“From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says ‘Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’”
Julia Ward Howe wrote these words 145 years ago, just after the end of the U.S. Civil War. Her proclamation calling for mothers of all nations to come together to settle wars has morphed into the flower and greeting card fest that we will celebrate this weekend.
Let us honor our mothers (and Julia Ward Howe) by listening to the voices of mothers from some of the world’s 28 active war zones. Women are still calling for an end to bloodshed in every corner of the globe.
The war in the Central African Republic pits brother against brother, Christian against Muslim. Madame Kamouss raised her sons in Saidou, a poor community of cinderblock homes, and found herself mediating between her two sons, who had chosen different sides in the conflict. She hid one and reminded the other of how he had been raised to respect people of all faiths. “Do you want to hurt your brother?” she asked, before her other son came out of hiding. They reunited warily, but did not fight any longer, as a long article in Slate magazine last August reported.
Over 100,000 people died in a decades-long war in the Philippines before negotiations ended the conflict in 2013. The work of repairing, healing and restoring goes on even as violence continues to mar the peace. Froilyn Mendoza grew up in a small Mindanao village as a member of the Teduray tribe. Her parents pushed for her to be educated, even though many women from her tribal group remained illiterate. The Teduray nominated Mendoza to represent indigenous voices in peace negotiations between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and she became part of the Transition Committee.
“When I hear my children praying that my meetings will end soon, I explain to them that I am serving our people,” she said. “We’ve had 40 years of war, we’ve not developed because we’ve always been confronted with the conflict. I now want my children to live without fear.”
Shereen named her youngest daughter Ayenda, which means future. She and her two daughters live in a refugee camp in Kawergosk, Iraqi Kurdistan. They fled Syria in the early days of the violence, which has now killed upwards of 300,000 people. More than 2 million children are displaced like Ayenda and her sister Yasmine. Their mother’s wish and plea for the future is simply peace and to go home. Resistance continues inside Syria too, and women are at the forefront of trying to resist the regime through nonviolent means.
It is not just in far flung war zones, however, that mothers are calling for peace and justice. In our own cities and towns, grieving women demand that violence and bloodshed cease. For Gloria Darden, the pain is almost too much for words. “I got a hole in my heart,” the mother of Freddie Gray tells NBC News. Gray died on April 19, after being beaten and brutalized by Baltimore police officers on April 12. The six officers involved in death have been criminally charged, but this is just the beginning of the change that is needed.
Gwen Carr is the mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was choked to death by police officers in July 2014. The man responsible for her son’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, has not been held accountable. Carr spoke to the thousands who took to the streets to protest her son’s death, calling on them to “keep on doing it, but do it in peace.”
Valerie Bell is asking us for more. Her son, Sean Bell, was killed by New York City police officers on the eve of his wedding in 2006. She weeps with Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Carr and so many — too many — more mothers. She says no more. As the founder Mothers of Never Again, Bell is helping to organize a demonstration at the U.S. Department of Justice on Saturday, May 9, demanding justice and racial equality in the names of their slain children.
“This Mother’s Day,” Bell pleaded, “let’s come together to demand an end to this cycle of violence, this society of institutionalized racism and police militarization. We are healers, teachers, caretakers, givers of life, and so much more. Mothers are powerful; if we come together, we can be unstoppable.”
You can hear the echoes of Julia Ward Howe in her words. So, in the spirit of the original Mother’s Day Proclamation, and on behalf of our mothers, in the names of the victims of war, let us join Valerie Bell and so many others in working for true and lasting peace, which is built on justice.
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Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.