Committee for Basic Rights and Democracy e.V.
Project “Vacation from War”
Helga Dieter                   Flussgasse8                   D 60489 Frankfurt
Tel. #49-69-7892525                Fax #49-69-78803666                  ubihedi@t-online.de
www.vacation-from-war.com                       and                   www.ferien-vom-krieg.de

 

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Steps toward the Concrete Utopia of a Peaceful World

Short History of the project

  • The ‘Committee for Fundamental Rights and Democracy’ was founded in 1980 and works on a variety of human rights activities within German society.  The definition of fundamental rights is not restricted on the ‘classical’ civil rights but includes social rights as well.
  • The Committee is not linked to any party or institution and receives no state support.

All activities are financed by donations from nearly one thousand members. The campaign ‘Vacation from War’ has another 2.000 supporters.

  • The Committee is part of the German peace movement. Nowadays, military attacks often are legitimized as “humanitarian interventions”, even by segments of the peace movement. The Committee takes a different view of an “active pacifism”. The “Vacation from War” campaign is the best example and proof that in all war-zones young people want and can live in peace together.
  • When the wars on the Balkan started in 1991, the Committee supported the peace groups and deserters on all sides, collecting an enormous amount for human aid in the campaign ‘Help to Survive the War’. Since 1994, the project ‘Vacation from War’ has followed that. In the first years refugee-children were given a chance to recovered at the sea-side. In the last years we raised the age-group and changed the concept to focus on peace-educational workshops and joint activities in follow-up projects at home.
  • In the beginning, EU and UN representatives from Bosnia as well as from Kosovo warned against this ‘experiment’, inviting young people from enemy populations to a shared holiday. We understood how difficult this could be since children, who were deported from Srebrenica in a violent way came together for holidays with Serbian youngsters, who now live as refugees in their houses in Srebrenica. (In 1995, within the ‘UN Safety Zone’ in Srebrenica/Eastern Bosnia, 7000 Muslim men were murdered within a few days by Bosnian Serbs. In the Balkan-wars an unbelievable number of women were raped, many of the children became eye-witness and suffer under traumatic remembrance).
  • We also succeeded in bringing together Albanian and Serbian children from Kosovo, where the conflict still flares up from time to time. 
  • Altogether, in 18 years, about 21.000 children and young people from the former Yugoslavia have been able to recover from their war traumas and lack of basic needs.  They were able to play, laugh, and listen carefully to the perspective of “the others” as well as to share with them their own suffering and fears
  • With the beginning of the Second Intifada, we decided to spread our practice in civil conflict solution on a grassroots level to another complicated conflict area. We were irritated because, once again, political officials and prominent representatives of the peace movement from Israel and Palestine advised against such grass roots encounters. They said that it would certainly come to uncontrollable outbreaks of violence from both sides. 
  • In the spring of 2002, we came in contact with a young woman from Israel and a young man from Palestine, who had met by chance on the Japanese peace-boat. After many open discussions they noticed the surprising fact that they agreed on many difficult questions. They decided to tell their friends at home about this unique experience. They did. The same summer they each came with 24 friends to meetings in Germany. It was a hard and deep process they all went through and they decided to stay in contact and to tell their friends at home about this life-changing encounter. They founded the Initiative “Breaking Barriers”. Since then they have brought over 70 friends of friends from the Westbank and 70 friends of friends from Israel each year. In addition, 40 women come together each summer in order to discuss the conflict under the perspective of gender.

It was not easy to find more partner-initiatives on both sides of the wall, who were interested in a dialogue project while the separation fence was in construction. We were lucky to find Avig (Alternative Voice in the Galilea) and a small initiative “Palestinian peace movement”.

  • Most of the 1600 young adults from Israel and Palestine (West Bank) who participated by today - had never before met people from the "other side" because it is legally impossible for the participants to meet each other in Israel or Palestine itself. Crossing the border is strictly forbidden and controlled by the Israeli military. Therefore the seminars take place in a third country, Germany. During the curfew many of the Palestinians from the West Bank had to become inventive in order to pass through the checkpoints or even go around them at great danger in order to get to know their “occupiers".

Many of the young Israelis who took an oath to themselves never to step into Germany went there in order to meet the supposed ‘Arab terrorists’, by whom they feel threatened every day.

