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SHE TALKS PEACE: Staying Human Amidst Inhumanity

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 13 March) — Watching the news about Ukraine – seeing the terror, helplessness and hopelessness etched on the faces of the refugees – makes my blood boil.  There are now some 2 million refugees after two weeks of bombardment by Russia in an unprovoked war against a sovereign country unwilling to ever be saddled with a Russian yoke.  The bravery, resolve and patriotism of the Ukrainians have derailed the easy victory that Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he would have.  He and political analysts the world over had thought that Ukraine would fall in 48 hours, that the government leaders would flee. Well, they didn’t.  

Mobilized and inspired by their President, Vlodimir Zelensky, ordinary citizens have put up such a strong resistance that 48 hours became one week, two weeks – and Ukraine still stands.  Nina Kruschevska, great granddaughter of the famous Nikita Kruschev (Chair of the Communist Party who led the Soviet Union away from Stalinist policies into a more modern era), wondered who of the two Vladimirs would prevail.  

I had attended a UN conference on counter-terrorism in Belarus a few years ago , and had thought of visiting Ukraine.  I am now sorry I didn’t.  Kiev was said to be beautiful, historic and fun.  Today, Ukraine is war-torn, a picture of apocalypse.  Made me think of other countries that almost overnight slid from progress to stagnation and unrest.  Like Lebanon.

My parents had visited Lebanon in the early 1970s.  Mama told us stories of the wonder that was, Beirut, then known as the Paris of the Middle East.  Hard to believe now but Beirut had a reputation as a glamorous playground for rich Arabs and movie stars, a hub for international trade and business.  How did Lebanon slide into the conflict-affected area that it is today?

Who can remember Abu Nidal and his attempt to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom?  Israel used this as the justification for the invasion of Lebanon. 

Our guest today on “She Talks Peace,” Sawssan Abou-Zahr, shared with us the dire straits Lebanon is in – unrecognizable from the Lebanon of the 1970s, with its economic collapse after decades of war, including civil war.  Sawssan says that every day is a struggle – from access to food, electricity, and medicine, all the way to basic tenets of democracy, such as justice, accountability, free speech, and gender equality.  

All because of a lack of accountability. After the civil war ended in 1989, warlords granted themselves impunity, and the civil war ended without any transitional justice.  History has haunted Lebanon since then. The warlords became politicians, and continued their warlord-ways, without using arms.  Mindanawons who remember our life in the  1960s – does this sound familiar?

In more recent years, the internal struggle for accountability has led to even more armed conflict.  On October 17, 2019, protests by Lebanese activists, triggered by anger at planned taxes on gasoline and other consumer products, grew into a nation-wide movement against government corruption and the ruling elite, joblessness, the stagnation of the economy, sectarian rule, and lack of accountability.  Then Prime Minister Hariri resigned.  The succeeding government lasted for a year, resigning after the 2020 Beirut explosion resulting from the detonation of tons of ammonium nitrate (ingredient used for both fertilizer and ammunition) improperly stored in a warehouse near the port.   

Sawssan describes the struggles Lebanese peace journalists face, in the aftermath of the 2019 revolution and the Beirut blast.  She challenges the glamourous image many have of peacebuilders – giving speeches at international conferences covered by media.  She shares the reality, that many peacebuilders are unpaid volunteers who still have to pay for rent and face the same issues as others in Lebanon do – work to pay for groceries, utilities when prices overwhelm their incomes. They must live with trauma, as well as survivor’s guilt – when their colleagues, exposed to the same dangers as they are, pass away. 

Sawssan shares how she maintains mental health, very important for peacebuilders everywhere.  Her own coping mechanisms are to take each day as it comes, to avoid planning big, and to take comfort in the small things such as getting her nails done and watching birds.

She worries about the future of Lebanon, recognizing that change is a slow process, that hope comes and goes, and wondering how patient the Lebanese people are.  But Sawssan, like her people, are resilient.  She will open her window, watch the birds, breathe deeply, and carry on.

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(MindaViews is the opinion section of Mindanews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy)

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