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An Olympic 'truce' on the tough streets of East London

Young people in a rough London borough use peacebuilding techniques to curb local violence.

By Courtney TenzContributor / July 18, 2012

An electrified security fence surrounds the Olympic Village at the Olympic Park in Stratford, the location of the London 2012 Olympic Games, in east London on July 16.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

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In the East London borough of Newham, 220 young residents have been working to prevent local conflicts on the streets from intruding on the nearby 2012 Olympic Games. 

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The youth are involved in Truce 20/20, a program training young people in communication skills and mediation techniques. The goal is to stop gangs from fighting and to defuse misunderstandings with security forces who will be blanketing the area during the Games. 

Stop-and-search, a policy that allows officers to search people on suspicion of criminal activity, will be stepped up during the Games as a means of keeping violence at a minimum. But depending on how the youth around Newham react, the routine could have the opposite effect. Truce 20/20 is trying to make sure that won't happen.

“We took our name from the tradition in ancient Greece of declaring a ceasefire for seven days before and after the Olympic Games to allow athletes and spectators to have safe passage to the Games,” says project manager Klaudia Brezna.

As home to the Olympics Stadium and a major crossroads for Games spectators, Newham will serve as the face of London to many tourists. 

Newham has high rates of poverty and crime, including the second highest number of robberies in London. Ms. Brezna says that the current conflicts here, where gangs are defined along ethnicity lines and strife over territory is fierce, have their roots in the same issues as those of a war: disagreements over resources and power.

The 10-week program relies on techniques used by peacebuilders in warzones around the globe as it trains 20 young people between 16 and 21 to become peer mediators. The students learn how best to help warring factions move beyond their disagreements and work within their own means to find solutions. Mediation is a key element of their training, as is learning nonviolent communication.

Experience from Sri Lanka, central Africa

Participants are introduced to international peacebuilders working in a “hot” conflict zone, including Sri Lanka, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These peacebuilders explain to the trainees how their situations are similar, and how they are not.

Alberto Forquilha, a former child soldier from Mozambique who ran a successful arms-swapping program in post-conflict zones back home, was one of the visitors to the group in 2010. Now in his 40s, Mr. Forquila told the Newham youths about how he and fellow soldiers had helped pave the way for a dialogue among the leaders of the groups at war.

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