“One way to understand cycles of violence and protracted conflict is to visualize them as a narrative broken. A people’s story is marginalized or, worse, destroyed by the dominant culture, and this act, meaning, identity, and a place in history are lost. This is the deeper challenge of peacebuilding: how to reconstitute, or restory, the narrative and thereby restore the people’s place in history. For many of us who come from outside the settings of protracted violence or are from cultures that have not had their stories destroyed, we have perhaps a hard time understanding this notion of peacebuilding as a narrative restored.” The Moral Imagination, pp. 146
Protracted conflicts are forgotten conflicts which are seemingly irreconcilable and violent. They have become hopeless cases with no possibilities for resolution. Some of these conflicts have spurn decades, compelling actors to develop rigid narratives about them. Often, peacebuilders look at these conflicts from a political, economic, geographical or social lens omitting the distinctive quality of these conflicts as a peoples’ broken narrative.
Narratives are stories people tell themselves, about themselves and in relation to the “other’. They define them as a people and explain their collective identity in this world. More importantly, they explain a people’s entitlement to a place in this world. Narratives serve as reservoirs for a people’s collective memory; they orient a community to what was, what is and what should be. They give a people a sense of immortality (even though they are not immortal) by connecting them with the past, future and present. Elders are the chief custodians of narratives. As the oldest members of a society, they have an immediate link to the dead. They carry narratives and pass them to younger generations, hence, through this process, a people’s past gets to live in the present through narratives. Therefore, a narrative is like a chord, in a form of a circle, that ties a people to their past, which is paradoxically before them since they know it. This awareness helps them to envision the future. As long as a people’s narrative is undisrupted, they enjoy a peaceful existence.
Narratives, just like life, can be threatened, trampled on, abused, or worse broken. Ideally, different narratives should coexist; live side by side, every one in its own spot. Unfortunately, the narratives people tell themselves can sometimes portray unfounded superiority that tower over other narratives. Such narratives break a people’s history by challenging their claim to a place in this world. Such threats can take a form of genocide, which seeks to completely wipe out a people’s narrative from the world or they can take a form of invasion or war, which disrupts or breaks a people’s narrative. Whenever this happens or is even anticipated, people rise to defend their narratives, hence the many wars and conflicts around the world.
Sometimes, narratives occupy a divine place in a people’s lives perhaps due to their ability to connect people to their past, present and future. In a protracted conflict, people are aware of the decisions made in the past that have impacted or caused the current conflict. They are also aware that decisions they make will definitely affect future generations. Understanding this concept as a peacebuilder boosts one’s chances of a finding a lasting solution to a conflict. However, it is challenging for a peacebuilder who has never had his or her narrative broken to understand this concept. One should begin by visualizing a people’s past in order to identify its potentiality for a peaceful future.
Peacebuilders are trained to analyze conflicts and design solutions so as to build sustainable peace. Unfortunately, their training sometimes blinds them from seeing what lies before them – a people’s past, which often explains the current conflict. Many a times, often with good intentions, peacebuilders design projects based on proven theories of change. But what they fail to grasp is the importance of narratives in understanding the root causes of conflicts. Sometimes, those who are able to grasp the importance of these narratives, are reluctant to take into account the uniqueness of ‘time concept’ in a people’s narrative, that is, the past living in the present etc. This process has nothing to do with science or technical expertise of a peacebuilder, it takes creative imagination.
A peacebuilder must visualize and understand a people’s broken story in order to help them restory. Whereas it is understood that a peacebuilder cannot fix the past, one can however provide a space for people to make discursive shifts. This is perhaps the most challenging task in peacebuilding – to have different voices (narratives) on a table, listen to each other, deconstruct the dominant conflict narrative and create an alternative relationship story. This is not the same as simply asking people to forget their narratives and embrace a new one, it is rather a process of helping them understand how their lives can be enriched or constrained by each other’s narratives. It is helping them acknowledge the power of imbalance in their narratives. It is helping them understand deeper meanings in their narratives that cause conflicts.
Reading about a people’s past in history books is not enough, peacebuilders must go a step further and position themselves in a people’s timeline and immerse themselves into a people’s past in order to understand a people’s fears and insecurities. To gain access to a people’s collective memory, is to live their live. It is this kind of access that enables one to visualize how past decisions have come to affect future generations. Some narratives bear a stamp of a people’s blood and sacrifice, it is not enough to read them, one has to live them, albeit imaginatively.
Such is the importance of understanding narratives in protracted conflicts. The story is at the core of the conflict. Mediating between contesting narratives gives hope for a peaceful society and it is a creative process.
John Paul Ledarach (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: OUP)