Rebuilding in the aftermath of violence must involve members of the warring communities if lasting peace and trust are to be established.

In many parts of the world, communities live side by side bitterly estranged by conflict, hate and suspicion. The source of conflict may be external or civil war; identity-based conflicts of religious belief, ethnicity, race and caste; violent political battles of the right and left; battles for self-determination and political independence; and many others. What is common is that unhealed wounds fester and, consequently, foster legacies of suffering and hatred from generation to generation. The greatest of these burdens are borne by children, women, the aged, disabled people, and the poor.

People of goodwill everywhere, through history, have fashioned strategies to bring about reconciliation, or the meeting again of hearts and minds, between people separated by conflict and hate. I will outline here one unusual strategy deployed by Aman Biradari, initially in the aftermath of the brutal communal massacre in Gujarat 2002, and also during the consequent estrangement of people of Hindu and Muslim faith. This strategy has also been initiated recently in Assam.

Conventionally after most conflicts, members of the community seen by the victims to have caused harm and perpetrated violence on the suffering community rarely work for relief and reconstruction for victims of the ‘other’ community. The dominant ‘common sense’ — unconsciously accepted often even by humanitarian agencies — is that relief workers from the group perceived to have caused harm will not be welcomed in efforts to help people after mass violence.

The heart of the strategy of ‘Reconciliation through shared sharing’ is a refusal to accept this post-conflict ‘common sense’: to swim against the prevailing currents of estrangement and suspicion, by resolving that all work in the aftermath of mass violence — for dialogue, relief, reconstruction, justice, welfare and caring — will be done only in diverse and pluralist mixed groups of youth, women and professionals. These must always include members of all the estranged and warring communities. More than what they contribute in tangible terms, the symbolism of mixed teams working together contributes most to healing and rebuilding trust.

Invariably such proposals are initially rejected as ‘impractical’; with the conviction that none will accept it, that therefore it is pointless, even dangerous. Our experience has been quite the contrary. In Gujarat, although the victims were mostly Muslim, teams of aman pathiks and nyaya pathiks (literally those who walk the path of peace and justice) from both Hindu and Muslim communities have worked together for a decade, in relief camps and later for reconstruction and justice. We extended this strategy also to other old sites of violence like Bhagalpur.

More recently in Assam, after violent conflicts between indigenous Bodo people and Bengali Muslims in the summer of 2012, the climate was awash with bitter hatred and anger between these communities. Yet when we appealed for shared humanitarian work, people were surprised that many young people from both communities came forward, including a social work group of Muslim professionals led by Ashiq Zamin and Raju Narzary, a Bodo social work post-graduate, whose own property was burnt down in the violence.

With the help of these young leaders, we constituted a joint platform called Shanti Gazun, which means Peace, in Assamese and Bodo tongues respectively. With volunteers from Gujarat, Hyderabad and Delhi, young people from both communities went into camps of the ‘other’ community. People in the camps — who had suffered betrayal, uprootment and violence at the hands of their neighbours — were incredulous, angry and suspicious when they saw persons from the community of their attackers. But when the peace workers humbly persisted in their resolve to serve them, their resistance melted into a healing appreciation; dialogues were organised for the first time, and estranged neighbours often wept and embraced each other.

Our experience in Gujarat was that once people start returning to their old damaged homes and habitats, often in the neighbourhood of their attackers, the role of the joint teams becomes even more critical. They began with dialogues between people of different communities, sitting together and listening as tentative first steps to break the ice in the long journey to ultimately re-establish trust. Joint youth and women groups organised recreation activities including sports, which further help people across the conflict divide to meet each other again. They helped children return to mixed schools in hostile pockets, and make up for interrupted schooling, and also organised special support for old people, widows and children who had lost loved ones.

People also need practical assistance in rebuilding their damaged livelihoods and homes. An audacious reconciliation plan was to appeal for people from both communities to contribute voluntary labour, or shramdaan, to help rebuild the houses damaged on both sides of the conflict. We made this appeal for the first time after the Gujarat carnage in Godhra, the epicentre of this mass violence. The slogan was that it would be hard to again destroy a house in which the sweat of both Hindus and Muslims were mixed. Defying the hot winds of hate, people offered voluntary labour to rebuild houses of people of the ‘other’ community in 80 villages in Godhra. Through this simple act, ordinary people of both communities demonstrated remorse and caring.

Much more important than the specifics of what the humanitarian or developmental interventions contribute, the main outcome is the healing impact from observing persons from the seemingly irreconcilably estranged groups coming together and working to help suffering people, regardless of their identity. By working together, the pluralist joint groups declare that they will not allow the god they worship, the colour of their skins, the size of their eyes or noses, or their castes or gender, to come in the way of their caring, love, commitment to justice and peace.

From the ruins of mass hate and violence, the peace and trust they rebuild endures precisely because this time they build together.