Afghanistan: When Conflict meets Education, Desire and Hope

Photo collection & commentary by Najeebullah Azad.

©Najeeb Azad: “Afghan Children”

Afghanistan is not only known for the war against terror but it is also the fifth youngest country in the world, with 68% of its population under the age of 25. For the Afghan freelance photographer and education activist, Najeebullah Azad (called Najeeb), this demographic boom not only creates risks but also many opportunities. Young people want to contribute to and benefit from the country’s development, yet much depends on older generations and the political as well as economic environment. According to a survey conducted by The Asia Foundation (2016), in total 71.2 % of Afghan youth are currently unemployed, 25.7 % illiterate and 13.8 % are addicted to drugs. At the same time, 69.8 % of Afghans reported that they are ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ in fear for their personal safety. In addition, the percentage of Afghans with a family member who was either a victim of crime or violence increased by 1.2 points, to 19.4 % in 2016. Not surprisingly, 29.6 % of Afghans want to leave their home country due to security risks and lack of economic opportunities. Notwithstanding these challenges, Najeeb continues to be a proud citizen of Afghanistan, who embraces the diversity of his home country and deeply appreciates how gracefully Afghans live their lives.

In his photo collection, Najeeb reflects on the interplay of conflict, education and hope. In his view, Afghanistan’s youth remains the country’s greatest untapped resource for a better future. Below he comments on his photographs.

“War & Peace. The dilemma of Afghanistan”
©Najeeb Azad

About 104,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. The war on terror is still ongoing, however there is nothing as precious as hope for a bright future for Afghans. In this photo, a young man is standing on an artillery which was used during the Afghan-Soviet war. The artillery is now used for recreational purposes, allowing people to understand their bitter history and hope for a peaceful future.

“The cost of war”
©Najeeb Azad

A father praying for his son at the cemetery of Enlightenment Movement. The cemetery is named in remembrance of the death of 80 Hazaras (a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan), killed by IS during a peaceful protest about the TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) power line project.

“Children rule Afghanistan’s present and future”
©Najeeb Azad

Children in a nursery school cheering for peace in Bamyan, the central highlands of Afghanistan. The school is located in Arzu Social Centre (Arzu means ‘hope’ in Dari) funded by an NGO, which offers English and computer classes, and a laundry room for women only. Currently, about 38 percent of school age children (4.2 million in real numbers) do not have access to schools, most of which are girls.

“Winter examinations”
©Najeeb Azad

Students attending examinations at Noor High School in Jaghori district, Ghazni province. The first Noor High School was established in Quetta, Pakistan by Afghan refugees who escaped the Taliban, supported by a charity from Japan. After the fall of the Taliban, a subdivision of the school moved to Ghazni province of Afghanistan. Most schools in peaceful areas of Afghanistan do not have proper buildings and facilities and schools located in insecure areas of Afghanistan that still have proper buildings and facilities are at constant risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

“Poverty affects children enrolled in schools”
©Najeeb Azad

A student searching rubbish bins in Kabul in the hope to find a used product which he can still sell to pay for his school expenses. Most school kids in Afghanistan are working part-time as street sellers and rubbish collectors to support themselves and their families.

“Child Labor”
©Najeeb Azad

A student reading in front of his father’s shop in Kabul, where he works to help his family. I talked to him, motivated him about his hard-work, and told him that he is the future of his conflict-affected country, a country which is now a ruin due to decisions of our old generation.

“Young Shepherd”
©Najeeb Azad

A young shepherd supporting his community and family by getting paid for every herd he takes care of. He told me that, the survival of his family is the idea of a bright future for him.

“Educated but unemployed”
©Najeeb Azad

University graduates celebrating their graduation from a private university in Kabul. Only 9.6 percent of college-age students (around 300,000) are enrolled in public and private universities in Afghanistan. The majority of youth does not have access to public higher education and can therefore only enroll at a private university if their families can afford to pay for the fees. However, those few who manage to graduate from a university struggle to find stable employment.

“A school bell made of the remains of an artillery”
©Najeeb Azad

I rang the bell and it was very loud! The noise of war is always so loud, but now this school in Bamyan province of Afghanistan is trying to keep the volume of war low, and shine the world with peace through the remains of war artilleries.

According to Save the Children, more than 400,000 Afghan children were dropped out of school in 2017 due to growing instability in the country and the forced returns of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Conflict has also forced more than 1000 schools to shut.

“Kite runners of Kabul”
©Najeeb Azad

Afghan children flying their kite on Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul. This photo reminds me of Khaled Hosseini’s book – A Thousand Splendid Suns.



