Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
I was born and grew up in a small village called Pottuvil in Ampara District in Sri Lanka. Growing up in the conflict in Sri Lanka played an instrumental role in shaping who I am today. War was a horrible thing to live though and to remember, the smell of death, the vivid colours of fire and blackness of destruction, the sounds of cries and gunfire. The war resulted in separating me from my parents and I ended up in a religious institution where I had my basic and secondary education.
After working in various roles in media, politics, teaching, and movie production, I finally had the opportunity to join the humanitarian sector, which eventually led to joining Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) as an Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeper. I joined NP in my home country of Sri Lanka and now in South Sudan where I have been serving for the past 4 years. Working with marginalized communities in Sri Lanka, I transferred the skills and Unarmed Civilian Strategies to South Sudan where I have been blessed to be able to support the most vulnerable who are affected by armed conflict violence.
Nonviolent Peaceforce is an international humanitarian organization established in 2002 with the idea that there is an alternative to either doing nothing or going to war. We believe in the concept that strategic international presence would contribute to deterring violence and to protecting civilians. Over the years what started out as protection through presence has developed into comprehensive violence reduction and protection programming. We are able to work with conflict-affected communities to strengthen their own capacity to protect themselves and to engage in nonviolent conflict reduction. And when the need is there, we are able to provide direct presence to increase the immediate security of civilians. In South Sudan colleagues have been able to protect women and children from attackers with guns and knives because of international presence. Similarly, in Sri Lanka by providing threatened human rights defenders with international presence, we have been able to create space for them to continue their work while remaining safe.
I have been in South Sudan since 2011 where the recent conflict has displaced more than 2 million people with thousands killed and injured. I would like to talk about my own experience where I was involved in protecting lives in South Sudan. In 2012, a violent conflict erupted in Pibor County in Jonglei state. Our NP teams were involved in different levels of intervention to provide support to the affected communities including providing accompaniment for people who were evacuated due to conflict injuries. In one case we received a 9-year-old girl who had been thrust through the torso and had spent 10 days in the bush before she was found and evacuated. She was in terrible shape and separated from her family when we received her at the hospital where we were providing protective presence for the injured. We were able to ensure she got medical attention, that she was safe in the hospital despite the conflict, and that she was eventually reunited with her family. The story of this little girl is 1 of thousands. Adults and children not involved in the fighting are often the most hurt and most vulnerable. Every day we work to help them not be harmed and when that is not possible, to support them when they are. I will never forget seeing this little girl come into our care and she will always be the reminder to me about why I work for NP.
People always put a question before us: how do you feel safe to work in these situations? Community acceptance keeps you remarkably safe in all situations. But in order to be able to work, we need all of the stakeholders, including the conflict parties to know who we are. They don’t necessarily have to like us, but they do have to accept our work, view us with respect and understand that we are adding something valuable. In my experience, most parties do like us, particularly because we are non-partisan. I actually feel safer working for Nonviolent Peaceforce than I think I would work for some other organizations. I worked in LRA affected areas (Lord’s Resistant Army) in Western Equatoria State, South Sudan. It was so sad to see civilians who were terrified, and those who had escaped with terrible injuries in places where only NP was willing to go. We concentrated on understanding the context, conducting daily information gathering and relationship building, and in turn never received any threats. Those relationships provided the basis to allow us to be secure enough to go where we wanted to go.
The Rotary Peace Fellowship course is another step forward lifting my spirits to develop further in my professional and private life. I must thank Dr. Ann Frisch who introduced me to Rotary International and the Surface Paradise Rotary Club, and also my Sponsor club from Australia. Not to forget the Director and Deputy Director and the lovely staff at the Rotary Peace Center in Bangkok who warmly welcomed us to Chulalongkorn University. My special thanks goes to Deepak who is my host counselor and Andrew who picked me up from the airport and did a thorough orientation about Thailand. I never forget to everyday remember Nonviolent Peaceforce, especially Tiffany Easthom (country Director) and Mel Duncan (co-founder) who are my mentors in this field. My path on peace and conflict reduction strategies is just beginning. I look forward to going back to South Sudan with sound knowledge learned through the Rotary Peace Fellowship program on of theories of conflict reduction strategies and using tools to analyze different types of conflicts. My life is dedicated to continuing to work directly with war and conflict affected communities to promote peace and stability.
Florington Aseervatham, Sri Lanka
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2015 Session