Ways to vanquish the culture of conflict

by Cesar Chelala

YEREVAN, Armenia — A trip to Armenia, where one of history’s most neglected genocides was carried out, is a reminder of other examples of man’s brutality to fellow human beings.

Recently in Iraq, two mentally sick women were used as carriers of distance-detonated bombs that killed dozens of people and injured several dozens more. What perverse rationale, either religiously based or not, can explain such a terrible act?

“Passage to Ararat,” Michael Arlen’s beautiful ode to the past and to his father’s memory reflects on the loss of more than 1 1/2 million Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915. There was a particular cruelty to those murders. They were not the anonymous deaths caused by bombs dropped from high-flying aircraft but, more perversely, the assassination of human beings by other humans in particular brutal and sadistic ways.

One might assume that these barbarous murders are things of the past. But every day we continue to confront similar realities. They exert a strong effect on people’s memories and feelings of hatred that continue undiminished with the passage of time. Is there a way to overcome the powerful negative effects left by those murderous acts?

In the 1970s, the Argentine military conducted “the dirty war” against those who opposed the government. In the process it made thousands of people (estimates range as high as 30,000) “disappear.” These people are now presumed dead.

Several high-ranking Argentine military officers were sent to prison, including former members of Argentina’s ruling junta, an unprecedented event in my country. Although this action didn’t bring back those people made to disappear, it at least brought a needed sense of justice to families and a partial sense of closure for their losses.

But what about Armenians’ hatred for Turks today, almost a century after the Armenian genocide? Is there a way for a civilized relationship between the two countries to eventually resume as a model for other countries to follow?

Bringing those responsible to justice at this point is impossible, but it should be possible to reach a level of communication that is lacking now. What is needed is a true change from a culture of violence to a culture of peace. If anything has characterized the last decade, it is the preferred use of violence over dialogue, of aggression over diplomacy, sadly epitomized by the Iraq war.

Except for isolated initiatives, very little has been done to build effective bridges for peace. It is naive at this stage in world politics to pretend that a sudden revelatory move will change the atmosphere of hatred that dominates not only the relationship between Armenians and Turks but also the many conflicts in the world today. Even worse, in many cases leaders seem to be at odds with the wishes of the majority of the population.

I believe it is possible to take other measures that, should they acquire momentum, could foster peace in countries of conflict. Talking to Armenians from different social strata, I became convinced that many are willing to try alternative approaches that could diminish the level of antagonism between Armenians and Turks.

The best way to do this is to implement projects with children and adolescents who are still untainted by long-standing hatreds. Such changes may involve musicians from countries at war working together for peace, such as Barenboim’s orchestra, comprising Arab and Israeli musicians.

In the case of Armenia, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers have successfully organized summer camps with children from Turkey and Armenia.

The formation of Eco Clubs among children from different countries working to improve the environment is another alternative.

By increasing such initiatives, we may be able to move from hatred to acceptance toward a better level of understanding. Rather than take a passive attitude, governments should actively support these kinds of initiatives. We have tried war and hatred and they have led only to more war and more hatred. Now is the time for a different approach.

Cesar Chelala, foreign correspondent for Middle East Times International (Australia), is cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.