A Fire Of Peace
By DR. M. ANDREW MURRAY
Some time ago I was in the West African Nation of Mali helping to plan the first annual celebration of an unusual fire. Six months later I attended the celebration in Timbuktu. Before my first trip to Mali in the summer of 1996, I didn’t know that Timbuktu was then a poor desert city in West Africa that had been at the center of a small, but furious, civil war. We had not heard about it in USA because the tragedy in Mali was so over-shadowed by news about Somalia and Rwanda.
The celebration in Mali was a great
occasion. More than twenty thousand people gathered in Timbuktu,
doubling its population size. The crowd included heads of state,
ambassadors, and two thousand Tuareg nomads who had come in from the
desert on their gaily decorated camels. These nomads wore the flowing
cobalt robes that earned them the nickname “blue men of the
desert.” Hundreds of scrubbed and uniformed school children
walked together singing songs and waving flags. Women, in headscarves
and wrappers of such luminous hue that they brought color to the dull
Saharan sun, played rhythm instruments while they danced and sang
traditional songs. Teenage boys raced their camels through the town
streets stirring up heavy clouds of desert dust, and the ire of their
elders. Other teenage boys came in tattered army uniforms, having known
nothing but fighting since childhood. They all came to celebrate the
Flamme de la Paix (the Fire of Peace). This is the story of that fire.
Alpha Ounmar Knoaré, the first democratically elected President of Mali, decided he would do what ever it took to put an end to a small, but vicious, civil war that had plagued his country for the past ten years. It was war in which there were no clear lines, but in general terms, it was between the people of the north and others of the south. In a gesture of humility and openness, the president asked the UN and representatives from several of his neighboring states, as well as the government’s rebels, to come in and help him bring about the peace they needed. He not only brought together an alphabet soup of U.N. organizations and perceived enemies, he also made room in the talks for voices that are rarely heard: women’s organizations, youth groups, educators and peace workers. It was a difficult process to sustain, but with patience, vision and creativity, it began to bear fruit.
After a tentative peace had been established in late 1995, many of the Tuareg rebels began to turn in their weapons, willing to trust the government’s promise that in so doing they would be given chances for education and help in starting a livelihood. About three thousand modern weapons were collected; everything from automatic rifles to small rocket launchers. These weapons were stored in a makeshift armory in Timbuktu.
At this point, a new problem arose, a problem no one had anticipated. What should be done with these weapons? The government believed that it should keep possession of all weapons of war. The rebels did not want to see the weapons that were so difficult for them to give up going to their formerly perceived enemy. Emotions were raw, and nerves were frayed. The fragile trust that had been painfully established over months of talks was at risk of coming undone because of this difficult issue of what to do with the guns. The weapons, insecurely locked in a mud armory, seemed to have a power of their own to break the delicate peace.
Then a young UN officer made a radical, yet simple, suggestion that the weapons should be burned. It was an idea that everyone rejected. The government was desperately poor. Burning a million dollars worth of weapons that many perceived as needed for arming and defending their country could almost be interpreted as treason. The rebels on the other hand were a fiercely proud people who saw mastery of guns as a way of marking the passage from boyhood to manhood. Turning them in was difficult enough, but watching them burn was unthinkable.
For nearly a year, the young UN officer, in a quiet, humble and persistent manner negotiated, talked, cajoled, pushed and pulled to bring about the agreement. On several occasions, it seemed as if it might happen, but then government officials and military officers challenged the agreement. Questions arose. Would a banker burn money? Would a professor burn books? Would a farmer burn yoke and plow? How could a soldier possibly agree to burn weapons? At times, it seemed as if violence might break out again. In the end, however, gentle persuasion and persistence worked, and everyone came to agree that this fire might be the best method of keeping their peace.
So it happened that, on March 27, 1996, three thousand instruments of war were piled high on a cement platform made for the occasion. They were covered with straw, wood, gasoline, and diesel fuel. In the ancient city of Timbuktu, a fire was lit that many hoped would become a national symbol for the young struggling democratic nation of Mali. This fire did not burn saints or libraries. This fire did not burn cities or grain fields. It was set not to hurt, but to heal.
There is an image from that fire, that a U.N. filmmaker captured, which has become deeply etched in my heart. It is an image of two soldiers, one black and one white, one government and one rebel, one Bambura and one Tuareg, standing with their arms around each other, gazing almost wistfully into that magnificent flame. In the cool desert night, in the warmth of the burning guns, two young ‘enemies’ whose lives had been connected through their guns, were cleansed of their hatred while being freed from a desperate and violent future by a Fire of Peace.
Andy Murray is the Elizabeth Evans Baker Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College and Director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is a member of the United Nations/International Association of University Presidents Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament Education and he served as a member of a United Nations team for post-conflict peace building in West Africa
A portion of this story was previously published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul, Stories for a Better World”