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July 04, 2014

Kachin to Belfast – peace activists share stories

By Suzanne Keatinge, Head of Region, Asia


What does a priest from Myanmar, a former Republican combatant, and an ex-loyalist combatant have in common?  That’s what I was wondering, nervously, as I travelled to Belfast recently to hear about peace efforts in Northern Ireland.  I shouldn’t have worried.  

 
Trócaire had arranged for Father Paul Dwang, one of our partners from the northern state of Kachin, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), to hear the stories of two former protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict, Gerry Foster and Alasdair Little. 
 
They are now peace activists working across the divided communities of Belfast.  We also learnt about the experiences of our host, Trocaire’s Northern Ireland Regional Director, Eithne McNulty, in mobilising women to play an important role in peace-making.  
 
In talking about violent conflicts as seemingly diverse as that of Northern Ireland and Myanmar, it didn’t take long to realise that there are many common themes, such as poverty, injustice and an imbalance of power.  The manipulation of civilians by powerful elites had particular resonance to our group. Father Paul explained that neither side - the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Myanmar military - is interested in finding a solution to the war, not least because it allows for the continued illegal extraction of rich natural resources. The need for the leaders to protect their status, wealth and power is very real.  
 
Such leaders tend to focus on recruiting and impressing young people, all too often the ‘cannon fodder’ of war. Young women and men become so vulnerable in times of conflict, and yet they are also the generation that hold the key to breaking the negative cycle of war. 

A child at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State, northern Myanmar

Caption: A child at a camp for displaced people in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. Conflict has displaced over 100,000 people. Church agencies are responding by providing shelter and food to people in the camps. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)

 

 
Gerry talked of being a young man in the bitterly divided streets of inner-city Belfast, where there were no jobs and no prospects. The attraction of joining the radical republican group, the INLA, were obvious to him. What did he have to lose when their leaders spoke of having ‘right’ on their side.   
 
Alasdair spoke of how the leadership used religion to reinforce this image of being ‘in the right’, as well as creating and manipulating stereotypes of the enemy.  He was taught to demonise ‘the other’, even though they were mainly young people like himself living in nearby streets. Over time, it became easier for him to blame ‘the other’ for his own sense of disenfranchisement and failings. It was only after years in prison that he came to the realisation, slowly and painfully, that he was being taught to demonise himself.  
 
Gerry and Alasdair told us their personal journeys: from committing acts of violence and having physical and psychological violence done to them, to finding their own paths to reconciliation.  It was immensely powerful.  As Eithne commented, she has heard these stories many times but it never fails to move her. To me, they embodied the difference between peace-building and what we call conflict transformation.  
 
Don’t get me wrong, I was shocked at hearing of the extreme violence and how it has shattered the lives of individuals, families and communities.  It was also daunting to hear of the painstaking individual journeys they both went through; how they had to find the courage to transform themselves before they could help their communities. 
 
It was also clear that there are no silver bullets when it comes to building peace.  Nor are there fairytale endings. There was a strong sense that these men were by no means at the end of their journey, but they inspired hope for the future.    
 
Gerry and Alasdair’s stories brought home the reality that unless a political peace process is underpinned by community-level peace building, then it will not succeed.  It takes individuals working tirelessly in their communities to counter the negative stereotypes of ‘the other’. These people must be willing to take very real risks and show true leadership. 
 
It reminded me of Trocaire’s work in Timor-Leste.  We officially closed our offices there in August 2013. At the closing ceremony we heard about our support to small groups, even individuals, during the darkest days of the Indonesian occupation. It was through simple acts of solidarity that we were able to give them courage to struggle on.  Some of them are today’s leaders in Timor-Leste.  
 
Trócaire continues to work in other violent conflicts today, like Somalia, South Sudan and the Palestinian Territory, striving to change attitudes and behaviour, not just the symptoms of war.  But as Alasdair spoke of trying to influence individuals, one by one, to bring about real reconciliation, it struck me that we are hugely challenged by the push to work to scale, to ensure value for money and to find evidence within ever shorter programme cycles.  I find it difficult to reconcile the two strands at times.  I remembered Justin Kilcullen, our former Director, at the closing of the office in Timor saying:  “Metrics never transform anything; people do.”
 
