Singing in the Dark Times

On Sunday 8 February Peace Direct hosted a star-studded stage show with patron Mark Rylance and friends – acclaimed actors Gina McKee, Paterson Joseph, Meera Syal and Sophie Okonedo.

The cast of "Singing in the Dark Times"
The cast of “Singing in the Dark Times” Image credit: Chris Tongue

“In the dark time
Will there also be singing?
Yes there will be singing
About the dark times” – Bertolt Brecht

On Sunday 8 February Peace Direct hosted a star-studded stage show with patron Mark Rylance and friends – acclaimed actors Gina McKee, Paterson Joseph, Meera Syal and Sophie Okonedo. The evening opened with the haunting tones of Lebanese singer Juliana Yazbeck echoing around Bush Hall, casting a hush over the audience, evocative of a call to arms. Except that this event was no call to arms, it was a passionate and heartfelt call for peace.

From the video presentations of prominent peacebuilders around the world, to individual harrowing stories of loss, to moments of humour and inspiration, the audience were taken on a journey though the complexities of conflict and the nuances of peace. We saw the facelessness of war juxtaposed with the human voices for unity, and we were reminded of the sheer importance of those who stand up for peace.

A video compilation documenting the experiences and opinions of experts and practitioners of peace rang out with one poignant message: even when it seems that tensions run too deep and conflict has run on too long, there will always be values that connect us. At the heart of this is our common humanity.

This common humanity was clearly articulated through the voice of Paterson Joseph, reading the testimony of peacebuilder Henri Ladyi from DR Congo. We felt Henri’s passion and compassion, and his drive to continue through fears and sleepless nights: “My name is Henri. I am building peace. I will do this until my last breath. I will continue until peace has been built.” His testimony took us through his experience as a young man captured by a rebel militia group, who debated the monetary value of his life so he could be released – in the end for just $30. The dark humour of the situation elicited a hum of laughter from the audience, and highlighted that moments of light can always be found, even in the darkest situations.

Meera Syal reads the testimony of peacebuilder Dishani Jayaweera.
Meera Syal reads the testimony of peacebuilder Dishani Jayaweera. Image credit: Chris Tongue

The testimony of Dishani Jayaweera, our peacebuilding partner from Sri Lanka, carried us on her own personal journey. Read by Meera Syal, we saw the conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists through the child eyes of Dishani’s 14-year-old self, trying to make sense of the injustice of the deaths of her friends, her teachers and her doctors, mercilessly attacked because of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. But even in such dark times, Dishani experienced the human capacity for kindness and empathy: “In this one day, I experienced the capacity of humans to be brutal as well as to be compassionate, to show love to your fellow human kind.” Meera brought to life Dishani’s peacebuilding vocation as an adult, working to overcome the divides of war. Her call to nations, communities and individuals to listen to all sides, to take responsibility and find a way to bring justice, reconciliation and peace was inspiring.

Reading the testimony of Vahidin Omanovic from Bosnia, Mark Rylance’s sincere tone communicated the depth of the injustice, suffering and anger that these peacebuilders themselves have experienced – and overcome. Vahidin’s testimony spoke of the bitter loss caused by the conflict in the Bosnian region in the 1990s: loss of loved ones and possessions, and of identity as the UN refugee camps categorised him as a number not a name. The gravity of his words left us all imersed in his personal transformation from hatred and anger to a determined desire to heal the traumas and tensions in his society now, not to leave them festering for future generations to sort out. These peacebuilders are proof of how anger can be conquered, how suffering can be overcome and how peace can be built, even in the dark times.

After the main performance, Mark Rylance gave an impassioned speech outlining his vision that we can all play a part in a movement away from conflict and towards peaceful diplomacy. He spoke of the increasing technological capacity of war, and the increasing need to support those who work for peace. This brought the evening back to the difference that every single individual can make. Seeing Bush Hall filled out with people who also believe in the power of locally-led peace was testament to this.

As the lights fell on the final scene, Juliana’s melodic tones washed over Bush Hall and allowed for a moment of reflection. For some this was of empathy and emotion at the inspirational testimonies, for others it brought an invigorating desire to play their own part in Peace Direct’s mission. But it was co-founder Scilla Elworthy’s closed eyes that perhaps epitomised that moment of absorbed contemplation. It was as if she was transported back through her past to all the events that had led to this moment…. all the hard work in the early days of Peace Direct, the inspiring colleagues and leaders who have played such an important role, and the humbling relationships built with local leaders like Henri, Dishani and Vahidin. Eyes closed, in a moment of peace, reliving the differences just a few people can make to alter the course of the world – this will remain my lasting image of an evening filled with passion, inspiration and celebration.

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