Unarmed Soldiers

Building a peace army, one person at a time

Dr. Martin Cook of the United States Army War College says trained civilians like those in Hartsough's group could fill in gaps in our armed forces.

"The military is configured for high-end combat, and is not well adapted to go into peacekeeping missions," explains Cook, who says he's expressing personal views, not those of the Army War College or the U.S. military. "[The Peaceforce] is pointing to a genuine gap between need and capability, for which there is a wide spectrum."

The story of Nineth Montenegro de Garcia is the most popular anecdote -- and it is only an anecdote, not empirical proof -- of the success of nonviolent intervention. Chronicled in detail in a book on unarmed accompaniment, the tale is often repeated by Hartsough and other Peaceforce supporters.

Joan Bernstein heads the Peaceforce Bay Area Affinity 
Paolo Vescia
Joan Bernstein heads the Peaceforce Bay Area Affinity group.
David Hartsough, pictured with his grandchild, 
co-founded the Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Paolo Vescia
David Hartsough, pictured with his grandchild, co-founded the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

As the story goes, in 1984, within the volatile political climate in Guatemala, Montenegro de Garcia's husband, a labor union leader at the Central American Glass Co., mysteriously disappeared. Witnesses told her that they had seen her 25-year-old husband taken by the police, but despite her persistence, authorities released no information about him and refused to investigate. She visited hospitals and morgues, but found nothing.

Montenegro de Garcia, then a fifth-grade teacher and mother of a 1-year-old, knew that her situation was not unique. After a United States-assisted coup in 1954 (which led to three decades of mostly military governments), a number of guerrilla groups emerged in Guatemala, and the country experienced extreme human rights violations as the government's "scorched earth" campaigns sought to eliminate those groups. During 36 years of civil war, an estimated 40,000 people suspected to be affiliated with the guerrillas vanished, and the government did little to investigate.

During her visits to the morgues and hospitals, Montenegro de Garcia began meeting other women who had lost their husbands, brothers, and sons, and in June 1994 she organized a memorial Mass. After the well-attended event, she formed an organization called Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, or the Mutual Support Group. Its activities became more political over time, and as members gained international media and governmental attention, they began receiving death threats.

David Hartsough was volunteering with Peace Brigade International at the time, and when he got to Guatemala, one GAM leader had already been assassinated. Still, GAM continued to organize, and Hartsough says he remembers accompanying members as they marched barefoot through Guatemala City in support of their missing relatives. "I have never been so scared that someone would open fire ...," he says. "These people were tremendously courageous. One of the leaders had been assassinated a week before, and another was assassinated three days after I left."

At the invitation of GAM, Peace Brigade International began providing unarmed accompaniment 24 hours a day. For the next five years, these Western bodyguards escorted members to meetings, to day care to pick up their children, and to church.

The assassinations stopped, but even with international accompaniment, Montenegro de Garcia continued to receive death threats and was confronted with loaded guns more than once at rallies and marches. Three countries offered her asylum, but she declined all of them in order to continue organizing.

In 1996, when peace treaties ended the country's civil war, she joined the Guatemalan Congress, where she focuses on human rights.

Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, the former president of Guatemala, later told Liam Mahony, a Princeton University lecturer who once volunteered for PBI and who has written a book on the subject, that the international presence had little to do with the decisions he made as head of state. But Montenegro de Garcia insists that international civilian accompaniment saved her life.

"Thanks to their presence, I am alive," she told Mahony in a 1994 interview for his book. "That is an indisputable truth. If it had not been for them, I would not be here telling you this today."

Though Montenegro de Garcia's story may be powerful and even convincing, there's been little research on the impact of civilian intervention, and it's been difficult for Peaceforce supporters to prove that their strategy works.

"The analyst is left to draw conclusions from circumstantial and coincidental information," Mahony writes in his book, Unarmed Bodyguards. "The links between cause and effect are fuzzy."

Michael Nagler, chair of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at UC Berkeley, who has endorsed the Peaceforce and who teaches nonviolent civilian intervention to his students, agrees. "It's difficult to document a war that hasn't happened," he says. "You can document bullets and airplanes, but when someone has a change of heart, you can't document it. You can collect anecdotes and resonate with it, but you can't make it into a spreadsheet."

Sri Lanka is a small, lush island just southeast of India, with palm-lined, sandy beaches and rolling hills thick with tea plantations. Despite its idyllic scenery, the country has been engaged in a vicious ethnic and religious civil war for decades.

Though tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority had existed for generations, it wasn't until the 1970s that the relatively peaceful society began to unravel, after a new constitution made Buddhism the state's primary religion and Sinhalese the official language. Civil unrest ensued, with Sinhalese security forces facing off against Tamils, who formed secessionist groups because they believed their culture was being repressed.

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