Born in Afghanistan, Najeebullah Azad lived his childhood as a refugee in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, and completed his undergraduate degree in India. Najeeb is currently pursuing his Master Degree in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED). He has previously worked with NGOs and the United Nations in Afghanistan. He believes the world will be a better place for all through educating the uneducated. Najeeb is an education and civil activist, amateur writer and novelist, and a freelance photographer. He has been awarded by UNESCO, WMO, and many other organizations for his photography. He is currently organizing his photo exhibition about life in Afghanistan across Europe to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim to collect donations to build a public library for women and children in his country. If you want to support Najeeb’s work, please contact him at:

Uganda: Digging for Social Justice in Karamoja

Co-authored with Tenywa Aloysius Malagala.
How the poor provision of education for the Karamojong affects the community’s ability to advocate for their rights.

Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015
Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015

Nestled amid the hills of the northeastern Ugandan-Kenyan border, a small Karamojong community in Nakabaat struggles to come to terms with a conflict-ridden past and the consequences of mineral resource exploitation by national and international companies. Uganda’s history of state formation was followed by anti-pastoralist policies and decades of drought, land disputes, and land dispossession, leaving the community deprived of food, water, healthcare facilities, and access to education. Locals from areas like Nakabaat have experienced cross-border conflicts for many years. However, what threatens the fragile peace today is no longer warrior nomads or border disputes but Karamoja’s nascent mining industry.

Although the area’s huge mineral deposits have the potential to revitalise the local economy, improve the living standards of a conflict-affected population, and foster processes of sustainable peace development, the region’s natural resources have fortified suffering, abject poverty, structural violence, and human rights abuses instead.

Karamoja remains one of the most underdeveloped sub regions in Uganda, and it displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average. As such, the region remains extremely vulnerable to internal and external shocks, ranging from security, political, environmental, and health-related threats. Yet, Karamoja is rich in two assets: mineral resources (including tin, gold, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, marble, limestone, graphite, gypsum, wolfram, uranium, and lithium) and cultural diversity (consisting of tribes from Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan).

At first glance, the vast lands of Karamoja may appear vacant and unexploited. In reality, they are not—communities, not individuals, usually own the land. This clearly challenges any genuine attempts to identify rightful owners for consolation and compensation prior to engaging in mining activities. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch (“How can we survive here?” 2014), there are currently three active mining companies in Karamoja engaged in different stages of the mining process. These include Jan Mangal Uganda Ltd (a Ugandan subsidiary of an Indian jewelry company), East African Mining Ltd (a Ugandan gold exploration company), and DAO Marble Ltd (a Kuwait-based group).

The report further highlights the difficulties of land rights and ownership and states that

“While Uganda’s mining law requires a surface rights agreement to be negotiated with land owners prior to active mining and payment of royalties to lawful landowners once revenues flow, the law does not require any communication or consent from the local population during exploration work.”

What makes matters even worse is the government’s resistance to implementing communal or collective land ownership based on the Karamojong’s communal tradition.

In a way, history repeats itself in Karamoja—only the exterior actors have changed. After colonial rule, the borders between Kenya and Sudan were redrawn, and the majority of the Karamojong’s grazing regions were left outside Uganda. The extent to which the long-term effects of externally imposed borders have caused civil unrest and conflict in the region remains a highly debated and often disputed point.

In pre-colonial Karamoja, political power was exercised over people and not over land or territory. In other words, the nature of semi-nomadic societal life rendered the whole notion of individual land ownership almost irrelevant. Any territorial claims would have endangered the very basis of survival for most pastoral communities. Upon independence, forceful attempts by Ugandan governments to settle Karamojong pastoralists have resulted in decades of conflict and widespread poverty. Today, the Karamojong’s lack of legal proof and land ownership puts them in significant jeopardy of experiencing rights abuses as mining activities continue to increase.

The small Karamojong community of Nakabaat serves as a prime example of how resource exploitation and land acquisition by mining companies increase structural violence and violate human rights. Disarmed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the community abandoned cattle herding (and raiding) to mine for small quantities of gold instead. Yet, between 2011 and 2014, their modest existence was severely disrupted when Jan Mangal Ltd entered their land.

Initially, Jan Mangal Ltd promised to develop and compensate the community in exchange for their gold-mining activities, but the company did not live up to its promises. When the community raised concerns about issues of land ownership, Jan Mangal Ltd asserted that the land belonged to the government. Four years down the line, the company has depleted the mine of its gold and has left the impoverished community behind. Miles of black pipes used to pump water into the mining site still remain and serve as a reminder of their activities. In a group interview, the community of Nakabaat claimed that throughout the period of Jan Mangal’s presence they were refused access to water from the pipes. Notably, Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most affected by frequent water shortages and drought.

