From the February 2016 issue of The Rotarian
There is a particular sound a gun makes when it’s being shot at you. First you hear the bullet break the sound barrier with a crack. Then you hear the bang of the gun being fired. That is the sound Rotary Peace Fellow Will Plowright heard while in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 2013. At the time, the city was divided among the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and a few al-Qaida members.
Plowright was in Aleppo to conduct interviews for his Ph.D. on armed groups and their motives. He found some reliable handlers through journalist contacts and made his way to the city. One day, his handlers drove him to old Aleppo, part of which was controlled by ISIS. There, Plowright sat in a local ISIS center, black flags hanging all around, guns leaning against the walls. For several hours he talked with a commander, a tall, bearded, broad-shouldered man in his mid-30s. Together they sat on the floor, drank tea, and ate small snacks. Occasionally the soldiers peppered him with questions about his country, who he was, and what he was doing.
“I met people who took up arms after their family had been killed or sometimes after their community had been attacked. One fighter in Syria told me that after his family was killed in a bombing, he felt he had no choice but to join the nearest armed group, since no one else was coming to help him,” Plowright says. “We think they’re psychopaths, they’re evil. But people in armed groups, they’re still people, just in horribly, horribly abnormal situations.” For two weeks he made his way around the city from group to group, interviewing leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front, and the former Syrian Islamic Liberation Front before a fragile truce broke down, and the sound of gunfire told him it was time to leave.
By the time he arrived in Syria, Plowright had been traveling for many years, ever since he finished high school and left Vancouver, B.C., where he grew up, to travel to England where his parents came from, then to Australia, and on to South America and Africa. “I realized that I was addicted to traveling,” he says. “But the kind of traveling I was doing wasn’t doing anything to address the suffering and poverty I saw in those places. I wanted to keep traveling but also work in a way that was actually productive for people other than myself.”
Plowright went back to school to study political science, then earned a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Meanwhile, he kept traveling and volunteering with organizations such as War Child Holland and the Darfur Australia Network. He worked with former child soldiers in Uganda and on HIV/AIDS projects in Swaziland. In Peru, he helped set up a school for street children run by Developing World Connections, a nongovernmental organization founded by several Rotarians.
As he learned to work in the field, Plowright became fascinated by what motivated armed groups, which became the focus of his doctoral work at the University of British Columbia. Over the next few years, he started interviewing the leaders of such groups about their use of child soldiers in Uganda, South Sudan, and other places. In northern Myanmar, he spent several months talking to leaders of the many groups fighting the government: the United Wa State Army, the Shan State Army, the Mon National Liberation Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, and others.
One morning, Plowright arrived at an outpost perched on a mountainside deep in the rain forest. Across the valley, the government troops were visible. When he walked into the small bamboo structure and sat across from the commander of one group fighting the government, a six-pack of Heineken was put on the table in front of him.
“I said, ‘No thanks. In my country we don’t drink beer in the morning.’ But I could tell my translator didn’t translate that. Then he said to me, ‘I think you should drink it. He’s being very nice to you, because they don’t even drink beer here. They drink local spirits. He went out of his way to get you beer. And it’s not just him. The other guys want to drink. You’re the guest, and in their culture if you’re not drinking then they can’t drink, and this is their day off.’”
So Plowright dutifully reached across the table, thanked the commander, and cracked open his beer, and the interview began. As he listened to their side of the story – the group was an ethnic minority persecuted by the government – he began to see the logic to it. “These meetings are interesting,” he says, “because you get to understand people and why they are fighting. They might be doing something you don’t agree with, or that you might not do yourself, but when you hear their story you find that they are often normal people.”
Back in Vancouver, as Plowright assembled his findings, one thing became clear: “Armed groups care very deeply about how they’re portrayed and what people think of them internationally,” he says. “They want to be seen as legitimate. In terms of the use of child soldiers, many armed groups around the world take the issue seriously and are trying to remove child soldiers from their ranks in order to increase their international legitimacy.”
Around the same time, Plowright learned of the Rotary Peace Fellowships and applied. He was accepted, and he spent three months in the summer of 2014 at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, taking classes, meeting other fellows, and learning about peace initiatives across the world. “Being connected to the network of Rotary fellows is amazing,” he says. “Within your own group you get to meet some incredible people, but they also connect you to the network of all the Rotary Peace Fellows.”
Not long after leaving Bangkok, Plowright parlayed his NGO experience into a job at Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan, where he ran a training program at an 800-person hospital in Helmand province. Last November, he returned to Chulalongkorn for the peace program’s 10th anniversary. There, he spoke to other Rotary fellows about his research on what leads people to join armed groups.
“When you use a term like radicalization, it’s connected to the idea of being brainwashed, like someone else has tricked that person and made them think these radical, crazy things,” Plowright says. “But what usually happens is that the person comes to believe those things for reasons that from their point of view are pretty rational.”
In most conflicts, he says, it’s rare to meet people who are forced to fight or who are fighting purely for material gain. That is why peace talks are so complicated: They must offer the different groups a space in which their grievances are addressed. Seeing things from the other side is key not only to researching conflicts, but to ending them as well. This is a line Plowright has walked often.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking when you’re interviewing people who others have accused of being war criminals,” he says. “But a lot of them have tragic stories. Some lost their whole family to their government. It’s hard to hear someone’s story like that, even if you don’t support the group they’re fighting for. They’re still human. They still suffer. In a lot of ways that’s the scarier part, because there aren’t monsters and bogeymen in the world. It’s normal people who do these horrible things.”