AEGEE and the Subtleties of Peacebuilding

“Against. – Against. – Against. – …” At the Agora Zaragoza, the Focus Area named “Peacebuilding” received a clear negative vote. Does that mean that AEGEE is not interested in this topic, or do we believe we don’t have the capacity to work on it? Or is there a different explanation? – A short inquiry into one of our favourite misconceptions.

Peace in Europe is a normality for most of us. This doesn’t mean that we do not have conflicts, but at there have been only a few occasions in the last 68 years where Europeans have taken up arms to settle disputes. For a reason that you will come to understand in the course of this article, I am not going to mention any regions here as ‘examples of armed conflicts in Europe’. But most of us have probably have heard about some of the conflicts that have taken place in Europe recently.

In AEGEE, the way we speak about these conflicts sometimes reminds me of the way my grandma used to speak about her quarreling grandchildren. “C’mon kiddos, don’t be bad, if you stop fighting and just forget about your argument you will get some of my cherry cake!” You may remember that when you were a kid, you weren’t particularly fond of such interventions (even if you were fond of cake), simply because your quarrel was your own business, and you felt that you weren’t being taken seriously.

Now an armed conflict is a bit different from children quarreling. This seems like a redundant statement, but I believe we need to realise that we are not talking about a boy who destroyed his brother’s Lego castle. Forgiving and forgetting becomes difficult when your father was killed, your sister raped, your house burnt and your society filled with thoughts of hatred and revenge. Trauma is still there, even when the last survivors of the war are dying of old age. Peacebuilding after war is something that takes generations.

We have quite a number of Locals in our network that are located in areas which have been affected by armed conflicts over the past decades. For me it was interesting to observe that nearly all of the locals from these areas (with only two exceptions) voted against Peacebuilding as a Focus Area. It made me wonder about why this Focus Area was proposed in the first place – had anyone ever approached these Locals for their opinion? I have been asking the delegates who voted in the plenary to comment on their decision and I will to let two of them speak for themselves.

In the words of Mert Can Yılmaz (AEGEE-Ankara):

  •  “Our argument was that we have already chosen four big topics. Each of them has several aims. […] And we think that working in detail is better than achieving aims superficially.”
  • “On the other hand, we thought peacebuilding […] is a little difficult issue in Eastern Europe.”
  • “As AEGEE-Ankara, we’d like to work on peacebuilding. Besides, we have already been working on it. As an example, we did the Turkish-Greek Civic Dialogue Project. And the AEGEE-Ankara Turkish-Armenian Working Group has done a project and sereval events. We are looking for more.“

Silvija Perić (AEGEE-Zagreb) adds:

  • “I’m not saying we’re against the “Peacebuilding”, but we thought it wouldn’t work out as a Focus Area since people feel annoyed when others give advice or try to help with dealing with situations they can’t possibly understand.”
  • “I love mediation, but you have to know when you can use it and when is best to wait patiently until there is space for compromise and work. We should do peacebuilding, but as careful observers who are not here to judge, give advice nor trying to ‘make things better’. We should be the ones who will go there to help them with what they need, to listen, to be friends with them and in the end, just be there for them, understanding that sometimes being there next to them in silence tells and helps more than words.”

Who could have said it better?

I still believe that AEGEE has a huge potential for peacebuilding. But it is not our task to settle territorial disputes or find a political balance in a conflict of interest. We are not in a position to mediate or give advice, and we should not try. What we are good at -and what is needed, goes along Silvija’s last lines: creating friendship, understanding and solidarity, just by bringing people together and so we realise that we share the same interests, worries, and love for life. And if the situation allows it -with some intelligent facilitation, it may be even possible to “talk about it”. But that should not be our main objective.

As AEGEE-Ankara’s example shows, we have achieved important things in the past. We have a unique capacity to build bridges where others can’t. Now we have decided not to have a Focus Area about it, but that doesn’t mean we must be idle. Maybe it is even better not to have a Focus Area, because that might have created wrong (result-oriented) expectations.

Peacebuilding, in this broader understanding, should be our daily ambition, in every event we organise. Our societies are full of small conflicts and misunderstandings, prejudices and stereotypes, ignorance and mistrust that we can help resolving. And by doing so, we probably make a greater contribution to our Europe without borders than we will ever realise.

Written by Thomas Leszke, AEGEE-Köln