The Words of the Schellen Family
The small Eastern Mediterranean country of Lebanon recently was once again a news maker. Spring time in this country entails many commemoration dates of frightful events such as the outbreak of civil war in April 1975, an invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces in March 1978, and the death of more than 100 civilians in a UN shelter in April 1996 through a direct hit by Israeli fire targeting positions of Hezbollah, the Shiite party of God, which has played a major role in armed confrontations in Lebanon since the 1980s.
In May 2008, it seemed as if a long-ticking time bomb of internal disagreement would ignite a new armed conflict. When the Lebanese cabinet decided to dismantle a communications network used by Hezbollah, an 18-month "war of minds" between government and opposition groups became violent overnight.
When many feared the worst -- which would have been a new civil war with countless losers and no winners -- the opposing factions consented to meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, for negotiations under the sponsorship of the Arab League and the Qatari government. The negotiations, with personal prodding by the emir of Qatar, succeeded where a number of Arab, European, US, and UN intermediation efforts had failed, and on May 21, the Lebanese agreed on a new president and a new power-sharing formula.
The settlement reflected the realities of a nation seeking a new path and gave rise to new optimism that the country can have a chance at forging a more stable state of non-violent coexistence. It has been a long-held view that Arab peoples have to solve the challenges of politics and security of Arab countries. Although no peace advocate for the Middle East will say that the situation in Lebanon has been fully solved, this 180-degree turnaround of the Lebanese situation signaled the possibility that the region's peoples can master their challenges.
For Lebanese Ambassadors for Peace, whose network crosses all communal lines and barriers of ideology and politics, the experience of May 2008 reinforces the conviction that peace in the region is not an impossible vision.
Furthermore, the Peace Mural project the last weekend of April demonstrated the willingness of Lebanese youth to cooperate in mutually beneficial micro peace initiatives.
Stepping off the bus from Beirut, young volunteers arrived in the southern Lebanese community of Fawka Nabatieh greeted by a calm and cozy small-town feeling. Two Lebanese scouts groups comprising about 25 members, aged 15 to their early 20s, arrived to paint a Peace Mural together with local volunteers. In the process, young people from diverse communities expressed a shared vision of peace.
The trip from Beirut to Nabatieh passes coastal towns with views of lush fields and grazing cows, in stark contrast to still-fresh images of the flood of refugees fleeing the war zone in the recent past. Posters put up by Hezbollah maintain the memory of sacrifices claimed by the group and the victories it has announced. The 30th anniversary of the outbreak of conflict in 1975 was commemorated in Beirut with murals proclaiming “never again.” Intense political disputes feed sentiments of discord, pushing the country’s communities to hunker down in their respective strongholds.
The Upper Nabatieh peace mural opened a window of trust into the future. Participants coming from Sunni, Shiite, and Christian communities formed new perspectives on their Lebanese identity by working together. Hussein Shamseldin, a participant in the project, had no illusions. “I came here to support peace. It is not possible to have peace under the current conditions in the region -- but I still work for peace,” he says.
The city council welcomed the Beirut group headed by scout leaders Maher Kalenderian and Mohammed Saad, Hiba Othman, a professor of mathematics and UPF Ambassador for Peace who is an experienced volunteer, and UPF representative Hermine Schellen.
Assad Ghandour, the head of the municipality, delivered a greeting, attended by several city council members, leading members of the business community, a retired Lebanese Army general, and the head of the Nabatieh school district, Ahmad Kallas.
Key local partners Hussein Ghandour, member of the Fawka city council and an Ambassador for Peace, and Zulfikar, chief of municipal security, invested a lot in preparing the project.
Bridging the distance between volunteers and municipal authorities promoted shared enthusiasm, explained Hermine Schellen. “Our simple purpose in coming here was to change these walls into bridges of peace through our combined effort. Many NGOs work independently. For us, it has proven ideal to collaborate closely with the municipality.”
As the sun started heating the pavement, the volunteers erupted into creative action and paint flowers, figures, hearts, a model family, and peace slogans in various languages. Youth from two local scout organizations and curious teenagers from the village joined in. Tammam, a resident artist, gave advice. The enthusiasm for self-expression by youngsters reared in love for the resistance required some directions to stay within the topical frame of peace.
A senior politician visited the site. “You should paint peace murals in every village in this area,” said Abdellatif Al-Zein, who served in the Lebanese Parliament as representative of this region. Lunch under the trees was followed by a discussion on civil virtues and ethical responsibilities.
The Armenian Hogenmen Scouts of Achrafieh had experience serving their own Armenian Catholic community in Beirut, said Maher Kalendarian, but “why limit ourselves to our small society? I want them to be more open to others. Coming to Nabatieh, where our young people have only heard of violence before, is so different.”
Most of the Beirut scouts had never before visited Nabatieh; their only concepts of the area had come from media reports associating this part of Lebanon with violence and danger.
Mohammed Saad's group was apprehensive about venturing into this region. The misconceptions about each other were dissolving quickly, he confirmed. “We could feel that we are the same people, all Lebanese, and the scout leaders from Nabatieh told me that they want to get together again. Many of us from Beirut want to come back soon.”
“There are so many fears that limit people. It is a relatively simple thing to do such a project once you have put your heart to it, but it is not easy to overcome fears about others,” added Hermine Schellen. “The biggest achievement of the young people in this project was that they used this chance of seeing that all of us have our essential features in common and differ merely in concepts. With that we could give the youth a hope for a better future, a future where all can live as one in peace.”
Three Arabic-language daily newspapers and one Armenian-Lebanese paper published positive reviews and printed pictures of the peace mural. As a project, the mural was affordable and, thanks to the broad participation of the municipality and local community, very sustainable.