Please note this blog is split into two parts. As well as sharing how Peter Marsden became an international peacemaker, it covers his work in South Sudan, Iraq and the Central African Republic.
It’s not often you get the opportunity to speak with someone who has been to the Central African Republic, or even heard of it, let alone with someone who has spent time working there, but when you do, I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth. I got in touch with Peter Marsden, who is a mutual friend and works for an organisation called Concordis, which facilitates dialogue between different sides in areas of conflict with the aim of facilitating peace. We had the chance to speak at length on his work in Central African Republic as well as other areas of the world, including Iraq and South Sudan.
Peter’s story starts as a solicitor in South London. For 10 years, he worked in legal aid, mostly in child protection cases, involving disputes with families over children, often where there were questions of neglect, mental health issues, drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse, and where the local authority were looking at removing the children into care. ‘I found it a privilege to be allowed to walk alongside people while they’re going through such a difficult time.’
He came to realise that many of his overseas clients had escaped war and conflict, facing huge traumas and suffering great loss, only to end up in stressed living conditions. ‘I often thought: I can help you a little bit, but maybe if I move upstream and work out what drove you to get here, that would be better than trying to fix this situation. On a good year, I could help 50 or 100 people as a solicitor, but if I can deal with some of the root causes of this conflict then maybe I can help more people in a more meaningful way.’
Having travelled in the past, working on Mercy Ships for five months, teaching in India and spending a sabbatical working on domestic violence in townships in Johannesburg, Peter decided to undertake a master’s degree in international development as a mature student. ‘It was fun to be a student again, to hear people talk about interesting subjects, to debate, and to sit down and read again. As part of my research I spent a couple of months out in northern Uganda interviewing people who had been abducted and affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I was looking at how you rebuild society and find social cohesion after the horrendous trauma of war. This involved talking to former child soldiers and adult rebels and trying to identify how they put their lives back together and how the local communities might learn to accept former combatants back into their communities.’
Part of this, Peter told me, included spending a whole day with a rebel commander who had been shot in the knee. He had been responsible for a pinch point in the road and organising the ambushes of people going down that road including the NGOs and charities. ‘It was a really interesting lesson to me on security. I’m not expert on military things, but he would have the high ground and commanded the area. He would see which NGOs they were and could choose whether people went past a pinch point completely oblivious to their presence, whether he robs them and lets them carry on, or whether he kills them. That was his level of power and control.’
‘The way he made that decision was his perception of the organisation they were from. If he thought they were providing aid and development assistance even-handedly, he would just let them go and they wouldn’t even be aware of his presence. If he thought they were supporting one side and not the other, he would take their stuff and maybe let them go. But if he thought they were a threat – if he thought they were in collaboration with people he considered to be enemies – he would kill them.
‘So, when I travel, those lessons really stay with me. The best defense is having the acceptance of the population and to be in good relations with people who control the roads. Many people ask me if I have armed protection. I don’t. If you want suitable armed protection in the places we work, you need a fleet of Apache helicopters to fly alongside you. But we’re a peace organization. So, a big part of what we do is try to negotiate with all the different groups and to help them see that what we’re doing makes a valuable contribution.’
Having done the masters and spent time in Uganda, Peter joined a charity called FRRME travelling backwards and forwards between the UK and Baghdad. The charity ran a medical clinic, which was serving Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as Christians. ‘This was 2009 to 2012, just coming out of some pretty dark days in Iraq, albeit pre-Isis. There were a lot of sectarian bombings and running a clinic where you have some of the different groups waiting together in the same room was amazing.
‘You can read about all the conflict between different groups on the news and think you understand it, but if you just see the different sides waiting to be seen in the waiting room of the doctors or the dentist, you realise most people, despite being in a war, have the same issues; they’re concerned about the same things that you or I are worried about – their ageing parents, their sick child, or they don’t want to get stung by a dentist bill. They were all united in their common humanity; people were just trying to get on with their lives.
‘Because there was a sectarian component to the conflict, we would get very senior Sunni, Shia and Christian leaders together for conversations, usually in Beirut, about how they can use their influence to prevent suicide bombing, which was very prevalent at the time. One of the results was a joint Sunni-Shia fatwa against suicide bombing.’
A fatwa is a legal diktat from an Islamic religious leader, over the people who choose to submit themselves to the authority of that leader. ‘Very broadly the fatwa decreed from a religious perspective that murder is wrong – it is haram. Secondly, the killing of your fellow Muslim is particularly abhorrent. Thirdly if you kill yourself then it invalidates your claim to eternal life in paradise. So, if anyone tells you that it’s the will of God to strap a vest to yourself and go out into a public place and kill yourself and many of your brother and sister Muslims, they are theologically incorrect. They put this Fatwa out there along with a lot of other interventions, and the rate of suicide bombing dramatically reduced for a time.’
