SHE TALKS OF PEACE: Lebanon drinks more blood than water

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/April 24) – A few weeks ago, we had a virtual panel discussion on ASEAN’s initiative to have a regional action plan for women, peace and security. The initiative is supported by UN Women. It was enlightening to hear our sisters and colleagues from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand share their insights on why it is important for ASEAN to have such a plan. I was especially encouraged to have brothers join in the discussion. All participants in our virtual meeting agreed that a regional action plan for the WPS agenda is valuable – not only for the empowerment of women, but even more important for regional security and peace. #WPSASEAN.

The WPS agenda became a reality, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 after October 31, 2000. Driven by a strong global constituency of women leaders, civil society organizations for decades and backed by progressive member states who have seen the value women bring to the peace process, the UNSC finally saw the light and passed the resolution. UNSCR 1325 examined the impact of conflict on women and women’s contribution to conflict resolution and lasting peace. The UNSC would never have adopted it if women around the world had not lobbied and shown the UN and governments that women are not just victims, but are actually good at building up Peace.

One of the important programs implemented by many women’s organizations in conflict zones is to rehabilitate traumatized communities and captured extremists. A friend and fellow peacemaker, Maya Yamout, joined Dina Zaman and me in a personal conversation about the work she does with prisoners in Beirut.

Maya describes herself as an extremist behavior specialist and forensic social worker. She says she is “passionate about countering violent extremism and terrorism through research, outreach, profiling, and innovative programs that address hate-based violence on a global scale.”

Maya shared her very personal story of why she became a peacemaker and social worker. She had a very close friend from high school with whom she shared hopes and dreams over coffee at Starbucks every weekend. She saw her friend slowly changing before her eyes: from a modern computer engineering student wearing jeans to a conservative man who wouldn’t even shake hands. Their coffee sessions decreased over time – from once a week to once a month, or even none. She didn’t understand why. Maya spoke to her mother to find out what had happened and there was nothing – no economic problems, no divorce, no obvious cause. Later she found out that he had become a follower of ISIS, fighting and dying in Syria. Maya decided to use her major in social work to understand why young people were drawn to violent extremism – and do something about it.

Living in Lebanon, Maya and her sister Nancy – dubbed the Kamikaze sisters by the Lebanese media – are the co-founders of Save me, an NGO focused on crime and violence prevention and trauma rehabilitation. They also conduct social field forensic research related to terrorists and victims of terrorism. Maya believes that being aware of risk factors at an early stage can dramatically reduce levels of crime and violence later in life – that’s what got them started Save me.

For ten years, Maya and Nancy have interviewed hundreds of male and female activists, jihadist terrorists and victims of terrorism in Lebanon, studying the social factors that contribute to violent jihadist extremism. They have become regular visitors to the infamous Block B of Roumieh prison, an area usually reserved for prison guards, the army and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF). Block B is why Roumieh prison is so feared – it houses around 680 men accused of being Islamist militants. Maya shares with us her strategy for building trust and building relationships among convicted terrorists: don’t talk about politics or ideology, focus on the issues of daily life and humanize the prisoner. A previous She Talks Peace guest, Noor Huda Ismael, said it best: a terrorist is not born, he is made.

Their legal system needs to be fixed because it only hardens the prisoners. Maya says she’s had enough. While justice demands that the crime be remembered, she strongly believes in also pardoning and rehabilitating prisoners who have repented. This is the only way to ensure that we strengthen the foundations of peace. Even as she grimly describes their situation — drinking more blood than water — she talks about making peace and forgiving as a viable option. She told us the story of one of the prisoners she worked with. He changed his life. When he was released, he found a job as an NGO worker. He named his baby girl Maya. It’s these stories that make the overwhelming work less painful for Maya.

Beirut was once known as the Paris of the Middle East – sophisticated, bustling, cultured, center of finance and commerce, beautiful. No more. Decades of armed conflict aggravated by violent extremism, corruption and poor governance have changed the landscape. And Lebanese citizens are suffering. Putin’s war on Ukraine has diverted the world’s attention from conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. I hope and pray that the world does not forget Maya and all those like her who continue to bear the burden of preventing the growth of violent extremism. Forgetting will give the seeds of terrorism time to grow. And we will reap what was sown.

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(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and Bangsamoro, peace, human rights and democracy)

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