Communities Resisting War


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Christine Schweitzer is the Chair of WRI, researcher at the Institute for Peace Work and Nonviolent Conflict Resolution (, and works for the German NGO 'Federation for Social Defence' (   She has more than 30 years of experience as a practitioner and researcher in nonviolence movements.  She resides in Hamburg, Germany.

In 1996, after a two year siege, the Taliban occupied Kabul and created the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.  Their troops moved through Afghanistan seeking to bring the whole territory under their control.  In 1997 they approached Jaghori, a district in the central highlands of Afghanistan.  The inhabitants of Jaghori, probably 200,000 people, were Shia, the Taliban Sunnis.  The Jaghori therefore had every reason to fear the Taliban.  But instead of either fleeing, or settling for armed resistance as they had done at the time of the Soviet invasion, they decided to surrender, but negotiate conditions which would allow them to maintain their way of life.  Central to that was the education of girls.  The Taliban grudgingly agreed to allow primary primary education for girls to continue, but forbade any secondary education for them.  However, the Jaghori also continued providing secondary education for girls, tricking visiting Taliban officials by pretending that the older girls were teachers, for example.  All teachers also continued to teach science, history and maths – again, only when delegations were expected did they switch to Taliban-approved religious materials.

In 1994, during the genocide in Rwanda, it was the Muslim minority that protected Tutsis from being murdered.  They hid them, gave them refuge in Mosques, and sometimes even pretended to marauding groups that they had already killed their neighbours.  They did not always succeed, and in some instances leaders of the Muslim communities were killed, but there were almost no Muslims who were afterwards prosecuted for participating in the genocide, and the percentage of Tutsis surviving in Muslim areas was much higher than average.

These are two examples out of 13 case studies, collected between 2002 and 2006 by the Collaborative of Development Action, an organisation founded by one Mary B. Anderson and well known for developing the Do No Harm Principle. Opting Out of War,1 written by Anderson and Marshall Wallace, summarises the lessons learned through a comparison of these cases.  It analyses cases of communities that decided to stay out of conflict rather than joining one side or another.  They, with a couple of exceptions, neither aimed at nor had concrete impact on the broader war surrounding them.  Their goal was to protect themselves from that war by not participating, and they had rather amazing success at doing so, given the circumstances.  And if the essence of conscientious objection is the refusal to participate in war, then these cases are examples of conscientious objection.

Many people probably know about the peace communities in Colombia, and some may have heard about the peace zones created in Mindanao/ the Philippines.  But who knows about the two examples quoted here, the Muslims in Rwanda and the Jaghoris in Afghanistan?  The thirteen cases the authors researched are: Afghanistan, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Fiji, India, Kosovo, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.  And though each of these cases has its singular features, they also have many things in common.  To start with, all the communities anticipated the conflict.  They did not pretend that 'it won’t come to it', but prepared themselves, and weighed the costs and options of participation versus non-participation.  With one exception – that of the Rwandans – the decision to stay out of the war was made on a pragmatic basis, not on ethical or religious grounds.  Some communities were proud to have participated in earlier wars, and did not exclude the possibility of fighting in future wars.  It was the war in question they rejected and decided not to participate in.  They all chose a 'non-war identity', as the authors call it: instead of choosing one of the identities of the conflict, meaning joining one of the parties to the conflict, they distanced themselves from those parties by choosing an identity that strengthened their cohesion and communicated their rejection of the war to the outside world.  Such identities could be based on religion, or status as citizens of one town rather than a shared ethnic identity, or indeed, even ethnic identity in some cases.  The important thing was that these identities were 'normal' and pre-existing.  They were not arbitrarily developed but were present beforehand, and had only to be filled with new collective values of non-participation in war.

Unfortunately, the study does not provide detail on how decisions were made in the communities which adopted these identities, or on what role was played by different groups within the communities, such as people of different genders.  Indeed, there is very little information in the book on the role of gender.  Though it seems the formal leaders in the communities were mostly if not all men, it would have been interesting to see if, for example, women played a more active role in the resistance than in other communities choosing a 'war' identity, but given the lack of information on this in the book, this has to remain a consideration for future study.  We do know, however, that the leaders of the non-war communities were not charismatic figures, no Gandhis or Abdul Ghaffar Khans, and the leadership in all cases was the one from before – it did not change with the onset of war.  What the leadership models of all the non-war communities had in common was a flat hierarchy and that they were always accessible to all community members.  Another important factor _they had in common was that the cohesion of the community was strengthened by the maintenance of social services (like schools and clean drinking water), often by the formulation of explicit rules on how to behave (codes of conduct), and by setting up security measures like early warning systems.