  • On both sides the young people were taking a big risk, for they could be denounced for collaborating with the enemy or as traitors of the fatherland, facing very serious consequences like social exclusion and, on the Palestinian side, even physical attacks. Each summer there are some among the participants whose parents or friends may not be told that they have met “the others” in Germany, as they would then risk being stigmatized by their own families.

 

The dialogue seminars

  • The concrete objective of our action is to offer every year a great number of young Israeli and young Palestinians a forum for a face-to-face dialogue in a neutral environment in Germany. We provide them with the opportunity to have completely new experiences through spending vacations together in a peace and reconciliation summer camp where they are able to enjoy the pleasures of a “normal” life together.
  • In the first years it was difficult to find enough candidates on both sides, who dared the risks of this extraordinary dialogue. Meanwhile the whispering propaganda among the young people spread the message and more applicants want to take the chance of this special contact with ‘the enemy’ than we can finance.
  • We agreed with our partners on the criteria of the selection. There are uni-national preparation seminars. The groups bring over their own facilitators and translators, who primarily are responsible for the seminar-contents and the group-process.
  • Besides personal contacts, the historical-political knowledge is also important for a process of mutual understanding. Most of the participants will be shocked how one-sided the information is which they received in school and through the media. During their stay in Germany, the facilitators and participants will pro-actively tackle the controversial contents in various workshops, by preparing and presenting speeches, pictures, films, little sketches, etc.

Learning to listen, to assume the viewpoint of the “other” in dialogues or in role-plays, to defend vital interests, and nevertheless to be able to give in, are social skills that were developed by nearly all participants during their stays.  The long process of destroying false images of one’s supposed enemies can create a whirlpool of emotions, especially when it touches upon traumatic injuries or existential questions. 

  • These encounters are no ‘cakewalk’. Instead they are a hard struggle through hours-long workshops and night-long discussions. This emotional and psychologically painful process takes place in a secure environment beyond the fear many of them faced at home on a daily basis. 

The equal treatment of everyone, the solicitous care, empathic facilitators, the beautiful environment, outings and attractive free time offerings, interesting excursions, exciting parties form a social frame for an emotionally moving atmosphere.

  • Toward the end of the dialogue-seminars model “peace negotiations” between the parties were simulated. In these negotiations, none of the most controversial points (borderline, the status of Jerusalem, questions about refugees) were left out, as they are in all official peace negotiations to date. The “parties” in the peace seminar negotiated among themselves and with the opposing side.  At the end the delegates presented the results to the public through a press conference. The possible compromises were, after hard arguments, worked out to a surprisingly high level of detail.
  • This summer a mixed group from “Breaking Barriers” took part in a cruise on the Japanese Peace-boat. This was a very interesting experience because for the first time Israeli as well as Palestinians were not absolutely trapped in their own conflict but open for other crisis-areas. Nevertheless all the facilitators agreed with us that the dialogue process in the protected academy is more intense than on the busy cruiser.

But it also was a strange experience. For example: A political group in Tunesia canceled a discussion with our guests from Israel and Palestine, because they were against such dialogue projects. They even threatened to demonstrate in front of the ship, if the Israeli group would walk on land. The Israeli had valid Visa but became so intimidated that they did not leave the ship. Our team from Germany was very surprised and wrote in a letter to the Tunesian organisation: “The participants of these seminars are often critical of their governments. This is especially true for young people from Israel. Many want to take action to end the occupation and equal rights to live with the Palestinians…The last few months we read a lot about the ’Jasmine revolution’ in Tunisia and were enthusiastic supporters of this peaceful youth-movement. We assumed that targets such as curiosity, enlightening and tolerance are linked to the changes.” We are still waiting for an answer.
Nevertheless our guests from Israel and Palestine became inspired by the ‘Jasmine revolution’ already last year (see attachment “Under Jasmine shade”)

Essentials of the Concept

  • The idea behind the project is that children and young people lose prejudice and hatred if they can come to know their so called enemies in a carefree, safe and nice surrounding.  We try to support young people on both sides to break the escalation pattern of violence in the hope that the next generation will live in respect and peace.
  • The project “Vacation from War” is primarily not a NGO  nor a solidarity-action for one side in a conflict or a special group of victims – not in Bosnia, not in Kosovo and not in Israel or Palestine.
  • For us all of the different summer camps “Vacation from War” are part of one campaign.  We fight against wars and their bloody dynamics on a grass-roots-level in a peaceful way.
  • The difficult process of dialogue handles the threats and fears of everyday life, but also the hopes and visions. The participants get to know the perspective of 'the other’ regarding the causes of the conflict as well as the political and economic interests of the warring parties. They are able to experience up-close the fact that the question of guilt is not as easy to settle as the local propaganda on either side would have it.
  • With our action, we want to strengthen hopes and activities towards peace, going against the collective pessimistic backdrop and mood. As the official negotiations failed, we believe a new common grassroots-movement on both sides could lead out of this impasse.