These days, there are only traces of gold left at the site. Young Karamojong miners reveal that for one “point” (i.e. the size of a few sand corns) they earn 5.000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) or US$ 1.70, and one gram presently sells for UGX 50.000 or US$ 17. Ugandan businessmen from Kampala are their main clients. Sales figures are purely the result of chance, and there are periods when they sell no gold at all. A “point” of gold may easily take up to one day of mining and involve several members of the community. Fatalities occur frequently due to the poor set-up of the mining site.

Any local attempts to formally complain and report Jan Mangal Ltd have so far failed. Even when the community sought legal assistance from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Jan Mangal neither responded nor attended meetings about the case.

Besides, communities such as Nakabaat simply lack educated individuals to advocate for their wants and needs, not to mention to engage in lucrative mining activities and businesses for themselves. When we asked community members how many of them attended school, only one young man raised his hand.

Karamoja has the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 % being female and 64.8% being male). Numerous efforts by the government in collaboration with international donors, aid agencies and civil society organisations are currently underway to increase educational attainment among the local people. These positive developments notwithstanding, it may take a time span of two generations until remote communities are able to advocate for their rights and needs.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Building Inner Peace: Yoga’s transformative effect on peacebuilding efforts in war-torn societies

How yoga has proved effective in helping conflict-shattered societies to overcome individual trauma.

Lamu Island Backbend Kenya Photo: Robert Sturman.
Lamu Island Backbend Kenya Photo: Robert Sturman.

In 2003, the international community-based HIV/Aids initiative, WE-ACTx, was founded in response to an urgent global appeal from Rwandan genocide survivors for help in accessing Aids medications. Initially, the WE-ACTx team, consisting of Aids physicians, activists and researchers, did exactly what most of us would do. They built a hospital and sought to provide as much medical support as they could. However, the medical team soon realised that in a post-genocide and conflict-shattered country, there were wounds that even the best doctors, hospitals and medications cannot heal.

In any society ravaged by violence, individuals suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder both during and/or in the aftermath of conflict. Symptoms can range from depression and flashbacks to increased anxiety and emotional arousal as well as having nightmares, feeling emotionally numb, and in some instances, experiencing intense physical reactions. This clearly gives rise to an essential, yet frequently unaddressed, question in mainstream peacebuilding, development practice and research:

Where does a physiologically-starved society – not to mention the lack of safety and sometimes love, belonging and esteem – actually find the strength for self-actualisation, self-transformation and self-articulation?

Galtung’s famous book, Peace by Peaceful Means (1996), addressed the issue in arguing that in a conflict-shattered society, persons cultivating inner peace would be much more capable of bringing about outer peace as well. Surprisingly, research and practice still marginalise the topic of individual trauma healing and pay significantly greater attention to the various forms of collective methods and mechanisms directed towards reconciliation and societal cohesion. While these are undoubtedly extremely important efforts, they sideline one essential feature required for a stable, long-lasting and socially embedded peace: individual physiological wellbeing. It remains hitherto unexplored how individual trauma healing can actually contribute to the peacebuilding and development process of a society as a whole, either in the short or long-term.

In the case of WE-ACTx, the quest to assist locals to overcome some of the most intractable effects of trauma led to the launch of an experimental undertaking in 2007: Project Air. This is the first initiative, formally endorsed by the United Nations, to help vulnerable Rwandan girls and women to heal and mend both their minds and their bodies – with yoga.

The yoga experiment rapidly exceeded all expectations when key markers of health in the participating women and children began to rebound. Project Air reports that after only two yoga classes, participants regained their appetite and/or slept through the night for the first time in 15 years. An excerpt from an anonymous letter published on the project’s website reads:

(…) it seemed as if something inside them [the women] began to stir, to shift. This was something below the level of thought, below the level of memory, below the level of conscious feeling even, but when it was sparked, it was as if—and I don’t know how else to put this—it was as if the women became able to feel again and so love again the life that was in them.

It is noteworthy that Project Air is not the only yoga initiative in Africa. Other outstanding projects include the Africa Yoga Project and the Mandala House.

Bending and mending the body and mind, healing from a neurological perspective

A millennia-old tradition with roots in India, yoga has experienced a rapid growth in popularity in the West since the 1960s. Whereas for some, yoga is simply an activity to sustain physical health, mental health and strength, for others, it has also become a spiritual awakening. On whatever side of the pendulum one may stand, there are proven benefits.

In an article from The Journal of Internal Medicine, on the ‘Characteristics of Yoga Users’ (2008), medical scientists came to the following two conclusions. Firstly, yoga users are more likely to be white, female, young and college educated. Therefore, as a practice, it is still largely accessible to/and enjoyed by the privileged class in the West. Secondly, yoga users report benefits for musculoskeletal conditions as well as mental health, indicating that further research on the efficacy of yoga for the treatment and/or prevention of these conditions is necessary. Indeed, there is a growing consensus among medical scientists that mind-body techniques, such as meditation and yoga practice, assist the proper functioning of both the biochemical and the neurological systems.