Alasdair spoke of the power of nature and neutral spaces to enable deep dialogue with oneself, as well as with former enemies.  He originally met Gerry in the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Wicklow.  I remember visiting the peace centre when I first came back to Ireland after many years working in Somalia.  My first thoughts were: isn’t this a bit of a luxury to bring people from all over the world to this beautiful secluded spot in the heart of Wicklow?  But it didn’t take long to appreciate the healing power that the stillness and neutrality of nature can have on individuals who are brought up to hate, to feel stressed, and to live off adrenaline for survival.  
 
Sadly, such physical spaces which supported Alasdair, Gerry and others in their search for peace are now closed, and funding for peacebuilding work is scarce now in the north.  Isn’t that a bit premature, I thought to myself, as Gerry and Alasdair took us to visit the so-called Belfast peace wall. They remarked wryly that this huge concrete and wire edifice that marks the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant communities has actually grown in length since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  
 
The building of trust is another critical ingredient to conflict resolution. This was brought home by Eithne’s experiences in the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition political party, with the contribution of inspiring women like Monica McWilliams, a Trocaire Board member, who is currently Professor of Women’s Studies, based in the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster.  Their efforts ensured that women’s voices, so often excluded in political processes, were heard loud and clear.  And it was a powerful voice; one that got politicians to focus on the daily reality of families living in poverty, coping with violence and abuse in the home, and managing the impact of high alcoholism and unemployment. Above all, their politics spoke more to the language of human rights, placing human dignity and inclusion at the heart of the solution, rather than searching for it in the ideologies of religion, ethnicity and exclusion.

Members of a youth group in southern Myanmar, that have undergone gender training

Caption: Hongsar Htaw (28) and Manoing Rot (26) from Mon State in southern Myanmar, members of a youth group that has undergone gender training to encourage women to become more involved in decision-making processes. Men like Manoing encourage women to get involved in local organisations and to participate in their communities. (Photo: Eoghan Rice / Trócaire)

 
As Father Paul heads back to Kachin at the start of July, I wonder what he made of his short visit to Belfast.  He has been on his own journey of discovery in these last nine months in Ireland, studying for a Master’s Degree in development at Kimmage Development Studies Centre.  He talks now about wanting to do things differently when he returns. About the impotence of only providing humanitarian relief to the victims of conflict.  His organisation, Caritas Myanmar, provides life-saving assistance to over 100,000 conflict-displaced people but, he says, the real work lies in finding long-term solutions to the war.  
 
I get the distinct feeling that his journey to build peace in his community has been helped a little by a few short hours sharing stories over cheese sandwiches with courageous peace activists in Belfast.  I’m sure their paths will meet again. 

June 27, 2014

Uganda calling...

by Kieran Downey

Teacher Kieran Downey shares his experiences about visiting some of our projects in Uganda which benefited from funds from UKAID and generous donations from our supporters.

In April this year, I travelled to Uganda on a Trócaire-run trip as part of the educational investment the organisation makes every year to increase awareness of its work and allow people to see firsthand how the money raised is spent and invested. 
 
We visited projects in the areas of livelihoods, governance and human rights and gender-based violence. We were able to see how Trócaire invested in local welfare and development agencies to promote and extend the fundamental vision of Christ in the Gospels and the Church in its Social Teaching: the dignity of every human being and the right to fair and equitable access to resources. 
 
Staff and volunteers at Twizimbe Centre, Jinja with the teachers from Northern Ireland
Staff and volunteers at Twizimbe Centre, Jinja, with teachers from Northern Ireland
 
The first project we visited was in Jinja where the river Nile flows out from Lake Victoria. There where we met Sr Maureen and Sr Catherine, Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Africa at the Twizimbe Centre which is part-funded by Trócaire. 
 
Here the nuns with a small army of paid and unpaid volunteers work in four areas- adult literacy, community health, start-up businesses for widows and ‘learning for life’ – a sexual health and wellbeing course for primary and secondary school children in the outlying districts. 
 