Results

  • For many reasons there is no evaluation in technocratic terms or percentage.
  • In the first years the participants just wrote down their experiences. The impressive result: 188 participants wrote about their personal changes during the dialogue-process, just two were not affected. (See the convincing paper “188 pleas for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue” on our Website or a short-cut in the attachment 2).

Since then we put 2-3 open questions in the end of the seminar such as:
“Looking back on the seminar: Was there a certain moment in the daily units or outside the workshops (a sentence, a thought, a story...) that changed things for you?”
“What is your opinion concerning military service in general or concerning war resisters (refuser)?”
We translate the answers (Arabic, Hebrew, English) and publish a summary in the internet.

  • Since the beginning of the project we ask some participants for a biographical video interview. In spite there is no specific focus set most of the young people tell their fate as victims of the war. Sometimes the horrible stories from both sides are alike as in a mirror. The moving effect of these life stories of young people from war zones is the openness, intensity and confidence, due to the atmosphere at the "Vacation from War" encounters. Some of the interviews are published in our annual booklet. Many schools, parishes, universities and peace-groups order a DVD with interviews and reports.
  • During the 22.400 encounters with the presumed enemies in the summer camps of ‘Vacation from War’, there has not been a single violent conflict between youths from politically conflicting groups. Also when the frightening messages about –as seen by international law- illegal bombings of the Israeli Army with civilian victims or, on the other side, the murderous attacks by Palestinian terrorists weigh heavily over the encounter, the need for understanding was far greater than any revenge fantasy.

Remembering all the warnings of UN-politicians from Kosovo to Bosnia or from peace-activists in Israel and Palestine this makes the results of the project even more astonishing.

  • If each of the 22.400 participants tells just 20 people in the family, friends or at school or university that it is possible to live together with the so-called enemy under one roof, to have fun together but also mourn together remembering the losses and victims – this will mean that at least 450.000 people have heard this message.
  • In the beginning the young adults from both sides were experienced in political discussions and personal frankness, they were more or less active in peace groups. As every participant just may come only once to Germany meanwhile the whispering propaganda reached many ‘conservative’ and ‘unpolitical’ young applicants. On the Israeli side more and more religious people, soldiers, Russian or Ethiopian immigrants -living in settlements - become involved in the process. This is a grass-roots multiplier effect as we intended. Sometimes the controversial debate among the Israeli factions is more aggressive than with their supposed adversaries.
  • The campaign “Vacation from War” is some concrete evidence, that, in all crisis and war regions, there are young people who seek understanding and are prepared to make compromises in order to secure a peaceful future. The basic experience in the summer-camps might seem trivial, but it is upsetting for both sides: “They are like us!”

Follow-up activities

  • The campaign “Vacation from War” is very successful in many dimensions and we are proud of it. In general we plan to continue the seminars in Bosnia and Germany. Of course we discuss improvements.
  • The problems are the joint follow-up activities. Hundreds of young people in different age-groups and many countries came back home each year with the serious intent to work together for a peaceful change. But what can they do without coordination or infrastructure?  The self-organization at the grassroots level asks too much of the young people. On the other hand we are not able to organize and finance more encounters than we already do every year.
  • A very positive example for joint follow-up activities is the “Children’s peace Appeal”. In the summer 2001 in Macedonia the fight between the Slavian and Albanian population flamed up. While the fathers in the North of the country shot at each other their children took part in the “Vacation from War” in the Southern part. In this absurd situation the youngsters wrote a peace appeal to the grown-ups. We translated it in six languages and hundreds of participants discussed it at home, in schools and youth groups. The results are more than 15.000 signatures from Kosovo to Palestine (see attachment 3).
  • Since five years in the new Balkan states former participants organized summer-camps for those, who became active after the experience “Vacation from War”.  They are held for 50 members alternately in the different countries or divided cities. One of the goals is to involve the local population in demonstrations crossing borders, concerts and skits. The media in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia reported on the exceptional encounters and peace-activities. We try to support this follow-up program with a pocket-money for a coordinator and refund the transportation costs if needed. Our partner-organizations provide the equipment.
  • This minimal infrastructure is lacking for the follow-up activities in Israel and Palestine. Many groups stay in contact via internet. There are a very few locations where people from both sides can go without permission (for example the school “Talitha Kumi” located on the border with entrance doors to both sides.). The accommodation costs quite a lot.

