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They include Israelis, Palestinians, and Kosovan Albanians and Serbs - young people from regions in crisis who seek a future that is more than just war and confrontation. This week the Council of Europe has invited thirty-two young persons aged 16 to 20 and eight organisers, all from these regions, to the Europapark leisure park in Rust in Germany. They will be attending a youth camp whose theme is dialogue and reconciliation and their presence and activities are designed to show that talking can be more effective than force of arms.
Tali, a teacher trainee from Tel-Aviv, participated last year in the first youth camp which the Council of Europe organised in this context, and speaks of it with enthusiasm.
“There I learned that it was possible to talk to each other, and for the first time I heeded the viewpoints of the Palestinians so as to understand their problems.”
Tali and Fadi have now become true friends by putting their experience into practice in their country, in the cause of dialogue for peace. They share the opinion that education is the key to the future of the region, and are sorry that opportunities for young people to make real contact with each other are still too few and far between. “We were brought up amid fear and stereotyping,” Tali points out, “but only by overcoming these hang-ups can we finally resolve our conflicts.” Fadi wants to go even further: “Jewish and Palestinian schools are completely separated, but at the very least the two cultures should be taught as part of the curricula to help us draw closer together. Our parents didn’t manage it and we are doing it with difficulty, but it must become self-evident for the children we expect to have.”
Another region and another conflict, but similar problems: young Kosovars are also trying to restore dialogue across the enclaves and checkpoints. Azra, who lives in the Albanian sector of Mitrovica, proclaims herself a Kosovar before all else; she wants young people to do the same and finally discard their Serb or Albanian label “for the good of Kosovo”. “We are open-minded enough to for that,” she exclaims, recalling that as soon as they arrived in Rust the young people of Serb and Albanian origin began talking and joking together.
“When people can play games and eat at the same table, they can run the country together, and that is the message I want to put across when I go home,” is her final remark.
According to Milosava, “displaced” in 1999 to the Serb enclave of Strpce, the mere fact of being able to come to Rust is “a dream” for the 8 young Serbs attending.
“In Kosovo, it’s often a real feat to get out of an enclave, and it’s high time to give young people other prospects,” she explains. She wants this meeting to foreshadow “restoration of inter-community dialogue” and, like Tali and Fadi where Israel and Palestine are concerned, would like to see “the two cultures of Kosovo taught in the school syllabus of both communities.” Today, she says regretfully, the processes of reconciliation are far too slow, and a great deal of effort is still needed to finally get over the past.
Above and beyond their personal situations, the young people present in Rust have been able to compare their experiences with those of other young people facing similar problems: “The war in Kosovo has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ” they explained in unison, “but the fact of living in a country at war unites us. We discover that what is being done in one country to restore dialogue can provide an example for another country, and if other people succeed in speaking together, so shall we.” The meeting in Rust, to end on 6 July, comprises several discussion sessions on tangible ways of bringing communities closer together. These include breaking down stereotypes and prejudices as one priority, so stubbornly do erroneous or exaggerated images persist in fuelling confrontations.
“We were taught that the Jews were nationalistic and grasping and had no sense of family values,” Fadi recollects, while Tali grew up in fear of Palestinian “murderers”. She says, “Today I feel safe when I’m with Fadi,” while he has reconsidered his verdict about Jews. Likewise, Azra has learned to “trust the Serbs” and has shown them that the Albanians are not the “uncouth and brutal” people stigmatised by Serbian nationalism. For her and for Milosava alike, dialogue also depends on dismantling the clichés handed down from the past. But Azra, with a hint of sadness in her eyes, stresses that it will be necessary to go much further still to drive away the spectre of war for good and all. “You know,” she remarks, “in Kosovo the supposedly quietest towns are where the worst atrocities were committed.”
All participants would like their governments to support the regular staging in their country of encounters identical to the events in Rust, but regret that the political and economic constraints too often hamper this development. At all events they undertake to “translate into action” what they will have learned this week, especially since “what has been built here absolutely must be continued over there to be a complete success”.