In all cases, dialogue with the armed groups was very important.  This is something these communities have in common with most successful cases of civil resistance against authoritarian regimes.  As comparative studies about such resistance have found, contact with the armed forces and the attempt to win their sympathy, or even support, is one of the most decisive factors.2  The communities often had to make compromises, and in some cases they had to suffer occupation – either by passing troops or on a permanent basis like in Afghanistan.  But they all managed to avoid being drawn fully into the fighting though they sometimes had to suffer violence from the side of the armed groups.  Anderson and Wallace distinguish six strategies the groups used:

1. Use of pre-existing networks to convince combatants that they were honest and serious
2. Direct negotiations with all sides
3. Policy of the 'Open Door', meaning being inviting to all sides when they came.
4. Confrontation of the armed groups (most risky strategy, failed most often)
5. Co-option of armed groups (e.g. involving officers or civil servants into activities of the community)
6. Trickery, for example the Rwandan Muslims pretending that they had already killed the Tutsi in their neighbourhood, or the Jaghoris pretending that high school girls were teachers, not pupils.

Anderson and Wallace write in their conclusions: 'we should not romanticise the non-war communities explored in this book. Many of them compromised things they cared about to appease armed groups.  People were sometimes killed.  Internal dispute resolution systems were necessary because community members had real disagreements.  Maintaining solidarity required constant effort in the face of uncertainty.  Non-war communities were made up of real people, with real emotions, trying to live normal lives under extraordinarily difficult circumstances'.3  The story of the communities ‘opting out of war’ should not be misread as the story of ideal, pacifist, nonviolent communities then.  They probably had a good share of internal strife, inequality, and intolerance, just like the neighbouring communities who were participating in war.  This is one good reason – though not the reason given in the book – to describe them as 'non-war' rather than 'peace' communities.  Peace, after all, is not only the absence of war but the positive presence of justice, although justice is likely to be more easily achieved in a community that is not at war.  Indeed, the book could be enhanced with a discussion of how attempts to achieve a just internal peace fared in these communities, if such attempts were made.  The concerted efforts to maintain social services and introduce codes of conduct could be interpreted as such, but the fact that in some cases the men even emphasised that they were proud to have been fighters in other wars suggests that, at least in the communities of those men, gender justice could not have fared very well – it never can while a model of masculinity is maintained in which the capacity to wreak violence, even if only under certain circumstances, is a source of pride.  We might also question how long communities in which this model of masculinity is maintained can remain 'non-war'.

To include, though not to romanticise, the story of these communities in a book on conscientious objection is nonetheless important, because it brings the issue of conscientious objection from the individual to the group level.  If the essence of conscientious objection is the refusal to participate in war, then these cases are examples of CO.  They are examples for real life civilian-based defence,4 though that is not the topic here.  They do not, however, exemplify a form of conscientious objection where the 'conscientious' is writ large and which refers to a deep ethical commitment to nonviolence.  Only the Rwandan Muslims explained their choice on the grounds of their faith and the demands made by the Quran not to kill, not to differentiate between people, and to protect the weak and assist people who are discriminated against.26  All the others made pragmatic decisions.  In this, these cases are again comparable to the many cases of civil resistance around the world where a mostly pragmatic approach to nonviolence is also predominant.

Many people hold against nonviolent approaches that nonviolence is only possible if you are a ‘holy man’ like Gandhi and your opponents are as ‘civilised’ as the Brits.  The communities discussed here illustrate that it does not require one strong nonviolent leader or hero, but a community of people able to cooperate.  And they have demonstrated that saying 'no’ to war has been possible even in the face of genocide or when pitted against extremist groups like the Taliban.  In doing so, they have made an extremely strong case for war resistance.

1. Anderson, Mary B. and Wallace, Marshall 2013, Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict, (Boulder/London: Lynne Rienner Publishers).
2.  e.g. Chenoweth, Erica und Stephan, Maria J. 2011, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, (New York: Colombia University Press); Nepstad, Sharon Erickson 2011 Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
3.  Anderson, Mary B. und Wallace, Marshall 2013, p171.
4. Civilian-based defence is a concept developed by peace researchers and militaries after World War 2 on how to defend yourself when war is no longer possible because it would lead to utter destruction. Among its main features are allowing physical occupation but defending one’s own way of life, and non-cooperation with the occupier as the central leverage the occupied have in the face of an occupier depending on their eventual cooperation.

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