A talk with Barbara MacQuarrie
Carl Cuneo: Will you describe Peace Brigades International?
Barbara McQuarrie: It was set up in 1981 by people interested in non-violent conflict resolution. The original Gandhian idea was to have a team of people ready to go into any situation of violent conflict to mediate, negotiate, and separate the two sides as a nonaligned peacekeeping force.
With more experience in the field, we realized that most conflicts today are not between two countries at war but situations of repression by a government's military force against its own people. You can't exactly step into the middle of that. Violence and repression are everywhere, everywhere you want to be. We identify people in such situations who act without arms to secure peaceful resolutions and we help protect the little space that they have secured for themselves. We try to guard that space just by being there and we say, maybe you can push it a bit farther and we'll be there to offer a little protection. We represent the international community that is concerned about repression and violence.
Cuneo: How do you contact the people you work with? It must take some time to develop their trust.
McQuarrie: Yes, it's difficult to go into a situation and say, we are people who believe in nonviolence, when these people have been struggling in a situation of extreme violence. Their first reaction is that you are suggesting that if people lay down their arms, everything will be okay. Of course, that's totally unrealistic. We have to see why the violent situation exists and not condemn it, but encourage those seeking a way out of it. We also have to show that we are not afraid of confrontation, and are not afraid of being caught in the middle of something violent. We do that by being there when people are threatened. We have to show these people that we're not going to endanger them or endanger ourselves by saying things at the wrong time or to the wrong people. In El Salvador you're constantly in situations where there's a lot of information that you can't share with anybody. You talk to the media, but there's a lot you don't say. You talk to your friends, but there's a lot you don't say. Sometimes you just don't share information with people because they don't want to know; it would be dangerous for them to know. You have to prove that you're capable of keeping your mouth shut when necessary.
Cuneo: In what countries does PBI operate?
McQuarrie: We've been in Guatemala since 1983 and in El Salvador since June of 1987. There are also exploratory projects going on in Sri Lanka and South Africa, handled mostly by people living in India. There's a recent suggestion that PBI might be useful in the Middle East.
Cuneo: Could you describe your work in Guatemala?
McQuarrie: When I went to Guatemala I worked mostly with the GAM -- the family members of the disappeared. I went there in November 1985, shortly after some of their directors had been assassinated. People who were the leadership of GAM felt extremely threatened. They felt we could offer them some measure of security by keeping a member with them all the time. PBI organized for the directorate to have a three-member around-the-clock escort.
I was not involved with any of their organizing activities. That's not the nature of our work. But I spent a lot of time with these women, in their homes and as they went about their daily work. I followed them from place to place and came to understand a lot about their lives. I saw the commitment they were putting into their work, and I saw the stress that it was putting on them. I had a lot of time to reflect because I wasn't involved in the dialogue. It was a time of formation for me, I guess -- seeing the commitment to the struggle that people have all over Central America, yet not having much responsibility, other than just to be there as a presence. Later in Guatemala I became a escort coordinator, and as people came in as escorts, I'd tell them what to expect and I'd discuss problems with them. Escorts run into some common problems. Mostly they are active in their own communities; they're used to having a lot of decision-making power. Then suddenly their own identity is not important at all. They are only important as international figures, so they feel a little rejected -- left out. They're not the centre of attention. Also, they feel that the risk they're taking -- because it is a risk being there -- is not appreciated because the people aren't falling all over them saying "Oh, we're so glad you're here!" Sometimes, in fact, they're saying,"Oh God, it's such a pain in the ass to have somebody following you around all the time!" I tried to keep things in perspective and prepare people for the fact that they were getting into a job that wasn't very glamorous. It's not our right to expect a lot of praise for what we're doing, because people in Central America see their struggle as a collective effort. They all do what they can. That's hard to understand, coming from this culture, where we're often ambitious. Even if we have sincere motives, we expect recognition.
Cuneo: From Guatemala you went to El Salvador?
McQuarrie: I came back to Canada for a year and then I went to El Sal with PBI when I heard they were starting a project there.
