Peacemakers in Darfur

Interview With Member of Sant’Egidio Community

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KHARTOUM, Sudan, SEPT. 20, 2010 ( As conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan persists year after year, the humanitarian crisis in the area can only worsen. But one group there seeking peace has a distinct advantage: no personal interests or hidden agendas.

This is the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay movement with the charism of serving the poor, and already a successful history at advancing peace even in the most complex conflicts of Africa.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, community-member Vittorio Scelzio speaks about being a peacemaker in Sudan and the prospects for peace in Darfur.

Q: What is the Community of Sant’Egidio doing in Darfur?
Scelzio: Darfur is a region in the west of Sudan. It is a big region. It is as vast as France. They have been fighting there since March 2003. We’ve been in contact with the people fighting since the beginning of 2004. We are looking for some political solutions to the crisis.

Q: What is the real problem?

Scelzio: The problem is the scarcity of land. There is not enough space to live on. The desert is encroaching on the fertile land, and this is the real problem. There are a lot of clichés that are being applied to the problems in Darfur: It’s a Christian-Muslim conflict, which is false; it’s a Holy War — that too is false. The problem is land and marginalization.

Some tribes: the Fur, the Zaghawa and the Massaliet have been marginalized for a long time. Now they are looking for political autonomy and land, so that they are in discussion. Once you get into politics there are a lot of problems that arise: External powers wanting to influence and get something out of the negotiations and so on. At Sant’Egidio, however, we have the freedom to exclude these external influences and have a closed-door negotiation.

Q: Who is fighting whom?

Scelzio: This is a strange kind of war because I would say that this is the first war about water. The Sahara Desert is encroaching upon the farming and pastoral lands in Darfur. The decreasing arable land is not enough for the growing population in Darfur. The farmers and the shepherds are fighting over this ever decreasing [due to desertification] agricultural land.

Q: Who is then fighting? The Muslims who have the water versus the Christians who don’t have the water or what is it exactly?

Scelzio: We have to clarify something about Darfur. The war in Darfur is not a religious war and religion is not an issue. This is a war among Muslims; there are Muslims fighting on the side of the government and Muslims fighting on the side of the rebels. The war has nothing to do with religion. Religion perhaps had a role in the war in southern Sudan. We often think that religion is the cause of war even if it’s a pretext, but religion is never the cause of the war. Religious people should be very careful in stating that religion is the cause of the conflict.

Q: You have been to Sudan. What is your experience in working with this people?

Scelzio: Our experience is that we need to listen. The method of Sant’Egidio in working with this kind of crisis is that you have to listen to the people. You have to understand why people are fighting. Why, and which are the root causes of the conflict, and to understand the demands the people involved are putting on the table and then to find a reasonable solution. This often looks too ingenious, too silly, and too simple but the problem sometimes is that there are a lot of political interests, and regional powers with their own hidden or open agendas. You have to discuss the root causes and listen to those people’s concerns and find out what they really want.

Q: Can you give an example from your own experience?

Scelzio: We had a meeting here in Rome in May of 2005, and peace in Darfur has been at the top of the agenda of the international powers and community. There were seven rounds of lengthy conferences for peace in Darfur and in Abuja, Nigeria. This conference faced some problems so we called the people concerned and the rebels to Rome. They [the rebels] had refused to go back to the negotiation table. They didn’t want to continue discussion with the [Sudanese] government because of some fears, stresses and some demands that were not addressed properly. So we called them here to Rome to our headquarters, which is an old monastery, to discuss with us.

It felt strange because Sant’Egidio is a Catholic community and all these Muslims congregated in our headquarters, but it did not pose any problem. They started their discussion — you know that often times, international negotiations or meetings are like a circus. There are a lot of people around the same table. I remember once, we were the observers to a negotiation, and there were 35 people — which was too many. At Sant’Egidio, we met only with the people who had a stake in the peace negotiation. No press, no external influences and no regional powers. It was a closed-door negotiation and was held for only for a few days. There was no news leakage and it focused simply on discussion. It was a time to discuss.

Q: Have you been able to laugh with these people behind closed doors?

Scelzio: We have been able to better understand this people, their way of thinking, their style, their demands and the reasons for dissatisfaction with their counterparts, the mediations and the international community. We had, because we were free, the occasion to explain something to them; we have nothing to lose and no hidden agenda and as such, we have the freedom to say to them: Since you are my friend, I have to say that you are not behaving well. We are, after all, an external party without personal interests or hidden agendas and we are able to mediate between the concerned parties and say “things” to both as a result of our freedom from other influences.

Q: Are they able to understand these values: friendship and mutual love?

Scelzio: This is something that step by step can be understood. Now, it’s a difficult period. Formal peace has been signed in Darfur but peace is still elusive; people are still suffering, fighting is still going on. We are looking for a way to begin a new round of negotiation. Peace is there, peace should be there, but nobody is aware that peace is there. If you go to the camps, people are unaware that there is peace. So now we are looking for a way to restart the political negotiation.

Q: How do start political negotiation if you want to talk about peace?

