Preserving and Protecting
the Human Bridges Over the Chasms of Conflict
By Roy Thomas with George Oehring
Armies advancing or retreating know all about the importance of bridges. Physical bridges can be the keys for the movement of personnel and material needed for military victory. History abounds with examples. “A Bridge Too Far” and “Bridge at Remagen,” titles of books made into films, provide popular World War II illustrations of the strategic importance of bridges. Just as water may separate soldiers from success, chasms of religious or ethnic or linguistic or economic differences can keep communities apart and prevent successful resolution of conflict. Moreover, the gaps that separate groups of people cannot be traversed by expedient bridging as easily as the Egyptians passed over the Suez Canal in 1973! All of the partners in the process of attempting to bring peace
to a war-torn region must be alert to the need to identify, protect and develop those individuals who serve as human bridges between communities in conflict.
Who are the human bridges?
There are several types: Concealed, Genetic, Occupational, Symbolic, Undeveloped, Young Adult. There is also the situation where human bridges, or the potential for them, may simply be absent.
Concealed Bridges. Many people hide their potential to be bridges between communities. This potential is usually based on a relationship, whether by blood or affection. Such individuals may be like the former Bosnian Muslim university student who, in midst of shelling in 1993, asks about a Bosnian Serb girl on the other side of the trenches who was a classmate at Sarajevo’s University. He is already open to suggestion that the “other side” are not all “devils.” Personal desire to survive and/or to protect others in or affected by the relationship may have forced many to hide their potential as human bridges and adhere to a belligerent stance. An intelligent “intelligence” plan to discover such persons, without endangering them, should be developed. Many of these individuals have intentionally selected employment or live in situations that permit them to avoid taking part in the fighting or direct confrontations. International agencies provide not only an opportunity to earn money but also to escape the difficulties inherent in taking sides. Expatriates working for any of the peace partners are likely to encounter such possible human bridges between belligerents.
Genetic Bridges. There will be a proportion of affected people whose parentage is a mixture of the parties at war. Two of the most highly regarded interpreters in Sarajevo working for the UN military observer organization not only had excellent command of the English language, but were the offspring of a self-identified “Croatian” and “Serb” parents. Unfortunately, as war intensifies, people descended from mixed parentage must almost always make a choice between flight and picking a side in order to survive. Otherwise, the warring parties tend to see them as potential traitors, making them probable “human bridges” only if they can be protected and encouraged to remain in the conflict area. Again, these people will often be found working for international organizations in an effort to avoid clashing with relatives on one side or the other, and thus will be known to expatriate workers.
Occupational Bridges. Some persons, by virtue of their occupation, will be bridges between communities, whether they chose to be or not. On the top of such a list would be personnel engaged in medical professions, many of whom will treat the injuries of people from all sides, whether encouraged to or not, particularly if the wounded or injured are brought to the facility where they are working.
Convincing doctors, dentists, nurses or midwives to go into a village or district of the “other side” is far more challenging. There are courageous models. One of the real “heroes” of Gorazde in 1994 was a UNHCR-hired Sarajevo doctor with a Serb name who went into that isolated pocket to treat primarily Muslim casualties while Mladic was leading a Bosnian Serb assault on the enclave.
Mechanics are also highly valued, especially in the reconstruction phase. People with a mechanic’s skills are in short supply and thus accepted by all sides anxious to have machinery repaired. Probably the same could be said about veterinarians, whose specialized knowledge is in a field that is key to immediate survival and long-term economic recovery.
Foreign agencies working in a war-torn region are often initially the main employers of a critical number of local individuals whose skill-sets are utilized by all the warring factions. These individuals may not necessarily have the best attitude to be bridge-makers, but they may be the only persons from the opposing side readily acceptable to a community prejudiced by the horrors of recent conflict. Unfortunately, criminals all too often seem quite able to bridge religious, ethnic and economic gaps, and often are providing the best model of working co-operation between warring or formerly warring groups, but unfortunately not for purposes that benefit the society in positive ways.
Symbolic Bridges. Some people surviving conflict are less proactive but still serve as bridges. These are the symbolic bridges of reconciliation, much like the medieval Mostar Bridge. As with the famed Mostar Bridge, they are not useful for heavy traffic, but are needed to connect communities in less tangible but as important ways. The last Muslim, the last Croat, and the only Serb in a village are symbols of the former ethnic and religious diversity touted by a once-unified society. Ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to succeed! To once again restore some semblance of the ethnic or religious diversity to a particular village in the future it is important that at least one member of the “other” community or communities have survived to be the symbol of what used to be and what can be once again.
