A Story from Indonesia

Andrea Strimling

Commissioner, International ADR, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; also a founder of ACRON (the Applied Conflict Resolution Organizations Network)

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: We were also in Indonesia working in West Kalimantan ??? where there had been enormous violence. Including sort of a reversion to traditional approaches or old approaches to warfare. And there were just gruesome, gruesome stories and photos in the papers. Including a beheading, people carrying heads around. I remember going in and sitting with some of the warriors actually, who had been involved in this fighting, very recently and talking with them about what the opportunities might be to contain the violence. What was pointed out and somebody in the process of one of these meetings pulled out a photo and showed me a photo of a human head. The picture was of somebody holding a human head, that had just been freshly cut off the body and talking about how heavy it was with such detachment.

We sort of backed up and talked with them about what approaches had been used to contain the violence in the past because this had been going on for more than a decade, and it turned out that there had been over a dozen negotiated peace settlements made between the leadership of these communities and one after another they fell apart. This is over about the same number of years, probably averaging more than one a year or something like that. And they just kept falling a part because at the grassroots there was no support. So that was another. It wasn't a happy story, but it was a story that really completely affirmed for me the importance of working at the grassroots level to really build the foundations for lasting peace, and recognize the importance of negotiating settlements, but also understanding and appreciating their very significant limitations. So, that's another story.

Q: Where is the inspiration in that one?

A: Well the inspiration again is, sometimes for me, I see the enormity of these challenges and I question how much we as outsiders have to bring in to these situations. When I see a situation like this where they're getting negotiated settlement after negotiated settlement and they're simply not able to have it hold because there hasn't been the relationship building at the grassroots level due to some of the structural inequities that are still in place, which therefore are fueling the conflict and because there's just underlying causes that have to be addressed, it's, it actually is inspiring for me because it is very affirming of the basic approaches that we take to this work.

It also emphasizes the importance of building, of helping local people to build the capacity to work at these levels when it isn't already happening. And in this situation it wasn't happening, you know it's a vast country and there a lot of incredibly talented people doing activist work and doing grassroots work, but this hadn't been touched. So for me it was inspiring because it was affirming of this, the real opportunity to offer something useful. I mean the part of this that has not been inspiring is that we had been working with Indonesian partners on a project that had so much promise and are US aide funding was interrupted, after we had built a lot of support and laid a lot of ground work. That is the uninspiring part of it. Both of these experiences to me, I draw on them when I think about how valuable this work can be, and also the legitimacy of having outsiders come and do it if it isn't happening locally.