On the evening of October 10th the members of United States Nonviolent Peaceforce Chapters Association (USNPCA) listened to a story, a remarkable story. As part of our annual retreat we invited David Hartsough and Mel Duncan to tell the story of their own dedication to a vision, their meeting and their courageous effort and sacrifice to bring this vision into reality. That shared vision was Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Throughout their lives both of these men have been moved to action in the face of injustice. At the early age of 15 David Hartsough shook the hand of Martin Luther King Jr. When he went to college he selected Howard University, a black college, which allowed him opportunity to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. He and his college mates began lunch counter sit-in in Arlington, VA., where they endured insults, being spit on and having lit cigarettes dropped in their shirts, but they continued their nonviolent struggle. At one point David was confronted by a switchblade wielding man who gave him two seconds to leave or die. Rather than attempt to physically protect himself, he told the man, "I'll still try to love you, but do what you think is right". The man left and David continued to sit.
In the 80's David went to Guatemala during the worst period of the "scorched earth" campaigns by the US backed Guatemalan military. Over 800 villages vanished during this program of death and destruction on an indigenous people. Torture and disappearances were common. In 1985 a group formed to attempt to find out the truth of their missing loved ones. Two of the leaders were kidnapped and brutally tortured and killed, including pulling out the fingernails of the two year old son of one of the victims. The two remaining leaders of this group approached Peace Brigades International (PBI), which David was with, and requested 24 hour accompaniment so that they could continue to speak out but not die. PBI did this and more, emboldening a people. To learn more about PBI and this work please read Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights. ‘Their courage inspired others. And they didn’t die. Walking down the street with these courageous people was one of the scariest things I’ve done.’
David has continued his journey to support nonviolent struggle abroad by going to Kosovo in the 1990s, where civil society groups were working diligently to build a nonviolent movement against Milosevic and the encroaching ethnic cleansing. He went to the Hague Appeal for Peace in December of 1999 to encourage nonviolent support for the people of Kosovo. He had a vision of a large team of peacekeepers, global in scope, that could be rapidly deployed to areas nearing a flash point of violence. This vision was shared with another man in the crowd of 9000 peacemakers, Mel Duncan.
Many years before the Hague, Mel had also felt the call to help protect human rights. He joined with other witnesses to go to the border between Honduras and Nicaragua where the US backed Contras were targeting civilians for torture and murder. The situation was very similar to that of Guatemala, except that the US was backing the rebels against the the Nicaraguan government while in Guatemala the US backed the military controlled government. This became an area dominated by terror for the citizens during the Reagan administration. Mel shared in the feelings of fear, but like many of his fellow witnesses, was inspired by the fact that as long as internationals were present the Contras did not attack. This observation germinated into Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Like David, Mel went to the Hague to organize other peaceworkers around the idea of a global peace army, like the one envisioned by Gandhi, the shanti sena. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, 9000, he stepped back and listened, taking the loving advice offered by his wife. While listening he heard a man standing on chair asking a speaker about why we couldn't have a global peace team that could be deployed to conflict areas. Mel pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed the man, David, by the elbow and asked if he was serious about that idea, and if so he wanted to help organize it.
While in the Hague, President Clinton announced that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had begun and that the world had two choices, to turn a blind eye or to send in a military solution. David and Mel, and many others at the Hague, knew that in fact there was a third choice. The nonviolent choice would have minimized both the loss of lives and the lasting effects of the environmental damage of chemical and radioactive by-products that continue to harm the people that NATO had hoped to save. When Milosevic fell, it wasn't by bombs or a violent revolution, but by a nonviolent people's movement in Serbia. This movement is documented in the film Bringing Down a Dictator.
From 1999 to 2002 David and Mel worked diligently, "maintaining the focus", as they say and bringing in people from all over the world. They borrowed cars, slept on couches, made up fliers in the middle of a rain storm, brainstormed in the cabin in the woods while a blizzard snowed them in and so many stories and minds joined together to make the convening event in New Dehli a reality.
Luckily for all of us, one of the members of USNPCA had taken a leave last year to hone his skills as a documentary filmmaker. David Berrian recruited a couple volunteers and together they captured this amazing story on film. So I will stop telling the story now in hopes that by this time next year you will have the opportunity to hear it as it unfolded for all of us on the evening of the 10th.
I will add that everyone in that room was deeply touched by the story of Nonviolent Peaceforce. The previous night we had listened to Rita Webb, who had spent 5 1/2 years in Sri Lanka on the first team deployed. Her powerful talk reminded us of why we work so hard each year telling Americans not only about the power of nonviolence, but how Nonviolent Peaceforce is taking that vision and making it a reality in the lives of real human beings. It is for these people, trapped in conflict areas, that we tell this story. It is for their safety and security that we bring the story to others so that you too can help continue the story for them and many more.
In celebration of the ten year anniversary of their journey, Nonviolent Peaceforce asks you to become a founder too. Mel will soon join David in retirement, leaving his position as Executive Director (but don't think we won't hear more from these two). If you share the vision of a less violent world with us, then join the founders circle by committing financial support over a three to five year period. Learn more here.
Nonviolent Peaceforce has teams in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. We were also able to send a rapid deployment to Guatemala for 10 months to protect human rights workers there during election time. To learn more visit the website. If you would like to get involved with a local chapter of the USNPCA just ask me, or visit here.
The following video will show you more about Nonviolent Peaceforce. Thanks for reading. I hope to see you in the founders circle.