Usually the symbolic bridges are much easier to find than their more practical brethren. This is because these few survivors of the “other” groups are often targets of increasingly hostile acts. In 1993, the Canadian Battalion in Sector South in UNPROFOR protected the Croat villagers of Rodalici while the Czech battalion protected Croats in the village of Podlapaca in hopes of stopping complete ethnic cleansing of these hamlets. The impact of saving the Croat minority on the overall reconciliation efforts being attempted by NATO’s SFOR remains to be studied.
Undeveloped Bridges. Children who have not been taught who the enemy is, or have not yet acquired the prejudices of their elders, have the potential to be human bridges. Loyalty to the myths of the past may not yet have taken hold in their forming mindsets.
Children admire their peers for a variety of reasons. Proficiency in sports through healthy competition often generates respect among young children, even before they can be engaged in activities that teach them to hate. For older youth, offering skills that provide job opportunities may be a useful strategy that brings diverse groups together. Expatriates, based on their knowledge of the local community in which they work, can develop strategies that will bring children together. If people aren’t ever brought close to the edge of the river, they’ll never bridge it. It is wiser to bridge the small stream than the raging river swollen by the prejudice of war.
Young Adult Bridges. A special group ready for challenges to their as yet undeveloped or developing prejudices is older youth. Attitude change, in the view of Hofstede, who studied intercultural relations in the business world, is more difficult to achieve than providing knowledge or teaching skills. However, older youth provides a glimpse of hope. Scott Peck suggests that at some point offspring reject or question the concepts and principles of their elders. Universities as institutions may offer an environment where attitude can be changed by providing thought-provoking stimuli not only in the classroom but also in contact with students from other communities at a time when these students themselves are questioning the views of their parents and elders. Moreover, this point in life – young adulthood – is a time when people are thought to be at their most idealistic, and therefore capable of the sacrifices necessary to achieve an ideological or aesthetic goal.
The mixing of former belligerents in post-secondary educational settings should thus be supported by all agencies involved in the peace process whether financially, or volunteering to provide lecturers, or simply by encouragement of individuals in the field with whatever resources are at hand.
Absent Bridges. When international agencies view a region or area where there seem to be no individuals who could contribute as bridge-makers, except in a symbolic way, then the peace process will, indeed, be in difficulty. The lasting reconstruction and rebuilding of a cohesive society requires some form of reconciliation. Otherwise, the situation can be compared to living next to a live volcano, where the threat of impending eruptions and doom are ever present, particularly where scientific study of the phenomena is lacking.
An armistice, a cease-fire, a pause is like the period when the volcano lies dormant but an eruption can occur again. Thus the suspected presence of human bridge-makers is important to those who must make policy decisions about intervention, whether militarily or with humanitarian assistance. Volcanic activity cannot be stopped. More research is needed to determine if real peace is possible when there is no apparent bridge between communities.
How can human bridges be protected?
All self-respecting armies have special procedures in place for ensuring bridge security in the event of withdrawal or retreat, and special tactics for seizing bridges in the offense. All partners in the peace process must give careful consideration to protection of those whom they think are possible human bridges over the gaps that the mind creates between warring factions, communities and even countries. We will now examine some tactics that can afford protection during and after conflict.
Without Weapons, Tactic 1. UN military observers almost without exception are unarmed, which is also the case for relief workers, development aid workers and most other partners attempting to bring peace to strife torn areas. However, the presence alone of foreigners can deter violence and ethnic cleansing. Korenica in the UNPROFOR Sector South in 1993 provides an example. One lone Croat woman, still living in the village at that time, was much threatened and very vulnerable to local thugs, not to mention Serbs displaced from elsewhere. The Serb neighbours who hitherto had protected her were no longer able to do so. A Russian UN military observer based in this town took it upon himself to preserve this single person who represented the prevention of complete ethnic cleansing! His tactic was to rent part of her house to serve as both the UN military observer office and to meet accommodation needs, thus ensuring that a UN flag would appear over the roof and that he or one of his colleagues would be continuously present. Any international organization, by judicious selection of accommodation or office space, might contribute to the protection of one of these bridge-makers. Unfortunately the impact of this woman’s survival was lost in the subsequent turmoil unleashed by Operation Storm. It is an example that should be tracked and studied for its potential.
Without Weapons, Tactic II. Sometimes different tactics must be used by the unarmed. Again in 1993, but this time in the Bosnian government held area of Sarajevo, some Bosnian Serb interpreters were taken at gunpoint after leaving the UNPROFOR Sector Headquarters. The un-armed UN military observers present, unable to resist this hostage-taking with force, simply followed the hostage-takers, who were the local police, right into their police station. Eventually these interpreters were released as the UN observers gave every indication of staying indefinitely with their interpreters unless prevented from doing so by force. Interpreters, as outlined in a previous article in The Liaison, are not only possible bridges between communities because they are exposed to more sides of the dispute than most, but also because they are more vulnerable, thus requiring protection even by their employers who are unarmed.
