“Well, over there now there used to be the peace line. Now there is a new set of shops… Instead of having a wall, you build something that people can walk into with doors at each side. And then they meet in the middle. So that is great.

—From Northern Ireland

“Now in my area…we do not have murals as such. We have a couple of wooden things that have been carved out and painted, which aren’t on a gable wall. And I feel strongly about some of those. I feel that some of those should be retained because they are part of our history. Whitewashing over those will not make history any different. And I think the tourist attraction of them—they are still capable of generating some income, or some interest in the area.”


“So in certain circumstances I don’t believe they should be taken down just because the chances are that there is going to be a couple of pound spent in the area and there is going to be a bit of community art…. Community art is something that the community has drawn together. So the last ten months we have been taking that journey. Which, again, is with the consultation of the community. And something that I have learned, to my cost at times, is that consultation—as tedious and as long as it may be—is very important. And we have been consulting our community to see if they want to keep what we have, or, if there were a way of changing it, what would they like to put up instead?”

—From Northern Ireland


“The population of the whole of Northern Ireland is about one-sixth or one-seventh of London. The whole of the six counties of Ireland has roughly the same population as Glasgow. It is a community, it is a family, it is a fish bowl. You cannot grow up in this community without knowing other people from different backgrounds….

Q: People like to stick in their communities quite a bit. And a very small community?

A: Very much so. You could actually live your whole life on the Falls Road, or your whole life in the Markets or Tigers Bay or the Shankill and never—I have never for example had a pint of beer on the Shankill Road.

 —From Northern Ireland


Encounters between people are at the heart of war and peace. Isolation, however, is an equally important element to conflict and its aftermath. From peace walls in Northern Ireland to segregated neighbourhoods in South Africa to separate territories in Sri Lanka, physical divisions create spatial geographies that keep communities apart long after the fighting has stopped. Likewise, communication barriers create divisions that are hard to bridge.

“The only way you start to appreciate the other is through the foundation of any culture. Which is language,” offered one South African respondent. Many Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Tamil respondents cited their inability to speak to or understand each other as an important reason why they didn’t have friends outside of their own ethnic community. “Even if I have the desire to talk to them, I cannot, because my Sinhalese is not good, so I do not talk,” one Sri Lankan respondent explained. “Even the same person sometimes may be having the same desire, the same idea as me, but again his inability to communicate in Tamil would hinder that. So if that gap is filled, there would be a positive sign for reconciliation or compromise.”

Trying to foster controlled encounters between members of different, previously warring communities is a mainstay of peace-building processes. Often, purposeful encounters in mixed community groups are brief and tentative. At times, they are also frightening. They can also provide meaningful moments of building relationships—temporary as they might be—that can serve as the first small steps towards greater integration. Sometimes, however, these encounters are more of an opportunity for victors to gloat (as some Sri Lankan respondents noted) than for building a foundation for peaceful relationships and greater cultural understanding. Yet one Sinhalese Sri Lankan interviewee spoke of a spontaneous positive encounter with Tamil doctors and neighbors while lamenting her inability to communicate in Tamil.

Entrenched historical, social, cultural, and physical barriers such as walls, neighborhoods, and language make sustained encounter difficult in all three locations. Yet the interviews show these encounters are not impossible; they merely require effort. One respondent in Northern Ireland memorably described the generational changes in opportunities for encounter as moving from a naturalized expectation of separation to greater integration.

1) Especially here in the Western Cape, the apartheid reality, the spatial geography of apartheid is alive and well…. You get a degree of non-racialism at the top, but when you go a bit lower, it is completely the opposite…. One would say, what does it take?… I suppose this social engineering created it, but creating something else is a much tougher task. Because say you go to Khayelitsha—how many million people live there? Well, that is where African people live. Coloured and white people are not going to move there in their numbers any time soon. So for kids growing up there, they grow up in this Black African reality. In a way, the Western Cape illustrates just how much damage apartheid did. The differences are starker. Cape Town is a stunningly beautiful city and yet you have this depth of an apartheid reality.