It is related to what I was doing in Guatemala but its emphasis is different because the struggle is at a different stage in each country. When I was in Guatemala there was only one group and it had just become active. In El Salvador the popular movement is well-organized, vocal, and with an extensive network. Through their longer experience, they have a ready recognition of the role the Internationals can play. They know better how they can use you. They know that international attention is important in protecting lives and applying pressure where it needs to be applied -- for example, the American government. So you get a readier acceptance in El Salvador. You still have to go through the process of getting people's confidence, but the initial welcome is less hesitant than in Guatemala.
But in El Salvador, because so many people are active and so many people are threatened, there's no way to offer the same one-to-one accompaniment service around the clock. You have to find where people are concentrating, mainly in offices and communities, and gauge who's under the greatest threat at the time.
Cuneo: This is after you've developed relations with them?
McQuarrie: That's right. We spent three months in El Salvador before doing any accompaniment work. All we did was talk to people. We explained the philosophy of nonviolence, explained what we thought we could offer, and asked them whether that would make sense in their situation. We got an overwhelming positive response. Nobody thinks that PBI's coming in here is going to make the difference. But people see it as part of strengthening the popular movement and gaining some space in which to address these problems politically, so as to end eight years of armed conflict.
Cuneo: How effective is it?
McQuarrie: In Guatemala, no other leaders of GAM were killed after we began escorting them. Some of the people who had accompaniment no longer do so. GAM -- the group of families of the disappeared -- is building up its reputation internationally and nationally. We can't be sure how much we contributed to its strength and independence, but we were there. Historically there was a relationship. It helped.
In El Salvador, Internationals have been arrested, so there's no guarantee that you're going to prevent violence. But a lot of people are saying that there has to be room for people to make demands of the government, room for peaceful political protest. We're there representing the international community, saying, we think this is important too. We've been there almost a year, and we're building up a network of support. The more that people have their eyes on El Salvador and respond to any violation of human rights, the more effective it will be.
Cuneo: You have groups in other countries, such as Canada and the United States?
McQuarrie: PBI is growing. The office in Toronto is responsible for administrating the projects in El Salvador and Guatemala. That office is starting to organize people who are interested in working within Canada. The International Secretariat in the United States coordinates all PBI activities around the world. Now there are return volunteers who are setting up groups in their communities to deal with PBI at a local level. There'll be an office in New York State. Volunteers are doing the same thing in California. In Spain a strong PBI organization has grown out of the movement of Conscientious Objectors. Groups in France, Germany, Belgium, and in Switzerland have been working in the nonviolent movement. It's a structure that's changing, growing.
Cuneo: What kind of support do these groups give?
McQuarrie: They do fundraising. It costs a lot to maintain a team of eight people in El Salvador, and ten or twelve in Guatemala. They respond to emergencies in El Salvador or Guatemala. If something happens, we need telegrams. They distribute the information we send about what's happening.
Cuneo: How do people develop the personal courage to put their lives on the line?
McQuarrie: You go through a process. I didn't just jump into going to Guatemala. I was in organizations facing various issues here in Hamilton and Montréal. Receiving information about what is going on in different parts of the world makes you realize that not everybody has the standard of living and security that I do. I believe that I don't have right to more than anybody else. And I believe that if somebody else is under violent repression and extreme poverty, I should be able to accept those conditions too. Until those conditions change for them, I don't have a right to any more than that. For me it's kind of a principle. I have to act in ways that are consistent with that, because if I try to ignore what's happening, I feel a lot of conflict within myself. I wouldn't feel at ease with myself. I just don't believe that I am more deserving than the other person.
Cuneo: A lot of international support is going on for the struggles of Central America. But you've crossed a different threshold in this kind of work where you've put your life on the line. You must have thought a lot about how you'd handle those life-threatening situations.
