Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Nansen Dialogs

Explorer and Peace Worker

   "You really believe that we poisoned your children? Now I understand why you hate us."

   Lillehammer, a small city of 30,000 north of Oslo and host of the Winter Olympics is home to another world-changing gathering. While most know of the place for its sporting history and welcoming people, peace advocates know of Lillehammer for the Nansen Academy and the Nansen Dialogs.

   This week, nearly thirty students from the Balkans, Southern Caucasus, the United States, and other lands have gathered together for days of relationship-building and attempts to further peace in the world. The Nansen Academy, named after the famous polar explorer and international diplomat, is a place of multi-cultural study. However, in recent years, the buildings and their occupants have concentrated on the Balkans and the establishment of peaceful relations among the states and ethnicities of the former-Yugoslavian lands. This is accomplished through extensive use of dialog.

   Dialog is a little-used form of communication. In popular usage, the word is interchangeable with "conversation," but this is hardly the truth. Rather, dialog is a meeting of different opinions that allows for movement.

   In debate, the participants attack the other side; facts are torn down and the enemy's argument is reduced to irrationality. Often, the participants hope to prove that the other was wrong and seek just revenge.

   This is not dialog.

   In negotiations, each side comes to the table hoping for a win-win situation. Their positions are ardently defended, and the best deal is looked for.

   This is not dialog.

   Rather, dialog is a complex series of talks that don't allow for proving that someone is right or defending a position on an apparent truth. No, dialog in the Nansen tradition is conversing with an enemy to understand them. The quote that began this blog was actually spoken at a past dialog. In the terrible breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbs and Albanians entered into a vicious conflict, and atrocities were committed on each side. The quote refers to a rumor that Albanian school children were poisoned by Serbs in their place of learning. Serbs often believe that the Albanians made the story up and believe that the story is false. Albanians believe that Serbs committed the heinous crime and continue to deny it. Each side possesses what they believe to be true. This belief is wildly important. Each side uses a parallel story that defines them, and the result is violence.

   In the quote, the Serbian speaker finally understood that his Albanian counterpart actually thought that Serbs had poisoned Albanian children. It finally made sense why the enemy actually hated him, even if they believed a falsehood from his point of view.

   Through dialog, each side is allowed to experience and being to understand the enemy. As a result, peaceful connections are established. Furthermore, since dialog is not a negotiation, no one wins. Instead, each side is allowed movement in their previously held stereotypes; enemies become people and not faceless demons. And all of this happens at the Nansen Dialog, who, for the last fifteen years, has been seeking to establish these peaceful connections in the Balkans.

   And this week, I was allowed to experience this. I have met Serbs and Albanians whose lands have been ravaged by war and whose cultures have been shaped through recent violence. The Nansen Academy has truly brought us together in a week of indescribable power. As we leave for Oslo, my heart concurrently grieves for the world and pulses in thankfulness for the work of the Nansen Academy and other institutions seeking harmony in our war-torn world.
My New Friends from the Balkans

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