Camp that converts young people to messengers of peace

Hamburg (dpa) – Words instead of weapons. Harmony instead of strife. The European Council wants to prohibit war and to that end sponsors an annual youth camp where representatives of rival groups meet and sit at a single table.

Israeli youths meet Palestinian youths. Serb youths come together with Albanian youths from Kosovo for the first time on neutral ground. Armenians youths get to know young Azerbaijanis.

They sit together at one table and talk about the senselessness of violence and about peace. The camp for youths created by the European Council is designed to turn enemies into friends by winning over young minds for the cause of peace. The seven-day-long camp is in its seventh year.

“War is my daily companion. Fear is omnipresent,” says Mryana Hanna Wadi Imseeh, who lives in Ramallah in the Palestinian autonomous region in the West Bank.

She experiences the bloody dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians firsthand. “I know little about the people on the other side of the war,” says the 20-year-old student. “I know only the propaganda and the slogans.”

At the European Council’s youth camp the enemy gets a face in the form of Israeli Imri Kalmann, a 24-year-old student from Tel Aviv.

He talks a lot with the young Palestinian whom he met at the camp. “Peace is only possible when you learn to understand your enemy,” Kalmann says. He hopes for more understanding and long-lasting peace.

“We want to enable a dialogue between young people. Amidst the violent conflict, young people have no chance to start a conversation,” says Michael Raphael, organizer of the meeting, which takes place annually in the town of Rust in south-western Germany.

In discussions and workshops, an effort is made to break down prejudices and enmities. The goal is to abolish the walls between nations and religions.

This year about 60 youths – Christians, Jews and Muslims – between the ages of 18 and 25 took part. Although they discuss serious subjects, they don’t just talk. Common activities also are firmly part of the programme. The young people also sleep in tents together.

“When two people sit together in the evening at a campfire and laugh, then they can’t shoot at each other the next day,” says Raul Gulmammadov, 21, of Azerbaijan.

“The goal is rapprochement. The best way to achieve this is through common experiences,” says Roland Mack, manager of a nearby amusement park and special envoy for families to the European Council for the past eight years.

“We see the same thing every year,” he says. “At the beginning they keep away from each other and are critical of each other. Then the farewell party is a great get-together.”

The relationships are not suppose to end when the party is over. The youths who participate in the camp are trained as ambassadors of peace. They are encouraged to work for peace in their countries and regions.

Former participants of the camp continue their discussions for peace on the internet, set up peace groups in their home towns and campaign for tolerance.

Alexandr from Nagorno-Karabakh, 24, of Armenia is an example. He hopes above all that the public will pay more attention to his country.

“Our conflict gets hardly any attention from outside, therefore we can’t hope for help to come in from elsewhere,” he sayd. After attending the camp he wants to work for peace and plans to put information on the internet.

The participants do not believe their efforts will bring quick results but Raphael said the youths are very serious and have a great deal of dedication.

“Waging war is quick and easy. Endowing peace and maintaining it is a longer and harder path to follow,” says Kalmann. Nevertheless, he wants to try. “Someone has to take the first step so that the future will be peaceful. And young people have the courage to believe in that.”