McQuarrie: The hardest was just before I first went to Guatemala. I had to face the possibility of dying and I couldn't figure out how to deal with it except to go and just see what it was like. I found it was easier than being here and thinking about it. People there don't have time to think about "I might die today" or "maybe I shouldn't say that because somebody might kill me." People do develop a sense of discretion but at the same time they go on with their work. In Central America, you have a sense of being part of a collective, a community. You know that what you're doing may mean that you'll die, but that the whole effort is not going to die. If you step out, everything will not collapse. There are people behind you who'll pick up where you left off. They've seen people before you who are gone -- strong people who have not put their personal interests first. They take their strength from those examples. We who've gone into that take our strength from those people too. The existing situation is intolerable and there's no way to rationalize it by saying, well if we make superficial changes, it will be okay. It wouldn't. There have to be deep structural changes that call for deep personal commitments. I'm willing to give up a lot to see that happen. But it's not just a process of sacrifice. From making the commitment, you get back the joy of having having a goal too. That's something that we all should face. Here [in Canada] there's a feeling that everything's rather absurd, there's no sense of direction. People who are involved in a struggle to set up something that will be better, they don't have such problems at all. So you get a lot back when you put something into it.
Cuneo: You've touched quite a bit on your pacifism.
McQuarrie: We don't use the word "pacifism" much; we prefer the word "nonviolence," and even that is sometimes problematic. Nonviolence is a means of struggle. It doesn't seek to pacify a situation; it seeks to confront what's going on and to break the cycle of violence. It says, this violence is not good for anyone and there has to be another way of addressing the problem. Situations of violent conflict arose from a lot of historical reasons which you can't change. But as a goal, as a vision, you have to be able to see a time when we won't need violence to resolve conflicts.
There's a long-standing issue in the peace movement as to whether the peace that you want is a simply an absence of overt violence, or whether it is peace with justice. I think the peace movement has to look for peace with justice -- look at militarization and not just at nuclear disarmament. That's what PBI is doing. We're working in societies that are militarized to the ultimate extreme, where the civilian population is completely under control of the military, and it's impossible to have justice in that situation. And it's impossible too, to avoid violence when you have that many people armed, trained, and waiting to attack. As the peace movement starts to confront the whole issue of militarization, then we can gain from the dialogue with people at PBI who have that experience.
Cuneo: How can Canadians support the work you do?
McQuarrie: They can contact the PBI office in Toronto --335 Adelaide Street West. The phone number is 595-9484. The contact person is Alaine Hawkins. They can be part of the emergency response network so that when there's a crisis in Guatemala or El Salvador that needs an international response, they can send telegrams. Sometimes just a letter will do. They can organize a grassroots PBI movement, so that they'll receive information right here. They can do fundraising, just to keep the people there. They can telephone. They can think about becoming a Peace Brigades volunteer too. They can go down to Guatemala and El Salvador and spend time with the rest of us.
Cuneo: Does it require training in Canada, before you go?
McQuarrie: PBI has a weekend training session and once you're down there, a day or so with a Central American advisor. When you reach the team, you do another orientation. But people who are going down, should have some kind of understanding of nonviolent struggle. They should have some experience in cross-cultural living, and a basic knowledge of Spanish. Or they can go to a language school in Guatemala first.
Cuneo: How does PBI relate to the guerrilla movements within the two countries -- or does it at all?
McQuarrie: PBI doesn't have any contact at all with the armed guerrilla forces. If we did, we wouldn't be allowed to stay in those countries. Because our philosophy is one of nonviolence, the purpose is not to condemn the armed movement. There are just too many reasons for it. But it's not where we are best able to contribute. If you're going down to help the armed movement, you're not going to be doing anything useful.
Cuneo: Does PBI recognize that as a valid form of struggle in those situations?
McQuarrie: PBI hasn't made any statements on armed struggle. There are people with different opinions within the organization. We try to respect the situation we go into. We don't go in with ready-made solutions, and we don't go in judging what's happening. We go in saying, we recognize that there's a will to try and get out of this violent conflict, a will to bring about law and to negotiate settlement. And that's what we're going to do. In El Sal the armed rebel forces have been calling for dialogue and negotiations for a long time. They don't think the war can be won militarily and they're not trying to win a military victory. They're trying to bring the government and the military to the negotiating table. So I don't see that there's any conflict in the work that we're carrying out. I just see that we're necessarily a separate camp. p
Carl Cuneo is a sociology professor at McMaster.