UWC Initiative for Peace

"The stronger the wind, the stronger the tree."


Pakistan and India have been building and testing nuclear weapons, theoretically to use against each other in their decades-old feud over the country of Kashmir. These governmental policies of preparing for war, however, are not shared by the people. Peace heroes such as Lalita Ramdas, Kaplan Sara, Beena Sara and Seema Sehgal have been vocal opponents of the nuclear weapons buildup in India and Pakistan, and each of their voices underscores the sentiments of millions.

The United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), Singapore, facilitated a youth peace conference called "Initiative for Peace - Focus on Kashmir" from June 23-30th, selecting participants aged 16-19 years from India and Pakistan to attend. The participants spent one week involved in trust-building activities and workshops, which focused on dispelling misconceptions and removing the biases present in both countries. The workshops included various role-plays, an Asiaworks' teambuilding course, as well as sessions on the Power of the Media and Construction of History, among others. The participants culminated their learning in the form of a Mission Statement and a Statement of Common Ground, which both the Indian and Pakistani youth will work upon on their return to their home countries.

Creating a vision

by Ragni Kidvai and Rabia Mir
September 3, 2002

We'll be completely honest here: before going to the 'Initiative For Peace' (IFP) conference in Singapore, both of us were unsure about what to expect from the experience. We had no idea what we were stepping into, but despite that, we were enthusiastic and excited.

Both of us were extremely concerned about the situation. Our reasons for this were simple: Kashmir has been at the heart of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since the two nations gained their independence in 1947. It was one of those issues that simply begged to be solved, lasting for years, and depriving the Kashmiri people of their basic human rights of freedom and peace. As one of our friends very aptly put it, "Kashmir is a word so overused, a name so listlessly prosaic, that after almost 55 years of prevarication, it seems to have lost all its meaning."

Both of us had met before the conference but it wasn't until we actually got there that we got to know each other. Apart from strengthening the bond between the two of us, the conference was able to create a bond between 60 people. This group of 60 included students from India and Pakistan, and 20 facilitators from 15 other nationalities.

From the moment we landed in Singapore we were made to feel extremely welcome. Two facilitators, Michael Vardi and Michael Shank, picked us up from the airport, and took us to the (very beautiful) UWC campus. It only took a couple of hours for these people to become more than just facilitators … they became our friends.

Each of us was assigned a room, which we shared with a facilitator and two other participants, but this was where we spent the least time. On our bus ride to the college, we remember being told that if you join a United World College you have to choose between any two of the three options: working, socializing and sleeping. We chose (unanimously) to work and socialize, and thus every possible moment was spent doing just that.

Breakfast, which took place at 8:00 am, was usually followed by 'Trust-building activities' that were an integral part of each day. They were generally crazy games, which, very successfully, managed to energize us for the long day ahead. Every day was filled with workshops and speeches, which much to our surprise, were both interesting and inspiring.

Soon after the conference started, each of us was given paint and a small square-shaped piece of card to work on. Aptly titled 'Creating a Vision', it was something that brought us all together, allowing us to create a common image of the world we see or want to see in the future. Though each individual's work was wonderful, we think that alone, each piece of work didn't portray the ideals we all had. It was when the whole mural was constructed that we realized we had a common dream, a vision for which we were ready to work. It was inspiring just to stand in front of that wall and search for emotions, similar to the ones each of us was feeling, in images created by others.

"Thank you all for making this the best week of our lives. For being with us when we laughed or cried. For showing us the path to peace and love. For being our family."

Other workshops we worked on included, 'Construction of History' and 'Media in the Kashmir Conflict', both of which aimed at eliminating biases created by the media, be it through books, newspapers or television. These workshops, according to most of us, were the most important, simply because they allowed us to decide for ourselves, what was truth and what wasn't. The best part was that we used this ability to distinguish throughout the conference. When two of the speakers gave extremely biased opinions of the Kashmir issue, instead of creating conflict, it allowed us to unite. These workshops were not meant for us to debate who was right or wrong, but rather, they were meant to make us realize that what we considered facts were not really facts at all. Most importantly, they encouraged us to step away from the past to work for a better future.