Harvard psychiatrist, John Denninger, is currently examining the biology behind yoga in a five-year study funded by the U.S. Government. In an article by Bloomfield reporter, Makiko Kitamura, Denninger is quoted, ‘There is a true biological effect. The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just the brain.’ In one of his studies, published in May 2013, Dr Denninger examines the molecular mechanisms that explain the clinical benefits of what he calls the relaxation response (RR), including meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer. The study concludes that such practices evoke the RR and indicate a reduction in the clinical effects of stress, such as hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and ageing. His findings agree with those of the recently-deceased neuroscientist, Dr. Candace Pert, who gained immense prominence with her book, Molecules of Emotions (1997). In exploring the human brain, Dr. Pert found proof for the biochemical and neurological expressions of meditation practices in the body. In her words:

Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely, physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and the mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.

In short, bending, twisting and flexing our body in all possible directions affects our brain, and meditation has an effect on both our physical and mental health. The maxim behind yoga is thus quite simple: practice and it will come to you. By addressing both mental and social factors and how they relate to the symptoms of a disease, yoga brings a holistic element to treatment.

Practical challenges towards healing individual trauma in Africa

Practising yoga in Africa not only brings about new challenges but also gains an entirely new dimension. Exercise makes one hungry and yoga practitioners cannot often afford the food required for a healthy practice. Project Air thus provides food for all participants. Likewise, the Africa Yoga Project is further dedicated to supporting economic development and the alleviation of poverty by creating a local market for yoga in Kenya. Now, almost all the yoga teachers in the country are of Kenyan nationality, therefore yoga is also providing some practitioners with regular income.

Besides, yoga is certainly not the only method in Africa for healing individual traumas. Local forms of chanting, praying and dancing as well as several other types of sports in combination with psychological assistance can all provide the same neurological effect. However, we are precisely at the juncture where current efforts to build peace and foster development have not kept up with developments in neurological science on the benefits of Denninger’s so-called ‘Relaxation Response’. Even though it is obvious to most of us that peace must be cultivated first from within before it can spread collectively the benefits of inner healing and the potential of local and cultural mechanisms and techniques in war-torn societies remain barely explored in research and practice.

One reason for this is that there are so many pressing needs. The big questions for officials and practitioners—as well as for academics pondering the rebuilding of failed states—are therefore very simple: Where do we start? What should be tackled first on such a long list of priorities? Which areas are crucial to ensuring that the country does not relapse into conflict? In acknowledging that peacebuilding and development have to be an all-encompassing and integrated process, international organisations generally provide support for areas such as security, DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration), transitional justice, good governance, water and sanitation, and employment generation or education. Even though these are all critical areas, they nonetheless obscure how people come to terms with the pressure, stress and anxiety of living in a war-torn and often severely impoverished environment and society. This is precisely the kind of stress that can eventually lead to recurring violence, anger and resentment at both the individual and the collective level. What is more, most peacebuilding and development initiatives simply do not have the mandate, funds, time or capacities to provide the urgently needed individual support for victims, veterans and (child) soldiers alike. Above all, how to overcome anxiety attacks and depression is neither an outspoken nor a widely socially accepted topic in Western societies either.

This is not to imply that the international community does not engage in trauma healing at all. For instance, the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) is a case in point in providing psychological support alongside physical and material rehabilitation. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done towards empowering individuals and assisting them to cope with various societal, structural and environmental challenges in an attempt to build inner and consequently outer peace in their fragile home countries. As Mahatma Ghandi reminds us:

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Freetown’s “Ajekuleh”: Where the Good, the Bad and the Ugly revive memories of a tragic past

Just sit and watch.

Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger
Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2012

“There is no replacement for street sense”, a group of young men tell me while squeezing out the last drops of cheap whisky from little plastic bags.

It’s a hot, sunny, mid-summer afternoon. I find myself in the remains of a crumbling market hall situated downhill in a district called Belgium in Freetown. At first sight, the densely-crowded hall seems quite intimidating, disorganised and chaotic. Women with their babies hoisted onto their backs are selling food, soft drinks, alcohol, snacks and tobacco. Young men are trading knock-off designer footwear and shirts next to a group of males gambling for money.

“This is our casino.” explains a local.

Disabled men try to make their way between piles of cassava leaves and girls washing clothes in big colourful buckets. A tailor is diligently working on a sewing machine that seems to date back to the early 20th century. Sound waves of various music genres float in from all angles. Children are playing cheerfully on the fringes of the hall – next to garbage, loose chicken and a dirty little stream.

