Oman, a young man from Kashmir, knows the truth in the adage that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. In February of this year he joined many others expressing outrage at the government’s hanging of Kashmir separatist Afzal Guru. Heated clashes between protesters and police followed, and in the violence, Oman lost his right eye. Quiet in demeanour, he now wears dark black sunglasses to hide the wound. It is a permanent and personal reminder of the costs to be paid when conflict and hatred runs unchecked.
Oman was a stonepelter, and his story is not unique. Thousands of frustrated young people in his community take part in stonepelting – throwing rocks at the local police and authorities – in response to the conditions and pressures they experience. In a region rife with religious tension and high unemployment, such eruptions of violence are common. They are also bloody, resulting in countless injuries and sometimes death. It is a perpetual cycle in this tense part of the world, affecting all who live here.
Oman’s story is not unique, but it is important because upon hearing it, our local Kashmiri peacebuilding partner – Yakjah – decided to take action.
Stonepelters – most of whom, like Oman, are poor school or college dropouts – often carry with them a social stigma that perpetuates their destructive behaviour. Branded as violent and unreachable, a lost cause, it isn’t surprising that many stonepelters become stuck in the conflict trap. And yet, in a visit to Oman’s modest home to speak with him following his injury, Yakjah employee Nahida Bashir found no such violent, unreachable person. Through their conversation, she came to understand that stonepelting was primarily an act of performance, and its performers are frustrated people unable to find any other way to express themselves. People like Oman.
Instead of the revolutionist, the extremist, or the anarchists who throw stones in the name of nation, religion or fun, Oman revealed himself to be a shy and insecure teenager – a street vendor unable to complete school and harbouring deep doubts about his future. Instead of a radical, Nahida saw in him a young man raised amid hatred, brutality and victimhood, who desired a different sort of life but saw no way of realising it. Speaking openly about his experiences, he acknowledged that stonepelting was fuelling the violence he hoped to escape. Watching him lower his gaze to the floor in sombre silence before putting his sunglasses back on, Nahida knew he was speaking the truth.
So Yakjah decided to act on that truth and attempt to break the cycle of violence. Her goal was to help stonepelters escape their stigma through a program designed specifically for them. It was something that had never before been done in the region.
Yakjah, in partnership with Pandies Theatre, invited 16 stonepelters, aged 13 to 19, to a three day theatre workshop. Its aim was to allow them to express themselves publicly in a new way. For many, it was their first chance to do so. And while initially reserved and hesitant to contribute, their timidity eventually gave way to a swell of thoughts, emotions and personal stories. Given the chance to finally share of themselves without fear of judgement or being ignored, the stonepelters quickly revealed that they were far more than their label. They were creators, thinkers, storytellers and, like all adolescents, full of dreams and aspirations.
Over the course of those three days, the young men tapped their creativity to devise and perform short theatre pieces. Under guidance from programme leaders, they were compelled to question the troubling ideologies that underlined much of the society and helped nurture a culture of violence. For most, it was a process of deep self-reflection, in which they came to question many of their own core beliefs. For Yakjah too, it was a learning experience that led to better understanding of the root causes of conflict in the community. By the end of the workshop, all of the participants had pledged to never again take part in stonepelting. It was a pledge that would soon be tested.
In July, another round of heated conflict swept through Kashmir, as rising tensions exploded once again. Thousands of young people poured into the streets, clenched fists balled around stones or broken pieces of brick, searching for targets. The police stood opposite, riot shields at the ready. It was a scene that had been played out countless times before, and all knew that violence would follow.
But the 16 youth from Yakjah’s programme were not stonepelters that day, nor violence their goal. They were something else: young creatives en route to the follow-up art workshop. Taking up paintbrushes, as rocks and debris flew through the skies of their community, bloodshed and pain with them – the 16 young men chose a particularly poignant canvass that day. They painted stones. Colourful, bright stones – some big, some small – and all in stark contrast to the smoke rising from the burning tires and teargas canisters.
And once the violence stopped – the protestors returned home and the police to their stations – the once-upon-a-time stonepelters went one step further. They went to those police – themselves too the victims of a culture of violence – and offered them the stones as gifts. They offered them small but powerful tokens of reconciliation, and their gifts were accepted. In doing so, 16 young people – once branded a lost cause – defied their stereotype and proved that even in the most fractured of places, seeds of change can take root. They are small at first, those seeds – fragile and unexpected – but with conviction and dedication, they can bring forth something life-changing, showing peace can grow from the most unlikely of places, sometimes even from a stone.
Since taking part in Yakjah’s workshops, none of the young men have returned to violence. Most continue to take part in Yakjah’s peacebuilding work, and many are currently volunteering to help organise a workshop on violence in a local college.
If you would like to support efforts like Yakjah’s as they grow peace in some of the world’s most tenuous and volatile places, please consider making a donation to Peace Direct today.
Note: due to the sensitive nature of peacebuilding work in certain parts of the world, all names in this report have been changed to protect identities.