Working Paper 94-4, February, 1994

By Jim Herrington

Citizen Activist /Diplomat

This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Jim Herrington for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

© JimHerrington. Do not reprint without permission.

Through association with the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, I took part in an experience called People's Diplomacy in Bosnia. I don't know the answers to these questions that we are posing, and I don't really have a theoretical basis for my response. I don't even know if what I was engaged in is something that is beneficial. I will be talking solely from my experience, not as someone that is trying to sell you something.

The journey I made was part of an early stage of an idea--large groups of citizen diplomats going into a conflict area and trying to deal with the problems that are there. As a member of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, I was interested in getting involved with different peace groups that were doing work in the former Yugoslavia. While trying to find out about these peace groups, we heard about a project, led largely by an Italian group, called "Blessed are the Peace Makers."

This organization was the brainchild of a worker-priest by the name of Don Albino. Don Albino is a bricklayer by profession and a priest. He does not get paid for being a pastor. The part of his dream that appealed to me was the idea of bringing massive attention of people (mostly from Europe) to the situation in Bosnia. Don Albino and his group felt that the various European governments were ignoring what was happening in Bosnia. Because of this, his belief was that people had a responsibility to respond to and identify with the suffering in Bosnia, despite what their government was doing. One way of doing this was through their presence.

Albino believed very strongly in the efficacy of people's diplomacy. He believed that a critical mass of people could get together, leave their countries, go into the country in crisis, and that they, themselves, could engage in negotiations directly with the foreign government. They need not use the traditional communication between nations. Albino's group was very successful in conducting those negotiations, but unfortunately, they did not lead to any concrete outcomes.

I was particularly attracted to Don Albino's dream after watching a TV program on the Somalian situation. The program depicted representatives from traditional peace churches at a meeting about the pending U.S. intervention in Somalia. Most of the traditional peace churches felt that U.S. intervention would be a good thing to do, because they viewed it as a humanitarian effort to relieve great suffering. Normally these traditional churches would oppose this military-type of intervention, but this time they felt the cause was so good that it was worth doing.

But I was drawn to the comments of a nun from Pax Christi, who said that this was not a good thing to be doing. Sending in Marines to deliver food aid is very different from sending in our grandmothers and our grandfathers. When we talk about peacemaking, we need to be talking about bringing grandmothers and grandfathers into the situation. To bring in that kind of cultural wisdom, and that kind of compassion, would accomplish peace and humanitarian aid much more readily than sending in Marines. Don Albino's vision for Bosnia was doing just that--bringing in normal, everyday people, including grandfathers and grandmothers, to witness the suffering there.

Albino first went to Sarajevo with a group of about 500 people in December of 1992. It is very important to note that the group brought their own food and supplies with them, as did the group I participated in. This first group was able to get into Sarajevo because the UN had carved convoy roads through the mountains to allow them to send supplies into Sarajevo during the winter months. Don Albino's first group was able to get into Sarajevo easily in December 1992 by using the convoy routes. Because of this successful mission, Don Albino developed a vision of something even greater than he originally had wanted to do. This new vision entailed bringing thousands of people from around the world into Sarajevo to be a presence there and in the three conflicted territories. He visualized encampments in each area and, during the last week in August, bringing in people of notoriety, such as former Nobel Prize winners, for a conference on what was happening in Bosnia, which would bypass the governments. The people would discuss what to do about the situation. This was his vision. But that vision, for a variety of reasons, didn't even come close to happening.

One thing that prevented the vision from coming true was the intensification of the fighting. Seven to 21 different convoys a day had been arriving in Sarajevo. It takes a lot of convoys to keep the city of Sarajevo going. People there are not starving to death. They have enough food and basics, but what they are lacking is nutritional food. After a year of just getting the most basic food and not enough nutrients, they are starting to feel the effects of these nutritional deficiencies. But, with the escalation in the fighting, the number of convoys going into to Sarajevo was seriously diminished--they were down to one a day in the summer of 1993. So, Albino's plan had to be altered; but from my point of view, the changes were not very intelligent. It became clear that the goal of having three different encampments leading up to a big conference in August was not going to be possible. So the plan changed to focusing solely on going into Sarajevo. This decision was based largely on the fact that this was where the cameras were.

Even though the plan had to change, the thing that kept us interested was imagining people from all over the world residing with families in Sarajevo. We wouldn't have to feel helpless just watching images on TV in our living rooms. We would actually see people from our neighborhoods and countries doing something, and have the feeling that we could, indeed, make a difference. This instilled a hope that perhaps we could light a fire across the world, inspiring people to do something. It is still a great vision.