The locals have nicknamed this area “Ajekuleh”. Everyone is welcome from every corner of the city. Ex-combatants mingle with students, the unemployed youth, artists, okada[1] drivers, prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, local politicians as well as formal and informal businessmen. They drink, smoke, eat, dance together, engage in passionate discussions about all sorts of issues and daily affairs. People also come just to sit down, relax and take a break from the busy life in Freetown. The fact that I was the only white person among them who also happened to be female did not seem to perturb anyone. A few shake my hand and ask for my name while others offer me cigarettes. Some are curious about the purpose of my visit but all of them ensure that I am sitting on the most comfortable part of a shaky bench.

“Simone, in this place you will find the good, the bad and the ugly. Just sit and watch,” whispers a local friend of mine. So I sit down and watch the daily routine of the Wild West in Freetown. In time, I hear stories about corrupt elders, how informal businesses are ruled by unwritten laws, how people educate themselves in the streets when they do not have the opportunity to attend school, how they have to bribe the police when raids are occasionally conducted in the area, and how ghettos here in Freetown differ in social strata, unofficial policies and style. All of this and much more, here in Ajekuleh, happens on historical soil.

A legacy

Less than 20 metres from my shaky bench, the relics of two slave tunnels revive a tragic past. Roughly 500 years ago, the Portuguese built a fort to trade gold and ivory. From 1550, the most profitable commodity became humans. After going through the slave tunnels, locals point out the manacles built into centuries-old walls. The condition of the homes next to the fort remains are abject. I can’t help but think of John Newton’s[2] 1788 tract: “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade” in which he wrote:

Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys and the women), besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not easily contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down, among the men to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. (…) And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the captives of Mezentius, fastened together.

More than 200 years later, many people call the long stretch of slums around the coast of Freetown their home. Areas such as Kroo Bay or Susan’s Bay are congested, overpopulated and can be extremely dangerous especially during rainy season. Children frequently get swept away by floods along with their houses. A young man in his mid-twenties tells me that he prefers to sleep in the streets during the rainy months as it is simply too dangerous to stay at home. Less than three months ago, he lost his dwelling and all his belongings in one night. He is still coming to terms with the loss but is nevertheless happy to be alive. Five people from the community did not survive. Various attempts to relocate inhabitants from the slums along the coast have failed so far.

Dealing with the past

I notice a couple of young men sitting inside the slave tunnels. Locals tell me they come here to eat, smoke, drink and carry out their informal businesses. Along with the market hall, it is another regular meeting point. It almost resembles a public park bench in the middle of the town.

“What kind of changes would they like to see in Ajekuleh?” I ask. Ideally, they would like to create an international business centre so that people can do business on a much larger scale, they tell me. Our location, standing inside the slave tunnels, is not much of an issue in our conversation. I wonder how they feel about the past? “Oh Simone, this happened a long time ago. We like you white people from the West!” they reply.

Throughout my stay, many locals repeatedly told me that Sierra Leoneans have a very short memory. I wonder how people feel about socialising with ex-combatants (from the country’s civil war in the 90s) on a daily basis – not only in Ajekuleh? “They are our brothers and sisters! We sympathise with them because they begged us for mercy and we forgave them.”

I kept on returning to Ajekuleh on occasion. I sat down, watched and listened. What struck me most is probably the tendency to overlook the bad, focus on the good and ignore the ugly when it comes to the Sierra Leonean relationship with the past.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

[1] Motorbike

[2] Founder of the Wesleyan movement.


Far from being victims, women’s networks have led the way in campaigning for peace and justice

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.

Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008
Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008

In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some experts have even suggested that the figure is much higher considering the number of unreported cases. Sadly, rape as a weapon of war is not exceptional in the Congo; rather it is pervasive in many fragile states. According to the Journal of Peace Research, roughly 75 per cent of all Liberian women were raped during the civil war. In the case of Bosnia, experts believe that between 20,000 to 50,000 were affected. In view of these shockingly high numbers, women are often portrayed as helpless and despairing victims. Strikingly, this often overlooks an important point.

Far more than victims

In politically suppressed and patriarchal societies, women risk speaking up and advocating their rights. In West Africa, for example, women cultivate peace, foster social cohesion and help rebuild war-torn societies. The war in Liberia serves as a case in point, when thousands of female protesters sang relentlessly until peace was finally negotiated. Other non-violent weapons included the threat to put a curse on the warring parties and a sex strike. Three years later, in 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of the country and the first female elected head of state in Africa.

Likewise, in neighbouring Sierra Leone, the peacebuilding process has been shaped by various civilian initiatives brought to life and led by women: the Fifty/Fifty Group or the Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace are just a couple of examples. Their target is for women to take up 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament after the elections in November this year. Furthermore, the ambition is to raise this number to 50 per cent in five years’ time.

Regionally, organisations such as the West African NGO network, WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Programme) provide training and strengthen the capacities of local movements. Since 2004, about 400 women’s organisations have benefited from their work.

