By Antonia Jenkins, Community and Workplace Mediator, Trainer and Conflict Coach.
In 1996, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, with my family, two years after the 20 year civil war had ended. The tell tale reminders of the violence were still all around us; Bombed out buildings and check points everywhere, guarded by young soldiers with impressive looking machine guns. Coming from peaceful Thailand, it was an eye opener. We quickly learned to make our home there however and to love the people and the culture, despite their quirks and peculiarities. I was to spend seven happy and challenging years there where I managed a number of educational and humanitarian projects across the Lebanon in the prison system.
The main emphasis of my work was at the men’s prison in Roumieh, home to over 7000 men, all crowded into tiny dark cells. Typically, 5 – 8 men shared cells of approximately 3 x 5 metres. The men only had 1 hour per day of “yard time” and it was obvious to me that they would greatly benefit from some type of activity out of their cells. This was to become the focus of my work there.
My first visit to the prison was to the factory where the men with long sentences were allowed to work and make things that they could sell. They would rely on people like me to sell those items to the well-to-do community of Beirut and make a living to support their families. Through my visits at the factory, I got to know quite a few of the men who spoke English or French who would tell me their stories. This is where I touched the depth of inequality and many cases, complete injustice that still runs rampant in some countries of the Middle East.
I have met people in the Middle East who should have never gone to jail. It was painful to realise that in that region if you don’t know “anyone” of importance, if you don’t have any “wasta” and the other party does, you have lost your case. “Wasta” is tantamount to “favour pulling” and in a country where the culture is still very tribal, this is very real.
Initially I was astounded to discover that amongst a cross section of prison inmates who had never had access to education, there were some well educated people – fluent English speakers, former business people and university students from wealthy backgrounds. Many were victims of a legal system that was too flawed to dispense justice, where the powerful were judged according to one law and the rest by another. This was particularly obvious when politicians were jailed by their rivals.
Aside from changing some of the laws (unpaid debt resulted in a prison sentence) how much better would it have been to have a system of mediation where the real needs of each party were addressed, where they could have come together and had a chance to work on agreements that were an advantage to both parties. For example, in the case of a debt, wouldn’t it be better for the debtor to be allowed to be free to work and repay his debt? The law would not allow for this, but mediation could have done.
Another example is when someone died, through a mistake or even by intention. Wouldn’t it be better in some cases, if some arrangement was set up so that the person responsible could pay by supporting the family of the deceased through his own earnings if the family found it agreeable and depending on their need. It is not for me to suggest any specific outcome, but mediation would give two or more disputing parties the opportunity to communicate about their deeper needs, especially the injured party and in so doing pave the way for restorative justice, as opposed to a big waste of a life.
It is time for the mediation community to reach out to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa and help establish it as a regular practice. It already exists at high political level and extending it to everyday citizens would be like providing a lifeline for many. This is particularly true of Islamic countries in which Islam gives guidelines that are quite compatible with mediation. Surely giving access to mediation and facilitating preparation agreements are much better options than compelling people to waste years in jail.