We visited the Anglican school of St Apollo where the students told us of the work the centre had been doing in terms of educating them about their bodies, about the dangers posed by HIV and AIDS and the problem of human trafficking. 
 
We heard how the people had been ‘built up’ in education, in self-esteem and personal dignity. Their stories were both inspiring and humbling. In fact, that understanding of building people up was the very lynchpin idea that binds the work of Trócaire in all its aspects. 
 
Sr Maureen said that they decided not to invest in building toilet blocks and school buildings - as important as they are - but rather building up people. 
 
It is a long term investment in people and in their future, and indeed in the future of Uganda. 
 
We moved on from Jinja to Soroti, some four hours drive on roads that quickly ran out of tarmac and left us shuddering and swaying on roads of red mud. Our base for the next four days was Soroti and we met with workers from Socadido – the Diocesan office for welfare and development. We travelled out to a nearby (that meaning only two hours) model village where we met men and women, young and old. 
 
They wanted to put on a show for us and equally we must have been a novelty in their day but nonetheless the warmth of the welcome and the way in which we were embraced - literally and metaphorically - by the villagers, took us all aback. 
 
 In fact Augustine, the chairman of the local economic group talked of us as saviours for the fact that we had saved the old from illness, the clothed from nakedness and the young from malnourishment and illiteracy. Humbling. 
 
Listening to him and feeling the warmth of the welcome gave a new truth to the idea of this planet as a global village for as we were shown around their village we got an incredible insight into how life had been changed by the help of funds invested by Trócaire. 
 
The education about crop rotation and planting, the micro-financing afforded by Trócaire developing a series of “soft loans” – in which a loan of say £35 (!) would be organised and it would be paid back, with interest of 3% rather the usual 20% from Ugandan banks. The person would take this and invest it in seed or poultry and the loan itself would be repaid at 25p a week. The investment made would then start earning the family money with help from Socadido to get access to fruit, vegetable and animal markets in Soroti and beyond. 
 
On the morning of Holy Thursday we visited the Catholic Diocesan curial offices where we met Caroline, Geoffrey and Helen – catechists involved in the Ugandan Catholic Church’s programme of combating gender based violence. We met with their staff and learnt about the methodology, the problems encountered and the successes they are having in changing people’s perceptions around domestic violence. 
 
We even took part in a role play where the first set of statements read out from various family and societal voices enforced old perceptions of acceptance of the imbalance of power in relationships and the acceptance of violence as a part of life. Then there was a second set of statements of how figures in the family and society can speak up and out about violence in the home. To see their work drove home for me that for these people to keep working I need to keep supporting.  
 
The week was a humbling and uplifting experience – one I will never forget. It was an experience of people who, having been given a hand up, are absolutely ready and able to fulfil their own potential. 
 
I want to finish by assuring you that your generosity to Trócaire is changing people’s lives and working to build people up and in so doing affecting the future generations. 
 
June 17, 2014

Breaking the silence about the occupation

Former Israeli soldiers will launch a striking photography exhibition in the Gallery of Photography, Dublin (June 19th – June 29th), that reveals the reality of daily life for soldiers and Palestinian civilians living under occupation. In the lead up to the exhibition, Trócaire's Eoghan Rice tells of his experiences in the West Bank.

We had seen and heard a lot during our time in Hebron but one soldier’s words stood out.

On a side street in this racially segregated city in the West Bank we had watched as the soldier stopped a young boy – 12 years old, perhaps maybe 13 – and searched his schoolbag. It was a curious sight – a soldier in full combat attire armed with a machine gun checking to see whether a child with a schoolbag posed any threat.

The soldier had seen us watching him and when he had finished with the child he approached us. I had expected him to issue us with some sort of warning but his words took me completely by surprise.

“We’re just ordinary people doing a job,” he said, as he walked away to the next checkpoint or the next military post.

Breaking The Silence - School bag search

Caption: Israeli soldier searches a boy's school bag in Hebron. The boy is a member of one of the few remaining Palestinian families to live in the old centre of Hebron. Palestinians who do not live in the old city are not allowed enter. Photo: Alan Whelan

His words were telling on a number of levels. Firstly: “a job”. That’s what it is.  The day-to-day reality of a soldier’s life in the West Bank is not like an action movie.

