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

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

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
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.

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. 

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.

The visit had a tremendous impact on Sohail Karim, who was 17 at the time, living in a housing project and known for the explosive temper that had gotten him expelled from high school. In the years since, Mr. Karim has become a trainer who visits local secondary schools to teach peer mediation skills.

“I met Albino from Mozambique, where they had a very big civil war going on," says Karim. "He used the same methods that we use, though. Small scale or big, locally or nationally, it's the same methods being used to achieve peace.”

Truce 20/20 literature tells the story of another youth, a minor whose name could not be used, who faced limited prospects after dropping out of high school. A drug dealer who would spend his days hanging out in local parks, he credited the skills he learned in the program with saving his life. Two years into the program, he now leads a campaign called Yo, Stop, and Flow to help youths stay out of trouble with police ahead of the Olympics. 

Under Yo, Stop, and Flow, adolescent volunteers distribute pocket-sized pamphlets that inform youth about their rights as policing steps up in the neighborhood during the influx of spectators and athletes.

“We’ve been collaborating with the Metropolitan Police to open up the dialogue between security forces and youth,” says Brezna, “and young people have said repeatedly that they don’t know their rights when police do a stop-and-search.”

Officials are especially concerned about unrest after riots last August, when youths across England lit fires, looted stores, assaulted people, and caused more than 10 million pounds in damages. Police presence across London will increase ten-fold as local forces receive assistance from security teams around the UK.

The Metropolitan Police plans to send up to 9,500 police officers out on  the busiest days, including officers from outside London. As a contrast, there were 6,000 officers out in force for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee earlier this summer.

"Our young people are really worried about these officers from outside not understanding them or over-reacting because they are not accustomed to the neighborhood’s diversity,” says Brezna.

120 different languages here

Newham is home to immigrants from around the world, with 120 unique languages spoken in schools there. Much of the violence in the impoverished neighborhood likewise stems from this diversity, as territorial fights between ethnically divided gangs are frequent.

“Because of the threat of gangs, Newham has been made a dispersal zone during the Olympics, which means the police can break up any group larger than two people as a means of preventing anti-social behavior,” says Brezna. “We need to make sure young people know about that so they don’t react with violence.”

By training 40 adolescents each year, the project hopes to contribute to lasting harmony within the community as trainees go on to become volunteers with projects like the Yo, Stop, and Flow campaign.

Despite its ancient Greek ceasefire origins, this truce is about bringing lasting peace to the community.

“We’ve just secured funding for another three years,” says Brezna, her voice trembling with excitement.

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