Today we mark the international day of peace, a day established by the United Nations General Assembly 36 years ago. Back in 1981 wars raged across Afghanistan, Guatemala, Lebanon, Mozambique, Iran, Iraq and Ethiopia, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.
Fast forward to 2015 and it is easy to feel that the world has made little progress in the intervening years. The war in Syria alone has resulted in 4 million refugees and by January this year 220,000 Syrians had been killed. The numbers are too large to comprehend the level of suffering; until, that is, the image of the lifeless body of one little Syrian boy washed up on the beach in Kos. That one image, perhaps more than any other in recent times, has reminded us that each loss of life is our collective loss, and that the world cannot and should not stand by and let such suffering continue.
So how does this harrowing image link to the international day of peace? For me, it shows how the image and story of one individual can change the way people think of war, and of the urgent need for peace. And that an individual’s story can sometimes alter the course of a conflict.
At Peace Direct we know this all too well, as we have spent the past ten years supporting people in war zones, people who are on the one hand just like you and me, ordinary citizens living in their communities. These ordinary people become extraordinary, when their communities are suddenly torn apart by conflict. They rise above their own natural survival instincts to do whatever they can to stop the violence, build peace, and prevent further the triggers of violence igniting community tensions.
In recent years there has been a growing recognition that such local grassroots efforts are not only key to consolidating fragile peace in conflict affected countries but are also vitally important in tackling violence. That’s not always easy to see when a regime drops barrel bombs on civilian areas and heavily armed rebel groups lay waste to whole towns and cities.
However, in the majority of conflicts around the world, we have found organisations and individuals actively working to end bloodshed and often with remarkable results. Right now, in the Central African Republic, we are supporting grassroots organisations across the country to build peace in a country torn apart by violence; violence which is no less harrowing even though it doesn’t make the news in the UK.
No-one takes the picture of the person who builds peace. It’s one of the reasons that we are here, to tell their story, allowing them to get on with their life saving work. It reminds me of the often used Margaret Mead quote: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
So today, on the International Day of Peace, let’s not forget those who continue to work tirelessly for peace, away from the gaze of the world’s media whose work inches us closer to a more peaceful world.