Rushing towards death on an operating table, Louise Diamond suddenly found out why she wanted to be alive. She told Karen Kissane about her work with people at war.
LOUISE DIAMOND is a product of the ’60s. She tells you so herself, her clipped American accent sliding into a wry drawl, one eyebrow cocked in amusement. So when she realised she would be working with violence, especially military violence, she knew she had to excise some of her sensitivities.
“I read every Vietnam war book I could get my hands on, ” she says. “I went to every Vietnam war movie I could find; I have never before or since that time gone to a violent movie.
I did it until I got to the point where I could understand, from the inside out, blood lust; until I could feel it in myself; until I could see how it is that people could kill, rape, maim and slaughter each other and really enjoy it.”
Diamond says this with composure and waits coolly while her interviewer regains hers. This is not what one expects to hear from someone who works as a professional peace builder.
So what does her blood lust feel like? She says, consideringly, “I could feel in myself, reading some descriptions, a certain excitement. I could see how people get high on violence. There’s a certain adrenalin rush. It was important to understand this if I was to be of any use.”
Diamond is the executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy. At last week’s Feminist Summit for Global Peace in Taiwan, she described her job as training ordinary people in skills to develop peace in divided societies.
“The term `multi-track’ refers to our basic premise that peacebuilding is the responsibility of people from many sectors of society, not just political officials,” she says. “For sustainable peace systems to emerge from the ashes of war and violence, a peace treaty is not enough; we must build peace from the bottom up, through social and institutional means, as well as from the top down, through political means.
” Diamond began her adult life as a high school English teacher but now works to defuse tensions in places as diverse as Israel, Cyprus, Ethiopia and Liberia. Academically, she is well qualified for the new field of professional peacemaking she has a background in applied behavioral science and her fourth degree was a PhD in peace studies but unexpected twists in her personal life have contributed at least as much to bringing her to where she is today.
At 28, she was surrounded by loss: in the throes of a divorce, caring alone for an 18-month-old daughter and facing her second mastectomy. She later discovered that her chances of surviving recurrent breast cancer at that age were almost zero. She survived not only that, however, but a massive haemorrhage on the operating table that almost killed her.
“It was a classic near-death experience, right out of the literature,” she says. “A tunnel of light, a sense of incredible peace and feeling so happy but hearing a voice saying that it wasn’t time, I had to go back, and then feeling such a sense of loss.” It took her some time to work out what had happened, as this was not a commonly described experience 21 years ago. But when the meaning of it hit her, “It transformed my life from the inside out.”
Diamond decided that what mattered was not when or how she died she could live for years or be run over by a car tomorrow but whether she would be full of joy and peace at her death.
“Every aspect of my life that wasn’t aligned with that goal had to be changed,” she says. “The way I thought about myself, my relationship with my family, with my religion, with my sexuality, all had to change.”
So did her relationship with the wider world. Four years later she found herself back in her native Washington nursing her dying parents. She cherished that task but found that she loathed the city and all it stood for. “I finally had to confront that reaction,” she says. “I had to dive into it. One of the principles I operate on is that where there’s a great aversion there’s also a great attraction. This was a power centre in terms of governmental politics, and I found that I felt that I had a contribution to make.”
Once over her initial shock “Who me? Work in the international arena?” she began re-educating herself and in 1992 teamed up with former US ambassador-at-large John McDonald to establish the institute. She now does with international communities the kind of work she did with individuals and families in her time as a psychotherapist and organisational consultant.
Take Cyprus, an island with a violent history and so divided that its Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities had no transport, phone or postal connections with each other; Diamond says this left them “to stew in the trauma of war.
Whole generations were being raised to think of the other side as the enemy without any contact to check out whether this was really so.”
Four years ago, members of the Greek Cypriot side, later joined by Turkish Cypriots, invited Diamond in. Diamond and her crew worked with people from the two communities separately for more than a year, teaching them conflict resolution techniques such as active listening. Eventually, participants from the two groups decided they would like to try out their new skills with each other. “We don’t bring people together to make decisions, only to reach understanding,” Diamond says. “And then action unfolds from that.”
Now more than 400 people have been trained and 100 more turn up to each new seminar; there are special programs for public policy leaders, business people, teenagers and the media; 15 bi-communal projects have been established in areas ranging from arts to women’s studies; and a bi-communal conflict resolution centre has been set up in the UN buffer zone.
The Cyprus project mirrored the institute’s programs: capacity- building, teaching individuals how to deal with group conflict; bridge-building, developing activities that bring the warring sides together and, finally, institution-building, setting up formal systems to keep the process going.
“The people of these two communities have done what their leaders and the international community have been unable to do for 30 years and that’s start a policy of rapprochement, ” Diamond says. “They had to face bomb threats and media campaigns against them `Traitor talks to other side’ but they persisted.
” `Dialogue’ looks kind of soft, but it can have a powerful effect if it goes on over a long period of time. It develops a momentum that changes the way people think about themselves and each other and their capacity to make change. Who knows where it will lead?”
Diamond is often asked whether she ever feels overwhelmed by the size of her task. She thinks of it this way: she might be holding only a tiny drop of water, which will count for almost nothing in a vast empty bucket. But if she throws in her drop, others might follow, and then the bucket will start to fill.
And the world has no choice but to turn to citizen peace building, she says; the United Nations has been unable to intervene in more than 90 per cent of conflicts since World War II because they have been between peoples within the same nation and the UN’s charter forbids it to interfere in a country’s internal affairs. “Since there are 185 nations in the UN, yet more than 5000 distinct peoples on this planet . . . this trend of conflict over identity and sovereignty is likely to grow,” she says.
Diamond sees humankind as a collective facing the same crisis she faced as an individual, all those years ago. It is critically ill, facing potential death from nuclear or environmental disaster and must make important decisions about its future.
“We all know that the military machine is big, it’s well- funded, it’s relatively efficient, and it has a deeply rooted infrastructure that allows it to operate all over the world, ” Diamond says. “What’s the infrastructure for peace-building?
It needs skilled people, culturally appropriate methodologies, adequate funding, co-ordination, alliances.
“I recently found out that one Patriot missile the kind they used in the Gulf War costs $270 million. I won’t tell you how many they manufactured last year; it’s in the billions of dollars. Imagine what we could do with $270 million: put a peace institute in every country of the world, with money left over to train people and send them out into the countryside.
All for the cost of one missile.”
Diamond says she is a happy woman, intensely so since her brush with death; she has learned her purpose in life and what fuels her. She also has no fear of dying, something she finds extraordinarily liberating. And she hopes her legacy will be that vision of a world full of institutes for peace: “For me, this is the greatest gift we could give our children. “
First published in The Age.