An Israeli women’s group visited the Palestinian women in Jericho. Another group rent a bus and went together to Hebron. A Palestinian group succeeded to get a permission for Israel and visited their friends in Tel Aviv with a special bus. Participants from Israel went to the weekly peaceful demonstration against the wall in the village Bi’lin and met a former participant living in the village.

  • Nearly all former participants, this means for the Middle East hundreds of young people” are highly motivated to work for peace together. But there is no paved road besides the established institutions and parties. They have to build a path together. Therefore they need a professional coordinator on each side, a room to meet, some office equipment and tools to work. (see attachment 4)
  • Of course we know that cooperation is difficult and needs time. It is hard to force it from outside, Meanwhile our partner initiatives found ways to cooperate and are developing a grass roots network for peace. This is not easy in highly hierarchical societies with fixed structures.
  • Therefore our work seems to be unique. We don’t know another project with such intense and lasting cooperation across the border. We want to be the pioneers to help young people to found initiatives against hatred and for cooperation. While most peace negotiations by politicians turn out to be no more than ideological rhetoric, behind which economic interests and intolerant nationalism as well as personal power and greed are hidden. A realistic and enduring peace perspective can only be achieved from below with the new generation and only as a social movement at the grass roots-level, not with the officially promoted concept of "education for leadership". Actually we see our concept vindicated by the peaceful grassroots movements of young unorganized people in Egypt and Tunesia who won against their powerful and corrupt governments. But as we already could experience: It is a difficult process.

Organisation and Budget

  • A small team in Germany coordinates the huge project “Vacation from War” voluntarily and collects about 350.000 € private donations each year. The administrative expenses are very low because there are no salaries for staff. The “office” is without rent in a private house etc. Most of the 2.000 private donors come from the German peace movement many of them also collect contributions in schools, parishes or in benefit-events. Also some hundred readers of Katha Pollitt’s Column in the US magazine ‘the nation’ support these special encounters every year, after her call for donations.
  • During the camps we have a German team of 10 volunteers who stay with the groups organizing the frame of the summer camps (accommodation in an academy, health insurance, excursions, boat trip etc.). But primarily their task is to take part in the seminars as observers in order to describe the group-process for an annual booklet with 10.000 copies.  The donors, as members of the peace movement, are very much interested in this documentation. Most of them want to get a lively picture of personal stories and conflicts because of the different narratives and interests as well as the moving moments of reconciliation. All booklets are published on our German website (www.ferien-vom-krieg.de). But also in English language you can find short-cuts, reports and feed-back comments in the internet (vacation-from-war.com).
  • In the frame of the campaign “Vacation from War” we also finance summer-games for Palestinian children on the Westbank and in Gaza.
  • We are honored to have once again received a prize for our work (Julius-Rumpf Prize of the Martin Niemöller Foundation).  The Prize money (€ 10.000) will be used as the basis for an urgent needed follow-up-project: "Changes from Below — Peace Dialogues between Young People in Crisis Areas", with which the peace activities of the former participants can be promoted in their home regions.

Attachment 1
Under Jasmine Shade
Letter from a Palestinian participant from 2010 in the wake of the Arab liberation movement and four weeks after the experience of the "Vacation from War"

(reduced from 8 pages)

My name is Mohammed, and I've been training to be a doctor at a hospital in Palestine. My life had been full of blind radicalism, far away from any humanity. It was like the life of every Palestinian youngster, marked by destruction, murder and hatred of the occupiers who had robbed us of our youth. Before I came here I had had doubts: "How am I supposed to sit together with the eternal enemy of my people, and listen to and discuss with them? How can I live with them under one roof? They killed my best friend, they bombarded my house and attacked us with heavy artillery, they have put many of my relatives in prisons.

