Communities need to heal from armed conflict and war
Although I have been engaged in issues around peace and social justice since the ‘90s when I worked with refugees in the community where I lived (Hamburg, Germany), my peacebuilding journey started in 2007. At this time, I started work as a field volunteer for a civilian peacekeeping mission with Peace Brigades International (PBI) in the region of Urabá, Colombia (South America) within the framework of the German Civil Peace Service. Urabá was still an extremely dangerous region and communities suffered from severe, decades-long conflict dynamics. I, too, had encounters with illegal armed groups in the jungle, witnessed a murder of a social leader in the countryside, and so-called social cleansings in the city of Turbo (killings of adolescents who did not fit in).
These extremely painful experiences showed me how vulnerable individuals and communities are during armed conflict and war, in circumstances where the rule of law does not function anymore. In Colombia, serious violations of human rights and infractions of international humanitarian law have involved physical, moral, social, cultural, and psychological damage and impact not only the dignity of the direct victim but also that of their relatives and close circle at a personal and group level. Additionally, their rights, the social fabric of their communities, and their social networks are affected by the situation.
During my first three years in Colombia, what impacted me the most was the fate of the victims of the armed conflict and the lack of justice. I always asked myself “what does this country need to stop this terrible conflict?” and “what needs to be done specifically to bring justice and reconcile the country after a possible peace deal?”
I came across two key concepts within the peacebuilding field, which are transitional justice and reconciliation, and started to study for an MA in Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University (UK). This inspired me to look for practical tools to work with victims of any kind of violence and that included a different approach toward justice. A move to La Paz (Bolivia) in 2016 and a new job were the deciding factors because here I started to search for tools, that stem from ancient cultures that I could use in my work with indigenous families and communities that suffered from domestic, sexual, and social violence. Thus, I found restorative practices especially useful – almost “magic” – tools that can prevent and mitigate episodes of violence and that have the potential to foster healing in the affected families and communities. The experiences gave way to the writing of a handbook, which uses a restorative approach for conflict transformation and violence prevention in educational communities.
To this day I feel touched by the power of restorative practices for the restoration of relationships, the reparation of harm, and the healing of emotional wounds. Unfortunately, most post-conflict activities do not focus on community peacebuilding. However, I am convinced that individuals, communities, and societies need to heal from conflict and war in order to break the cycle of violence and revenge so that respect, empathy, and cooperation can come to the fore again. Restorative measures at the community level can be extremely helpful in the moments when we search for healing and reconciliation.
Andreas Riemann – Germany/Bolivia/Colombia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 33