Susan Allen Nan
Director of the Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
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: We had a, Monday through Friday, most every day there were morning classes in conflict resolution and those were times where people really would focus on learning conflict resolution skills, sometimes they were directly applicable to their own conflict at home and other times they were related to basic how do you deal with conflict in the workplace? What do you do with a conflict with your neighbor and those conflict resolution skills building times were I think very helpful in terms of teaching skills but also teaching attitudes of "conflict is part of life and we can learn to deal with conflict productively"
Having survived wars many of these youth were understandably very reluctant to get into anything related to the sort of, at least the Georgian Abkhaz conflict so I think dealing with other kinds of conflicts was one way we could teach them conflict resolution skills and open up some dialogue skills and then move the dialogues towards more sensitive discussions.
I remember one very heated discussion that we ended up having a dialogue on men's and women's roles, gender roles, and there were very strong disagreements within the group and it didn't cut down Georgian Abkhaz lines, it was more women and men lines and that was a discussion we hadn't really planned we were just looking for a topic we could use to practice dialogue skills, and it ended up to be a real topic, it wasn't just a role play it was something people were really into and they used their dialogue skills to hear each other so things like that were part of the whole process too, it wasn't simply Georgian Abkhaz conflict, the youth came knowing that they wouldn't find a political solution themselves to the Georgian Abkhaz conflict and that that wouldn't be their role but that they could learn to play with each other and to study together and take English classes together and so forth.
Q: That's interesting. In terms of expectations, did you lower their expectations in terms of "we're not going to solve the conflict?" Or did they sort of instinctively know that that just wasn't a realistic option? I mean, how did you prepare them for coming?
Q: So in terms of expectations, what did you tell the kids and what did they expect when they came to the workshop?
A: I think there were mixed expectations. For some of them it was an expectation of this will be difficult. How can we talk to people whose parents fought on the other side of the war and for others, I think probably everybody felt it was going to be difficult. I think for other kids it was they were able to concentrate more on "oh this is going to be exciting to learn some new skills and see a new place and have this kind of international experience and you know take English class and go to see the Capitol and the museums and the zoo and so forth."
Q: Field trip.
A: Yeah, yeah. It was one big adventurous month which included working with people from the other side of the conflict and that was part of the adventure too was "OK, how do we do this dialogue stuff and how do we talk with each other and how do we remain respectful and not have violence break out in the group. One of the things that really struck me in each of the groups was that within the first day of them being there, you know one of the classic things of a program like this is you ask for people's expectations and every single time there were people from both sides of the conflict who spoke out very strongly about their expectation was that they didn't want to have conflict in their group and that they wanted, you know "we've come here peacefully, we want to do our English classes and our computer classes and our conflict resolution skills classes and we don't want to have conflict within our group. And
Q: Meaning between Georgians and Abkhaz or
A: Yup, yup, yup, or the student group.
Q: OK, not between Georgians and Georgians but no conflict anywhere.
A: No, they didn't want to have conflict and so in a sense this was a conflict avoidance statement but it also meant that between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, usually some youth leaders have emerged who agreed that they were going to settle any conflicts should they start to arise and not let them escalate and not let things get out of hand.
Those were some interesting, very strong youth who were very mature in a lot of ways and were ready to make sure that people on their own side of the conflict didn't make any statements that would be seen as inflammatory. And they had to get to know the other side's concerns enough to know what would be seen as inflammatory and how could they be sensitive in how they spoke about things. It also meant that some of them wanted to not have anything to do with discussion about the Georgian Abkhaz conflict at all which is difficult when you're doing you know, just simple exercises such as "where are you from?" can turn into "Well, I was from this town until I was forced to flee during the war."
Q: Wow, so you mentioned the AED and the follow up. Is there follow up going on now with the people who participated in that group and then if we can go back into the large part, how do you see that workshop fitting into the larger group of interventions?
A: OK. So the series of many different workshops with the youth and the real long term on the ground program that AED has been supporting with mostly USAID funding, that on the ground program is divided into many different youth clubs. Practically each village in the region has its own youth club that works with youth who suffered through the war and are disadvantaged because of the war and they have classes and skills-building programs and fun things and it gives them something to do in a time when the economy is pretty bad and they don't have a lot to do at home and elsewhere.
These youth clubs have been ongoing and I think what the program as a whole over several years of operation, four or five years ago, or even longer, has created several hundred people on both sides of the conflict who are young adults now or almost young adults now and they understand that there are real people on the other side of the conflict who have real names and real histories who have also suffered through the war and who want to build a peaceful prosperous future and want to live a good neighbors whatever the political status ends up being.
So I think that they've prepared the way for whatever the political settlement looks like for the societies to be able to live together regardless of whether it's together in a federation or a confederation or whatever the political words end up being, that its people will be able to get along with each other and I think that that will be very important in the future. Especially given that the structure of this conflict, there is such a divide between the societies and very little communication possible back and forth across the conflict divide.