Once each of us made these realizations, it was easy for us to participate in other, more challenging workshops, like the one held by Keith Fitzgerald on Conflict Management. By asking us to list the fears and concerns of the other country, regarding the Kashmir issue, we were able to step into their shoes, and acknowledge their perspective - something we had never really done before.

Those are just examples of some of the workshops held. However, it wasn't just the workshops that were a source of inspiration and learning, a lot of the credit goes to the people we met and interacted with.

One of the first speakers was a Colombian boy, named Gerson Andrés Flórez Peréz, who is a 17-year old Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Gerson's speech was a wonderful start, and motivated us to do as much as we possibly could. He managed to remove our skepticism and worry about not being taken seriously due to the age group we belonged to. Gerson became a friend and a brother, someone we could all relate as well as look up to, and his humbleness was a virtue we all felt the need to adopt.

Next came the Ramdases. A lovely couple with convictions and morals so strong it was hard to find fault with anything they did or said. Lalita Ramdas, (who preferred being called Lolly or Didi), and Admiral Ramdas were like parents for the week they were there. Oozing with warmth and love, they were the first people who managed to convince us that Indians were humans too. They were joined later by Brigadier Rao, who works at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. He was appreciative of the fact that we, the youth, are trying to bridge the gap created by adults, giving us renewed hope and enthusiasm. Most importantly, Brigadier Rao made us feel proud to be Pakistani.

We also feel the need to thank Dario, Tannaz, Melissa and all the facilitators for not only putting endless amounts of effort and time, but also for showing us that it wasn't necessary to be Pakistani, Indian, or Kashmiri to care about the issue, but just human.

Last, but definitely not least, was Michael Shank. From the moment he came to pick us up at the airport, till the time we said goodbye, Michael was the biggest source of inspiration. There was no limit to his contagious enthusiasm and it was this energy that allowed us to go on. To break barriers. To unite. He taught us to be truthful and honest, to communicate, to try and understand others, and respect everyone's opinions and desires. He showed us how to care.

Thank you all for making this the best week of our lives. For being with us when we laughed or cried. For showing us the path to peace and love. For being our family.

As our Mission Statement states 'We are a youth movement united in our efforts to build mutual trust and understanding for sustainable peace', and as the song, that Michael taught us to sing, goes: 'We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.'


Give Peace a Chance?

by Samyuktha Rajagopal
September 3, 2002

What rankles me the most is when the little things that hardly matter are blown out of proportion, and issues that really deserve to take the limelight are lost in insignificance! Now, when I put Kashmir in this background of thought, I realize that while it does take the limelight [always for the wrong reasons], the issue is blown out of proportion!

So, with this frame of thought, I set off to the United World College, South East Asia for the Initiative for Peace conference, all geared up to meet the twenty who were coming from across the border. I had quite an interesting experience as soon as I landed. I got on a bus with the entire Pakistani delegation and I was the only Indian to get on that bus, having kept them waiting for an hour after a very tiresome journey. As you may quite obviously realize, I did not get my neck wrung by them for putting them through torture in a cooped up bus, as popular public opinion might lead one to believe. To the contrary, every single person on that bus had a nice word to say to me and with each one of the people on that bus, I went on to become friends!

"We had our share of conflict, we had our share of confusion but we could look past them to become friends! If we can, why can't everyone?"

Keeping the conflict to a very basic level, friends transcend borders and the rigidities of imposed restriction. We, at Initiative for Peace, have amply proven to ourselves, the power of friendship between the two nations. We had our share of conflict, we had our share of confusion but we could look past them to become friends! If we can, why can't everyone?

