Greeting the Tense New Dawn Print E-mail

Rothko_hierarchical_birds(University of San Diego Magazine Spring 2007)

Last April, Dee Aker and Laura Taylor, peace-builders with the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, flew to Kathmandu, Nepal. It was their third trip in seven months, each flight taking 38 hours with a 10-hour layover in Bangkok. Before leaving San Diego, Aker and Taylor had read State Department warnings: Nepal was still unstable and had been since Feb. 1, 2005, the day King Gyanendra had declared a state of emergency. Frustrated by a decade-old Maoist insurrection, he had closed the country, jailed political dissenters, shut down radio and TV stations, and cut electric communications, even cell phones. In the interim, some liberties had been restored, but much of the country continued to struggle under martial law.

On previous visits, Aker and Taylor had experienced disruptions of their work. Once they had to hide some of the student leaders from security police; another time, they got a whiff of tear gas. Arriving this time, they wondered how they’d find the familiar, vital capital of 1.5 million. Smog usually obviated the view of the nearby Himalayas, but on this clear spring day the snowy peaks were crystalline close.

The pair had come to Nepal to facilitate workshops for political and human rights leaders as well as disenfranchised groups; they expected some citizen-led disruption. But the ride in from the airport was eerily calm. Kathmandu’s commercial districts felt strangely subdued: thousands had closed their shops to mass near the palace.

Fed up with a non-functioning government and the unstable King Gyanendra, unarmed demonstrators thickened the streets to encounter the gun-toting Royal Nepalese Army, in green, and the police, in blue. But time and again, the protestors turned back; the potential for violence was too great. A taxi driver told Taylor that the U.S. ambassador had begun evacuating non-essential American personnel. Though she and Aker felt no danger, Taylor did “feel it was not safe for those involved.”

Tanks and soldiers stood vigil in front of the Hotel Malla, where Aker and Taylor had planned to hold their conference, which they subsequently cancelled for the safety of participants. The king had issued a shoot-to-kill curfew from 9 a.m. to dark. The pair was locked in the hotel all day, but from the front gate they watched stand-offs between marchers and tanks, reminiscent of the pro-democracy battle in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Actually, this was the second people’s uprising in Nepal. The first, in 1990, was primarily a peaceful protest, called Jana Andolan, or citizen revolt, in Nepalese. That rebellion led to a constitutional monarchy and a government that promised democratization and rights for women and indigenous groups. But while key elements of the constitution slumbered, the country became enmeshed in military and political conflict. A Maoist insurgency armed rural communities, and seven political parties organized opposition to the monarchy.

In the hotel, Aker and Taylor remained worried, though they knew the military would not target international observers like them.

As Taylor recalled, “We were concerned for those Nepalis, our friends — the leaders, the youth, the women — who were on the frontlines.”

They watched the protests grow: tens of thousands kept flooding the streets, defying the curfew. Some of the women who planned to attend the IPJ conference joined the march, and a few were beaten by the police. Several beatings ensued after the women had taken snacks and flowers to the troops — and after they had told the men they were “threatening their own mothers and wives.” At one point, helicopters tear-gassed the crowds. (Twenty-four people would die in 19 days of clashes during Jana Andolan II.)

On April 25, the king, swayed by the people themselves and, perhaps, a diplomatic outcry that he was squashing democracy, issued an order to restore parliament, which he had dissolved in 2002. The next day, a million people staged a victory rally in the streets. Aker and Taylor were invited to join the ecstatic celebration, a march beribboned by flags of the seven oppositional parties, including the hammer-and-sickle. Many wore the Hindu blessing, the tikka, the vermillion thumb-swath on the forehead. One of many slogans chanted was, “The door to democracy is open.” For three days, Aker and Taylor facilitated discussions among political leaders, youth, and women. They thanked the IPJ for not fleeing during the chaos, then Aker asked them, “What next? Now that peace has broken out, how will you involve yourselves in the political victory you have won?”

IP interim director Dee Aker is a woman whose long, gray-going-grayer hair attests to a lifetime spent fighting for people, often those traumatized by civil conflict. Such groups, geographically and linguistically isolated, can benefit, she says, “when they work through a non-governmental agency, or NGO, where they learn to resolve difficult challenges from abuse to bad governance.” The IPJ is an NGO that holds forums, facilitates peace-building activities and fosters a safe environment for victims to safely talk and learn from one another. Generously funded by Joan B. Kroc and now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the IPJ is a major player in the world of local conflict resolution.

With soft-voiced surety, Aker ticks off a capacious resume. She was in the Peace Corps “while Kennedy was still alive.” She did brain science and international relations, and holds a double doctorate in psychology and anthropology:

“What I’m really interested in,” she says in her campus office, “is how people’s belief systems impact their ability to live a relatively healthy life.” She’s lived and worked in Zurich, Paris, London, New York, India, Japan and Africa, where she directed the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, and later, as a journalist, covered the creation of Uganda’s “affirmative-action constitution, the highlight of my life.” In San Diego, she has worked with Carl Rogers, who is known for his client-centered approach to psychotherapy, and through him, in Central America during the 1980s, “getting people in civil society to work across their differences.”

At KUSI-TV, Aker produced 234 half-hour programs about women in crisis, women as survivors. From these profiles, it became clear to her that women received scant coverage for their grass-roots organizing.

