Talk Together deeply concerned as reports of further beatings highlight need for dialogue

September 6, 2009

Talk Together is deeply concerned by reports that a second member of its group of Layounne participants has been abducted and beaten by police. Razouk Choummad, aged 20, told Saharawi human rights activists on September 2, that he had been abducted, blind folded, undressed, tortured for 5 hours, and covered in a liquid which he was told was petrol.

The reports come a week after his fellow participant, El Haouasi Nguia, a 19-year-old woman, was reportedly abducted, stripped, beaten and threatened with rape. She was apparently told that the footage of the attack would be posted on the internet if she failed to renounce her political opinions and activities. Both students were reportedly quizzed about their planned attendance at the Talk Together programme.

Last month the students were due to travel to the UK to take part in the Talk Together conflict resolution course focussing on Western Sahara. A group of six young people from Layounne were prevented from boarding their plane at Agadir airport in Morocco, and subsequently detained and allegedly beaten by the authorities. A second group of seven Moroccan students, plus their group leader, was also prevented from travelling from Casablanca.

Talk Together is concerned for the well-being of both groups of young people and has sought advice from Amnesty International regarding their situation. Talk Together has written to the Moroccan authorities asking for clarification on the interventions which prevented the two groups from travelling to Oxford. It is also requesting that the Layounne and Moroccan groups are reassured they will not be subjected to further attention from the authorities.

Talk Together rests on the principles that it is always beneficial to talk to people with differing views and build understanding to promote the possibility of making the future better. Apparent efforts to prevent Talk Together taking place have demonstrated the importance of these principles.

Talk Together founder, Andrew Brown, says: “Both sides have expressed to Talk Together grave distrust of the other, along with accusations and counter claims.

“We are not a lobbying organisation and we’re not making judgements about either side. We’re here to promote the importance of good communication and bringing people together to understand each other better and move forward. The need for this is now even more overwhelmingly clear.”

Talk Together exists to bring together different sides of a conflict, to discuss their differences, to learn conflict resolution skills, and to explore ways in which the future could be better.

Despite the absence of the Layounne and Moroccan participants in Oxford, the programme was a success. Twenty two participants from the refugee camps near Tindouf, from the UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Israel and the Philippines took part. These participants are now working on their projects to improve the situation.

Talk Together is funded with support from the European Commission and the British Council, as well as private and charitable donations. For further information check Talk Together’s website for background on the project, and for updates check the blog . For additional information, logos, images and footage of the event, and of the Layounne group of students describing their experiences, contact Andrew Brown on 07779 021464 or Talk Together is on Facebook and Twitter.


Talk Together discussed on TV

August 27, 2009  

Free Western Sahara representative Stefan Simanowitz discusses the disruption to the Talk Together programme with Moroccan journalist Ali Bahaijoub who visited the participants in Oxford. Article starts about 7.5 minutes in to the broadcast.

Reflections from Robert, Talk Together’s conflict resolution expert

August 25, 2009

Talk Together was an intense experience for me, in many ways. On the one hand it felt like two-weeks of juggling with possibilities and changes. Through the first week the changes regarding the arrivals of participants from either Morocco, Layounne or Tindouf were announced approximately twice a day: “They are coming, they are not coming, they are perhaps coming, they are coming one day late, they are coming two days late, some of them are coming, maybe, perhaps, later, sometime…” 😉

During this period I was juggling with two completely different processes:

1)      Had I had just a group of participants from outside the conflict zone, I would have given them a two week conflict resolution and mediation training, ending with some action plans and initiatives.

2)      Had I had all four groups that we had expected here, people from Morocco, Layounne, Tindouf and those from outside the conflict zone, I would have given them just a bit of training. I would have spent most of the time on group bonding and mediation processes, attempting to form a genuine community with a lot of mutual understanding and empathic connections. I would have ended with strong projects that would cater to the needs of all interest groups in the conflict area.

The actual situation was all the time somewhere in between, with the next day never being quite clear. And when at the beginning of the second week the group from Tindouf finally did join us, I was faced with yet another dimension in the group dynamics.

But, what would normally have been a nightmare for the facilitator (after a week of changes integrating the ‘new’ group, with a very different background, and the ‘old’ group that had been working already together for a week, and somewhat changing the goal of the course), was in these circumstances a challenge that I was more than happy to face!

I accepted the invitation to lead the Talk Together conflict resolution facilitation part with a big fat YES because I really wanted to make a contribution. Throughout the two weeks I felt this was what I was actually doing: trying to help, trying to give. And yes, the situation was not perfect, but so what? If one really wants, one can help in any situation, not only in perfect ones!

I knew there was no way everybody would be happy, but nevertheless for me every day was joyful, filled with numerous meaningful contacts with beautiful people around me, contacts that I will never forget and will always fill my heart. And there was sadness too, sadness about participants being prevented from coming as well as sadness about the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people suffering in this area and millions of people suffering in this very sad world of ours.