I cannot influence a personís value systems or thought process. However, as a person who has been able to look past the biased history lessons, the controversies of media and it all, I can ask you to do the same. Quite honestly, most or all most every one of us do not know the truth about the conflict and for this reason, no one can be judge, jury and executioner! We are victims of the prejudices and biases inculcated in us. To look beyond this is not idealistic, only the expansion of a vision we saw for India and Kashmir at Initiative for Peace. A vision where people come first, where borders are unnecessary and quoting one of my friends, and delegate from across the border, where 'we're all friends.'

I am an idealist, but being an idealist, a dreamer and a visionary is essential to live the dream of Initiative for Peace, a dream that only you can envision, one that can change the history of two great nations, and the lives of millions.


by Manal Ahmad
September 3, 2002

I'll be completely honest here - I boarded that Cathay Pacific plane on the 22nd of June as a member of the 18-person delegation to the Initiative for Peace youth conference in Singapore with one motive in my mind - "We have to solve Kashmir". The conference was titled "Focus on Kashmir". The participants were 16-19 year olds from India and Pakistan.

Any average person on the street, student in school, or farmer in the field could tell you when you asked him, "What is the biggest problem between India and Pakistan?" - "Kashmir." It's not 'cross-border terrorism', it's not 'militant infiltration' or the ISI or RAW. It's not Al-Qaeda, for God's sake, it's not Mossad or George W. Bush.

It's that same old problem that's been the root of violence and bloodshed and mistrust on both sides of the border for the past 54 years. Everyone knows about it, everyone's been affected by it, and everyone wants to see it resolved (and I speak for the people - the purposes of the government are always a bit abstruse).

So we went in there, armed and equipped with stack loads of newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, pictures, videos (which was a pain because I had to carry them all in my backpack) and a well-nourished diet of Indo-Pak history, politics and foreign policy, peppered with nationalistic pride. We had even visited the Kashmiri refugee camps in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, and drafted a plan for viable solutions, which, we thought, we'd present at the conference. It wasn't a flighty fancy for fame or having your name go down in history books or meeting with the President or coming on TV that we wanted to do all this. It was a pure, deep, genuine concern, a concern for the welfare of the Kashmiri peoples that is seated in our hearts, and in the heart of every Pakistani. We felt incredibly lucky that we had gotten the opportunity to actually do something to help rather than just sit around before our TV sets and make sympathetic noises.

It's not that all our preparation was useless - it's just that Initiative for Peace did much, much more than facilitate a 'solution' to the Kashmir dispute. It facilitated a movement.

"How could we even begin to communicate with one another if we didn't believe what the other person said? How could we even expect to come to an agreement when there was no understanding on either side? That was what Initiative for Peace taught us."

Our first day we were - cautious. The Indian participants had already settled in to their dorms and were familiar with the student organizers and facilitators. They seemed friendly enough, friendly and awfully nice. We were friendly back. Over all it was a supremely friendly, nice day. But I'd be lying if I said we weren't uncomfortable. Of course we were. These kids weren't just kids, they were Indian kids - they came from India - India, the criminal, the culprit, the offender and violator of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, our enemy. We weren't going to wage war against them at this conference, obviously, but we had to be tactful. Diplomatic. Clever. We couldn't trust them.

But how could we even begin to communicate with one another if we didn't believe what the other person said? How could we even expect to come to an agreement when there was no understanding on either side? That was what Initiative for Peace taught us. To learn to trust even your deadliest enemy, because once there was trust on both sides, you weren't 'enemies' any longer. You were friends.

Over the following seven days- days we expected we'd be working on solemn resolutions and writing wordy documents- days we expected we'd be sitting across the 'Indian team' on long white tables with big flags pinned across the length - debating and deliberating with passionate patriotism and perhaps a certain degree of partiality - days we expected would be arduously political.

