Nepal's Youth as Peacebuilders

Nepal's transition to democracy took a great leap forward in the past year and a half, first with a peace agreement and then with the end of the monarchy. Now it is time for young people, their families torn apar by violence, to take the lead in peacebuilding.

By Michael Shipler | 2008-04-01 12:00:00

Nepal's transition to democracy took a great leap forward in the past year and a half, first with a peace agreement and then with the end of the monarchy. Now it is time for young people, their families ripped apart by violence, to take the lead in peacebuilding.
As a generation, they found themselves at thecentre ofa great political storm
Given their central role in the conflict, youth are clamoring for a positive role in the new Nepal

I was in Khalanga, a town that sits on the ridge of a hill in the remote district of Salyan, on the night that the war in Nepal ended. Girija Prasad Koirala, the prime minister, and Prachanda, who had led the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), got on TV, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in a simple ceremony, and declared that after eleven years, the war was over.

As I watched, a group of youth leaders who had come together from across caste, ethnic, and political lines for a dialogue and leadership development workshop, were singing and dancing in a room downstairs. Their music, cheers, and laughter filled the stairwell of the guest house where we were staying as if they were celebrating.

Starting With Youth

I had arrived in Nepal ten months earlier to help set up a peacebuilding program for the international NGO, Search for Common Ground ( Our goal was to build a national program bringing stakeholders together from across dividing lines; we decided to start by working with youth. During the years of war, young people saw their families ripped apart, their schools destroyed or converted into military barracks, and their livelihood opportunities fade.

As a generation, they found themselves at the centre of a great political storm; they were the ones sent to the front lines by feuding leaders to fight the war. Given their role, it was clear that they needed to be involved in bringing about peace. That week, we had gathered a group of youth leaders to explore what they could do to transform conflict in their own communities.

They greeted the news with cautious hope -- they were wise beyond their years and could already see the myriad challenges their nation would face. They wanted to wait, they said, to see how the agreement would take hold at the village level. They spoke of the terrible things that had happened to them during the war and even in the past days, how hard it would be for them to move past all that they had gone through and welcome fighters home. Forgive? Forget?

One fourteen year-old girl, who I'll call "Sunita," told of how she had suffered. Her parents, it seemed, owned a hotel. One day, not too long before, a Maoist fighter had stayed there and left a homemade bomb in the room. Her little brother found it and played with it until it exploded; his injuries were quite serious and they were told that he would need a kidney transplant. It's a long shot for a child from a rural village, hours walk from the town where we were sitting.

As we spoke, the message of these young people was clear: how can we accept or trust a political agreement signed in Kathmandu when all of these things have happened to us? How do we reconcile? They could see that peace agreements, which are signed by a country's leaders, are implemented in the communities where war took place and by those who fought and suffered.

Truth, Justice, Peace, And Mercy

My colleague, Rajendra Mulmi, and I decided that we needed to open up a conversation about reconciliation with them. We adapted a dialogue exercise created by the great peacebuilder, John Paul Lederach.

We split into four groups, assigning each a theme: truth, justice, peace, or mercy. They were asked, then, to select a representative who would come into the big group for a dialogue, playing a character named after their theme. Sunita was in Mercy's group and was chosen to play the role. I was quite nervous -- were we about to open a conversation that couldn't be controlled? Could things go wrong from this?

Four people sat in a circle, facing each other. "My name is Mercy...," she explained, introducing her character. The conversation that ensued was extraordinary and powerful, betraying the trepidation with which that these young people were entering this period of peace. The character Justice spoke about the law -- how we need to develop the laws in Nepal that will protect us and to subjugate everyone to those laws. Truth spoke about the value of information and how he could help illuminate all that is happening here. But most powerful of all was fourteen-year-old Sunita. She spoke passionately about the need for mercy across all the lines here in Nepal. If you are going to give mercy to Prachanda, she declared, than you must give mercy to Kamal Thapa too. Kamal Thapa had served as home minister during the era in which King Gyanendra ruled the country directly and is widely blamed for organizing violent repression of the movement for democracy. There is good and bad in everyone, Sunita said, and if we punish people so easily then we deny them the chance to be good. What good could they do for the society if we give them mercy?

