Replacing Hatred with Hope

Swanee Hunt,

Swanee Hunt, founder of Women Waging Peace, spoke with Sojourners’ Rose Marie Berger about her book This Was Not Our War and the ways women are engaged in peace processes in conflict-ridden countries.

Sojourners: What got you involved in Bosnia?

Swanee Hunt: I was appointed ambassador to Austria in 1993, and Sarajevo was so dangerous then that the State Department didn’t want to open up an embassy there. I offered to have it in Vienna, so for over a year, the U.S. mission to Bosnia was actually in our embassy in Vienna. As a result, I was meeting the political figures and hosting negotiations, and I became very concerned about the 70,000 refugees that were in Austria. I went out and heard their stories - which sounded like they were coming out of World War II. I’d always wondered who those policy makers were sitting at their big mahogany desks when Hitler was organizing and advancing, and all of a sudden I realized I was a policy maker sitting at a big mahogany desk. I represented this lone superpower that wasn’t doing anything about it. I decided I had to add my voice.

Sojourners: Why did you decide to write this book, particularly with the voices of Bosnian women?

Hunt: There were few people who had the hundreds of hours that I had with the women. Various journalists or policymakers were telling the stories, and they were all about the man. You might have a woman victim pop up every now and then, but there was nothing - zero - about what the women had been doing to try to prevent the war, to stop it while it was going on, or to stabilize the country afterward.

Since I started working on this book, I have been doing trainings with and visiting women in Rwanda, Guatemala, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and what I have discovered is that this book isn’t about Bosnian women. It’s about women all over the world who are organizing in remarkably similar ways with remarkably similar motivations. They don’t even know about each other. It’s not like there’s this model that everyone’s trying to follow. It’s much more indigenous than that.

I have worked on training more than 350 women, not counting the Bosnians, from 35 conflicts, and I’ve linked them with more than 3,000 policymakers. I was inspired by these women in Bosnia. My life was really changed by them.

Sojourners: What does the training consist of?

Hunt: In March I did a three-day training in Rwanda for 80 women who are all members of parliament, ministers, or civil society leaders. In Amman [Jordan] we had 25 Iraqi women, the members of the governing council, women who’d been elected to the city councils - women who are now ministers in the new Iraq. It was training on honing their message - how to speak to policymakers, what are three words to use instead of "peace" (security, stability, etc.), and why you want to have words like that in your vocabulary. Then we practiced. I would ask a question, hold the microphone in front of their mouth, ask another question, and just keep working on "keep it tight, keep it short, use the right vocabulary," helping them build their confidence.

Sojourners: How do you understand your own faith, values, and moral development, and how does it inform your work?

Hunt: I was raised Southern Baptist in Texas, and there was a period of time, from when I was about 17 to 27, when Sojourners was a lifeline to me. I didn’t want to completely turn my back on my upbringing, because there was much that was important about it. But I felt called to social justice work, and I didn’t see that being promoted in my fundamentalist environment. Which isn’t to say that the elements weren’t there - the teaching that we are responsible for the well-being of others. It was put in terms of "we’re responsible for saving their souls."

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that there is little in common between the church as the early believers envisioned it and what we see in our society. I think that’s often true. So you go out and you make church wherever you are. Often that means without using God language but, rather, simply trying to be true to New Testament values.

Sojourners: Your work puts you in contact with a lot of suffering. Where do you find hope?

Hunt: First, my faith is that there is a greater context to all of this. I have spent many hours with people who have suffered tremendously, and [in the process] have felt even closer to God. I don’t believe God has a reason for the suffering and that somehow it’s all part of a divine plan. I find nothing divine about children with leukemia, or earthquakes, or war. I’m not going to make that into [something] divine, in some kind of theological twist. I’d much rather have a God with less power than a God with less love. To say "oh, well, it’s the work of a loving God, but we just have to redefine love" - that doesn’t work for me. We have to redefine power.

Second, there is a lot more we have in common as human beings than separates us. I remember talking to the women from Srebrenica; they were so burned by the international community. Ten months had gone by and nothing had happened since the massacre; no one was insisting that we get in there and see what was going on. As I was trying to establish a connection with them, I said, "Look, you all have every reason to hate or distrust the international community. I just want you to know that while you’re trying to figure out if your children are alive, I am trying to keep my daughter alive, too. She’s back in Vienna and she’s in a hospital." [Hunt’s daughter had attempted suicide.] The women had tears running down their faces. The amazing thing about that story is that they were feeling sorry for me. There was such a capacity for empathy that they were wanting to make things better for me.

My mentor in Vienna, Viktor Frankl, said, "You know, Swanee, sometimes it’s only through ruins that you can see the sky." I’ve thought about that many times, about how being in a war situation completely turns the social order on its head, and maybe it helps you understand the king who got born in a trough in a barn.

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