Globally, women campaign for equal and full participation in efforts to create and maintain international peace and security. For instance, the NGOWG (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security), located next to the United Nations Secretariat in New York City, is comprised of 17 international non-governmental organisations. Their focus is on conflict-affected countries on the Security Council’s agenda. In each country, local groups identify women’s needs and concerns on the ground, which are then formulated into a common agenda at headquarter level.

Despite all these positive achievements and initiatives from diverse civilian spheres at the political and juridical levels, women are still often excluded from negotiations and crucial events. According to a UN report, in 24 major peace processes between 1992 and 2010, only 2.5 per cent of the signatories, 3.2 per cent of the mediators, 5.5 per cent of witnesses and 7.6 per cent of negotiators were women. Likewise, the OECD reports that only 20 per cent of aid allocated for peace and security in fragile states integrates a gender equality dimension. Yet, DFID’s operational plan (2011-2015) of the Policy Division for Governance and Fragile States holds that the “discrimination and lack of opportunities faced by girls and women requires a specific focus.”

These facts are even more disappointing considering the numerous instruments created in past decades by the international community to advance women’s rights in fragile states. In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) followed by the Declaration on the Participation of Women in Promoting International Peace and Cooperation in 1981. Four world conferences on women were organised—in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). The latter led to the introduction of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and successive Security Council resolutions, starting with resolution 1325 in 2000 for women’s participation in all aspects of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding.  Resolution 1325 subsequently led to four more between 2008-2010*.  There have also been several reports from the Secretary General, workshops and high-level stakeholder meetings on women, peace and security.

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.


Sarah Taylor, Executive Coordinator of the NGOWG highlighted the difficulty of obtaining funds for the schemes of women’s rights activists as one of the reasons why action on women’s rights is so sluggish. More financial and political resources are needed for early warning systems to monitor and report rights violations. Even if funds are made available, more long-term commitment is required, as things simply do not change overnight. In addition, many women’s rights activists work in remote and dangerous areas. Funding their activities involves certain risks, which many donors are not willing to take.

Likewise, many fragile states experience serious shortcomings in laws and practices to protect women’s rights. Weak local justice systems and impunity for perpetuators are common in post-conflict societies.

Advancing women’s rights is therefore not a movement lacking ideas, initiative or instruments; women are able to take matters into their own hands. Nevertheless, they still often remain excluded from important peacebuilding processes.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE


*The imperative of resolution 1325 fed into four subsequent resolutions, namely, 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010)

Barefoot Soldiers for Social Justice, Food Security and Peace (Sierra Leone)

Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.

War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011
War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011

It took me two attempts until I finally reached Yoni Chiefdom also known as Mile 91, which is 2 and a half hours car drive away from Freetown. Rainy season was just about to start in early July 2011 and my poor knowledge of local travel connections taught me the unforgettable lesson that it is certainly cheaper, but not advisable, to travel outside Freetown by motorbike – despite the ongoing road constructions.

When I at last reach Mile 91, a well-spoken, middle-aged man receives me: Mr. Ahmed Muckson Sessay, Director of OPARD-SL (Organization for Peace, Reconciliation and Development – Sierra Leone).  That I had to reschedule our interview three times does not prevent him from welcoming me warmheartedly.

OPARD-SL started off as a voluntary organization in 1999 initiated by local farmers to help promote peace during the decade long vicious civil war in Sierra Leone. The need to do so was very pressing indeed: Between 1994 and 2000 the rebels attacked Mile 91 in total 19 times and soon the region (in particular the nearby town Masiaka) became a strategic junction which (in BBC’s correspondent Mark Doyle’s words) ‘changed hands between the various armed factions countless times.’

Given that a few community members knew some of the rebels, OPARD-SL was able to initiate early talks with the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). Later, the organization would also serve as a mediator amongst all warring parties. ‘We were barefoot soldiers trying to negotiate peace’ – said Mr. Muckson Sessay.

While talking about the current work of his organization, he ensures that I get a copy of a letter dating back to 10 January 2001, written by UNAMSILs (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) then Commanding Officer Colonel Khushal Thakur. Although an official document, Colonel Thakur addresses Mr. Muckson Sessay amicably and in handwritten script as My dear Bro. Muckson – a subtle indication of the unique interpersonal ties that are only built in situations of the highest distress and emergency.

In his letter, Colonel Thakur then expresses his sincere gratitude for Mr. Muckson Sessay’s: ‘[…] active mediation and indulgence [which] reinvigorated and revitalized the sagging relationship between the RUF and UNAMSIL. This subsequently facilitated in strengthening the ties and retrieval of UN equipment captured by RUF in May 2000.’

