It was no ordinary gathering. There were three ex-People's Liberation Army soldiers, three ex-Nepal Army soldiers, one Madhesi Student Front leader, one United Tharu National Front leader, a bunch of poets, musicians and community peace workers. What they had in common was a commitment to peace.
They were gathered to address issues of truth, justice, mercy and peace and craft it into a song. For three days, they camped, ate and sang together. They shared stories of their childhood and diverse backgrounds. They narrated personal accounts of trauma caused by violence. They threw hard questions at each other. Are you a Tharu, or are you a madhesi? Why did you join the PLA? Who would you vote for?
Amidst differences, they found common ground. Everyone wanted security, food, shelter, clothing and education for their children. Everyone wanted respect and dignity as a Nepali citizen, despite ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation.
The retreat was organised by Search for Common Ground (SFCG) which works towards transforming the way people deal with conflict in various parts of the world. In Burundi, the group played a key role in breaking down ethnic fears and hatred. In Macedonia, its popular children's television series helped change the attitude of children towards those of other ethnic groups.
In Nepal SFCG's activities are aimed at fostering conditions in which armed conflict can be resolved in a way that addresses root causes of
Transforming conflict can be as simple as reframing a situation, creating a new context in which people attack problems, rather than each other.
At this time of critical political and social polarisation, some may find reconciliation na?ve. After a week of working together, wouldn't participants find themselves back at square one? A week after the gathering, participant Ajeet K L Karna, the General Secretary of the Madhesi Student Front, was in Biratnagar for an important unification meeting of three madhesi student organisations. "My perception of the Tharu issue has completely changed," he says, "so far we have responded to problems emotionally. I realise now we must be practical and there must be dialogue." Karna says singing the jhijiya song made him feel positive about the Tharus. Ex- PLA soldier Kumar wonders: "If we could sit together like this more often and really listen to each other would things be different? I realize that we all want the same things."