—From South Africa



And so for many people things haven’t really changed that much. If you go to Oudtshoorn for example, you will see that there are still subtle or inherent divisions; you can see it. The whites still live in one part of town and the blacks still live in another part of town. And people do…I mean, the blacks will go into white areas because of the shops and the jobs and the schools, but not vice versa. And at night they will all go back home again. And even when they socialise people, unless they will go to a restaurant now and again, they still in their minds must socialise in their own areas. So it is very hard to get people to break out of that. It is different in the other provinces than it is here in the Western Cape. In Johannesburg you feel more like you are part of an African city.

But I think a huge constraint as well is that we are coming from divided communities. Just physically. People live in separate communities. So no matter how much we are culturally enlightened, we are separate physically. And that is another huge thing that we are going to live with for another few long generations.

—From South Africa


2) After the war, a lot of Sinhalese visited  the North.  They made trips. They enjoyed. They sang songs. They got drunk. This enjoyment is not good. They were passing through areas of destruction. So that type of thing should stop. What should have been done was to go there organized and help them to rebuild their homes, to help them begin farming. Then we could have improved relations with them. What was done was singing and drinking when visiting those places. So more work should be done along these lines…. We see that little things are happening. We read in papers that Northern children are brought to the South, and Southern children to the North. Some of these actions are well followed-up. They should be done even at the level of the government.

—From Sri Lanka



Q: What are the activities that would bring about compromise?

A: Free movement of people to all parts of the country is good, but it shouldn’t be politically motivated [because] then there will be problems. Now you see all the marshy land in the north and east are taken away by the government for temples and settlement of Sinhalese or establishment of factories or hotels. The new hotel that will be established in Nallur is the place where the fortress of King Shankili is and is a cultural site of Tamils. These activities will disturb the ethnic harmony. Any projects that involve both communities will be timely. If youth from both communities got together and did some social services, as they did some time back in our village where they erected a bund that prevents sea water coming in to the village, if we all can initiate activities of that nature, there will be mutual respect and understanding.

—From Sri Lanka


3) In the past, two dogs’ pups were born together and were twins. And one was reared out in the open in the fields and the other was reared in the yard with four walls. Now I asked, which of the two were the happiest? And the fact of the matter is that the dog with four walls around him never knew anything different. And the dog outside didn’t know anything about the four walls. And he was happy. They were both happy.

Now I believe as a person on the Nationalist side of the fence, I think we were the dogs in the walls. We didn’t know any difference. In fact, we knew not to go out to the fields. And it was a thing that was inbuilt in us. In other words, when I went to school I knew not to apply for a job. We had the biggest rope works in the world, the Sirocco Engineering Works, one time the aircraft factory, and biggest of all, the Shipyard.

You could have counted on both hands the number of Nationalists that were employed there. And there is a song called “Belfast Mill” and it finishes in the east end of the town, talking about the mills. There were no mills there…. The mills were in West Belfast looking onto the linen lords. And the fact is we wouldn’t have went in.

Q: Has anything since the Peace Process changed then? Would you say that you are having more contact with people from the other community today than you used to have in the old days during the troubles?

A: Because of the age gap, we wouldn’t socialise so much outside the district. Any socialising would be done in the local clubs here. So you don’t get the chance. And most of our Protestant friends from the past are all in their grave. Because of our ages, you know.

AA: But our children now, we have a daughter who is going with a Protestant and another grandchild who is going with a Protestant.

A: And he is a grand fellow, you know.

Q: Is that something that is acceptable today and wouldn’t have been acceptable in earlier days?

AA: Yes.

A: But not in the very early days would it have been acceptable. But now it doesn’t make any difference.

—From Northern Ireland


4) Well I go and do a course with Catholic people. And we get on great. We have actually been away with Catholic people on residential. They have been through the same thing. They are just ordinary people like me. They have gone through the same things, maybe worse. And we have told our stories and they have told their stories and sometimes theirs are one hundred percent worse than what happened to us. And I can empathise with that. And I would turn ‘round and say I am sorry.

There was one particular fellow who told his story and I turned ‘round to him and said sorry. And he came up afterward to me and he says, “I want to thank you for saying you are sorry. Because you listened to my story. But it was not your fault. And I do not want you to say you are sorry. I would rather give you a hug.” So he gave me a hug. And when I got home—he was a Catholic—he sent me a beautiful card to say thanks. And I had never met that fellow in my life before. But they went through the same. But the distrust is still there.