With Limited Rules of Engagement (ROE). Many UN, OSCE, KFOR or other international military or civilian police personnel deployed on missions find that their ROE do not cover use of deadly force; that using their weapons to protect locals from attack by other locals is not permitted. Creative positioning is thus necessary to use armed internationalized military personnel or expatriate civilian police to protect bridge-makers.
Another incident from Sector South illustrates a tactic that can be used in situations with limited ROE. In the village of Matasi, an elderly Croat woman was living in isolation from other surviving Croats in the village. In addition, her Serb neighbors were having trouble protecting her from hungry Serb soldiers. Her survival over the winter would depend on keeping her last cow. To protect her and her cow, the Kenyan battalion placed a section of soldiers around her house in such a way that the only way ethnic cleansers or robbers could reach her was by posing a threat to one of these Kenyan soldiers. Their ROE did permit them to use force if they themselves were threatened. To would-be perpetrators of violence against protected people, it makes little difference whether the UN soldier or civilian police officer is there to protect himself or the minority people.
With Robust ROE. When ROE permit use of deadly force to intervene and halt violence between local inhabitants, such as was the case in Haiti in both UNMIH and UNSMIH, then those empowered to use weapons can be directly assigned to the defence of bridge-makers. However, the use of force for this specific purpose does raise the question of what happens when the UN security elements are reduced in size or are withdrawn. It is the same dilemma that relief and development workers face regarding protection of aid either in convoys or when distributing food or material.
Post-Mission Protection of Individuals. Considerable attention must be devoted to planning for the protection of bridge-makers after the international community downsizes its expatriate presence, particularly security elements. One can be hopeful and plan for protection by the indigenous police forces through education and training, but the fanatics among the belligerent groups and the so-called “spoilers” will target such individuals once external protection disappears. The disappearance of Kosovo Verification Mission interpreters suspected to have been killed by either Serb security forces or the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) because of their knowledge of both sides of the story only demonstrates the latent potential for tragedy that exists if this aspect is over-looked. There must be a strategy in place to ensure survival of bridge-makers without foreign support.
Protection Via Bridge-Making Institutions. Those organizations involved in the development of learned attitudes such as schools must be protected from organized ethnic cleansing of a different kind. For example, the principal of a secondary school in Sarajevo, a Bosnian Serb woman, lost her job because she was not a Muslim. In addition, this school was not prepared to accept a former student of mixed Croatian/Serb parentage. The schools of Sarajevo in 1994, and still today, are the beneficiary of foreign support. Unfortunately the prevailing separate ethnic school systems do not serve to expose students to persons of the other religious/ethnic groups that exist in Bosnia. Moreover, agencies funding schools can influence policies, not to mention curriculum, and some perhaps do so adversely, such as when a religious-based NGO is involved.
Some expatriates may, in fact, be in the business of creating or maintaining institutions that are multi-ethnic or multi-lingual or both, such as police monitors. A foreign aid agency employing locals may become an institution that brings people of different communities together. Thus withdrawal of such an organization from an area may deprive a region of its sole bridge-making institution. Not only must bridge-makers be protected but also the existing forums in which such bridge-makers are effective in this role must be protected or kept in place if at all possible.
How can human bridges be developed?
Any military engineer will advise that even the most expedient of bridging requires firm foundations. Protecting bridge-makers is analogous to providing relief while developing bridge-makers is just that, development! However, firm foundations for human bridge-making must be a firm, serious, consideration for those involved in both relief and development work, not to mention security when in the field on peace support operations.
Use International Models. Expatriates can present models of reconciliation when working in areas rife with local dissension and conflict. For example, in Sarajevo in 1993, a golden opportunity to advertise how belligerents can work together was missed. Former Falkland foes, an Argentine marine and a British marine came to know and like each other. Their parting gift to each other was a plaque made by joining the halves of their respective Marine Corps plaques in a unique symbol of their respect for one another. This symbol, in the wider picture, illustrated the possibility of reconciliation among those who had once fought each other.
Teams working in the field in peace support operations, usually by chance, provide one or more models of individuals from belligerent parties working together. The modeling process can be assisted by deliberately selecting teams not on the basis of “national” quotas but on the basis of “models of reconciliation.” Another area in which expatriates can provide a model is in sports. Most expatriate recreational teams generally have a wide mix of nationalities represented, as was the case with teams of foreigners in Kabul in 1989. The flip side of this process is that those expatriates who demonstrate prejudices must not be employed in field situations where their behaviour can unconsciously and insidiously set back attempts at local reconciliation.
