Ray Of Hope In Our Dark Tunnel Of Violence

At water's edge of the aptly-named Pleasant Lake in Otisfield, Maine, about an hour outside Portland, I found a refreshing cause for optimism -- a respite from our wearisome ordeal of witnessing repeated eruptions of hatred and heartless violence.

The idyllic scene in Maine is the Seeds of Peace summer camp, where hundreds of teenagers from some of the world's most bitterly polarized conflict regions, including the Middle East and South Asia, converge each year for a remarkable experience.

They meet kids from "the other side" for the first time. They take the risk of crossing lines of ethnicity, nationality and religion. They begin a tentative dance of getting to know each other (all campers are asked to speak English, the one language they have in common). They play on the same sports teams, they eat at the same tables, they swim and boat in the same sparkling lake and they sleep calmly in integrated bunks.

For the latest episode of our Humankind public radio documentary project The Power of Nonviolence released this summer (you can hear Part 5, our segment on the camp, now available online), I paid a visit to Seeds of Peace.

It's a kind of magical setting, where the normal rules of hostility, the entrenched histories of resentment and revenge, the reflexive stereotypes of the enemy are suspended for a moment of time in the sun.

It's a place, maybe the only kind of place, where a future of peace based on trying to understand and listen to an "adversary" might be built, where someone else from a different group might become your personal friend.

As one young male camper told me: "It's really amazing what we're doing here. I mean, where else in the world are you going to get Israelis and Palestinians sitting in a room together? And just to have that dialogue, and then afterwards to go out and play soccer together, and do activities. At the end of the day what you realize is that we're not so different - the same interests, the same coming of age struggles. And it's our future. You know, our parents, and their generations before them didn't get things right. So it's our turn to get things right. It's our future, and it's what we make of it."

It's not all tension-free, though. The kids are grounded by attending regular, structured dialogue groups. In one session, the day before my visit, they asked each other how terrorism had affected their lives.

The first camper, recalled Lulu Perault, a conflict mediatior who was present, "shared a story about being kidnapped by the Taliban, and how difficult it was, at the age of eight, to be alone in a room for two weeks, and not knowing what happened to him. And so this kind of created a cascade of participation. All the kids shared their experiences with terrorism, and violence. And so by the end of our session yesterday, kids from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and America were hugging each other, and crying, and left feeling quite connected. So they come, they sit down, they see each other. They realize they're only human, that they have the same challenges, the same joys."

I don't know what's more amazing -- that the kids enter this wondrous zone of truce or that, to comply with camp rules, they actually put down their cell phones and abandon internet access for the full month they're at Seeds of Peace. Isolating the campers from the information crossfire online gives them all a chance to reflect on the power of information, both electronic and print, in the hyper-mediated culture they're being raised in.

"Sadly, people are not going to question what is said in a textbook," commented Phiroze Parasnis, a poised, intelligent 16-year-old from Mumbai, India. "Who makes the history textbooks? Essential facts are taken out. So many facts are changed. And I'm not only blaming my country, I'm blaming all the countries for this. And, I mean, it's so shocking when you say, 'Oh, my God. Is that the way this event is portrayed in your country?' You wonder like, who controls what we believe is true?"

A common complaint from the campers on all sides was that the local media culture, often influenced by governments, spreads propaganda whose effect is to fan the flames of discord. And this echoed an insight by Bobbie Gottschalk, who in 1993 co-founded Seeds of Peace (with the late John Wallach).

She harkened to her experience as a 20-year-old student at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana. It was in 1962, the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. Bobbie and other students had accompanied a professor for a field trip to Russia, where they would break down barriers and get to know Soviet kids of the same age -- a daring project at the height of the Cold War.

"Well," Bobbie told me in an interview, "it taught me that people are people, and although their governments make pronouncements and threats against other people, the people living in the country are just the same as us, and just as vulnerable to being threatened, and to being made fearful as us. So we actually had a lot in common...

"And the other thing I realized while I was there was it was very handy for the government to have an enemy, because so many troublesome things were going on in that country, but it took the focus away from that, and put it all the way across the world to an enemy.

"And I wondered if the same was true for the United States, at that time."