But the logistics of what is involved in accomplishing such a goal and the intelligence of the politics caused its downfall. First of all, we were not able to use the same convoy trucks that the UN were using. We were on buses, and we got the feeling from the bus company that they didn't care if they lost a few buses on the mountainous roads, as their insurance would pay for the loss. So, we were not travelling in the most reliable vehicles.

Also, there are certain intractable problems inherent within an international peace group because of the diversity of cultures represented. In a highly stressful environment like this, many differences surface. There were the liberal Americans that didn't want to do certain things. Typically, we as Americans charge in, no matter what, thinking that we know how to resolve the conflict. We think that the way others resolve conflicts won't work, and that we know how to do it. So, these cultural problems contributed to dissension within the group.

We never really had a chance to be together as a group before we started on our journey to Bosnia. We did not learn about each others' goals and visions. So, there were many different views. People who are attracted to actions such as this have deep commitments to nonviolence. Many are willing to go anywhere and are willing to risk their lives. But we all come from different places. I have a spirituality that gave me support in going. But I don't necessarily have the same spirituality of members of other Christian groups. I was very concerned when I heard people say they were ready to die. Sometimes I was able to translate that into spirituality. But often I was not sure exactly where that placed them or what they might do. I feared they could become a loose cannon within the group. This is not intended to belittle another's spirituality, but one of the questions that I learned that I should have asked myself before setting out was what was motivating people to go on such a mission.

There were a lot of people on this venture who had thought very deeply about these issues. They had thought about how to bring together a people's diplomacy effort that could be effective. But, we also knew that this was an experiment. As such, it was very important for it to succeed. Certainly, we did not want it to end in failure, otherwise the broader dream of effective citizen's diplomacy in other situations would die as well. But most of our thinking about these tactical and political issues took place when we were already in Bosnia--when there was shelling going on.

I wasn't too concerned about the shelling because it was outgoing shelling, but we had to continue down the road to Sarajevo. The road did not just cross the line between forces once, it was sort of on the fault line, so we crossed many times back and forth across the fighting. All the time this was going on, we were engaging in consensus-based decision making. This was necessary because there were so many different groups and cultures--a thousand people with about 95 different vehicles. We constantly had to decide whether to go forward or not.

I didn't feel too comfortable having that kind of conversation in that kind of place for too long. I also felt uncomfortable with certain people who wanted to go forward no matter what. They had accepted their own death and they were willing to go. Personally, I felt that in an operation like this, the goal is certainly not to get people killed. I also think, organizationally, that shouldn't be a goal. But we had some people that really felt they needed to prove they were brave by continuing down that road. There were some Buddhist monks with us. They were very accepting about going down that road, and they were also very accepting in deciding to turn back. But other people were really in emotional turmoil about the fact that they couldn't continue down that road.

This is an important point. There were a lot political and spiritual ideals involved in people's decisions. Some felt that they were making a statement by not letting the Croatian army tell them they couldn't go forward. They felt that such a citizens' group should have the right to go into Sarajevo. This analysis of the situation--that we had a right to go--was a critical notion upon which the whole effort had been organized. But once we were on that road, amidst the shelling, and problems arose, we seemed to forget where we were, and what we were dealing with. We were dealing with a lot of young guys with guns.

We were very colorful; we had all these colorful flags and were wearing very colorful shirts (although I began to feel the shirt design was a little too much like a target!). Initially our presence startled people and they didn't quite know what to do. This was true as long as we kept moving. But when we stopped, the troops came to check us out. They left, but they came back a second time with their weapons. They left again. We were still there the next day and when they come back again, they had decided they wanted some of our vehicles. Eventually we were forced, at gunpoint, to leave several vehicles behind.

Earlier, during our direct negotiations with different presidents of the countries--Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and the leader of Sarajevo--which took place in Geneva, we had received ceasefire agreements from all of them to allow our convoy to pass through different check points in their territory. The UN gave us briefings on the convoy routes that go through different areas. They also named the different towns and the ceasefire violations that had occurred there.

Once we arrived in the area and were exposed to the situation as it was, I began to wonder about the earlier negotiations. Were the people participating in the negotiations being sincere, since they were still killing people? Were they really in control of the troops? After all, what we were actually dealing with, once we arrived, were men with guns, not people around a negotiation table.

This shows that the conversations that we were having were not dealing with the reality of where we were. It is important to deal with the reality of a situation. If we are going to do something like citizen diplomacy, how do we do it in the war zone? I want to emphasize that we can deal with many things on a theoretical and spiritual basis, but we shouldn't forget the element of guns.