The colonel’s letter is an example of the probably darkest hours in the history of UNAMSIL when the RUF broke the Lomé deal and, amongst other incidents, took around 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The events could not have been more embarrassing – instead of the UN disarming the rebels, the rebels disarmed the UN. This was eventually resolved through a massive international intervention (most notably the British backing and reinforcing of UNAMSIL troops). But, this often leaves one major aspect overlooked: Pacifying Sierra Leone was preceded and constantly influenced by a series of civil society initiatives. Mile 91, is just one out of many examples where ordinary Sierra Leonean’s proved their courage and their restless convictions for peace.

According to Mr. Muckson Sessay, OPARD-SL’s efforts during and after the conflict were never really acknowledged in official peace ceremonies.  What reminds of OPARD-SL’s endeavors, however, is UNAMSIL’s letter in Muckson Sessay’s office and a peace monument an hour and half hours motorbike ride away from the village.

What has happened to Mile 91 and thus OPARD-SL ten years after the conflict?

For Mr. Muckson Sessay peacebuilding and development processes are intertwined and cannot be separated from each other. In the past few years OPARD-SL’s focus shifted (in a nutshell) to food security, environmental protection, organic farming, economic empowerment of women and youth, education for the underprivileged, water sanitation and health care. In the long road from destruction to reconstruction OPARD-SL received inter alia funds from the U.S., Canada or the UNPBF (United Nations Peacebuilding Fund). Yet, in 2011 the organization is unsure how to further sustain itself. He wishes that his community had the faculties to create better incentives to keep the youth in town but also increase their interest in farming.

The core challenge for small towns and villages is certainly the rural-urban migration flow.  In the UNHABITAT report ‘The State of African Cities 2010’ it is indicated that 38.40 percent of all Sierra Leoneans live in urban areas (most notably Freetown). UNHABITAT further estimates that by 2050 this figure will change to 62.44 percent.

Mr. Muckson Sessay is not alone when stressing that this trend undermines not only food security in rural areas but also leaves the old and aged without any care behind. The Sierra Leonean journalist Madieu Jalloh further holds: ‘(…) to say that agriculture is vital to Sierra Leone’s economic growth is an understatement’.

Ten years after the conflict and despite widespread support from the international community, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries worldwide. Looking at UNICEF’s statistics, every fourth child under the age of 5 is underweight, in other words, 40% of all deaths amongst children in Sierra Leone are caused by malnutrition.

After my long conversation with Mr. Muckson Sessay I am rushing to my next interview with a local civil society organization called ‘Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace’ (WPJP, based in Bo). Without mentioning my Mile 91 impressions a WPJP staff member immediately refers to the problem of food shortage in rural areas and concludes: ‘Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.’

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS

Voices to the Youth – ‘We can see the light but we are not working’ (Sierra Leone)

Youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life.

S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011
S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011

Freetown – In the middle of a community near to Belairpark, only five minutes motorbike ride from the city centre, the daily challenges of poverty lead to the formation of a support organisation. In Freetown, necessity definitely begets ingenuity. A club called ‘Street Life Family’, in short S.L.F., uplifts young men who have lost almost everything except for their dignity, hope, and each other. ‘Together as One’ – is the motto of the club, which builds on mutual respect, unity and team spirit. S.L.F. was founded, in 2000, by Mr. Ahamedi Tijan Kabbah – also known as ‘Grandpa’ – under the initial name ‘Peacemakers’. Yet S.L.F. is not a political Grassroots Movement as such, but, an informal social support system for all of its members. Struggling with the consequences of the conflict and poverty himself, Mr. Kabbah simply reached out to the youth of the community with the message: ‘Let us be together’.  Eleven years later it is hard to estimate – even for S.L.F. members – how many people are de-facto part of the club in which members often come and go. The core of S.L.F. though, consists of about 50 young men who live either on the street or share a small room with a couple of other friends or members, sometimes at the compound or somewhere else in the nearby slums. Some of them have jobs, some are unemployed, some are artists or students and some simply describe themselves as ‘Jacks of all trades’. No matter how they generate their income, all S.L.F. members contribute at least a very small amount of their money to the club. Every evening one can find a big cast iron pot full of rice at the S.L.F. compound. In rotating shifts one member prepares the food for the entire club. For some it is the only meal they will have per day.  But that is only a small part of club life and initiatives. Taking the road uphill Belair Park to Mr. Kabbah’s house one can see a handful of young men working hard to build a road with only a few tools. Everyone in the community knows that the funds to build this particular road were already allocated and then misappropriated twice.  Now these young men undertake the job for free, earning nothing but the occasional tips from passing cars and motorbikes.