It’s stopping old men and demanding to see their ID. It’s telling the old woman that she can’t go down this street and that she’ll have to walk the long way. It’s reminding Palestinian families that this footpath is only for Israelis and that they have to walk on the other side of the road. It’s looking inside schoolbags of children who are just trying to go home.

It’s a routine of a thousand little jobs, each monotonous and pointless in equal measure.

The other thing the soldier’s words told me is that he knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew that the child posed no threat to him, and he knew that searching him served no purpose other than to subjugate and control. He knew this because why else would he try to justify it?

If that soldier felt guilt or unease about his job he would not be the only one. In 2004 a group of former Israeli soldiers decided to speak up about what they had done during their service. In the 10 years that have followed, more and more ex-soldiers have joined them.

 

Breaking The Silence

Captions Left: A photo shows the contrast between a Hebron street in 1999 and today. The markets in the old city centre have been closed to all Palestinians. Right: A photo contrasts life in a busy Hebron market in 1999 and life on that street today. The old centre of Hebron has been closed to Palestinians, turning the city into a ghost town. Photos: Eoghan Rice.

 

Breaking The Silence photography exhibition:

For the next two weeks, ‘Breaking The Silence’, the organisation those ex-soldiers founded, will be in Ireland, giving public talks in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, as well as hosting a photography exhibition in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin’s Temple Bar (June 19th – June 29th).

The purpose of Breaking The Silence is to raise awareness of the reality of daily life living under military occupation. Their website www.breakingthesilence.org.il contains many video testimonies of former soldiers. Some speak about shootings, but mostly it’s the mundane routine of being a soldier in an occupied land that make it so fascinating. The checkpoints, the harassment of civilians, the endless orders to “make your presence felt”.

By speaking out against the continued occupation of the West Bank, Breaking The Silence highlight an important point: not everybody in Israel agrees with what is happening in the West Bank.

Not everybody thinks that Israel’s best interests are served by a 47-year-old military occupation of a civilian population.

Not everybody thinks that it is right for a city to be segregated on ethnic lines.

Not everybody thinks that peace can be found by searching the schoolbags of young children.

Not even the soldier whose job it is to do it.


Breaking The Silence tour:


Dublin Exhibition: Photography exhibition in the Gallery of Photography (Temple Bar) from June 19th to 29th. Opening hours 11am – 6pm daily and 1pm – 6pm on Sunday. Entry to the exhibition is free of charge and members of Breaking the Silence will be in attendance each day to offer guided tours. 

Dublin Panel Discussion: There will be a panel discussion at the Gallery of Photography from 6-8pm on Wednesday June 25th on the subject ‘the role of photography in conflict situations’ with Yehuda Shaul (Breaking the Silence), Dearbhla Glynn (film maker), Anthony Haughey (photographer) and Eilish Dillion (lecturer). Please email nguiheen@trocaire.ie if you would like to attend.

Belfast Talk: Lunchtime talk in the Black Box in Belfast on Monday June 23rd, 1 – 2pm.

Cork Talk: Breaking the Silence talk in association with Kinsale Peace Project at 8pm on June 26th in the Carmelite Friary, Kinsale.

June 13, 2014

Poetry competition winners 2014

By Trish Groves, Campaigns Officer

The world has changed since Trócaire was set up in 1973. Back then, there was no such thing as the internet, or smartphones, and when you wanted to find out what was happening in the world, you had to listen to the radio, watch the news on television, or buy a newspaper. But some things haven't changed, like Trócaire's commitment to challenge the causes of poverty, and encourage people to use their voices to speak out against injustice.

Nowadays, everything seems to be speeding up, including the damage to our environment. When you look deeply enough, into the rising waters and out at the expanding deserts, you see that behind all the changes, it is what we are doing as people, that makes the most difference. This was the inspiration behind this year's ‘It's Up To Us’ poetry competition, challenging every one of us to live more sustainably on our planet. 

As usual, poets around the country deconstructed the theme, explored it from every angle, and created poetry of amazing depth and complexity. We had hundreds of entries from across the island of Ireland and it took our judges, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Mary Shine Thompson and Trish Groves, hours of debate and discussion to reach a consensus.