Nevertheless, I am truly happy to have observed that a certain amount of transformational learning did take place. Many participants walked out of the course with rather deep understanding of the principles of conflict resolution and with considerate integration of the principles of non-violent communication as the means of achieving human relations in which everyone’s needs can be met.

I was also very pleased to see the enthusiasm of the participants to help people in the conflict area; perhaps not with colossal political breakthroughs, but rather with small steps of connecting people, raising awareness and finding strategies of communication and mutual understanding, strategies that might work for every party.

And now, a few days after coming back home, I celebrate a lot. I celebrate all the beautiful hours we have spent together and all the beautiful things we have shared, I celebrate the facts that we managed to enrich each others’ lives and that we are likely to stay connected in one way or the other. I hope that the action plans presented on the last day will be carried out, making a step towards this conflict being resolved .

I am also feeling honoured to have met you all, to have been trusted and accepted by you, dear participants – well, I should rather say dear friends (the card with your messages is already attached above my desk, filling my heart with joy every day).

And I am feeling grateful for the support the rest of staff – a dream team like I have never experienced before: Mark and Edmund, Alice and Jennifer, Andy and Claire, Andrew and Melissa, and of course our magnificent film crew: Johnny, J.K:, Lucy, Adrian, Debi.

Hope to see you again sometime, some place…


The last day

August 19, 2009

Yesterday 22 Talk Together participants spent the day huddled in groups, spread around St Edward’s. Sprawled on the lawns or ensconced in quiet corners, they wielded fat marker pens, scribbling their ideas and thoughts on tablecloth-sized pieces of white paper. Their task was deciding what to do next.

The final day of the course had arrived, and while they had plenty of work left to do, they were also working on various methods of saying goodbye and thank you.  A matrix of large brown envelopes appeared on one of the noticeboards, each labelled with a participants’ name and ready to receive goodbye notes from their new friends.

As the sunny afternoon drew on, everyone gathered to hear the participants’ ideas. There were a wide variety of proposals. The first group suggested sponsoring teachers, bringing solar panels to the refugee camps and recycling tents left over from festivals in the UK. They proposed a variety of action points, and established there was a contact with a solar panel company on site. Another group proposed to set up support and infrastructure for those wanting to visit the camps, and another suggested a cross cultural arts exchange called ‘Drama for Sahara’.

The fourth group sought to involve the corporate world, and to set up a matchmaking service between NGOs needing volunteers and multinational companies wanting opportunities for their employees to receive training and teambuilding experience. The final group proposed setting up a website to provide a neutral hub for interested people to discuss the issue of Western Sahara and find penpals.

All participants will remain in touch, where they have access to the internet, through Facebook, emails, Skype and Achordus.  Achordus is a fully facilitated online discussion space which is designed to bring together groups of geographically separate people and encourage meaningful dialogue. The tagline is ‘Think together, grow together’, and the principles complement Talk Together perfectly.

After the participants’ presentations Andrew Brown, who founded Talk Together, asked for some of the headline conclusions that the participants had come to with regards to conflict resolution.

“A conflict should be resolved not won”

“Start the process of change with yourself”

“Involve the greatest world powers”

“Boost media coverage and public awareness”

“Figure out others’ needs”

After applause and thanks all those who helped make Talk Together happen, the participants embarked on their final exercise. Each had a sheet of paper taped to their backs and everyone was tasked with writing something positive on the back of everyone else, whether about their personality, something they’d done or an impression they had given. Snakes of participants stretched across the floor and a festive atmosphere descended.

Letter from the Foreign Office

August 18, 2009

Letter_20090817_Talk Together

Participant Bloggers #13 and #14

August 18, 2009

PB#13: “Yesterday, after 15:00 the interesting thing I found was Jacob Mundy’s video. He gave us clear picture of Western Sahara conflict which helped us in clarifying the actions and history. This made me belive that there is someone who can say the truth about Western Sahara and I liked that because it gave me hope.

“Today we worked on the strategies to find a solution for the conflict of Western Sahara.

“I really enjoyed the Model United Nations session which was leaded by Jane Kirkpatrick. She asked us to split to groups and each one had to represent a region; I was a Sahrawi delegate of Lyoune    .

“I think the end of yesterday was really nice, because we got such amazing presentation given by Mr Jacob Mundy, and it made me extremely happy….”

PB#14: “This programme is one of the most amazing things that’s happened in my life. It is great and am proud to be a part of this group.

“I’ve took a lot of things from the daily programme. Each day gave me new things and information or ways to deal with different kind of problems or situations.

“Today was a great day, from the beginning until the end and specially when every three students made a group together to represent a part of the conflict or a part that may have an effect on the conflict.

“What disappointed me a little is may be the group dialogue because it was the last one and it was very very silent and it is the first time, i really don’t know why??

“The strongest emotion i had today was when KC said that she will tell all her family about the participants about their stories about our story, so i felt that was coming from the very deep inside her.

