Growing seeds of peace in war-hit lands

By ANWAR IQBAL, UPI South Asian Affairs Analyst  |  July 13, 2004 at 7:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- "I thought two enemies uniting was just a dream but it is not a dream, it is waiting to happen," says a Bombay -- or Mumbai, if you are an Indian nationalist -- teenager, Divya Murjani.

"We need to learn to listen ... and to understand. ... Peace will follow," adds Ayaz Ahmad, a teenager from Lahore, Pakistan.

The two teenagers are among three dozen brought to the United States from Mumbai, Lahore and the Afghan capital, Kabul, to spend 21 days in the United States.

The program, called the Seeds of Peace, which is funded by the State Department's Bureau of South Affairs, includes a camp in Maine and the follow-up activities in South Asia.

The subcontinent is not really a nursery for peace. Hundreds of thousands were massacred when this unfortunate land was divided between India and Pakistan 56 years ago. But this did not quench their thirst for blood. They have already fought three wars since 1947, when India and Pakistan won independence from their British colonizers.

In May 1998, they tested their nuclear devices and since then each has conducted at least half a dozen missiles tests to see if it has the technology to nuke the other. And in 1999, they came close to fighting a nuclear war over the Himalayan valley of Kashmir, the source of most of their conflicts over more than five decades.

But the organizers of the Seeds of Peace program believe that because the Subcontinent has experienced so much violence, it is the right place for sowing peace, particularly now when both India and Pakistan are making efforts to improve their relations.

"We have seen positive efforts and encouraging signals ... leading the region towards peace, democracy and the rule of law, but more needs to be done," says Donald Camp, the acting assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

His cautious remarks are endorsed warmly by the South Asian teenagers he addressed at the State Department Tuesday. "I realized it is not about winning or losing but working together. I also realized that regardless of their religion, Indians and Pakistanis can live together," says Ahmad.

"Before I came here, I thought two enemies uniting was just a dream but it is not a dream, it is waiting to happen," says Murjani.

Peace between India and Pakistan was imperative for "stability and progress" in South Asia, Camp reminded the South Asian teenagers.

The Seeds of Peace program allows young leaders from rival nations to go beyond the stated positions of their governments and explore each other. And during their stay in the United States, these young students from Lahore, Mumbai and Kabul also discover the problems that still set them apart.

"After last year's program, we wanted to visit Pakistan but our visas were refused," says one Indian participant. "Even parents have problem giving permission to stay. ... 'Oh, my child is going to stay in a Muslim home or a Hindu home,'" he added.

Others also endorsed the view that many parents are a little suspicious of these exchange programs between India and Pakistan.

The young South Asians, all wearing green T-shirts with "Seeds of Peace" printed on the back, are frank and forthcoming in sharing their experiences. Twelve-year-old Wardah Zahid was not willing to let the elders run the show alone. "I would like to be an ambassador," she declares when asked how would she help restore peace between India and Pakistan.

"Listening is more important than talking," says Ahmad, while explaining how he thinks peace could be restored to one of the world's most under-developed regions. "When you start listening to your so-called enemies you realize you can be friends. So listen to each other and pay attention."

Another Lahore teenager, Nija Khan, had already won a friend in India. "Anisha Shah and I have become best friends," she says.

"And why not, we have the same food, see the same movies. They are just like us."

"I did not think Indians would be so friendly," says Rehan Tariq. "In fact, I met such good friends during this camp that I haven't had such friends even in Lahore."

Tariq complains that the Indian and Pakistani media exaggerate the problems that divide the two nations rather than promoting what's in common.

"We want peace on humanitarian grounds. We may not have agreed with them or accepted their point of view, but we understood it," says Murjani while explaining what she learned from this experience.

The organizers also have a follow-up program to ensure that the teenagers stay in touch after leaving the camp. Last fall, Indian participants from Mumbai visited their Pakistani friends in Lahore for a one-week "alumni" activity coordinated by Seeds of Peace.

The participants also remain in touch with each other through the Internet and other regional programs. During their visit to Washington, the Seeds of Peace participants meet with officials at the White House, including national security adviser Condeleeza Rice, and hold discussions with members of Congress and senators in their offices.

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