CREATING NEW MODELS: HOW TO DEAL WITH THE CULTURE OF CONFLICT

_ Neşe Yaşın


Few years ago I was asked  to speak in a panel on the subject of Pre-conflict situation and conflict prevention. Looking at the title and trying to built up my speech  I  started questioning  what was  really meant by a pre- conflict situation and if the issue is to prevent conflicts or to find them peaceful solutions. From what I understand, by pre-conflict we may mean the absence of war and absence of physical violence. I would like to look at a more general definition of conflict. When I think of a conflict what comes to my mind first is a situation where there is no agreement on an issue or it might be that one of the parties is feeling unjustly treated or victimized and due to this situation is getting into a fight and probably using violence. I think it is necessary to rethink about the definition of violence as well. Is violence only physical? What about verbal violence, psychological violence and other forms of violence? If we define conflict as the presence of war then we may not categorize for example the case of Cyprus as a conflict. Although it is a cease fire situation in Cyprus and not exactly the end of war there are no killings going on. I have heard several times people from different conflict situations looking at Cyprus and saying “So you have divided your country and solved your conflict.!” What about three armies in between the two communities in Cyprus?What about the verbal violence, the feeling of injustice and all the sufferings because of the division which is still there Isn’t the fight still there in our everyday lives, even in the landscape? And what about  the threat of a future war, an insecurity about the future of the country that is still prevailing? 

Do we have means to avoid conficts or is it natural for them to exist. I think conflicts will always exist and our real problem is finding peaceful ways to resolve them thus avoiding the use of  violence and military interventions. How can we do this?

First of all let’s analyze an ethnic conflict situation in general. In a conflict situation you have different parties two or more. These parties may have a disagreement on something but the conflict may get much  more complicated when it starts building  its own momentum. The violence used by the words that have been spent, different acts help building up of the conflict and it may get deep rooted. When conflicts stay without a resolution for a long time they get more difficult to be solved I would like to talk about some elements in a culture of conflict and  discuss ways of dealing with it. One of the main obstacles in a conflict situation is exculisivity, denying the existence, the identity of the other, Devaluing the other goes along  wıth dehumanisation, a strong ethno centrism  which feeds the chauvenism towards the other. This may bring the victimization of the other by the strongest party.In terms of majority minority relationships two big illnesses exist simulatneously.One wants  to dominate, to control and due to this the other wants to separate, to have her independence.

When the weakest party wants to separate then violence is a means both sides prefer to use. One be a more ”oppressive violence “and the other is a “defensive” one but in the end both is violence and one does not die different from the other when he or she is shot. Violence brings a closed cirrcuit where taking the revenge never ends.

I remember once I used to have an admiration towards guerillas, towards those people who are willing to sacrifize their lives for their country. I had a hidden sympathy towards the violence coming from the oppressed.
But now what I realize is that if you are ready to sacrifize your life then you are also ready to take other people’s lives. Since in the context of this approach life is not that valuable and it could be sacrifized easily, I would like to quote here the saying by Andre Malreaux as a reply to the words of  the Spanish fascist dictator Franco “A human life is nothing “ whereas Malreaux  played with it and changed it as ”Nothing is a human life.”

I think we have a strong issue with martyrdom. Every conflict party is proud with its martyrs, with those who have sacrifized their lives. And when you look at all those graveyards you see that the majority of those are very young men, even teenagers. I will never forget the graveyards in Sarayova where they had to create land inside the city to be able to bury their dead. A similar scene is in Belfast. It is very natural and very human to have a very high respect and to keep the love for the dead ones always cherished but when I see all these graves what I think of those dead men is that actually they are not martyrs but they are victims. Changing the discourse of martyrdom and talking about the lives we have lost during the crashes and debating that the best way to keep their memory is  never repeating war and bringing peace to our lands would help a lot to make a shift from the paradigm of conflict.

