Peace work in Ukraine

John Lampen writes about a Quaker peace initiative in Ukraine

[This article appeared in the 5 February 2015 edition of the British magazine The Friend, www.thefriend.org.  It is reproduced here with permission.]

A peace meeting in Odessa. | Photo: Courtesy of Roland Rand

A peace meeting in Odessa. | Photo: Courtesy of Roland Rand

In early May of 2014 Mikhail Roshchin, of Moscow Meeting, and Roland Rand, of Tallinn Friends Worship Group in Estonia, brought a concern to the Europe and Middle East Section (EMES) of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). They wished to travel to Ukraine to find out what ordinary people were experiencing in the midst of violent conflict and ask if there was anything Quakers could do in a modest way to foster local peace initiatives. Friends who gathered in Strasbourg for the EMES annual meeting recognised and upheld this concern, and asked EMES to facilitate it by banking any money collected for it.

An article appeared in the Friend (16 May 2014) after which Friends, many Meetings and two trusts, together with sources in other European countries, gave enough to cover the costs of our two Friends’ visits. There might be some surplus for small-scale one-off support if some promising Ukrainian peace work was identified.

A tolerant environment

In the meantime the violence was getting worse and this made it unsafe to go during the summer, which was the original plan. Eventually, Roland visited Kiev and the Odessa region in September. In conversations with members of different ethnic groups, young people and a religious leader, he found a universal wish for the fighting to end, though some did not want this if the price was the break-up of the country.

He attended a meeting of the local Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) group, and commented, ‘At the AVP seminars it was the clear wish for Ukrainians to live in a tolerant environment despite the differences among them. I sensed that many had reached that viewpoint at the end of the seminar. The regret over historical neighbours not managing to live in harmony was shared by many who held nationalistic viewpoints. Compromise was considered essential for a peaceful solution to a conflict.’ He recommended AVP training in Ukraine as a possible recipient of Quaker support.

Roland’s first meeting in Odessa was with the AVP group there, where again the national situation was discussed. He stated: ‘Concerning the question of what can be done right now for the resolution of the conflict, it was found that activity should take place on several levels: person-to-person, system-to-system. One person cannot resolve conflict between systems, but s/he can help on the person-to-person level. Some participants thought that it is important to start with the closest one: for example with oneself.’

The next day he met the philanthropic organisation ‘The Way Home’ and heard about the temporary living arrangements for families from the eastern Ukraine regions. He visited a kindergarten for low-income large families and gave the children toys and candy. There is a possibility of organizing summer camps in Ukraine and Estonia, because the opportunity for children to learn about other cultures early would be helpful in building tolerance. This is another programme for which he advocated Quaker support.

Roland also met other community activists, among them Inna Tereshchenko, director of the Odessa Regional Mediation Group. Currently, Inna is the representative for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). A number of Friends have worked with Inna in the past and have a high regard for her. Roland wants to stay in touch with her and give her whatever support he can. He found that cultural days and festivals are being held to promote peace and stability: good examples are the free-of-charge concert given in Odessa that he attended and the women’s movement’s demonstration at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in Kiev against the war.

Mikhail (known as Mischa) managed to reach Lugansk, which is near the border with Russia, in October. This district has declared itself the ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ and makes Ukraine a ‘foreign country’. He found both his journey and the city very calm and quiet since the armistice that was agreed in Minsk in September – but it is not universally honoured.

He says: ‘The armistice is observed well here. I have met a few responsible people, such as the chairman of the People’s Council of the Lugansk Republic, Alexei Karyakin, who took part in the Minsk peace negotiations. I have met also with a vice-prime-minister, Vassili Nikitin. Especially interesting and helpful for me was a meeting with a troupe from the Ukrainian-speaking theatre in the city. In the People’s Council I heard of a project of a peacemaking dialogue between Lugansk and Ukraine. I feel that this proposal is very positive.’

Peacemaking initiatives

Mikhail also reports about ‘a peacemaking initiative of a social-political leader of Alchevsk (a city in Lugansk province) called Alexey Mozgovoy, who started a real peacemaking direct dialogue by means of web, television and Skype connections with peacemaking activists (journalists, political people and even a few military people) from Kiev’.

In general Mischa felt that ‘there is a lack of presence of peacemaking, human rights and humanitarian international organisations operating in Lugansk and Lugansk province’. He reports that he saw only one representative of the International Red Cross in the city and writes: ‘I feel that more long-term peacemaking Quaker work in Lugansk and Eastern Ukraine is not only possible, but needed. I can continue to collaborate with friends there who are searching for a long-term established peace on the base of their programme of dialogue between both parts of Ukraine.’

It was part of Mischa’s original plan to make a visit to Donetsk, where much fighting has taken place. He still has funds in hand for this if it proves safe to go. Meanwhile, he plans to keep up the contacts he has made in Lugansk. He is also in touch with the peacemaking movement ‘Anti-war’ (Antivoina). This movement is based in Kiev and is organising discussions using television and web links across the country.

The AVP project leader in Kiev said later: ‘I’d like to say that Roland’s mission was a success. Thanks to him, we started raising important issues and a desire to promote peacemaking. In my opinion, we had a real peaceful dialogue, and I’m sure it has helped many of us to take another step to understanding its meaning.’

EMES Annual Meeting

Friends gathered in Strasbourg for the EMES annual meeting recognised and upheld this concern, and asked EMES to facilitate it by banking any money collected for it. A support group was set up. It hoped that ongoing support for peace activists there would follow in some form, not necessarily involving new structures, which it felt it could not undertake to manage. This seems to be happening.

The first article in the Friend, and other information about this initiative, raised an astonishing £10,490 from Friends, Meetings and trusts to make it happen. The original plan was for each journey to be made by two Friends, but this proved impossible, so our Friends’ costs were less than expected, at around £6,600. This left a good surplus to devote to the local peacebuilding initiatives that they recommended to us: the AVP training, the proposed summer camp for displaced children, and the work of our friends in the Odessa Regional Mediation Group.

There is also a modest grant for the continuing dialogue between Mischa and his new contacts. Mischa and Roland want to thank those who supported their concern and bring back to you the gratitude of people in Ukraine who are trying to be positive in the midst of fear, anger, loss and uncertainty.

There are fuller reports from Roland Rand and Mikhail Roshchin on their experiences. Copies are available from lampen@hopeproject.co.uk.

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