Trócaire has been supporting Poetry Ireland’s work for many years, and our joint poetry competition is unique because we invite entries from all ages and abilities, from primary schools to published poets. It is free to enter, so everyone has an equal chance to participate. Access and equality are central to all of Trócaire’s work, and it’s what we mean when we talk about our values, like solidarity and participation.

In the booklet of winning poems, which you can download for free you will find new work from poets of all ages, some deeply moving and others light and quirky, but all demonstrating a love of language, and a commitment to be creative in how we tackle the world's problems. We hope you enjoy reading them. Limited hard copies are available, and if you would like one, please e-mail us with your postal address to campaigns@trocaire.ie.

trocaire poetry competition winners

To the winning poets (pictured) congratulations from everyone in Trócaire and Poetry Ireland. Photo: Alan Whelan

List of winners:

Published Poets:

1st: Valley of the Birches by Mary Turley McGrath 
Runner-up: Thinking outside the socks by Afric  McGlinchey 
Runner –up: Tubrid by Karen O’Connor
Runner-up: The Walnut Dresser by Wilma Kenny 
 
Non-Published Poets:
1st: Storm by Jane Clarke 
Runner-up: Touchscreen by Philomena Gallen 
Runner-up: The Glaciers by Anthony Hegarty 
 
Post-Primary Senior:
1st: The Anarchist by Emma Tobin 
Runner-up: To The Point by Mariana Byrne 
Runner-up: Time by Eden Healey
 
Post-Primary Junior:
1st Perceptions by Denis Holton 
Runner-up: Time to Change by Michelle McCormack
Runner-up: Famine Relief by Seán de Grá
Runner-up: Water by Jade Nolan
 
Primary Senior:
1st: Green World by Conor Clarke
Runner-up: Make a Change by Flora McDonnell
Runner-up: A Voice of his own by Katie Hennessy 
Runner-up: Just One Wish by Saoirse O’Connor
 
Primary Junior:
Global Glowing by Aoibhin Holmes
 
 

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May 20, 2014

Dialogue, development and HIV in Zimbabwe

By Michelle Moore, HIV and Gender Team
 
To mark World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (21 May), we look at the work of activists in Zimbabwe, who are speaking out on the rights of people living with and affected by HIV. 
 
Under-provision of anti-retroviral therapy (ART), coupled with high levels of stigma and discrimination remain a significant barrier to people accessing vital treatment for HIV in Zimbabwe, especially in rural areas.  
 
Trócaire and our partners Batanai HIV and AIDS Service Organisation (BHASO), Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Zimbabwe Network of PLHIV (ZNNP+) are working with activists to organise district and provincial advocacy teams to negotiate improved access to treatment care and give support on the many other issues that affect their lives with HIV. 
 
One advocacy team who meet regularly at Magombedzi clinic in Masvingo province have experienced discrimination. Some of the members used to provide entertainment at weddings, but because of their HIV status were hired less and less. 
 
This has not stopped them though. Florence Ganye leads the advocacy team who continue to compose songs that help audiences and communities to realise the issues they are facing. 
 
hiv activists zimbabwe
Magombedzi advocacy team, March 2014. Photo: Michelle Moore
 
“Our messages are of great importance so that issues can be deep-rooted at grassroots level. We hope that come 2015 maybe no children will be born with HIV because the information will be shared. The future is very bright because we are there in the communities acting as role models and there are more people going to the health centres because of this situation,” says Florence. 
 
In another part of Masvingo province, Nobert Madzinire and Janet Zinyongo work as Community HIV and AIDS Support Agents (CHASAs) at Chinkiya Rural Health Centre. They assist people living with HIV at the clinic and visit communities to share their knowledge about treatment. 
 
“The work... gives us the opportunity to go deeper at support group level and gives us the advantage of meeting more people and also for us to become known as support agents” says Nobert.  
 
These ordinary people are providing the voice and dialogue of reason and advocacy in community health care and development issues, working for the betterment of their welfare and the health concerns of the district in which they live.
 

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