In 2007 and without any external support or funds thus far S.L.F. even created its own school called ‘Bomba Adult Education Center’. The idea came from Mr. Alusane S. Dumbya a local artist, play writer, poet, narrator and cartoonist. Lectures are held three times per week by Mr. Dumbya himself and other teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in – S.L.F. as well as non S.L.F. members. To their delight sometimes even workers from the streets of Freetown spontaneously come by and participate in classes. Lectures taught are about ‘general knowledge of all aspects’ according to Mr. Dumbya. One of his latest classes for instance focused on the ‘Lost Legends of Sierra Leone’. The key message of this particular class: Sierra Leone is not poor of natural, human and cultural resources, but, mismanaged.

Sierra Leone – Amongst the international community the country is often referred to as a ‘success’ story in its process of recovery from a vicious civil war and a transition to peace.  People are indeed tired of fighting. Their frustration about slow development and the on-going and widespread corruption, however, remains. Almost ten years after the war people are still living by the day, in fact, 63% of the population has less than $ 1.25 as disposable income per day. Current life expectancy is estimated at 48.2 years, almost half of the population is illiterate, child mortality rates are high and every fifth women dies from preventable complications during birth or pregnancy.  Talking to people living in the slums of Freetown they say that they still feel that in part things are slowly changing to the better in the form of road construction and electricity. Nonetheless, the latter is often unreliable and their core concerns seem unresolved. While pointing to the flashing lights from residential areas in the hills surrounding Freetown Mr. Kabbah says: ‘We can see the lights but we are not working.’ Sierra Leone has one of the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide. It is estimated that approximately 60% – 70% of young people don’t have a job or any prospects for a regular and stable income, and consequently better life.  And even for those who manage to find employment, wages are so low that it hardly leads to any major improvement. Not surprisingly local labour units are weak – lacking capacity and rights.

How do young people cope with all these challenges, constant uncertainties and most of all powerlessness to change their own situation? One major source for encouragement and strength are certainly their clubs. There is hardly a young adult in Sierra Leone who does not belong to a specific club or group. The purpose of these clubs varies from dancing, making music to sports or any other social activities like contests or public events.  Some clubs are for leisure activities only, others, like S.L.F., are the only social support network they have. Interviewing youth from different clubs and backgrounds they all agree that clubs are a major contributor to sustaining the peace in the country, in so much that they bring unity amongst the youth. One S.L.F. member adds that ‘We [the club] have to be at peace with ourselves first in order to bring peace to the other communities’.  Yet, such a peaceful coexistence of all youth clubs in Freetown was not always the case.

A notable proportion of clubs in the city associate themselves with a specific movement. So, Central Freetown belongs to the ‘Blues’ (also known as CCC – Cent Cost Crips), West Freetown to the ‘Reds’ (also known as RFM – Red Flag Movement) and East Freetown to the ‘Blacks’ (also known as Kekeke or Black Leos). In terms of membership (thus number of local clubs affiliated to one movement) the CCC movement is the biggest one – followed by the RFM and then the Black Leos. Recently a new movement (yellow and black) emerged in the South-Eastern part of the town but the three other groups signal clearly that they still have to work on growing the number of members and gaining respect.  In the past gang fights or ‘beefing’ as they call it, occurred quite often. Presently all the movements are proud of having established a culture of discussion and declared a ‘cold war’ between all the parties involved. Negotiations were initiated in November 2010 by the CCCs together with the help of the Minster of Internal Affairs and Local Government Mr. Dauda Kamara. Each movement burned down their flags and granted the other group the right to spray their initials on the walls in the territory of the others. However, eight months later it seems that this peace process is built on a very shaky ground. Although Minister Kamara’s successful attempt in ‘gang fight mediation’ is highly appreciated amongst all groups, their daily frustrations persist. In a group interview with the head of the CCCs, a young men who calls himself ‘Gangster Number 1’ and about 30 other members it is made clear that the expectations of the Blues were not met.  From the moment they stopped the ‘beefing’ in the streets they felt left alone again. No further signal with regards to support or help for a better development of their ‘blue community’ has since reached them. More concretely, if they don’t see their lives transformed in the near future, they would not exclude that the ‘beefing’ might start again. On top, the CCCs are not alone with their dissatisfaction. A group of students who belong to the RFM equally state: ‘If things won’t change for the youth in next 2-3 years we’ll go mad.’ Opinions differ enormously whether a potential re-occurrence of gang fights might constitute a potential threat to the peace process of the country. For some local Civil Society Organisations, it is a phenomenon that can be found in any other big city around the world, for others it can have a destabilising impact which shouldn’t be underestimated at all.

The reality is that the youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life. But if their situation remains unchanged it is only a question of time before fights re-occur. ‘Sometimes I think god just fools me’, said a young man belonging to the RFM. and S.L.F. grandfather Mr. Kabbah seems also very concerned. ‘I don’t want to see the youth to lose their head’ he says in reference to the challenges and frustrations they face. Considering their past and daily struggles it is absolutely impressive that the majority did not.

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS and Africa at LSE