Thirty-two young leaders from India and Pakistan who have just completed a three-week conflict resolution programme in Maine under the auspices of The Seeds of Peace programme, were felicitated at the State Department by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, who hailed them as the leaders of tomorrow and the catalysts of peace in a region beset by conflict for far too long.
Boucher, whose bureau funds the students' participation in The Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine and subsequent follow-on activities in the region, said at the reception held in the Delegates Lounge at the State Department, "We are enormous fans of Seeds of Peace," and exhorted the students that "one of the things to think about is not just what you did this summer, but what you can do next summer and next year, and 10 years and 20 years from now."
He said, "We spend a lot of time working on diplomatic relations," between countries in conflict, and "I spend all my time working on India and Pakistan and Afghanistan and countries of this region. But in the long term, it's the people themselves who carry forward, and when I talk about trucks or I talk about melons or I talk about mangos or economic opportunities for Kashmir, I have to realise that in the end it's you who are going to make it happen. So you're starting something here that I hope goes on for a long, long time."
Negroponte, described them as a group of "extraordinary young people with the courage and the imagination to look beyond decades of conflict and envision a peaceful, hopeful future."
He predicted that the "young people we celebrate today will bring skills, perspectives, and experiences gained over the past three weeks back to their homes in India and Pakistan -- two countries that are important friends and partners of the United States, and two countries we want to see succeed."
"Educational exchanges are central to our efforts to deepen ties between the American people and Indians and Pakistanis. As Seeds of Peace shows, bringing citizens together to listen and learn is a powerful means by which nations can better understand one another and grow closer," Negroponte said.
He also urged the students to "participate in our programmes, whether it is through Fulbright scholarships or high school exchanges," and said, "We look forward to welcoming you back one day."
"In the meanwhile, I know you will continue your efforts to improve relations between your countries, and I encourage you to seek out opportunities at home to support tolerance and understanding," Negroponte said, and added: "Your dedication to religious and cultural tolerance, coexistence, and dialogue is important to achieving lasting peace."
"Imagination is an underrated part of foreign policy," Negroponte said and acknowledged, "I know it's often difficult, after decades of war and conflict, to imagine that the future could be not only different, but better."
"Progress is often frustratingly slow, and worse, sometimes suffers major setbacks," he conceded.
But Negroponte argued, "the challenge is to keep imagining a better future and to keep working to make what you imagine real. A principle of US foreign policy is that we have no permanent enemies. This principle challenges us to imagine that our enemies today can be our friends tomorrow, and to work to make that vision a reality."
He told the students that "by participating in the Seeds of Peace, you have shown that you have the imagination and dedication to carry this principle home, and to help give our societies the precious gift of peace."
Parikshit Choudhury, the designated spokesperson for the Indian participants, admitted that before coming to camp, he did have pre-conceived notions about the Indo-Pakistan conflict. "I had a different mindset about the conflict between India and Pakistan. I had read stories, I had read books, I had heard from the media, from my parents, relatives, their versions of how the conflict is, whose fault it is, and who is right, who is wrong."
"So, I had a mindset that I go to camp and I'll meet the Pakistanis over there, and then I have to prove it that we are right and maybe they are wrong," Choudhury added.
"That was what I thought. I admit it," he reiterated. "And then, you know, I went to camp. And the moment I set foot on camp, you know, I was completely taken over, overwhelmed by the love, the caring, the you know, the acceptance of the people over there, everyone," he said.
And, he said that as "the days rolled by, I could feel that I was developing a bond, a bond that cannot be broken by distance, a bond that cannot be broken by being in different countries or having different religions -- a bond that is completely based on trust and respect for each other. And then came the dialogues -- basically discussions we had with the people from the other side about the conflicts and about the disturbances we had in the 60 years of Independence."
Choudhury acknowledged that he was "nervous, apprehensive as to how it would go, what I have to say, how will I react when I hear something negative about my country."
"There were times when the discussions became very intense. It was really, sometimes hard to listen to things about my country, our country's army, our people, to share things which I thought wasn't true. But then in the dialogue, we were always told one thing -- that no matter what your views are about any situation, you must always learn to accept the other person's view, respect them. Tolerance, respect and trust, I believe, are the three most important qualities which we can use to make peace," he said.
At the end of the camp experience, Choudhury said, "One thing I've learned is that what I think is not true, not necessarily true, you know, I must always broaden my mind, accept what the others are saying, though I may not like it."
And as for Negroponte's advise to "sharing this experience with people back home, as for trying to explain to them how to be friends with different people, I cannot do big things at this moment. I may not be able to achieve a lot of things."
But, Choudhury pledged, "When I hear someone saying that we cannot be friends with the Pakistanis, we cannot live with the other side, we cannot co-exist, I can say no, it's not so. I mean, I've been there. I've seen how they are. I've made friends with the other side. And I can see that we are the same. We will be the same, and this world is ours."
Maria Azim, who did the honours for the Pakistani side, said the experience had "really taught us three importance lessons, which are: love, bonds of love, bonds of friendship, and above all, bonds of trust among one another, which are essential for survival and for a better tomorrow."
Azim also spoke of the dialogue sessions with the Indians "and we talked about different issues, ranging from Kashmir to partition and division of line, and so on. And we discovered that it is not exactly up to use to find a solution to these problems or to figure out whose fault it is all attributed to or anything. But at camp, we were at camp to make peace with one another."
She declared, "And, as the youth of today, we have a claim to a better, more peaceful tomorrow."
Azim then shared with the audience something she had written before coming to the camp, something short yet profound, which said, "We have one world to live in, one world to share, one world to care for, and our one world is here."
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