Betsy Evans

Conflict Resolution a Long Road in Lebanon

THE RECORDER, By Richie Davis, Recorder Staff

Participants from 6 Arab countries sing together on the last day of conflict resolution training in Beirut.

The car bomb attack that killed one of Lebanon's top generals on Wednesday was foreshadowed by the kind of military presence everywhere around Beirut that Betsy Evans of Gill saw there before returning home Saturday from a conflict-resolution conference where she was training school personnel.

The tension that runs deep not only in Lebanon, but throughout much of the Mideast, presented a special problem for Evans, who has worked as a conflict-resolution specialist for three decades.

''The real irony is the huge number of people there who want something very different from what's happening,'' said Evans, who taught strategies at the five-day Arab Resource Collective workshop to 40 principals, teachers, sociologists, and refugee camp coordinators from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Yemen.

The producer of three books and two videos on conflict resolution in the schools said tanks were parked every few blocks around the capital city, and soldiers with weapons drawn stood on street corners because of the yearlong political crisis and the power vacuum created by the inability to fill the presidential vacancy that has existed since Nov. 23.

Although ordinary people in Lebanon try to go about their business and seem determined to avoid conflict, Evans said, the reality is that the tensions themselves are so pronounced that there's a growing movement to teach children the skills needed to resolve differences verbally.

''It's a big effort and a big demand,'' said the founding teacher of Giving Tree School. In each of the countries represented at the conference, ''They want to have their children have this ability. The contrast was very stark.''

In Palestinian refugee camps, where classes are held in crammed basements without heat, air conditioning or even electricity, the arguments are over the scarcity of materials and lack of space, as well as over whose religion is best --''the same conflicts we have everywhere,'' Evans said.

''What they've experienced are authoritarian responses to conflict, as well as avoidance, so they act out.''

Presenters at the workshop, including representatives from Save the Children, spoke about children's self-esteem and shared peace-building activities and discussed what level of participation by children is justified in a region where women and children may be forced to participate in protests that turn violent or to go onto rooftops to deter bombing.

The blast that killed Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj was the first such attack against the Lebanese army, which has remained neutral in Lebanon's yearlong political crisis and is widely seen as the only force that can hold the country together amid the bitter infighting between parliament's rival factions.

The political divisions have paralyzed the government and prevented the election of a president, leaving the post empty since Nov. 23 in a dangerous power vacuum. Under Lebanon's sectarian division of political posts, the president must be a Maronite Catholic, like the army commander.

The greatest need in regions of conflict, Evans said, is to provide a sense of safety for children.

One woman attending the workshop from Baghdad told Evans about well-meaning U.S. soldiers who bring coloring books and crayons into Iraqi schools, not realizing that merely the sight of uniformed troops with weapons can terrify young children who have been traumatized by war.

''They shake. They wet their pants,'' said Evans, explaining that there need to be ''safe zones'' for these children, who can't grasp the subtleties of these good intentions.

''Children can't learn under those circumstances.''

The same Iraqi school administrator said the young pupils she sees are grappling with a culture where there has been no real reconstruction, where there has been an outbreak of cholera.

''It was very emotional for me,'' said Evans, who has done training sessions around the United States as well as Great Britain, Mexico, Chile and Northern Ireland.

''The most striking thing for me is that no matter where I've taught this, people have a need for peaceful strategies.''

You can reach Richie Davis at or (413) 772-0261 Ext. 269