—From Northern Ireland


I will give you one small example. Early on, I was asked to go and meet a small group in Enniskillen, which is an hour-and-a-half drive from Belfast. It is about as far as you can go in Northern Ireland without crossing the border. I was with them from I think 7pm until nearly midnight. And they were to my mind overly grateful that I had spent so long with them. And I couldn’t understand it. But driving home it struck me. I was the first person in thirty years with a title to my name to have gotten in the car, driven down to meet them on their territory, and spent as long with them as they needed me to spend. And all they wanted me to do was listen to their stories.

—From Northern Ireland


The likes of sport, where if you introduce sport into something, that introduces both religions without people even talking about it. And you accept people as they are—just people. And not as a Protestant or as a Catholic. And I think that the British government made a huge mistake; certainly there was this huge battle going on. But they did, and I know that it was policy that they did build Leisure Centres to try and get people away from fighting. That is why we have a legacy of so many Leisure Centres that the ratepayers are paying now. Because the government did have these plans. But I think that sport was the uniting factor. And not politics.

The only sport that I see that is still sectarian and I think it has to have a complete root and branch reform is soccer. Every other sport has a complete Ireland sport. You look at rugby, you look at swimming, water polo, athletics. And I think once you start sectionalising bits of sport, I think soccer—to give you an example, that is not good. You have got Protestant clubs and Catholic clubs and that is not good. And I would say that is the only sport that I would highlight that is not good. But all the others bring people together.

—From Northern Ireland


Q: Did you become less social after being victimized?

A: No. I did not do so. I think that I needed more help than before. Now I am alone. Earlier I had many people around me. Now I have only one child. After the event, I broadened my relationships. I do what I have to do with the help of those extended relationships.

—From Sri Lanka


5) One of my elder brothers [went] to bathe at the reservoir and he was killed by the [Tamil Tigers]. With that we left the village in 1995. Then I hated Tamils. But gradually, as I came into contact with World Vision, with the social network that included Tamil youth, young men and women, I started thinking differently. That had a greater impact than the impact of books. I went to Batticaloa.  When your elder brother is killed—anyone would get angry. But I started thinking differently about the Tamils.

—From Sri Lanka


6) And my experience of this country has just been very different. I just wish so many other white folks and coloured folks could have that. Could see with other eyes and hear with other ears. It doesn’t mean you don’t still go back to your community, and I think people generally naturally gravitate towards their own group or community, particularly in this country, and I think that is going to be with us, and I think we must forget about engineering people together. All social engineering. The best we can do is put in place those policy platforms. It’s relationships! Let’s hear the narrative. Let’s really listen. But we need the tools to listen, for a start. And people must speak their truth whatever it is.

—From South Africa


7) Once, my son was hospitalized because of appendicitis…. I went to see him there. I stayed over there for ten days till he was operated on. There I saw the support of the Tamils. They accompanied me to the hospital in the morning, afternoon, and evening. In the hospital, the doctor who was in-charge of my son was also a Tamil.

I did not need the identity card, but the Tamil person who accompanied me to the hospital needed the identity card. The neighbours used to come and talk to me. They were so sorry that they could not speak to me, not knowing Sinhalese. They are so good, though they are Tamils.

—From Sri Lanka


8) And if we are talking about building understanding, caring, empathy—for me, the heart of that is about an appreciation of the other. And the only way you start to appreciate the other is through the foundation of any culture. Which is language. I mean, it might be religion, but I pick language. And that is very central to my experience. And so there have been attempts on that front to introduce a compulsory African language. And then it fell by the wayside. For example, in this province you would have compulsory Xhosa, in KZN it would be Zulu and so on. And that kind of project has gotten dropped.

—From South Africa


And the black African teachers were saying…“we talk so much about race as in white/coloured/Indian, but we don’t talk about the issues of ethnicity among us.” And he says, “I am a Sotho teacher but I know I am never going to get the principalship, no matter what qualifications I have. I am not going to get it because I am Sotho. And an isiXhosa speaking person must get that post. And if I go to KwaZulu Natal, the same is going to happen there with Zulu. So we haven’t even begun to talk about that.”