Those seven days, we were 'dormed' - I was dormed with three Indian room mates - we were 'partnered' - my 'activity partner' was an 18 year old Indian from Lucknow called Akshay - we were assigned to 'social hosts' - my social host was a 16 year old Singaporean Indian girl called Rashi - we had a common room where we lounged around at night, munching on Pringles, singing, playing charades, laughing, talking, together.

We had a TV room with these immense black leather sofas where we'd watch the World Cup over pizza and Coke. We had 'trust-building activities' with our partners, which included crossing a 20 ft long pole suspended 40 ft above the ground - blindfolded - with only your partner to guide a petrified jelly-legged you.

We had role-plays, where we exchanged 'roles' of influential national figures with the Indians - so a Pakistani kid played the leader of a Hindu extremist organization, while an Indian kid played a Pakistani government official. A Pakistani kid played a member of an opposing political party in India, while an Indian kid played a Kashmiri refugee in Pakistan.

We had 'conflict management' workshops, where the Pakistani kids came up with a list of 'concerns' that the Indians might have regards to Kashmir, and the Indian kids did the same for Pakistan, which we then compared and discussed with our partners.

We shared history textbooks and newspaper articles written by Pakistani and Indian authors and journalists, exploring how each side employed bias through language or use of selective information. We learnt about the importance of mutual trust, respect, communication and understanding.

We learned to cast away the manacles of prejudice and preconceived notions - and interact with each other, not as Pakistanis, Indians or Kashmiris, but as pure, simple, people.

We began to understand each other - for the first time, we saw the situation with a different perspective, their perspective - and even if we didn't agree with it - we saw why they did. And that, we feel, was a tremendous achievement - something our leaders have been unable to achieve for the past 54 years.

Initiative for Peace has been a life changing experience for me. I met some truly phenomenal people, and made some everlasting friends. I learnt lessons in trust and tolerance, in hope and faith and understanding. And I know this is not the end - June 30th was not the end of Initiative for Peace Focus on Kashmir - it is merely the beginning, the beginning of a movement, a youth movement, across the sub-continent and beyond, an independent youth movement that speaks not Urdu or Hindi, or Tamil or Punjabi - but the language of peace.

Taking the road less travelled

by Murtaza Moiz
June 25, 2002

Murtaza Moiz, a 16-year-old Pakistani, is one of the 38 participants from India and Pakistan attending the Focus on Kashmir conference this week.

"And I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference" - Robert Frost

Initiative for Peace - Focus on Kashmir has taught me to take the 'road less travelled'. Peace cannot be achieved through fancy words and tongue twisters. One has to travel the tougher road. The road few dare to follow.

As I started on the cross roads I see two distant images. One is an elusive picture of peace and the other is of destruction and terror. Ironically, the destination of peace has a path which is rough. Few people have walked here and thus the grass is thick and wild animals are abundant. The other path is comparatively safer. There are results all along and there is a booming transport industry. Every one travels here - who cares about peace and elusive utopias? As long as we are safe and have a nice life - we are happy. If I go for elusive peace I will probably die on the way. But then it's something I am willing to sacrifice. After all, if you don't have something to die for then you have no right to live.

"Focus on Kashmir has taught me to take the 'road less travelled'. Peace cannot be achieved through fancy words and tongue twisters. One has to travel the tougher road."

I weigh the odels of my success, "It's worthless", a distant voice to burn out. I take a step. May God help me.

I thank Initiative for Peace for lighting this fire. I am a lucky one and rather a privileged one that I have had this opportunity. My heart cries that it would be a waste to blow out this flame. My step is complete. My life will never be the same again. And I'm right proud that I have taken this historic step. As they say - the stronger the wind - the stronger the tree.

Page created on 9/8/2011 4:28:33 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 10:28:31 PM

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Related Links

Peacemaker Hero: Gerson Andrés Flórez Pérez: - spoke at the Initiative for Peace Conference
Seeds of Peace - brings together young people from Israel and Arab countries in an annual summer camp.