Beyond Division and Dehumanization: A Journey Through Conflict
It’s painful as an individual doing this type of work because it takes you to places where you think you don’t want to go, but you need to go there. I feel that I needed to go there, to come out the other side and learn from it, but it is really not easy.
--Journey through Conflict workshop participant
Like pine seeds released by the heat of a forest fire, peace, social healing, and humanity can emerge from the chaos and misery of violent political conflicts. Many who have been deeply divided are reaching across enemy divides, taking risks to promote healing, and transcend violence as they deal with conflict and difference through a process entitled “Journey Through Conflict."
This process has emerged from the work of two men who have been deeply affected by legacies of political conflict. Together, they have formed Beyond Walls, Ltd., in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Wilhelm Verwoerd is the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, a former South African prime minister known as a key “architect of apartheid.” The younger Verwoerd became a member of the ANC, and worked to address the generations of suffering caused by apartheid, despite the deep conflict that caused within his family. Alistair Little joined Northern Ireland’s Ulster Volunteer Force at age 14 having grown up in the midst of violent conflict to avenge the death of his friend’s father, who had been shot dead by Republicans. He later served almost 13 years in prison for killing a man. His prison term, he says, began “my journey to renouncing violence…. It was a slow and painful process in terms of loneliness and isolation, like many others who are grappling with the human cost of violent conflict.”
Working with former combatants, survivors and members of wider society, Little and Verwoerd have designed reflective retreats that draw on participants’ direct experiences of political violence. In one example, an English man lost his son, a British soldier, to an Irish Republican Army bomb attack, and spent years consumed by bitterness and hatred. Only when he repeatedly, over a long period of time, met IRA men and learned about them was he able to see the human being behind the violence and continue his journey of understanding.
The Fetzer Institute is now supporting their efforts to create a resource from this work that will make a significant contribution to the field of peace studies and conflict transformation.
The trauma, broken relationships, and dehumanization arising from violent conflict has, ironically, become fertile soil for the power of compassion and, sometimes, forgiveness to grow. Interestingly, access to open and natural spaces as part of a carefully facilitated journey process is frequently cited as a factor in this transformation.
Recent longitudinal research highlighted positive changes in participants’ relationships with those from different/opposing backgrounds. These changes include attitudinal shifts, such as moving beyond stereotypes and conflict labels; deepened understanding of motivations and life experiences of the “other;” and the growth of relationships across conflict divides. Further, a large majority of participants mentioned connecting with their inner selves and getting to know themselves better.
A partnership with Beyond Walls Ltd. and the International Conflict Research Institute at the University of Ulster, is aimed at gathering and sharing learnings from additional groups that have experienced violent political conflict, including South Africans, Israelis, Palestinians, and United States war veterans.
These are projects of the Fetzer Advisory Council on Non-Governmental Organizations