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Three faces of my experience in the capital of Europe.

 Ville de Bruxelles

In Brussels, when communicating with others, you never know in which language they will respond to you. This is my first time in Europe. My second day here, I went out to buy a cell phone. The seller was barely 25 years old. As a Belgian in Brussels, he speaks French and Dutch, but he also spoke to me in English and Spanish. That same day, I met a Belgian journalist that sells watches due to the high unemployment rate in the city. He also speaks four languages. My third day here, I enrolled in French lessons, even if I do not need French to survive. Brussels is full of bureaucrats and expats, and almost everybody speaks English. It seems to be a more fashionable and less solemn version of DC.

From my office, I see a corner of the Parc Cinquantenaire. A given Friday, the streets are closed because of the Presidential Summit. Within an hour, diplomatic cars and police sirens fill the empty streets. Suddenly, the president of France gives a media statement from Brussels: a terrorist attack occurred in Lyon, as well in Kuwait and Tunisia. It happened while Greece and migration were the key issues on the political agenda. In Brussels there are presidents, as well as homeless, but these are not Europeans; they come from Africa and the Middle East. Some of them do not speak French or English at all.

Civilians Protecting Civilians

In a village in the Philippines, there were rumors regarding the Armed Forces and one of the non-state armed-groups preparing to fight in that territory. The scared inhabitants started to flee to the upper mountains, as officers from Nonviolent Peaceforce called both of the parties to dissuade them to stop a potential massacre. Having the cell phone numbers of the parties’ leaders within reach and the initiative to call them in the right moment are both strategies of the unarmed civilian protection.

As an intern with the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), an international NGO based in Brussels, I devoted a week to understanding this core concept: unarmed civilian protection (UCP). There are only a few organizations in the world deploying trained unarmed civilians into violent conflicts to provide direct protection, reduce violence and strengthen peace conditions. Often, uniformed NP staff members are the shields between the local people and the violence, namely bullets, rapes or kidnappings. Protection is the key humanitarian word. However, the P in UCP is interchangeable with peacekeeping, and the U of unarmed makes it unique:

“Unlike traditional military peacekeeping or armed private security firms, this is done without the use of, or reliance on, weapons, and therefore it is based on a different paradigm, one that emphasizes relationships over threat power”.[1]


Going back to the Philippines’ village, surprisingly, none of the parties was planning an attack, but both of them had heard rumors, so they were ready to fight. The NP officers served as a communication channel, mediated the misunderstanding between the armed actors, and tempered their behavior. Eventually, the NP officers also requested the parties send a representative to the village, to inform them, that a fight was not expected to occur. Violence stopped by nonviolent means.

As far as I am concerned, I have three responsibilities here, (i) elaborate a strategy for potential partnerships; (ii) write a policy brief regarding how the UCP model is currently adapted in the country programs; and (iii) support the CEO Doris Mariani in a variety of issues, such as strategic planning and international meetings. We have only a few people in the head office, because 95% of staff, both national and international, is in the field working with local communities to protect civilians, mostly women, children and vulnerable people.



Peacebuilding in/from Europe

Is Europe, particularly Brussels, a good place for a Rotary Fellow to intern? Yes. It has many relevant peacebuilding institutions, discussion panels and networking opportunities. In a wider spectrum, understanding Europe helps to understand the world’s history of war and peace in the past centuries. This continent has never had a longer period of peace than the last 50 years.

Thus, in the presentation of the Global Peace Index 2015, Steve Killelea said that there is an increasing inequality of peace, as Europe is the most peaceful region. However, new challenges are coming. The CEO of the International Crisis Group Jean-Marie Guehenno held that the EU cannot avoid the current conflicts because it is on the frontlines, with Ukraine and Russia, and the massive migration through the Mediterranean. These kinds of reflections emerge during events in Brussels every week. Some of them are organized by EPLO, a network of which Nonviolent Peaceforce is part of.

Finally, here in Brussels I have met Ahmad Mohibbi, a Rotary Peace Fellow in Uppsala. During our first chance together, I felt that we were indeed part of the same fellowship. We talked about how relevant it would be to have one semester exchange between Rotary Centers. For example, an Uppsala fellow studying at Duke during the spring, as a UNC student goes to Queensland. It would increase the acknowledgement about the big community of Rotary Fellows in the world, and strengthen our sense of fellowship. This idea appeared when two Rotary Fellows shared a Belgian beer in Brussels, living one of the most relevant experiences of their lives.


[1] Nonviolent Peaceforce (2015). Strengthening Civilian Capacities to Protect Civilians from Violence. Prepared for the UN High Level Panel on Peace Operations, Brussels.

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