—From South Africa


At present, language is the major barrier. When I go around the city, I see different people. Even if I have the desire to talk to them, I cannot, because my Sinhalese is not good, so I do not talk. Even the same person sometimes may be having the same desire, the same idea as me, but again his inability to communicate in Tamil would hinder that. So if that gap is filled, there would be a positive sign for reconciliation or compromise.

—From Sri Lanka


9) So how do we live in peace with each other when we don’t reconcile socially? And reconciliation for me is not equal to forgiveness. And I am not expecting communities to forgive each other; I am saying, how do we begin to re-negotiate, to reach compromises about an acceptable standard of living together as people with diversity but also people with sameness? And we play that down, we prefer to continue to live within the context of diversity. When in actual fact, diversity is very much grounded in sameness. And I think this is the model that we need to start working on….

The fact that we are all human begins, we play that down. The fact that irrespective of your political convictions, your class, your gender, irrespective of those fault lines, as a human being you want access to food, access to water, you want access to family life, et cetera, irrespective of what that family might be. Family life might be with a gay partner; that’s fine, that’s family life.

How do we begin to accept that, that there is sameness, that there is a commonality? And that that commonality is embedded in very diverse ways of interpreting family, well-being, et cetera?

—From South Africa



“This is not a prison, this is Mandela’s university.”

Prison is the most extreme version of spatial segregation. Yet in some of the interviews from South Africa and Northern Ireland, prison was spoken of not only as a space of isolation and despair but also of multi-faceted encounters and educational opportunities. Interestingly, in South Africa, a certain humanization of (and even pity for) white captors sometimes occurred. Prison was, of course, also a space of torture and isolation. Former prisoners often noted they never received the counselling they needed afterwards, they would drink to forget, or never felt motivated in work after their release.

The Robben Island Prison was the most frequently mentioned in the interviews. Between 1961 and 1991, it held many political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Three former inmates—Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and Jacob Zuma–have served as president of South Africa. Today, the prison is a museum and the island itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Robben Island stories

Click below to read stories from Robben Island

A Voice from Ireland:

Now when I went to prison it was a very interesting experience. The prison experience, it was very interesting. Because on the one hand you had the government saying “these boys are all blackguards and rascals and scoundrels of the highest order and they have to be put away.” Then when you went to [jail] and you were in your plainclothes, you were treated like a guest of the state. You had your own cell. Education classes. Recreation classes.

So what happened when I was there a couple of weeks, I was approached. You know people who went in there, there was an IRA command structure in there…. Now the rest of us characters who went in there and were not members of the IRA, we were only what you might call vocal bystanders. We didn’t have any say in anything; we just had to do what we were told by these boys. And there was an education officer and there was a landing officer and there was an escape officer. And there was all this rubbish—in behind this big wall that you couldn’t get out of. And what happened was, this guy approached me in it. I think it has significance for other prisoners and other prisons…. A very intelligent bloke, he was the education officer. He said he had a fierce problem here…. “We have a problem here, we have about ten or fifteen men who cannot read or write. And they can’t write home to their families or wives. And we have tried several things and you are a teacher and we want to know if you could take classes. Could you do anything about it?”

So I thought about it for a bit. So what we did was we ran an official class every morning. Three mornings a week, Maths, three mornings a week, English. Just like Primary School. I suppose about nine or ten learned to read and write in the time I was in there. Four would have nothing to do with it and one of them dropped out after a few weeks. It was a very worthwhile experience.

And there was this one guy from County Meath; he is dead now. He died last year. He couldn’t read or write and he was the same age as me…and he wrote home for the first time. Now you might not think it was a great achievement, but I think it was. He wrote home the first letter. You know he spent three days at school, maybe nine days at school. He wrote home his first letter to his mother in May, the following May, and he only spelled one word wrong. It was about the brother. Instead of spelling PHIL he wrote FILL. It was only a page and a half, but I thought it was a wonderful achievement for him.

—From Northern Ireland