On August 7 we were on the "Peace Train" as it left Helsinki on a 22-day, 14,000 km "trip of a lifetime." Our adventure would end at Beijing, where many of us would participate in the Peace Tent and the NGO Forum, parallel to the U.N. Conference on Women.
The Peace Train, organized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), marked the 80th anniversary of a 1915 march by over 1000 from to meet with their "enemy sisters" in The Hague and work for peace. Our 1995 crossing of borders involved women from 42 different countries, some where wars are taking place or peace is fragile. We would explore issues in workshops on the train and meet with peace groups at seven stop-overs in Eastern Europe and Asia.
In St. Petersburg we were welcomed by local women who were torn between wanting time for planned discussions and wanting to show us their beautiful city. Our hosts called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and a boycott of French goods. We saw the severe economic difficulties of Russia's transition to a market economy. A string of elderly women were begging on the street.
Our next stop-over was Kiev, where we were greeted by an official band and a special escort to our hotel. In the national parliamentary chamber we discussed democracy, the environment, and nuclear disarmament with the Ministers of Health and Environment and other representatives of the Ukrainian government. Addressing Peace Train participants and local peace activists, Deputy Foreign Minister Handogin spoke of his country's reduction of 700,000 in military personnel in 1992 and plans to reduce numbers to 150,000 by the end of this year. But he stressed the need for more international help with nuclear conversion. We were becoming aware that our visit was supporting local host groups in raising awareness of peace issues.
Soon our train made its way through the countryside of the Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania. Nine other participants were Canadian, but most were from Western Europe and the US. There were representatives from our stop-over countries and others from the Third World. Workshops dealt with the environment, alternative economics, the effects of war on women, and women's role in peace.
We both assisted with organizational matters. With 233 people spread out over 16 train cars, the organization of train and stop-over activities posed real challenges. Setting up computer facilities for press releases was another challenge. For Ian, train life was a learning experience as a member of a minority and a second class citizen; of the 233 people on the train, 220 were women!
Our next stops were in Bucharest, Romania, and Sofia, Bulgaria. Here the realities of the Yugoslav war became clearer. Women from war regions joined us, describing the economic deprivation, the refugee problems, the increases in domestic violence, the human damage of fighting. There are also economic impacts in neighboring countries. A host in Bucharest told us, "Due to the embargo, the whole navigation of the Danube River was stopped--an extreme loss for Romania, which the big powers never consider."
Crossing from Bulgaria into Turkey, we were struck by the rapid economic development. However, as we approached Istanbul, the modern construction contrasted with the mosques and fortresses of this historic gateway to Asia.
We began paying more attention to human rights issues. Our meetings included Kurds, who pointed out the role of Western (including Canadian) military sales to Turkey in the suppression of their rights. Peace Train participants sent a message to Turkish President Tansu Ciller asking her government to "observe civil and human rights and engage in a peace process rather than military harassment."
The human rights issue started to hit closer to home. When we stopped in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, we learned that the Chinese government was unilaterally changing plans for our travels through China to prevent any public protest against their human rights record or their nuclear testing near Lop Nor. We would not be allowed into China until two days later than scheduled. Instead of stopping in the Chinese city of Urumqui (too close to Lop Nor!) we would go straight to Beijing. We felt helpless as the Chinese government and the Russian train authorities decided how we would spend the extra two days.
Those days turned out to be one day in Odessa and two stops in the Russian cities of Voronezh and Saratov, in the industrialized Don and Volga River region. Though this did not make up for the loss of our stop-over in China, the time in Russia gave us a chance to walk about and see Russian life in less westernized areas. Doing early morning fitness classes on a train lurching its way across Asia is indeed a challenge.
We started getting ready for the NGO Forum. Bruna conducted sessions focusing on the peace section of the Platform for Action, scheduled for discussion at the Forum.
In building our own community on the train, we decided to try to use this as a real life experiment in the development of our own culture of peace. We confronted some of our own in-train cultural differences--young vs. old, people of color vs. whites, US (the dominant group) vs. other cultures, developed countries vs. Third World.
We had expected our last stop-over, Almaty, Kazakhstan, to be relatively undeveloped. Instead, we found wide, tree-lined boulevards with many pedestrian walkways. Most of Almaty was rebuilt after a mud slide destroyed it in 1921. Now it presents a pleasant modern image, with open spaces and views of the surrounding mountains.
However, we heard of the problems left over from Kazakhstan's time as a Soviet republic. This country, where the military carried out over 200 nuclear tests, will long suffer the health and environmental consequences. Kazakhs were worried about the resumption of Chinese testing on August 17; the Lop Nor test site borders on Kazakhstan.
In their transition to a market economy, many are falling behind. There is increased drug abuse and crime. While our hosts were confident of the future, the Peace Train participants became concerned about the fragility of peace in this part of the world.
After Almaty we transferred to the Chinese train. It soon became clear that the Chinese government would control us. The train included 50 extra "staff," some in full military uniform, others in plain clothes. When we stopped for fuel and supplies, the station was under full military guard. The station gates were locked; we were not allowed out and the public was not allowed in--not even the usual food vendors. Our short walk up and down the platform felt like an exercise break in a prison yard. This was to be the pattern right through to Beijing. Most of us were middle-aged or elderly women, and we wondered how we could appear to be such a risk!
But the views from our windows were wonderful. The countryside changed from western China's desolate arid areas to spectacular mountains, to the increasingly irrigated and developed areas, and the terraced hillsides of the central regions. We saw glimpses of the Great Wall andcrossed the enormous Yellow River. Passing through villages and cities, we were impressed with the industriousness of the Chinese people.
At first the train staff seemed guarded, having been told that we were a dangerous lot, but soon the ice melted. They largely succeeded in making up for our disappointment in not being allowed our planned stop-over. There is a difference between the controlling Chinese government and the Chinese people.
It was with emotion that we stepped off the train in Beijing and met our Chinese welcoming party. We had hoped this would be a trip of a lifetime. It had become even more: we now refer to it as our experience of a lifetime.
The authors are Toronto activists.