Their questions guided us: What can young people do to implement the peace agreement in their communities? What role can they play in facilitating reconciliation? How do they forgive and work to help others forgive? Our work here over the past years has been to accompany these young people, to bring them together from across dividing lines so that they could find ways of doing all these things.

Peace Process Is Still Fragile

It has been 14 months since that day and the peace process is progressing in fits and starts. The agreement laid out a road map, calling for elections for a constituent assembly which would write a new constitution, discharging all minors from armed groups, integrating the People's Liberation Army with the army of Nepal and a number of other things that need to happen for a war to end. But the transition process has opened up a whole host of new challenges as the country seeks to redefine itself and people struggle to find a national identity. Minority groups throughout the country have arisen to demand their rights and over 20 new political organizations have formed and are agitating, some using violence, threatening to act as spoilers and disrupt the peace process.

In the midst of this, young people are also struggling to find their way. Given their central role in the conflict, youth are clamoring for a positive role to play in the rapidly transitioning country. In rural areas there are thousands of youth organizations and clubs which have formed, organizing around political, ethnic, caste, and social interests; but they have a common purpose, which is to help create space for young people to participate in the transformation that is going on around them. Some face intense pressure to join political movements and are manipulated to commit violence while others are simply seeking to protect themselves and contribute to their communities.

New Path, New Footprints

Search for Common Ground has been working with young people in rural areas for the past two years using a combination of media and community work. We have been working with a Nepali production house, the Antenna Foundation of Nepal, to produce a radio soap opera called Nayaa Baato, Nayaa Paailaa (New Path, New Footprints) aimed at facilitating the participation of youth in peacebuilding. It tells the story of a group of young people in the fictional village of Bangepipol in Rolpa district. They face the challenges of their peers from throughout the country, modeling ways of resisting manipulation to violence and participating in peacebuilding activities. One set of episodes told the story of Khadga, a sixteen-year-old who had been a combatant in the war. After the peace agreement, he decided to leave the armed group he had been a part of and went home, eventually joining the village youth club.

I met a young listener of the radio drama recently in a southern district of the country. "Raju" had been taken from his home and his family to fight in the war when he was still a teenager. He was just one of the thousands of children who had been swept up in the war, as they often are. He wore a brown and yellow soccer jersey with a blue collar. His dark hair was combed down over his bright, narrow eyes and the whisper of a goatee grew from his chin. He didn't have the vacant look of someone who had suffered a great deal, but he had lost precious years of his childhood.

In the months after the peace agreement was signed he was sent along with the rest of the People's Liberation Army soldiers to barracks, where they would stay until the election. While there, he became a listener of Naya Baato Naya Paila and followed the lives of the characters. When he heard the story of Khadga coming back, Raju thought, "If he could do it, why can't I?" He decided to leave the armed group and make his way home. By the time that I met him, he had found his way into a youth network for peacebuilding, gotten training that our team conducted in conflict transformation and leadership, and had become a mediator.

You have to help everyone agree, he explained, or else the solutions to conflicts won't last. He and his peers worked to address disputes of all sorts, between feuding clubs and families, on land issues, etc. He had used the club to reintegrate and to transform his life and find a positive role.

The Five Degree Shift

This is what I call the five degree shift principle; while most people imagine that the shift from violence to peace is a 180 degree transformation for young people, I believe that what needs to happen is a small change. Raju had a set of skills that he used in his time with the PLA: leadership skills, communications skills, an ability to understand the dynamics around him. What he needed was a simple opportunity to use those skills to positive ends, to build peace. The radio program he heard provided a nudge, the training some orientation, and the youth network the opportunity to do positive work.

Recently, Raju hatched up a plan for his next act of peacebuilding. He and a friend planned to do a bike trip across Nepal, from West to East, stopping in villages along the way, mobilizing youth leaders like themselves to do street theater performances about how youth can contribute to peacebuilding and the upcoming elections.

Thankfully, Raju is not alone; across the country, and indeed the world, young people are organizing to build peace. They are clamoring for space to participate in decision making in their countries and communities and are seeking to carve out a role for themselves in which they can be constituencies for peace.

Michael Shipler is the Director of Programs for Search for Common Ground in Nepal.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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