I applied for the seminar, where we were to meet our enemies in an atmosphere in which both sides were, for a time, equal. I would engage them in a bloodless battle of words in which I am as strong as them.

At the airport I looked at their faces from a distance. So far, I only knew faces that express the power of the occupiers. Should I greet them at all? It was an inner struggle between my human side and the pains of my life that would force me to betray my anger in my face. Finally, I reached out my hand and greeted them with a smile.

On the bus there was a tense atmosphere. They sat around me, and I watched them, trying to discover their human side. Are they really people like us? I was surprised. We actually have much in common, the same movements, the same looks, and even the same clothes. Suddenly, one said "Hi" to me. It was the first time that an Israeli had ever spoken nicely to me. We talked. I knew that we live on the same earth, but I felt that we lived in different worlds. What surprised us most was that our homes made us neighbors. We live just a few hundred meters apart. But the reality is that the distance between us seems infinite.

In the first few days we talked about ourselves, about our past and present, about the occupation and our personal experiences, about everything that moves us. We showed the other side images of everyday life. Our weapons are our words and our past, which is full of wounds.

The Israeli Sharon cried as she spoke about her slain father; the Palestinian Samah cried when she talked about her slain brother. We all cried, not only over the dead, but we were crying about the vain wishes for a better life that we all desire so much.

Day after day during our stay in Germany, I felt something inside me that was coming closer to the surface. Something that I had been looking for my whole life, but could not find. Now I came so close — it is my humanity. My feeling that I'm human.

Now I am convinced that the "meeting with the enemy" is not a betrayal of the blood of those killed and my people. It is the right way to prevent more deaths, more destruction and expulsion of my people. Because war attracts only war. Death attracts only death.

When I had lost my friend to the Israelis, I felt a strong rage in me, which almost led me to do something about the occupation. Today I mourn over each killed from both sides. I am now a free man, free from radicalism, free from nationalistic fanaticism and religious intolerance, and I am dealing with morality, which is a human privilege.


Attachment 2
188 pleas for an Israelian - Palestinian Dialogue

Some short examples:

Eventhough it was not easy to meet young people -just like me- who oftenly see me as the „enemy“, it eventually was very rewarding… These two weeks really affected me and truly I changed my point of view toward this conflict. It gave me the motivation really to try to make a difference. Thank you!

 

I’m writing by the name of the family of „Vacations from War“. We spent here the most beautiful days in our life. It was a good experience for us because we learnt to live together side by side, Palestinians and Israelis -far away from the war stage. Like a family…We are discussing what’s happening at home, the violence and destruction by each side and we pushed the peace-process forward. Thank for this sucessful program and for your good investment.

 

I’m 25 years old but until I came here I didn’t know that I grew up in a settlement. It was confiscated from the Palestinians in 67. I really didn’t know that.

 

In a world like we are living in, where the strong wants to eat the weak we have no hope. As a Palestinian who lives in Israel I often meet them but I never met an Israeli to whom I could talk about peace. But now after I met this group new hope blooms in my heart that there is still a chance to talk.

 

We suffered a lot here. This suffering was caused from both sides to both sides. I think that everyone should do his best to make a change of this miserable situation. This is the reason why I came here – believing in the power that we have in our hearts.

 

It was amazing since day one. But first I didn’t notice that these would be the most wonderful days in my life...No fights, no hatred -nothing! This happiness grew more and more each day. I really won friends! Finally I hope we can keep in touch…

 

I came to this seminar with a message to the other side, but also to come to know many things about them. Really it was a hard experience for me but very useful at the same time as for each participant.

 

I grew up in Palestine, in the West Bank in a Jewish settlement near a Palestinian city. I lived there during the first Intifada and the Gulf war. I could never imagine as a child that I ever would sit in a room with Palestinians or what the life looks on the other side.

 

This seminar was the most significant time in my life; it will advance me and hopefully the others as well.

 

This wasn’t a simple experience for me as I’m Jewish and the past of the Jews in Germany is something that I still have problems to cope with. I found out a lot about myself. I found out what it means to be a minority. I found out what a racist society we are living in...

 

I came with a plan to fight. I’m going back with a plan to love.