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SHE TALKS PEACE: Lebanon Drinks More Blood Than Water

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 24 April) — A few weeks ago, we had a virtual focus group discussion on ASEAN’s initiative to have a regional action plan for Women, Peace, and Security. The initiative is supported by UN Women.  It was enlightening to hear our sisters and colleagues from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand share their insights on why it is important for ASEAN to have such a plan.  I was particularly encouraged that brothers joined the discussion.  Everyone in our virtual meeting agreed that a regional action plan for the WPS agenda is valuable – not just to empowering women but even more important to regional security and peace.   #WPSASEAN.

The WPS agenda became a reality the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UNSC Resolution 1325 after October 31, 2000.  Pushed by a strong global constituency of women leaders, civil society organizations for decades and supported by progressive member states who saw the value women bring to the peace process, the UNSC finally saw the light and passed the resolution.  UNSCR 1325 looked at impact of conflict on women and women’s contribution to conflict resolution and sustainable peace. The UNSC would never have passed it if women all over the world did not lobby and show the UN and governments that women are not just victims but are actually good at peacebuilding. 

One of the important programs implemented by many women organizations in conflict areas is rehabilitating traumatized communities and captured extremists.    A friend and fellow peacebuilder, Maya Yamout, joined Dina Zaman and me in a personal conversation about the work she does with prisoners in Beirut.

Maya describes herself as an Extremist Behavioral Specialist and Forensic Social Worker.  She says that  she is “passionate about challenging violent extremism and terrorism through research, awareness, profiling and innovative programs that counter hate-based violence globally.” 

Maya shared her very personal story of why she became a peacebuilder and social worker.  She had a very close friend from high school with whom she shared hopes and dreams over coffee at Starbucks every weekend.  She saw her friend changing slowly before her eyes: from a modern computer engineering student wearing jeans  to a conservative man who would not even shake hands.  Their coffee sessions lessened over time – from once a week, to once a month, to none at all.  She could not understand why. Maya spoke to his mother to find out what had happened and there was nothing – no economic problems, no divorce, no obvious cause.  Later, she found out that he had become a follower of ISIS, fighting and dying in Syria.  Maya decided to use her specialization in social work to understand why young people were attracted to violent extremism – and do something about it.  

Living in Lebanon, Maya and her sister Nancy – nicknamed the Kamikaze sisters by Lebanese media – are the co-founders of Rescue Me, an NGO focused on crime and violence prevention plus trauma rehabilitation. They also conduct forensic social field research related to terrorists and victims of terrorism. Maya believes that being aware of risk factors at early stages can significantly reduce levels of crime and violence later in life – which is what drove them to start Rescue Me.  

For ten years, Maya and Nancy interviewed hundreds of male and female militants, jihadi terrorists, and victims of terrorism in Lebanon, studying the social factors that contribute to violent jihadist extremism.  They became regular visitors to the infamous Block B of Roumieh Prison,  a ward usually reserved for prison guards, the army and Lebanon’s Internal Security Force (ISF).   Block B is the reason why Roumieh Prison is so feared –  it houses around 680 men accused of being Islamist militants.  Maya share with us their strategy to  build trust and rapport among convicted terrorists: do not talk politics or ideology, focus on the issues of everyday life and humanize the prisoner.  A previous guest on She Talks Peace, Noor Huda Ismael, said it best: a terrorist is not born, he is made.  

Their justice system has to be corrected as it just hardens the prisoners.  Maya says she is tired of it.  While justice requires that we don’t forget the crime, she strongly believes that we should also forgive and rehabilitate the prisoners who have repented.  This is the only way to ensure that we strengthen the foundation of peace.  Even as she describes their situation darkly – drinking more blood than water – she talks about making peace and forgiveness as a viable option.  She told us the story of one the prisoners she worked with.  He turned his life around.  When he was released, he found a job as an NGO worker. He named his baby girl Maya.  It is these stories that make the overwhelming work less burdensome for Maya. 

Beirut used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East – sophisticated, lively, cultured, center of finance and trade, beautiful.  Not anymore.  Decades of armed conflict compounded by violent extremism, corruption and misgovernance has changed the landscape.  And the Lebanese citizens suffer.   Putin’s war on Ukraine has distracted the attention of the world away from the conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.  I hope and pray that the world does not forget Maya and all like her who continue to shoulder the burden of preventing the growth of violent extremism.  Forgetting will give the seeds of terrorism time to grow.  And we shall reap what has been sown. 

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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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