For a young man in Ethiopia, an invitation to build peace turns his life around

September 11, 2020
Bereket Woldemariam

Bereket Woldemariam is a passionate 22-year-old from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. A formerly booming metropolis known across Ethiopia for its egalitarian values and diverse population of loving and hospitable people, Dire Dawa has experienced growing strife and violence in the past few years among its various ethnic and religious groups, many times escalating into large-scale conflict.

Bereket was known across several of Dire Dawa’s kebeles as a dangerous troublemaker with a strong influence over his peers. He caused fist fights, inciting others to join him, and even going as far as committing arson by lighting bajajs (popular three-wheeled vehicles) on fire. Reflecting on his life, he explains that his youth was marked by hardship, with little peace or harmony. His mother left him when he was six months old to be raised by his grandmother. The atmosphere in the household and the absence of a nurturing force led Bereket down a path of disruptive behavior. 

“There’s nothing I didn’t do in high school,” he recalls. “I cursed at and picked fights with my teachers so much that I was turned off to the idea of going to school, so I stopped going all together. That’s when I started vandalizing hotels and burning bajajs.”

Bereket spent time in jails from Harar to Addis Ababa and was constantly on the police’s radar.

“Many of my friends didn’t know at the time, but there were significant periods of my life where I would go hungry. I masked it well because I had nice things thanks to my friends who made a living robbing people, but I would be filled with rage when I would smell food and see people sitting and eating. Inside I just wished they would see me and say ‘enabla’ (let’s eat), but when that didn’t happen, I would let my rage take over.”

One day as he was lighting a fire, he was caught by the police and severely beaten. A woman named Asegedech who worked in a nearby kebele administration bureau sat him aside and asked him questions to understand why he was the way he was.

“I didn’t know it then, but she is my life’s blessing," says Bereket. "She was relentless in giving me attention and care. When she would call and invite me for lunch, I would curse her. She would give me money here and there. She even tried to help me get a driver’s license so I could assist her husband and earn a living. I would accuse her of conspiring to get me killed. But I always answered her calls because something about her touched me. She is the one who invited me to attend the Youth Mediation Training."

The mediation training, which Bereket attended earlier this year, was part of Pact's Strengthening Institutions for Peace and Development project, or SIPED II. Funded by USAID, SIPED II is increasing the resiliency of Ethiopian communities to manage and respond to conflict. Aimed at building an enabling environment for sustainable development, SIPED II is based on the idea that resilient states – constituted by resilient communities – are capable of absorbing shocks and managing challenges while maintaining political stability and preventing or minimizing violence. The project establishes and strengthens partnerships between government officials and local communities to address issues that may lead to violent conflict and to ensure that interventions are conflict-sensitive.

Working with local partners, SIPED II uses mediation trainings to help youth become more conscious and resilient and less susceptible to violence, and to engage them in the peace-building process.

“I attended the five-day training, and everything has been totally different ever since," Bereket says. "I am a completely transformed person. I didn’t know that this sort of transformation was possible outside of divine interventions in the church. The training did feel more like a spiritual lesson than a lecture. It didn’t start off talking about conflict or politics like I anticipated coming in. The training began with talking about 'the self' and that we cannot change others without having changed ourselves first.”

Bereket continues, “It was incredible because of both the content and the trainers. They were doctors in philosophy and psychology. The first two days of the training addressed identifying the gifts that each of us are given and how our internal problems come more from trying to identify and properly using our gifts. This training gave us tools to uncover the power of the mind using science-based studies that conveniently did not clash with our religious beliefs. Youth like me didn’t get along with the youth from neighboring kebeles. The divide in current-day Dire Dawa can be felt. This training forced us to sit alongside each other, which probably wouldn’t happen otherwise. Slowly throughout the days, you could feel our sense of empathy for each other grow in between the sessions during tea breaks or in our conversations. I started reflecting a lot about how easily I jump into fighting and hurt people without thinking twice about it. Today, I stand and exist totally different. Ever since I got back home after the training, I have been trying to right my wrongs. I go to kebeles where I used to cause problems, and I embrace and apologize to the people I’ve hurt. I can’t stop telling them I’m sorry. I wish they would just hurt me sometimes so I can expel my guilt and shame. I go out and wash bajajs just because of the horror I’ve brought onto people who were just trying to make a living. That is just what I do on my own as an individual."

Bereket (center) with other young influencers who are working to build peace in Ethiopia. (Photo: Pact)

On a larger scale, Bereket says, youth from kebeles known to be at odds now protect and call on each other to make peace when they hear of potential conflicts.

"We started gathering other people in our age group to share this message of peace," he says. "To pull them in we tell them we are calling this meeting so that our mothers and brothers can go and come back home in peace and so that our sisters are not raped or beaten. To tell you the truth, everybody is surprised that it is us sharing this message because they know us as problem starters, so the fact that we transformed our thinking is a pull factor for others to join us in peace-building efforts. With social media there is a lot of power in posting a picture of people who are known to be at odds based on their neighborhood, ethnicity or religious beliefs. Their followers’ minds and perspectives will shift and come closer to desiring peaceful relations as a result. I believe this is how we keep conflict from escalating into something unmanageable and out of control like we see happening across the country. I do want to mention that we cannot address peace in a vacuum. We will continue to have conflict in one form or another if we do not address the extremely high rates of unemployment and drug addiction.

“I believe wholeheartedly that we can restore the love and harmony Dire Dawa used to be exalted for, and that Ethiopia will prevail through these trying times.”