Living in a country of ethnic conflict means that you have to obey certain rules. One of these rules is that you have to take side in the conflict. Conflict dictates you to think in terms of categories Conflict is socially supported with duality thinking, us versus them the enemy, the other. You, yourself are in a certain category and what is expected from you is to act within the limits of this certain category. This is the “us and them” approach where you are forced to make the choice. Actually, you don’t even have a choice. Your category is determined from your birth. You are given an ethnic name and you have to act and take sides within this relevant category that you were put in. When you were socialized to your national identity you were expected to be proud of the aspects of your national identity and you also learned about the other who is less valued and who is the historical enemy. What if you approach the enemy and try to understand the reality through their terms? What if you talk about the both, you empatize with the other and try to understand their sufferings as well. If you act this way very probably you will be branded as a traitor, a spy, a mouth of the enemy.

A country of conflict is also a country of different symbols fighting against each other. On the Green line of Cyprus you can see five different flags. Even colors get associated with sides and colors trigger feelings.

 This is a win-lose fight where each side tries to win over the other and make the other side lose. History is a very important element and the sides are stuck in the past. The trauma is  always there and rather than trying to heal it, this is used as a factor to strenghten the commitment of the people towards the cause and fight to win over the other. Old myths dominate.There is doubt, despair , fear and hopelessness.

I think the first thing to introduce to this system is efficient communication. As Martin Luther King once said: “People hate each other because they fear each other. People fear each other because they don’t know each other. People don’t know each other because they can not communicate.”

Efficient communication can be a key to changing the  attitudes and behaviors of others. And it is a prerrequisite to dealing with substantive problems that divide the conflicting sides.

 One problem in long term conflicts is that both parties develop a vocabulary reflective of their conflicting positions. Evet the most innocent words start to be associated with other meanings. Words start to take sides and may become triggering to the other.  A country of conflict is a place where most of the beautiful words are borrowed by the conflict. Where peace may become the name of war, where victory means the denial of the other’s rights and where many innocent words become associated with some categories of thought and where the words staying at the tip of the iceberg are actually associated with some feelings, interests, values and a certain history underneath. Words lose their original meanings and become identified with some divisions in life. Many words become associated with certain group thinking.

This language is transmitted in the school, by the media, from the mouth of politicians and there is no ground to refuse it. It becomes natural. It is everywhere.

Our problem is to put the conflicting parties in a diologue and naturally the language they use is an anti diologue language because the vocabulary of the conflict by nature carries the thesis that we are right and they are wrong. We have to create another glossary which will compise words mutually acceptable to both parties and not triggering the other. This is the most difficult task because by shifting to this level the parties start feeling that they are getting away from their real debate and sense of power. And actually what we want to avoid is the debate mode because locked in a debate mode the conflict escalates. On the other hand, in diologue the parties can realize that the world is more complex than they think, while we have strong feelings and views the others have theirs as well.

Since in a country of conflict, conflict actually becomes a life style and even the country, the society is socialized in the conflict, new jobs and incomes are created in support of the conflict or feeding from the conflict  So,our task becomes even more difficult. The level of our struggle is at the civil society. Considering also that the civil society is usually weak in a situation of conflict we have even a greater trouble because it is also difficult to experience full democracy in a situation of conflict since the country or community is experiencing military threat. This is often an excuse for the decision makers to take upnormal meausers and some institutions like military may gain much more power and the right for intervention than  in a normal situation.

I believe in the power of individual cases and models created by the intellectuals and the power of grassroot movements. There are many cases in which the intellectuals help to make a shift. So, to start this dialogue among the intellectual elite and on the other hand to activate the potential of the grassroot movement are some of the most important tasks. Intellectuals may help to have a shift from the debate mode and can bring in a new conceptualization different from those of the conflict.

A strong civil society movement will not only help establishing links between the two sides but may help for a resolution by bringing in arguments like how the conflict is effecting the standard of life and about the benefits of demilitarization. Citizens diplomacy would create an opening to the traditional diplomacy which usually moves very slowly and with great difficulty and sometimes is even non-existant in stalemate situations.

 





Neşe Yaşın neshe@spidernet.com.cy