Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

October 28th, 2016:

To make peace on the road to Assisi – Fare pace in cammino verso Assisi

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“How many wars are going on in Africa?” On 9 October, I was marching from Perugia to Assisi, in central Italy, with about 100 000 people to show that we stand for Peace and Brotherhood. That’s when a little girl, maybe 10 years old, caught up with me and fired her question. I could not answer immediately; I stopped on the steep final approach to the town of Saint Francis and pretended to think. In fact, I was simply recovering my breath. “Well, let me try to count”, I said, taking my time and counting with my fingers, “South Sudan, Sudan, DR Congo, Somalia… and then, you know, wars are done for different reasons…” but she would not let me go: “My father says you come from Africa and you surely know the answer out of the top of your head. How many in all?”
Africa is perceived in Europe as a continent at war. In any European newspaper, Africa is mentioned when there are wars, atrocities and violence. They create a wrong perception that is difficult to counteract.
In fact, we can observe that most of Africa south of the equator has not known any war since the beginning of this century; some internal strife and conflicts, in some case, but nothing that could be called civil war or inter-state war. North of the equator wars have developed in a big cluster including Libya, Sudan, Chad, South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Plus two countries not geographically connected with this cluster, Mali and Somalia. All these wars defy simplistic explanations. To understand first, and then to explain the links, the similarities and the differences between these wars could be the subject of a big book. Impossible to explain them to a little girl who most probably would not even be able to name five African countries! So as I continued to walk for the remaining 3 kilometers (the total of the march was 24), I kept thinking of African wars.
At the root of every conflict I have known there is a strong national or ethnic interest. Often the national interest is represented by a person, a leader, who becomes the icon of such an interest, for good or for bad. In some cases the interest is strong enough, or blind enough to the rights and the need of the others, that results in complete disregard for the consequences. The aim becomes an idol to be reached at any cost. And the leader pursues his own selfish interest hiding behind the national interests. The worst case I know is South Sudan where two leaders have hijacked an entire country for their own personal interests and made the life of its citizens a nightmare. No matter how committed and skilled are the negotiators, if the parties are not willing to reach peace, the talks will fail.
When I happened to be involved in a couple of occasions in “peace talks”, I have learned that when a leader has only his own personal interest and power at heart, it is absolutely futile to held such talks. The leaders would simple disregard the consequences for their followers. They are ready to sacrifice without the blink of an eye the lives of thousands if that brings more power to them. Or more money, because for them money and power are the same in their view. Now, after many years, I remember the comment of an old aid worker who told me, “So Father, you are involved in peace talks between so and so? Good luck! Me, I believe it is as useful as shovelling s*** uphill.” A bit vulgar, but wise. Yet, in the light of Christian hope it is not futile to keep working for peace even in the most desperate situations. It is important to keep opened every avenue.
Powerful international interests also play an important part in local African conflicts. The economic interests of the international powers and companies – often oil and mining companies – play an important role in exasperating and exploiting the local tensions, giving weapons and so creating situations always more complicated. These international actors are the greatest obstacle to reach a stable peace.
On the other side, I have seen that to impose peace by physical force, or moral or international coercion can give only short term results. The unsolved issues will resurface, sometimes stronger. Peace after war and violence implies a genuine change of heart, a recognition of the mistakes, a sense of repentance. Otherwise violence and war come back. To think that it is possible to impose peace by force is a counter-sense.
Peace will not last either if all the grieved parties do not take part in the peace process. All grievances by all parties must come out in the open, otherwise they will resurface later. When the so-called comprehensive peace agreement was signed to end the civil war in the then united Sudan in 2005, the signatories had been hand-picked by the team of negotiators. All the minor actors were left out. They could have been a stabilizing factor, instead now they are contributing to the South Sudan mess.
Violence begets other violence. It is old wisdom, but valid. Dom Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian bishop advocate of justice and peace in his county during the second half of last century, spoke of a “spiral of violence”. Only nonviolence can break the spiral of violence. “Nonviolence” is different from “non violence”. The latter means simply absence of violence, while nonviolence wants to be a new concept, stressing an active process of peace building that includes peace education.
When personal and national interests prevail the looser is the common interest, or we would say with Pope Francis, the “common good”, the good of all and everyone. In these days of globalization, the common good means the good of all humanity, the good of the whole world.
Peace-building, I have also learned, is a permanent process. It is not enough a change of heart of all parties, or of a whole nation. The human heart is such that if a small grain of hatred is left hidden at its bottom, sooner or later will grow again as a poisons tree. Stable peace requires constant efforts, education in human rights, respect for the others, dedication to common good. Peace, as every living thing, needs constant care.
We Christians are called by Jesus to be peacemakers, therefore have a special responsibility to work for peace, and as Church have an extraordinary potential in reaching out to the hearts of people at the grassroots level.
The marchers have almost arrived at the Rocca, the hill behind Assisi where a last appeal for peace will be done before they will disperse, and the little girl is still besides me, looking at me with inquisitive eyes. What can I tell her? “Don’t worry, if you and I continue on the path of peace, one day wars will end.”

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