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Ambassadors for peace in the Horn of Africa

London, 18th May

When the distinguished Ethiopian journalist Mammo Wudneh wrote to MRA's Agenda for Reconciliation (AfR) programme two years ago, he urged that the world community should not forget the Horn of Africa, which has been plagued by conflicts for the past 50 years, exacerbating famine and creating millions of refugees.

At the time, Europe was preoccupied with the Kosovo crisis in former Yugoslavia. So little was done. Undeterred, Wudneh, who is President of the Ethiopian Writers' Association, wrote again to the AfR conference in Caux, Switzerland, last year.
As a result, a travelling group of four including two senior diplomats, from four East African countries, visited six European capitals during May. They met foreign office officials, aid agencies and other non-governmental organisations, in a bid to keep the Horn of Africa on the world's agenda, and to brief them about their work for reconciliation. Their arrival in London
coincided with the outbreak of a bloody border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

"Since 1950 this whole region has never been at peace," said Bethuel Kiplagat, former Permanent Secretary to Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was High Commissioner in the UK in the early 1980s. He was speaking at a public meeting organised by AfR in MRA's London headquarters. Since 1986 Kiplagat has been working, through the World Council of Churches, to help bring an end to the 30-year civil war in Sudan, "and I am not going to give up", he said. "Development cannot take place without the end of these conflicts. We need a commitment to peace and reconciliation. If there are no signs of hope we need to create them. We must not say that the task is so big that we cannot start." He saw signs of movement towards peace between the eight different rebel groups in Sudan and believed that "there is a commitment by the people themselves".

International Court to play a role
Kiplagat suggested that the International Court of Justice in The Hague could play a part in settling the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Mammo Wudneh appealed for the peace and safety of future generations in Ethiopia and Eritrea. "We are at war now. It is a nightmare. But what to do for the next generations?" he asked. "It is time to cure bitterness, hatred and revenge and not allow these to go on. This is the time to work for peace. Our appeal and intent is for the coming generations." When the movement for an independent Eritrea, then the northern province of Ethiopia, had first begun he had prayed to God to use his pen to help solve the issue "˜by peaceful means".

Speaking alongside Wudneh, Fessaha Fre Weri, an Eritrean business consultant and peace activist, acknowledged Wudneh's courageous articles in the Ethiopian press, outspoken against the oppression of the Eritreans and "at great risk to himself". "I have always been amazed by Wudneh's character and I find it very humbling," Fre commented. The spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, advocated by MRA, had come to Fre "as a challenge which I did not want to face. In 1971, the Ethiopian army massacred 25 of my close relatives." They had been herded into the village Mosque and machine-gunned. They included his sisters and their families. "The choice before me was to overcome my bitterness or to carry a Kalashnikov [rifle]. I decided to join the fight for the hearts and minds of the people. We shouldn't be fighting over our borders, but over the borders in our hearts."

He added that corruption had been a part of his life when he was a young customs officer. He had had to overcome this too, if he was to master his bitterness. "My corrupt life and my bitterness were very connected and, wanting to get rid of bitterness and hatred, I also had to get rid of my corrupt behaviour."

"Vow to help my people"
" Your war is our war; your peace is our peace," said Yusuf Al-Azhari, Somalia's former ambassador to the USA, addressing his travelling colleagues. "The cause of war is injustice. When injustice prevails the whole system collapses," he said. He spoke about his six years of solitary confinement and harrowing torture as a political prisoner under Somalia's previous Marxist regime. "Ever since, I have vowed that I will help my people to overcome their hatred; to help to heal the wounds of those who have been the victims of oppression and injustice." Al-Azhari is now working with others to establish a national government in Somalia, following the nation's civil war.

Kiplagat urged to "think for the long-term healing processes", to prevent the "cycle of conflicts" re-erupting. "Once relative peace has come we relax when we should be working hard to cure the bitterness in people's hearts. There is no future without forgiving the past," he said. There was a need to keep an eye on latent conflicts that might flare up. "But we leave it till it is too late." While they remained latent "we can work on the structures and on the hearts of the people. We must avoid demonizing people. You cannot talk to a demon. My fundamental belief is that human beings can change and do change."

Michael Smith, FaC, London

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