In the midst of the daily fear and violence of troubled Central American countries, a little-known private group, Peace Brigades International (PBI), has worked to make small but significant steps toward peace. By maintaining a nonpartisan international presence in war-torn Central American countries, PBI has helped at least to set the stage for peaceful solutions to conflict. Founded in 1981, PBI has worked on peace projects in all corners of the globe. In the past few years its focus has been on easing tension in Guatemala and El Salvador.
``They [the PBI] are helping provide safety for the people of El Salvador and Guatemala,'' says Mary Day Kent of the Friends Peace Committee in Philadelphia.
In these two Central American countries, PBI has provided escort protection to individuals whose lives are in danger, kept a sharp eye out for human rights violations, and safeguarded an atmosphere in which groups can organize and work out peaceful solutions to conflict.
Escort work is a key element in the Guatemala project. PBI volunteers take turns escorting members of the Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo or GAM), the only human rights group still functioning inside Guatemala.
GAM members have relatives who have been kidnapped or murdered by Guatemala's repressive government, explain PBI spokespersons, and may be in danger themselves.
Escorts carry no weapons but merely act as witnesses of human rights violations, according to Elizabeth St. John, a PBI volunteer. Ms. St. John worked as an escort for six months in Guatemala along with about 12 other PBI volunteers.
An escort must always be alert to his or her surroundings, St. John says. While escorting, she carried a camera and notebook to record any signs of suspicious or threatening activity.
Because no weapons are carried in escort work, she says, ``You figure you're there as a deterrent.''
This international ``watchdog'' type of work has also benefited striking Guatemalan labor unions, whose members are subject to death threats or kidnapping.
Since June 1987, PBI has provided a presence in the Lunafil textile factory in Amatitlan, where workers have been on strike.
It provided similar protection last spring to striking members of the Guatemalan Electrical Workers Union.
Last June, an eight-member team of volunteers started another PBI project in El Salvador. Similar to the one in Guatemala, it includes a new peace education program designed to educate students at the elementary level on how to resolve conflicts nonviolently.
Building trust at the grass-roots level is one of PBI's greatest strengths, according to Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye of the International Peace Academy in New York.
Such work is important, St. John says, even though the slight democratic opening hoped for in Guatemalan civilian President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo's government has not occurred.
By providing ``breathing space'' for student groups, labor unions, church groups, and community development organizations, PBI seeks to foster peaceful solutions to conflict. Eventually, PBI hopes to open up communication with the government, if it is willing to listen, St. John says.
``The effectiveness of this group of people lies in their ability to live amongst the people ... and look for every possibility to win their confidence,'' says General Rikhye.
Mahatma Gandhi's work for peace after Indian independence serves as a model for PBI, says Charles Walker of the PBI Secretariat office.
``He proposed this symbol for our work in 1922 in Bombay,'' explains Mr. Walker. ``He called it a peace army.''
PBI is an outgrowth of the former World Peace Brigades, which worked on projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 1960s. From 1962 to 1964, the brigades helped maintain order during Zambia's struggle for independence.
Prior to its work in Guatemala and El Salvador, PBI explored the possibility of helping ease Nicaragua's border tensions with Costa Rica and Honduras in 1982. In 1983, a PBI exploratory team established a three-week presence in Jalapa, Nicaragua, near the Honduran border. As a third-party, international presence, PBI has observed the situation in Nicaragua and acted as a deterrent to violence, says Chip Coffman, administrator of PBI.
Although the group is watching the recent military conflict on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, there is nothing specific it can do at this time, says Mr. Coffman.
``Right now, it would be difficult for us to do anything concrete in the short run ... in this flare-up of military conflict,'' Coffman says. However, he adds that PBI would consider longer-term work for nonviolence in the area, if such an opportunity arose.
``It's something both parties involved [the two countries] would decide they wanted,'' Coffman says.
PBI also plans to send volunteers into South Africa and is considering possible work in the Middle East.
What sets PBI apart from other private peace groups in Central America is its international, nonpartisan perspective, according to Ms. Kent of the Friends Peace Committee. Although it is based in Philadelphia, many of PBI's volunteers are European. And unlike some US-based groups, whose objectives are focused on opposing US Central American policy, PBI has a broader outlook on Central American problems, Kent says.