The high point, for me, of the Seeds of Peace camp in the U.S. in July? Near the end, when 14-year-old Akshaya Shankar said: “You know, this patriotism hinders coexistence.” She was referring to the so-called coexistence sessions between Pakistani and Indian children. But she might easily have been talking about the two countries’ efforts—or let’s be honest, the lack of efforts—to be good, even ordinary, neighbors. To coexist.
Have our notions of patriotism hindered our ability to live together? That must make us wonder about patriotism, as Akshaya found herself doing. Such wonder is what Seeds of Peace is all about.
The program was founded by the journalist John Wallach. After an illustrious career reporting from the Middle East, he remained disillusioned and pessimistic about the prospects for peace in that not-quite holy land. As an experiment, he began Seeds of Peace in 1993 with a few kids—perhaps they were the only hope left, he thought—from Israel and Palestine. Over the years, it has expanded to include other kids from elsewhere in the Middle East, Cyprus, and the Balkans; and even from immigrant communities in the U.S. In 2001, the camp hosted delegations from India and Pakistan for the first time. Two of us took the 2002 Indian delegation to camp.
That’s right: kids at camp. Wallach’s idea was to put that most American of summer rituals to use in the search for peace. So in a gorgeous lakeside camp in rural Maine—a self-consciously safe, secluded, and serene site—the kids of SoP play, eat, live, and share for three weeks: they coexist. Wallach believed that if they could learn to see each other not as amorphous enemies, but humans; form bonds across lines of hatred; accept their differences—if such minor miracles could happen in Maine, these kids would begin spreading the idea of real peace at home. They would be, in three words, seeds of peace.
At one level, camp was a lot of fun. But the kids quickly found out that it was also wrenchingly serious. In the coexistence sessions, trained facilitators took them through exercises designed to explore and challenge perceptions on each side. With this, every single impression the kids had about the other side—for that matter, about their own—was suddenly under siege.
For the Indians and Pakistanis, that meant issues like: What is the history of our quarrel over Kashmir? What is secularism? Terrorism? What does being Indian, or Pakistani, mean? What does it mean to be who I think I am, who I have always assumed I am? What do you do when your perception of an issue, a historical figure, is worlds apart from that other kid’s, and this chasm comes from the artifice of living on either side of a line? Can we, through vast differences, find peace? What would it look like?
In Maine, the kids plunged headlong into such questions. In some shock, they discovered how difficult answers were. Our first camp meeting with the Indians descended into a bewildered uproar. “They are religious patriots and we can prove it!” “One girl said she admired Osama!” “How can they say we DRAGGED them into an arms race?” “They actually asked me to respect Jinnah! How could they?”
“They,” the Pakistani kids.
“They” think Indians are oppressing a “legitimate freedom struggle” in “Held Kashmir;” “they” don’t fuel “terrorism” here. When we criticize their treatment of minorities, “they” throw Gujarat 2002 and Bombay 1992 at us, mocking Indian secularism. When we talk about the ISI, “they” say our RAW instigates violence in Pakistan. “They” don’t believe there’s any serious infiltration of terrorists across the LoC—how would the infiltrators get past all our soldiers? “They” call it “Azad Kashmir,”—”free” Kashmir”—and not what we call it, “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” (The nerve! Grab our land, call it “free”!)
“They” this, “they” that. “They,” the other.
And as our Pakistani counterparts confirmed, “they” were as bewildered and outraged by the Indians. The facilitators told us that both sets of kids were equally eloquent and passionate about their country’s positions; equally disturbed by finding their views so challenged.
With time, the outrage softened to a quiet introspection. New questions surfaced. However different our views, can I at least accept that they have a right to them as I do to mine? How did they come to those views? Do their fears sound more like mine than I am willing to admit? What do our differences say about our history and the way we learn it? Is listening and learning what peace means? Do you betray your country when you listen to them?
Pakistan’s Shezray Naqshband found her own answer to that. “Before I came here,” she said, “I was worried that if I eat on the same table as an Indian, [Pakistanis] would consider me a traitor. But Allah is pleased with peacemakers.”
The kids began to understand: ignorance about “them,” an unwillingness to believe that “they” have a point of view—the baggage our daily patriotism burdens us with—makes coexistence hard. If Indians and Pakistanis want to live together—and is there any choice?—we have to learn to listen to each other.
As camp drew to a close, the kids’ thoughts were visibly touched by sadness at having to part. They had been through so much, yet through the arguments they had forged deep bonds. In words all the kids echoed, Madhumita Venkataramanan explained to a Washington journalist:
We actually understood each other’s fears, we might not accept them, or agree with them, but we understood them, and we knew what they feared, and they began to understand us. Many of these Pakistani friends are closer than friends I’ve made at home.
So when Akshaya told me her thoughts, I knew what she meant. “Patriotism can’t be just about defending your country because it’s your country,” she went on. “It must be about seeing that all your people live better.”
First sprouts from seeds of peace? I think those do rather well.
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