How does a country that's suffered searing conflict and brutality survive? How do the people of Cambodia, Colombia, Syria, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Rwanda pull the pieces together in order to thrive?
Those questions are the inspiration behind the VII Foundation's raw storytelling project called "Imagine: Reflections on Peace."
Photographer Gary Knight, one of the editors on the project, worked in war zones from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s. The project aims to examine the pitfalls of peace, he says.
“Although peace was the main objective in any war that I covered, when I look back at all of the stories that I covered, peace seemed to be somewhat disappointing,” he says. “And peace hadn't, in fact, delivered what the populations of the countries I'd been working in had expected.”
The process of making peace goes largely undocumented, Knight says. For this project, experienced war reporters and photographers went back to Cambodia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Colombia.
The New Yorker’s Robin Wright was one of those reporters. Wright lived in Lebanon for 15 years and covered a combination of wars there.
When she went back, she talked to Assaad Chaftari, who fought for Lebanese forces in a Christian militia. In a Starbucks, Chaftari told Wright about his time as one of the country’s top intelligence officers.
“My task was to decide the fate of those who were rounded up at checkpoints” in the Muslim quarters of Beirut, he said, “and decide whether someone should be spared or exchanged or killed. A human being was little more than a product to me.”
As a Christian, Chaftari used to go to confession and talk about minor things without mentioning the killings, Wright says. But Chaftari experienced an epiphany after his wife introduced him to a group of wives trying to bring their husbands together and think about the wrong they had done.
Knowing he could never change his past actions, Chaftari started a group called Fighters for Peace that would go to high schools and talk about how the wars destroyed lives, Wright says. The war still isn’t taught in schools in Lebanon, she says.
“The lesson of Lebanon turned out to be that it is the individuals who are trying to create a different alternative,” she says, “rather than the state itself, which was not doing very much.”
Photographer Knight says this story demonstrates how women play an important role in post-conflict nations and greatly impact the success of peace.
Rwanda serves as an example of a great success for peace, though political problems persist in the country 26 years after the Hutu ethnic majority committed genocide against the Tutsis. Rwanda’s Gacaca courts, based on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have helped people forgive and move forward, Knight says.
“The generation that lived through the war, if it doesn't process the war and move forward, it's very difficult for subsequent generations to do so,” he says. “And the act of personal forgiveness is absolutely critical.”
Photographer Jack Picone illegally crossed the border to document the Rwandan genocide. He returned 25 years later wondering if the country could find light out of the horrific darkness he documented. In one of the videos from Rwanda in the project, he spoke with a pastor who was there in 1994.
“I think most of us who survived learned to sublimate the pain and the anger because we were thrown into the rebuilding process, involved in the conciliation,” the pastor said. “But unless you handle it properly, it will come back to haunt you. So you simply learn to let it go.”
People in Rwanda today won’t answer questions about their ethnicity, Knight says, though differences still exist. The key to the country’s success is that Rwandans understand how to look beyond those differences, forgive and move on, he says.
Most wars start because sometimes humans aren’t educated enough to understand people who are different from them, reporter Wright says. Often, one moment unintentionally starts a war, such as the 1975 bus shooting that sparked war in Lebanon.
Putting the book together during a racial reckoning in the U.S. made Wright think about the project’s relevance in this country. The book reflects both our understanding of war and the universal challenges humans face all around the world, she says.
“Peace is the best in the human spirit,” she says. “But it is much harder than war.”
Book Excerpt: 'Imagine'
From the VII Foundation
This segment aired on December 18, 2020.