Scelzio: Peace for us is a gift from God. Peace is something that we are not able to make; peace is something that is received from God. This is our definition of peace, but of course you have to deal with politics when you are dealing with human conflict and you should utilize political categories, political words, and words the warring people use.

Q: Can you explain the peace the rebels are looking for?

Scelzio: The peace the rebels are looking for entails demands about the land, the unification of the three states of Darfur into one, some compensation, and government representations and participation. This is what the opposition always is searching for, either through armed conflict or not.

Q: What kind of peace does the government propose?

Scelzio: The government proposes the peace of the status quo of course, and it is not unusual. When there are two different factions on the same table they are looking for the same thing but they name it differently. Our job is to shift the problem of the armed conflict, and we propose to both parties to continue the struggle not through armed struggle but through discussion and negotiation.

You know that we hosted, for 27 months, the peace negotiation for Mozambique. It was very interesting to see a rebel, a man accustomed to fighting in the jungle and t
he bush, become a politician.
<br>Q: How did you see his transformation? What happened when you asked him to come to the table instead of fighting in the jungle?

Scelzio: You know that coming to the table is often the final goal of every people fighting because they are fighting for a reason. You need to understand it in a sense that sometimes it is easy to think that people are fighting because they are foolish, or fighting because they are bad. Of course fighting is not a good thing, and we know that fighting for whatever cause is not justifiable. But you need to understand why this people is involved in armed conflict and this is a good exercise to help the people who are fighting and make them understand and clarify even to themselves why they are fighting and bring these reasons and concerns to the table.

This is the case in Darfur, but this is the same situation with the armed conflict in Northern Uganda, with the Lord’s Resistance Army. One of the most difficult moments for them [the parties involved in armed conflict] is when they decide to negotiate; the problem arises when they are on the negotiation table — like you a journalist, you face the same problem: when you have a blank sheet in front of you, what do you write on this sheet? In the case of the rebels: What should I write? What are our demands? It is not easy. You [a rebel] have been fighting all this time and you have been waiting for this moment, but now that the opportunity is in front of you, and you have to write down your demands, this becomes difficult, but this is a very important moment, a moment when a person transforms from a fighter to a politician. We, of course, believe that peace is a gift from God, but when we deal with humans we have to utilize political tools, and so political tools are very important and sometimes our negotiation becomes a venue for the use of political tools for these people.

Q: I’m very curious to know, why are you so active in seeking peace in Africa?

Scelzio: This question gives me the occasion to talk a little bit more about the Community of Sant’Egidio because, I think it is very difficult to understand why a community like ours got involved with such strange kind of initiatives, going into the bush to meet rebels and so on. We were founded in 1968 in Rome. You know the events of 1968: the idea of revolution, changing the world, and we also wanted to change the world but we though that the best way to do so was starting with ourselves, starting with our hearts, and starting with the Gospel. So the Gospel and prayer become the two pillars upon which we founded our community. The third pillar is service to the poor. In Rome, we had schools for free for the children on the outskirts. Now, in the70 countries where the community is present with 50,000 members, service to the poor means a lot of things. The main focus is helping children in every part of the world where we are established. So in Africa, it means going to the streets to meet the street children, visiting prisons and so on.

Q: So what is your personal conviction? Why do you want to help achieve peace in Africa for example, Darfur or any other countries?

Scelzio: I joined the Community of Sant’Egidio in 1989 when I was 14. I was, of course, not thinking about achieving peace. I just met a few school mates who proposed that I join what we call a “School of Peace,” which was on the outskirts of Rome. So I went then, and I have to say that I fell in love with those poor children. They were having trouble in school and we started to do what the “School of Peace” was meant to do. It was an afternoon school, and was for free and we tried to help those children from Ethiopia and Eritrea, the first immigrants here in Italy. I fell in love with those people, and so I understood that I could help others.

It was a joy because it was fun and because it gave a sense to my life. I was 14; I was looking what to do when I grew older. Well, I found a source and a sense for my life and it is the same sense that I have now, and that is to be rooted in prayer and the Gospel, the pillars of Sant’Egidio and the service to the poor. Africa is one of the poor that is knocking at our door and “war is the mother of all poverty”; this is clear for us. We try to look for peace, to achieve peace because we are convinced that “war is the mother of all poverty” and if you go to Darfur, it’s clear because you see how people are living in the camps. I’ve seen it in Liberia. I’ve seen it in northern Uganda.

Q: What is exactly the poverty in these camps? Can you explain to us what these camps are?

Scelzio: The biggest tragedy in Darfur is the fact that people are not allowed to stay in their own villages, but are forced to flee. Most of them are in Chad, some of them are still in Darfur but they are living in camps. More than 2 million of those people are living in these camps. Life in the camp — you don’t have anything. You are waiting for something to come from the outside: the international NGOs, the food programs — you depend on them. One of the problems we are trying to address is the areas controlled by the rebels or the government; there is no access for humanitarian aid. So those people are not cared for by anybody. This means that “war is the mother of all poverty.» I’ve been visiting the camp in northern Uganda; 1.8 million people have been living in this camp around Gulu for 20 years because of the foolish war with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

* * * 

This interview was conducted by Marie Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

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