Learning from those walking out of war into peace

By Cathy Nobles

In 1996, right before the Reconciliation Walk began, I became sick and found myself flat on my back able to do very little except sleep or read. One of the books I read was Frank Buchman: A Life by Gareth Lean. Little did I know at that point, how much this man had already influenced my life and would influence my future. I offer this article I wrote in 2002 about my participation with Initiatives for Change in Caux, Switzerland. So much of what I learned on that trip pertains to the days we are now living through.

Learning from those Walking out of War into Peace

As I shared last month, I was excited to go to Caux, Switzerland and to learn how does Initiatives for Change continue to bring together so many people to discuss issues of conflict resolution from warring areas of the world. It seemed so strange to be just 20 miles from where I had lived in 1991 to 1996 and to think about the travels in the Middle East since then.

The week in Caux was called Agenda for Reconciliation, and the theme was "Witnessing for Hope." The days progressed in themes from Healing the Wounds of History to The Power of Forgiveness to Hope-"a passion for the possible." Each day began with a morning session in which usually 4 people shared an experience of how God changed them and that change in their heart changed a situation sometimes a personal situation, but sometimes the results touched a nation. There were about 550 people from over 60 nations and all ages and occupations.

Flying in from Beirut, I had not just come on my own but with Lebanese friends I had met and was working with. I felt like an adopted Middle Easterner with a Texas accent.

On the first day, one of the civil war militia leaders from Lebanon gave his testimony. Assaad Chaftari was a leader in one of the Christian militias in the war. From 1975 to 1985, he was fully committed to the killing that was going on here feeling that he had every right to kill Palestinians or any other Muslim. He said it started with prejudice and fear, and the war taught him to hate. But in 1985, God began to intervene to teach him that his way was not to kill His enemies. Last year Assad publicly confessed and asked forgiveness in Lebanon. He is one of the very few who have owned up to their crimes from the war.

As he finished his talk, my friend, Hisham Shihab went up to the stage, and as a Muslim Lebanese embraced Assad to say he received his forgiveness. The next morning, Hisham spoke and told his story. As a young man of 14 without his father's knowledge, he joined an Islamic militia who was fighting in the war. He told how he had been taught to hate his Christian neighbors and the images of the Crusaders were used to rally them. One evening as he stood at his station he saw an old woman and two boys running for cover. Hisham said as he looked at them that he realized one of the boys looked like a cousin of his, and they didn't look like the demons they had been told they were. His conscience told him they were people just like his family. He refused to fire and didn't return to the militia. In the mayhem of Beirut, he lost his only brother to another rival militia. But as he offered his apology to the audience, he pledged to join Assad and others to work for reconciliation in Lebanon.

The next morning, I was asked to speak about the RW, and so I read the message of apology to the room of people from all faith backgrounds. I said one of the things I had learned was how war destroys relationships, but relationships are restored with repentance and reconciliation by sitting down together to break the cycle of demonizing one another. One sign of that hope was that I was attending the conference along with friends from the Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, and Christian communities of Lebanon. With the apology, a door of friendship had opened between us that was a true blessing to my life. I ended by praying for all of us to have the wisdom and strength to trust God to offer hope in conflict situations as peacemakers.

It was just a very moving week with testimonies from people from very diverse backgrounds, and how God changed their hearts through forgiveness and that changed a conflict situation. One gentleman who spoke was Dr. Yusuf Al-Azhari, the son-in-law of the former Prime Minister of Somalia. When the military junta overthrew the Somalian government, his father-in-law was assassinated, and he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. For the first 8 months, he lived in solitary, eaten up with hatred, anger, and despair. Then one night, he knelt and asked God to give him peace and strength in himself and a vision to guide him. What he felt God said to him was: "be honest with yourself, and those around you, and you will be the happiest person for the rest of your life. Don't limit yourself to earthly matters but go beyond that." He felt God had planted love in his heart, and he resolved if released to work for his country. He remained in prison for several more years before he was released miraculously.

God then asked him to forgive the man who had him imprisoned, the former Junta dictator who was now in exile. In the way in which God works mysteriously, Dr. Yusuf met this man face to face in Nigeria and offered his apology. As Dr. Yusuf asked forgiveness for his hatred, he saw the man's face break in disbelief, and Dr. Yusuf walked away free from the hatred he had carried.

One of the stories of greatest hope came from a young Serb who lost his whole family except for his mother. They fled Serbia and became refugees in England where he said he feels they are a burden for that nation. His whole being was full of words of hope asking the audience to come to hear a panel of 5 young people from Croatia and Serbia who want to see reconciliation in their nations. These young people were 16-21, and they don't know how they will do it, but they are determined to be able to reach out on all sides to those injured during the war. The one young Croatian came from a family who have some of their Muslims neighbors living with them for safety. They sheltered them until they all had to flee from an army. The young woman had grown up with her father being called a traitor because he stood up for the truth of protecting his friends.

Another man, this time an Israeli gave his testimony of having lost his son who was in the army in a military clash with the Palestinians, and how he had learned to forgive and is now dedicated to seeking a peaceful solution to their problems. His testimony was followed by a Palestinian gentleman who gave his story of seeking peace with the Jews through dialogue and understanding.

Through these meeting, and just sitting with people, the message was so clear that we could all do something to resolve the difficulties that entangle our lives. These stories came from war zones, but we all know that prejudice, fear, and hatred know no boundaries.

During the last morning's meeting, we were asked to reflect what we had learned. I offer this one statement as a summary of this remarkable week. Samer is from Gaza and is currently studying on a Fulbright Scholarship in the States. One night as I sat with a group from this area, he shared with the group that no matter what happens in his life, he will not allow hatred to fill his heart because he then becomes its prisoner. When he begins to hate, it forces him to go straight to God and to ask him for his strength to be free. An Israeli soldier had shot him when he was a teen-ager.

This is his summary of what he was taking away from Caux:

  • No matter how deep the wound is, there is always a remedy, if only we will hear with our hearts.
  • Pain has no creed or citizenship, also hope is universal.
  • Knowledge and understanding is the first step toward healing and reconciliation
  • We should adhere to ideals but we shouldn't ignore reality.
  • I see God in each one of us, as we are sons of His majesty.

Living here in Beirut has taught me many new aspects about life, but most of all, how damaging war is to people's lives. But to spend a week hearing how God has given back hope and creativity to so many in difficult circumstances just increases my faith that God has a solution for the lives in this and other regions. There need to be political solutions, but it is on the level of one person-to-another in response to God's heart of love that changes happen. Long ago when I was a child, my mother gave me a plague with St. Francis' prayer on it: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Those words continue to challenge me day by day to live a life of seeking the road of peace.