top of page

It wasn’t War and it wasn’t Peace


It was Balochistan and the North West Frontier in the early 1990s. The USSR war in Afghanistan had sputtered to a halt. One and a half million Afghani refugees and mujahideen families were living in camps the size of cities all along the frontier. Hardly a tree was left standing. Roads were destroyed by overuse and lack of repair. Irrigation canals were crumbling and blocked. Peasant farmers had left the land for the riches of war, ironically creating the poverty of war at home.

In this havoc, a World Bank team of which I was a member was preparing the way for a large, multi-phase infrastructure repair loan. Our boardroom was a campfire at each location along the borderlands. Tribal leaders and our team of consultants sat around fires, as the sun lowered itself behind the hills, and discussed the land’s future and regeneration.

As I replay these scenes, I see our team as the only people without weapons. The tribal leaders’ bodyguards kept their Kalashnikovs on their knees as they ate and watched. Our UN-provided guards stood off on higher ground with their ancient bolt-action rifles. Every boy over 14 carried a rifle.

What appeared on paper and in speeches in Washington to be an action for peace and reconstruction, was in fact, on the ground, a hard fought business negotiation. Who would control the money? Who would approve the projects? How would my area of control benefit? What if we don’t trust the politicians and bureaucrats? It was just everyday business for the tribal leaders, but ‘please point that gun the other way’ nerves for the team.

On reflection, this peace story isn’t much of a story, and isn’t really about peace, but about the fact that in the absence of direct conflict, yet in unstable conditions, people behave in very normal and understandable ways.

So how does that help anything? Well, suppose I took the kernel of that idea, and instead of viewing its message from the remote, top-down or institutional approach of nations and governments and tribes and politics, I looked at it from the people point of view.

Because I’m people too.

This realization is embarrassing, as it turns the microscope from the UN, the government and all the other organizational bogeymen in the world scheme of things onto me. But what good is that? I’m not an actor on the world stage. No, but I am an actor on my local stage. And presumably my actions mean something or have some cause and effect.

Wracking my mind, I can come up with only a few instances in which my actions could be classified as promoting peace on a personal or immediate surroundings level. Which is, after all, perhaps one of our main responsibilities in life.

Picture this. I arrive at a downtown Ottawa bus stop with two of my young sons, to find a drunken bruiser of a man menacing a smaller, older Asian-looking man waiting for a bus. The bruiser is shouting and spitting, waving his arms and threatening violence on the old man. Shamefully, I wait until no one else is going to act, then I stand between the old man and the thug. The surprised drunk shouts ‘who the hell are you?’ No response as I stare off into the distance; except, my two sons sidle up and stand next to me. This new wall of flesh switches on some rational part of the drunk’s brain, and he eventually wanders off shouting belligerently.

Years later, one of my boys told me how proud they were to stand there with me. I have no doubt they will, in their turn, stand between an innocent victim and an aggressor.

What if a million people just stood between two armies?


By: Harry Monaghan

bottom of page