Joyce Neu, executive director of the IPJ, decided that the institute’s first conference should focus on human rights and conflict resolution. Aker and Neu agreed that conflict resolution tends to employ the major players. Such negotiations seldom include women, farmers, laborers, even soldiers, those decimated by violence. To ensure citizen participation, Aker and Neu identified four countries at different stages of armed conflict. Aker chose Nepal as one of the four because it had not been fully destabilized by war.

When she first assessed the situation in Nepal, Aker said she believed “the IPJ could help build greater constituencies for democracy in which women would play a leadership role.” As women got together, whether as Maoists or government supporters, “they got along and worked side by side, often preventing violence.”

The “very hard work” of raising funds for the Nepal project occupied Aker and others for four years. The first support came from former USD President Alice Hayes. In 2004, Aker and a former program officer and graduate of the College of Arts and Science’s Master of Peace and Justice program, Karon Cochran, wrote a successful U.S. Agency for International Development grant, which has funded the “intense work” of 2006.

Aker has learned that when dealing with patriarchies in Nepal or anywhere, it’s key that men are involved to co-facilitate programs.

As a result, she enlisted Conflict Management Partners, whose two top members “get the right attention from male leaders quickly.”

Still, Aker insists that in their negotiating process “one woman from the central committees of all parties join the two top leaders during our trainings, to promote a new consciousness about inclusion and human rights.”

At 26, Laura Taylor is a peacemaking wunderkind. Four days after receiving her master’s degree in peace and justice from USD, she was hired by the institute as a program officer and grant manager. She attended Haverford College where she “became a politically connected person as opposed to just an individual person.” After that, Taylor, who calls herself as a “global citizen,” spent two years working with the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. In 1996, the 36-year civil war ended in Guatemala, but not before rural populations had been torn apart by the disappearance and murder of men, women and children. While the military used a “scorched-earth policy” to eradicate leftists, many members of the country’s 24 indigenous groups had fled to the hills and hid out in fear. Every three months Taylor flew to Guatemala and drove 18 hours into the jungle to work with people who were devastated by the war.

Sleeping in huts, walking in knee-deep mud, and using her education in Spanish and psychology, Taylor and her colleagues worked with women, often the comadronas, or midwives. “We worked through them to provide mental health services and human rights training.”

She remembers supporting women who testified against soldiers on trial for war crimes as particularly difficult.

“We saw a lot of post-traumatic stress — physical symptoms like gastritis, headaches, insomnia.” The midwives knew natural remedies for these afflictions. Taylor and others helped “provide a space where people could talk and re-weave the social fabric.” Feeling safe, the women began planting community gardens; some returned to making their traditional colorful clothing.

For the Nepal Project, the IPJ used the grant money “to build constituencies for peace and democratic development.” Aker and Taylor targeted three Nepali groups: emerging leaders; women and indigenous groups; and political parties and policy makers. “We do workshops with each of these groups; we bring in international lawyers in human rights, experts in democratization and Women PeaceMakers.”

Key issues for Nepali women are property rights and citizenship in the mother’s name. For centuries, citizenship has devolved only through the father — if he died or if there was a divorce or a rape, the child had neither citizenship nor rights. Widowed women forfeited their property to the husband’s family. Another issue is security. Taylor points out that the government has killed twice as many Nepalis as the Maoists have. In turn, the Maoists have extorted money from villagers, especially teachers who receive a state-guaranteed salary.

Taylor hopes to apply lessons about post-conflict turmoil from Guatemala to Nepal, where long-term damage has so far been averted. “You should prepare yourself during conflict for what is going to happen in post-conflict situations,” she says.

In Nepal, where a feudal past and a Hindu caste system still define daily life, Taylor asks, “How can a sense of agency and mutual respect be fostered?” Poverty and illiteracy continue to cripple development. “There’s a mistrust of politics — how does one engage democratically, how does one know what one’s rights are?” In addition, the Maoists, who often abduct adolescents to serve in their cadres, must be demobilized, as well as the king’s army. “Those who once held a gun,” Taylor says, “must now share a plow.”

Throughout Nepal, Aker and Taylor have worked with many trainers. One such trainer is Shobha Shrestha, who, in partnership with the IPJ, instructs several Nepali groups in conflict resolution and peace-building. At last October’s IPJ Women PeaceMakers conference, Shrestha, who also works on small-arms control, presented a paper, “Women in the Nepali Democratic Revolution, Missing from the Government.”

Shrestha, 42, speaks explosively about the discrimination Nepali women face, not only in the family but also in governing: “When women try to speak, men harass them. People say it’s sexual harassment, but these days it’s more mental harassment. Men make fun of women — they say they aren’t informed, can’t articulate themselves well.” She says the IPJ in Nepal underscores her and others’ demand that women be allowed to speak in political forums — and be heard. Even during the Jana Andolan II, women were “not taken into the process,” she says. “We need to upgrade the laws and eliminate the patriarchal society. But all with nonviolence.”

Taylor says that the best outcome of the IPJ’s workshops is if trainers like Shrestha take their skills to their constituencies. Apparently, it’s happening. When she and Aker returned in July for a final “peace summit” on building democracy, they found that the wheels of the democratization train were inching along. Women, youth and the indigenous were ready to take to the streets again if the Maoists and the elected leaders did not negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement.

Finally, in November 2006, an agreement was signed by all parties, and the Nepalis stand ready to move forward. Aker and Taylor, too, stand ready to take another 38-hour flight to Nepal, once they secure new funding. Aker concluded, “It’s been a privilege to see and have the IPJ involved in a genuine, peaceful, people’s revolution.”