Hire Locals. Simultaneously, local employees, as much as skill sets permit, should be hired to bring former belligerents together. When skills appear to favour one community over another, such as possessing more English-speakers suitable for interpreter work, then an opportunity has arisen for development of possible bridge-makers. For example, courses in English can be offered to the faction that appears to lack qualified English speakers. The international agencies’ work environment for local employees should always be a forum in which bridge-makers work. Initially, the bridge-makers may be outside models, although as already suggested, individuals from the region with a propensity toward reconciliation may very well seek employment with international agencies. “We want people to work for us who can work together” is the message.
Create Forums for Bridge-Makers. Just as planning must take place to identify and protect possible bridge-makers, so too must planning take place to create opportunities for bridge-makers to work. The working environment of an external aid agency can serve as one such forum. A medium to encourage travel and improve trade, such as the bus line connecting various diverse communities in Bosnia, is another. Sports, as already cited, are a great forum, when properly managed, in which skill rather than ethnic label is the most important factor on and off the field.
Baseball has been suggested by a Canadian judge as an excellent tool for re-habilitation of young offenders because of the patience and team effort required. Baseball, or indeed softball, appears to have less nationalistic baggage than soccer, being a primarily a sport of the New World, with the exception of Asiatic adherents in Japan and Korea. Thus baseball or softball is perhaps a more suitable mechanism for development of bridge-makers in, for example, Bosnia.
Why not have peewee teams of three Croatian, three Serbian and three Muslim children formed in leagues? Any past ethnic baggage associated with “soccer” or “football” could be avoided. However, if baseball becomes the selected mechanism for promoting contacts between communities, then the goal must be to have teams from the ethnically mixed league eventually competing in the Little League World Series, which represents a long-term commitment.
Develop for the Future. The primary focus for development must be children who represent the future. Individuals working in the field can attempt to supplement the impact of an education system that does not serve as forum for bridge-makers by supplementing formal school instruction with ad hoc lessons. Some valued skills such as languages, sports skills, driving, automobile mechanics, or even first aid, can be taught to classes deliberately formed from mixed groups. Unfortunately, without institutionalizing the work of individuals, the creation of such forums and mechanisms will be temporary. A long-term commitment is required, which might require handing over responsibility as a secondary duty to one’s replacements. Expatriates on longer-term contracts are ideally placed to assist in development of bridge-makers but their superiors must support these efforts by making time and resources available.
Further Academic Study and Research. Papers have appeared studying the role played by individuals who act as spoilers in the peace process. Research and academic study are also required to study the role played by individuals who are human bridge-makers. Study is also required of
those situations in which there are no apparent bridge-makers and the reasons for such. Are the people in these cases doomed to perpetual conflict, or conversely, is the international community committed to decades of peace enforcement and peacekeeping?
The aim of any peace process is to bring an end to conflict or at least develop mechanisms for coping, without resorting to violence. If such a goal is only possible with foreign intervention then the international community faces the daunting prospect of providing an unending presence. The people of a place, region, and country must be part of the process for an expatriate exit to be possible, or even for proper development to occur.
Key to a locally supported peace is the indigenous individual who can bridge the gap between belligerents, communities, and groups. Identifying these individuals should be high on the list of activities of all the partners in the peace process, including the local people themselves! The presence of such potential bridge-makers should be one of the “Elements of Information” sought by those deciding on intervention. Once identified, these individuals have to survive in-theatre to play a role. Thus, their protection is important and must be considered even after the international community withdraws or scales down its presence. Finally, a strategy developing these bridge-makers, as well as one for developing environments for such individuals to operate, must be part of any co-ordinated relief and development plan.
Expatriates working in the field will be the best placed to discover the bridge-makers and to recommend forums and environments in which they can best function. Initially, the international agency itself may be the best and safest such forum. Suggestions for development of bridge-makers should also originate from the field. Foreign workers in the field often provide a model of co-operation among former foes and thus are very much part of the process for developing future bridge-makers.
Spoilers, the bad news for those involved in peace support operations, attract headlines. The preservation and protection of human bridges deserves equal attention from those in the field, from those who set policy and from those who study both. Crossing the chasms and canyons created by conflict is only possible with the aid of such people bridges. These individuals must be alive to play this role! The international community has an interest and a responsibility to ensure the survival of human bridges not only for mission success, but also for the good of humanity.