In 2012, Peter joined Concordis International, who have been working in what was Sudan and Southern Sudan for the best part of 15 years (now South Sudan and the Republic of the Sudan). ‘For many years we [Concordis] have been working the border of Sudan and South Sudan. That’s a very interesting place – we’ve particularly been working in Abyei, which is contested territory between the two. Its status wasn’t fully resolved in the partition agreement and that can make things very difficult for a number of reasons: There’s been on-and-off war between the two. There’s been on-and-off civil war within South Sudan, as well as widespread famine. There’s significant inter-ethnic tension, much of which is fomented by the political process which really pitches the different ethnic groups against each other – or tries to – and there’s a high prevalence of fire arms. And finally, in Abyei, Misseriya nomadic herders travel with their livestock between north and south following the rains, through the land of Ngok Dinka settled farmers.’
There is due to be a referendum as to whether Abyei should be part of Sudan or South Sudan, but as we’ve learnt from UK politics – namely the Ireland-Northern Ireland ‘soft border’ debate – agreeing on who’s in and who’s out isn’t plain sailing when you have people whose livelihoods depend on crossing from one side to the other regularly. In the case of the Sudans, these are nomadic pastoralists who depend on being on one side of the border for part of the year and another side for the other part of the year.
‘And just to top it off, you have oil underneath in Abyei. So, it has potential to be a very difficult and dangerous place. One of our main ethos’s is the belief that local people are the best ones to resolve their own conflict. It’s really not for foreigners to come in and tell people how to run their own countries. Sometimes we facilitate these discussions ourselves, more usually we train local mediators, but either way we bring people together to identify the root causes of their conflict and come up with workable solutions that address these causes. This is more than just trying to persuade people to live together more peacefully, it’s about changing the incentives that act on people – including those you might describe as warlords or rebel groups – so that they have a positive incentive to act well and a clear disincentive from acting badly. That can really make a difference.
‘One example is from the boarder territory between Sudan and South Sudan – we’ve put together migration conferences to bring nomadic herders together and send someone ahead to negotiate passage with the settled farmers. It can be hugely helpful in preventing conflict if the herders are able to negotiate in advance the route the cows will go, where they’ll graze, how they’re going to access water, and the timing of the migration to make sure the crops have been taken in before the cows come through. It’s also really important to agree in advance on a conflict resolution mechanism so that when something happens there’s a way to resolve it. If a cow breaks through a fence and eats someone’s crops, or if there’s a fight between someone from each community, there’s a real risk that the conflict will escalate rapidly with tit for tat reprisal attacks. But if there’s an agreed mechanism, each community has an incentive to bring the protagonists before the committee, where the facts can be investigated and compensation agreed.
‘Having been working on this for many years, people have confidence in us and in this process and their attitudes and behaviour has started to change. The migration now happens much more smoothly and without violence. The farmers dictate when the cows come through so they have time to bring in their crops in advance. They then take up their fences and permit the cows to graze on the stubble. Cows do what cows do and that fertilises the ground, and everybody wins. Even better still, if they can start trading with each other, the nomadic pastoralists can start buying vegetables and crops from the farmers, and the farmers can buy milk and meat and metal goods from the nomadic traders. Then something really interesting happens – the person who was once an enemy, the person I used to hate, despise and fear, now becomes my market and source of livelihood.
‘Instead of having reason to fear one another, they now have a positive incentive to work together towards common goals. When my livelihood depends on ‘the other’ buying my goods, I’m not going to permit them to come to any harm. In fact, I have a vested interest in seeing them flourish. So, in Amiet, in the heart of Abyei, there’s a large market that was put into place as a direct result of Concordis’ dialogue process between herders and farmers. 300 trucks full of goods and food travels here from Sudan and South Sudan every week to trade. In the context of war, lawlessness, famine, a high prevalence of fire arms, contested territory, a referendum, herders and farmers and oil, there’s trade between the two communities and no famine in this area because there’s food, goods and money changing hands. This is very exciting, because what’s happening there is not aid, it’s trade. People who used to be in conflict are now creating their own sustainable livelihoods.’
Big thanks to Peter Marsden for sharing his experience and expertise. There is a great deal of cross-over with regards to Wild Philanthropy’s aims in at-risk ecosystems and Marsden’s work, particularly the emphasis on trade as peacemaker. Stay tuned for Part 2, when he shares Concordis International’s work in CAR. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about how your travel can support at-risk ecosystems in Africa, please do get in touch.