Zoom-ing Through Summer

 Here’s an understatement: COVID-19 has disrupted and altered nearly every aspect of human life these past few months. I am incredibly thankful and fortunate to have family and friends that have remained safe and healthy in the midst of the ongoing crisis, and I’ve been blessed to still be able to work remotely for the United States Institute of Peace this summer. Nevertheless, I must admit, it’s been a bummer to think about all the interesting events, conferences, and opportunities that I could be experiencing along Constitution Avenue right now.

USIP is a hub for fascinating speakers and influential thinkers who are leading peacebuilding efforts on the ground across the globe. In “normal times,” I would have the chance to attend many of these gatherings, learn more about areas of particular interest, and network with like-minded colleagues. Nevertheless, despite this letdown, I have the next best thing: Zoom conferences! Sure, listening to presentations through a screen is never going to measure up to a face-to-face discussion, but the wonders of today’s technology have allowed me to experience some semblance of a summer in USIP’s building.

While my research work on community-security relations in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in Northeast Nigeria has picked up (more on this in future posts), I’ve also had the fortune of attending several webinars over the past few weeks. Although I could elaborate for pages on each of these individual experiences, I wanted to briefly highly some key takeaways and discussion points from a few of them.

One event, titled “Conflict Patterns and Humanitarian Challenges Since COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria’s Insurgency Region,” was organized by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism. This panel featured several scholars and tied directly into the ongoing research I’ve been gathering about Northeast Nigeria. One panelist described how, because of friction with humanitarian groups and concerns of putting supplies into terrorists’ hands, the government has left countless civilians without any assistance. Another scholar emphasized that any project concerned with incorporating young people in the peace process must address economic challenges facing Nigerian youths, particularly those in IDP camps or Boko Haram-controlled areas. The third expert noted that prior to achieving any lasting peace, there needs to be community healing and restorative justice in the affected region.

During an all-staff USIP Town Hall, I got to hear about the successful Justice and Security Dialogues (JSD) initiative in Casamance, Senegal. It was inspiring to hear how the JSD team I am working with this summer collaborated with community members and security forces in the town of Goudomp to build trust and enhance communications. Since an initial meeting in March, the townspeople and forces have supported one another and shared information about local security threats. Now, more than ever, these open lines of dialogue will be essential to protecting civilians during the coronavirus pandemic.

I also had the opportunity to hear a talk by Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the newly established High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) in Afghanistan. In this role, Abdullah will be at the forefront of the Afghan-Taliban peace discussions. He expressed optimism for the future talks, but was concerned by the high volume of attacks in recent weeks. One message that particularly inspired me was Chairman Abdullah’s emphasis that the peace process must, and will, be inclusive of all affected groups, including women and minorities. With a war that has raged for decades, Afghanistan will find no military solution to its conflict, he stated. Rather, all involved parties must be willing to compromise and meet in the middle for any lasting peace. It is a harsh but important reality that peace will not simply fall from the sky and leave both sides completely satisfied. To truly to achieve positive change, all must be willing to sacrifice something for the greater good.

A final webinar that I was able to sit in on was titled “COVID-19 and Conflict-related Sexual Violence,” and was organized by the Center for Human Rights, Gender, and Migration at Washington University. The panel included Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. One important point raised was that sexual violence has taken a backseat to COVID-19 in many countries, as services have been reduced and victims have had to spend more time with abusers in the home. A particularly powerful statement was that coronavirus has allowed abusers to “hide behind their facemasks,” both literally and metaphorically, to avoid justice for their heinous crimes. Panelists acknowledged several important research gaps, including investigating secondary trauma among children facing sexual violence during the pandemic.

As I hope these brief synopses make clear, so many peacebuilders continue to perform essential work in pursuit of justice, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. And before I wrap up, here’s a final plug for some amazing resources. USIP has made its entire catalog of Global Campus Courses FREE online for access through the rest of 2020. These courses, including Civil Resistance, Gender Inclusivity in Peacebuilding, and Media and Arts for Peace, are invaluable tools for anyone interested in fighting for peace. As the world continues to grapple with the effects of institutionalized racism and prejudice, I cannot think of a better time to check out some of these courses and engage in a process of self-reflection while pursuing justice in your own life.