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Case #183

The largest and most sustained international non-violent presence in a war zone in modern history


On April 9th 1983 a delegation of US citizens from the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America arrived in a Nicaraguan settlement which had been attacked by the Contras ? a group of rebels trained and funded by the US government in response to the threat of the communist-leaning Sandinista government. Civilians had been wounded, some were missing, and it was known that the Contras were preparing to finish the job off before moving onto the nearby town of Jalapa. As the US citizens surveyed the devastation, one of the local people pointed out the Contra base, visible in the distance 'Why aren't they shooting now?' said a member of the delegation. 'Because you're here' came the reply.

The realisation was clear for all the members of the delegation. 'If all it takes to stop this killing is to get a bunch of Americans down here, then let's do it' said one.' Thus began the experiment that launched Witness for Peace.

Three months later, a second much larger group arrived in Jalapa to 'stand with the Nicaraguan people' this time also in the hope that their presence would deter Contra attacks. Upon their return to the US the members of the delegation set to word spreading the word of what they had seen in local, regional and national newspapers, on television, radio and at congregations throughout the country. The group soon formed a coalition made up of concerned groups in the US, including mainstream churches, smaller churches such as the Quakers and Mennonites as well as other organisations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Peace Brigades International.

The newly formed coalition then initiated a witness training program for all teams that would be serving in Nicaragua. Training included role plays involving ambushes and kidnappings as well as documentation skills so that they became, in their own words, 'living media' - a voice for the voiceless which would challenge the US administration's attempt to portray the war as one in which the Contras were freedom fighters and the Sandinistas a dangerous communist threat.

The first official members of the Witness long term team arrived in Jalapa in November of 1983. During their time there they helped the local people harvest coffee and corn. They organised vigils in the town square. They taught English to the school children, participated in drills to shelter children in case of attack and even donated blood to the local hospital when stocks were low. All the while they were documenting everything they saw or heard, noting it down so that it could be disseminated throughout the US as fortnightly taped messages, regular newsletters, reports and press releases.

As more delegations arrived, first centred mainly on Jalapa and then slowly spreading throughout the entire country, publicity for the group grew within the US and more people started to ask questions about the US involvement in the war. In addition to living in villages at risk of violence, Witness delegations - enjoying the relative protection that their US nationality offered them - soon began following the Contras with notepads and cameras to record everything that they saw. In some places their work took the form of taking testimonies from those who had been brutalised by the Contras.

By the end of 1984, 46 states had been home to a Witness delegation. With each delegation came further reports of Contra atrocities, which through the Witness network in the US became one of the most trusted sources of information for the International Press on the war.

In addition every time Congress was about to vote on another round of funding for the Contras, the Witness network sprung into action, organising mass mailouts, meetings and vigils outside every congressional office in the US.

In 1988 after the leaders of Central American countries signed a follow up agreement to the celebrated 'Arias Peace Plan' which aimed to end the wars in the region, Congress voted not to provide any more aid to the Contras. A ceasefire between the Contras and Sandinistas soon followed and in 1990 elections were held which produced a shock win for the opposition. By the time of the elections almost 4,000 US citizens had joined one of over 180 Witness delegations. Over 160 long term witnesses had served on the team, some for as long as 3 years. This represented the largest and most sustained international non violent presence in a war zone in modern history.


What impact, if any, did Witness have over the years? On one level Witness certainly provided a specific and general deterrent to Contra attacks by accompanying villagers and living in villages at risk of violence.

For instance during the period that Witness delegations were stationed in Jalapa the anticipated Contra attacks never occurred. While analysts of the war in Nicaragua point to other factors such as the state of the Contra and Sandinista forces at the time, others such as Sixto Ulloa, a Baptist lay leader who helped launch the organisation, are convinced that 'Witness for Peace made the counterrevolution move away from Jalapa.? This story is heard many times where Witness established a presence.

Another, more controversial outcome is suggested by Ed Griffin Nolan, in his account of the work of Witness during this period. Nolan argues that the presence of significant numbers of US citizens throughout the country, and especially at a port close to where US ships were patrolling, may have helped prevent a US invasion of the country, which seemed highly likely following the US invasion of Grenada. While this is subject to much debate, there is no doubt whatsoever that one of the biggest achievements for Witness was to make the US policy in Central America very public, long before it might have become so, in their absence.
Location: Nicaragua
Action: Direct
Setting: Semi-Developed
Extent of Action: Regional (within a country)
Issues: Peace/Conflict Resolution
Year(s): 1983
Outcome successful
Source: War Prevention Works: 50 Stories of people resolving conflict, Oxford Research Group


Read Ed Griffin Nolan?s book ?Witness for Peace? (Westminster/John Knox F Press, Kentucky, USA, 1991) which covers the entire history of Witness for Peace and its work in Nicaragua. Also see www.witnessforpeace.org for more information on the organisation.
Prepared By: rja, 11/01
Rating: 1
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