats. That was one very powerful moment. I will give you a couple of stages of the result of that moment because that was in 1993. Let me start by saying that we began our work in 1991, and we always said that we would know when we are successful when they try to shut us down.
We were so successful in 1993 with that group and other events like it, that the US government in the shape of the US ambassador on the island at the time and the UN decided to make this kind of bi-communal work their foreign policy for Cyprus. They wrote it up in the UN secretary general report and they wrote it up in the reports back to Washington and the State Department, they made it possible. It is American foreign policy to organize and support this kind of citizen peacebuilding. Other countries followed suit, but first it was only the US or maybe Brits did one or two small things, but suddenly everyone is doing it now. The result is in 1997 in fact the Turkish Cypriot side shut it down because by that time we had people going across the border, they were making friends and writing to each other on e-mail, it was big. There was some occasion about the EU, Turkey not being accepted in the EU and the Turkish Cypriot regime shut down all bi-communal contact and started harassing who wanted to continue this. Some of them found ways to get around the restrictions and the secret police would follow and it was still a challenge but some people continued to meet. The UN at that point said, "Well every year we have a big bi-communal fair for UN celebration day but it looks like this year we can't do it because everything is closed off. The people who had been in the core of this citizen peacebuilding group said we will organize if for you. They did and 10000 people showed up.
I always consider that a bench mark to go from twenty people to 10,000 especially when it wasn't considered politically correct at least from one community to be meeting and when the UN had basically thrown up its hands, and the citizens have gotten together to put together this event. Since then there have been many large-scale events and there is dozens, if not hundreds, of local citizen based non-governmental initiatives, programs, committees, meetings, projects happening. The next benchmark that I want to talk about is what happened last April. Again it emerged from a situation in global politics where the Turkish regime in Ankara said that we have to show some act of good faith, especially in Cyprus if we want to be acceptable for the EU.
Quite by surprise, not only did the Turkish-Cypriot regime re-allow contact, they opened the borders. Suddenly anyone could go back and forth, these borders hadn't been open since 1974, in some cases 1963. People who had been refugees, who had left their homes, were able to go back for the first time in decades and see the reality of what they left, how it stands now, and kind of break some of the myths about going back to the village. More important it established a whole new base line from the one that we started in 1991 when you couldn't even bring the groups together but had to meet separately for two years and now suddenly the base line is we can cross any time we want we can see our friends on the other side, we can make friends on the other side, we can do things together, we can go to the sea shore, we can have each other in our homes. It is a whole other world. Again it was the citizen peacebuilding movement that started back then that is the driving force for so many of the things that are happening now.
Q: That is a great segway into my next question which is in dialogue projects like that personal transformation is important, that seems to be the focus of the dialogue, but the difference between personal transformation and the social transformation that you are talking about, it seems like there are a lot of steps in between that.