Establishing village peace committees to build understanding between internally displaced people and host communities

The Community Trust Fund (CTF) involved youth volunteers as Peace Facilitators to reduce friction between internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities (or residence of temporary settlement of IDPs) in Sri Lanka. The CTF was successful in introducing a non – violent conflict resolution program at the community level by mobilizing youth volunteers in an effort to bring IDPs and host communities together. The youth volunteers’ work contributed to the creation of village peace committees comprised of leaders in both communities.

Muslims from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka were forcibly evicted in 1990 by the Tamil Militant group that has been fighting a bloody war for the last two decade against the Sri Lankan government demanding for a separate homeland. During this ethnic cleansing, people were given few hours to vacate their residence, leaving behind their resources and belongings. As a result, about 75,000 minority Muslims lost their homes and arrived in north-west of Sri Lanka. The concerned government authorities had made no arrangement to receive these IDPs, and actively prevented them from entering the capital in order to avoid international and media attention. Considering the plight of these people, local residents permitted them to seek temporary shelter in their land. However the host community’s attitude gradually changed when the temporary relocation became more permanent and the IDPs were found as competitors for livelihood and resources which were already inadequate in the area. The conflicts between the locals and IDPs grew rapidly and occasionally resulted in violence.

Since there was no hope of IDPs returning to their homes after 13 years of dislocation, CTF took a very calculated move by integrating rehabilitation and peace building as the cross cutting theme in all their programs and thereby uniting the IDPs with host communities.

This tactic required substantial changes to their programs and a careful shift by bringing in host community without disturbing CTF’s relationship with the displaced community. These were the cautious steps taken by CTF team:

CTF undertook a random sample survey within the host community and IDPs by using interviews and questionnaires that focused particularly reasons for prevailing tense situation and distrust between these two communities. The survey also included suggestions from these two communities on ways to improve their relationship. The survey clearly pointed to the fact that any rehabilitation and relief work should be beneficial to both communities as the resettlement region was initially restricted by resources to accommodate a large influx of refugees. CTF’s initial step was to review their mandate and re-program all their activities giving equal attention to the needs of both communities.

In order to recuperate from growing tension between communities, CTF then adopted a unique approach, selecting equal number of young volunteers from both communities and trained them on non-violent conflict transformation. 36 of such professionally trained youth were sent back to their respective communities to function as Peace Facilitators.

While doing their regular door to door visits, the Peace Facilitators provided necessary guidance and assistance within the communities by way of individual counseling to people who have been troubled by their long-term displacement and loss of property and lives, collected stories and shared them with communities on regular basis. They also identified issues that caused unrest between the parties and some of those disputes were then discussed and settled amicably.

The work of the Peace Facilitators soon gained recognition, particularly because of their professional yet friendly way of handling problems within the communities. Subsequently with the help of Peace Facilitators, CTF met with different community groups and likeminded individuals and organized awareness programs on various social issues by bringing together different community members. At the end of these programs participants were encouraged to form Peace Committees with a mixed group of members. Most of the elected members were influential persons like priests, village leaders, community workers, NGO representatives, government officers and teachers.

These village peace committees were then encouraged to work on their own creative ways in building peace and trust among the communities. CTF provided necessary human and financial resources for their collective community actions and even secured these peace committees’ support in their project implementation and monitoring.

The formation of peace committees with equal representation of host community members created civic awareness and social relations among neighbors and within the community as a whole. Awareness-raising workshops and peace building activities have also helped to a great extent in fostering understanding within the IDP community, with the locals and also among the different ethnic communities. CTF’s success in building mutual respect among different communities was based on three principals: being proactive, being willing to take somewhat risky actions, and using a bottom-up approach.

 

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