“Robert, is a great person he made me know a lot of things and he made a lot of things very clear for me.

“In the reality I know a lot about may be all the countries of all the participants but I know that I still know nothing.

“In my free time I try to know more about the other participants and I try to let them know about me but unfortunately the time is not enough.

“I feel that Talk Together is a kind of social meeting let the people find solutions to their problems between themselves through a direct speech and understanding and far from violent ways…take peace as a symbol, and that’s what should be the way of looking for solve conflicts like this one.” 


Update on challenges facing Talk Together

August 17, 2009

Here’s a quick update on the challenges we have faced in incorporating the perspective from Morocco and from Layounne in this year’s Talk Together programme, and how we have responded.

Our participants travelling from Layounne through Agadir, and from Casablanca, were prevented from joining us. The presentation we were expecting from a member of Royal Advisory Council for Saharawi Affairs has not happened. We understand that Rabat has decided not to participate in the Talk Together programme.   

Our intention is to connect all parties, and to create a safe environment for meaningful dialogue and understanding to take place. 

We are very disappointed that the participants from Morocco and from Layounne have been unable to join us.  We believe that they would have brought an added richness, and an extra perspective, to the group of participants.  They themselves would also have benefitted enormously from the experience.

We have always been eager to hear the Moroccan and Layounne perspectives from speakers and participants in person.  We are therefore very disappointed that the participants were unable to join the programme, and that the speaker we were promised has not been able to attend. 

In the light of these challenges, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Moroccan and Layounne perspective have been properly included in Talk Together.   We have integrated many other visitors, activities and sources into the programme, to ensure that we have been able to understand both the Moroccan and Layounne perspectives as well as possible.

We are, as we have always been, happy to respond to any concerns raised by Rabat – or by any interested parties – in relation to our best intentions and motivations.

The quality of the presentation and inclusion of the Moroccan and Layounne perspectives will affect the views of our participants, those who follow the Talk Together programme on the internet, and those who will see the film worldwide.

Our invitation remains open to Rabat to work with the Talk Together participants.

Another perspective

August 17, 2009

Participant Blogger #13, who’s asked to be named,  shares his view of the daily group dialogue sessions.

“The group dialogue session on 13 August, was on two levels a special one. On a general scale because it was the first including the new participants who had just arrived from the refugee camps of Tindouf in South-West Algeria. Some lacking even basic English, it poses a continuous challenge for the course. As I was serving as the facilitator, it furthermore added value for me. A facilitator, briefly, has to prepare the session in addition to guiding the participants, preferably in an ironic, almost telepathic fashion.

“I have never participated in organised group dialogues, and facilitating is a tricky task – whilst attempting to paradoxically both interfere and withdraw it is really the initiation of each session that dictates the course of the specific dialogue, as I see it. The power truly lies in the hands of the facilitator when presenting the three maxims that serve as the ground stone for the session, not to forget the quote or poem read out for the group.

“I have had my reservations toward the concept of group dialogues. They tend to get overly emotional. Pathetic? Perhaps. Honest in a really dishonest way, at least. I. Just. Can’t. Stand. It. when people so obviously attempt to please the rest by lying to themselves, basically.

“In many ways it is the epitome of the human creed for justifying our presence. Many feel uncomfortable if they are not constantly reassuring themselves that what they have to contribute with is more important than that of others, even when it so evidently is not.”


News feature

August 17, 2009

A news feature focussing on the Talk Together students who were prevented from travelling to Oxford appears in The National, an English language daily based in Abu Dhabi.

Clouds, group dynamics and lateral thinking

August 17, 2009

Participant blogger #12 gives her description of a day in the life of  Talk Together.

“Over ten days of talking and sharing about more than three decades of conflict have passed, but with each day, the dynamics of the group are being challenged.

“This has been proven true after the presentation by the Moroccan journalist, which brought many different emotions and especially amongst the group from the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. For this, our visit to Wytham Abbey and listening to a presentation about something completely different was necessary to clear the “cloud” that has formed over the group. There, Dr. Stewart gave a talk about – as it has been described by one of the participants – The Project of the century. He presented the new breakthrough in air travel; a hybrid between aeroplanes and airships and it is called SkyCat.

“This  Lateral Thinking trip was meant to expose us to an idea that merges two completely separate ideas to come up with something revolutionary. Apart from that, it was a good change for the group and spending time in the garden was needed for a fresh breath of air and a different environment for our group dialogue process.

“Mediation has been by far the hardest nonviolent communication skill in the course. In theory, it is not that hard to follow the guidelines and the process of mediation. However, practice proves that wrong. In addition, the activity that we had to do was a true challenge for some people who either acted the perspective that they believe in or the perspective that contradict their personal principles.

“This was followed by three presentations; a presentation of the Moroccan perspective, a talk by Richard Starforth from Western Sahara Campaign UK and finally, an insight into the gender perspective of this conflict by Joanna Allan. I felt that these talks were informative and gave us other dimensions of the conflict.”