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Peace Files: Letters from the field

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Esther Kern, unarmed civilian peacekeeper.
Esther Kern, unarmed civilian peacekeeper.


Menno Meijer

23 February 2013

First in a series of posts on Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers as I travel with them into areas of conflict. Does Canada need Bill C-373, an Act to Establish the Department of Peace? To contribute to this work, please visit the campaign page.

London - It is time to change the conversation. While soldiers may do heroic things, the idea of resorting to state violence to solve problems is problematic in itself. This is especially true in the 21st Century where the ratio of civilian to military casualties in conflict is 10 to one. While war photographers play a crucial role in keeping us informed of human rights violations, there must be another conversation. We must speak of the people who risk their lives in peace for peace. Without the peacemakers, we would no longer be here. We all desire peace for ourselves, our families and our communities. In the 1960s I was moved by the book The Family of Man, a photographic journey through humanity of the day. Since then I see the world, my world, reflected in the faces of everyone I meet. We are all one family. I desire peace for us all.

I come from a family that resisted the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. My grandparents harboured Jewish people in their home at great personal risk. My father, uncle, and grandparents all worked in the Dutch resistance. They did not use violence. They resisted by non-compliance and by working under cover to save human lives. They were, and remain, my heroes. I grew up on stories of the occupation. I grew up in the 60s and 70s witnessing the transformative power of non-violent resistance to the Vietnam War and to Black oppression. Today oppression continues around the globe and here in Canada. The resistance is strong. There are many other heroes standing up against military might and aggression with nothing more than their belief in peace. I will tell their stories. Today I met one of those people.

Today I met Esther at Tim’s in London to be briefed on my upcoming experience in Palestine as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. Esther works in the Toronto office of CPT and lives in London where she also works as an exhibition guide at Museum London. Having served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 10 years gave me a very particular idea of what a peacekeeper looks like. A big burly guy in fatigues with a rifle and a blue beret backed up by the full power of the state. My research into unarmed civilian peacekeeping made it clear this did not have to be the case. Esther is the personification of the dichotomy between armed and unarmed peacekeepers

Esther Kern has been a peacemaker for 6 years. She is a retired nurse and wife of a US war resistor who fled the USA after incarceration and torture for desertion. Being a conscientious objector was a path not available to him being from a family of ex-military men. After a daring escape from a military penitentiary, he contacted Esther, whom he had met at school, and she rented a car driving seven hours to collect him. Their journey ended in Canada where the couple still reside today.

Esther made a career of nursing but after retirement wondered what to do with her life. She became active with a war resistor group on London helping a new wave of soldiers who fled the US to disengage from the atrocities the American military were involved with in Iraq and Afghanistan. And she joined Christian Peacemaker Teams to become an active unarmed civilian peacekeeper in conflict zones around the globe.

Esther grew up in an Old Order Amish family. Peace has been a part of her life since birth and has defined her entire life. She has withstood having coffee thrown in her face while standing witness with protesters in Israel, has faced threats and abusive language from West Bank settlers, and has witnessed violence. But the strength of unarmed civilian peacekeeping meant that wherever Esther participated in accompaniment in communities and at checkpoints, authorities reigned in their violence.  Her lifelong dedication to peace has been transformed into security for those with whom she stands.

She is a retired woman of small stature and great spirit – no match for soldiers.

Menno Meijer is a documentary photojournalist and a member of medium in London, Ontario.

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Menno Meijer (Menno Meijer)
Member since March 2008


Documentary Photojournalist BA - Social Justice and Peace Studies / Political Science MA - UWO Political Science

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