“We have to stand by these people on their journey toward peace”
Irma Pidtepa, CMI’s Project Officer in Ukraine, knows how it is to run from the fighting in night clothes and never return home. She also knows from experience that peace is possible but that it takes time and hard work. “Change will not come in the blink of an eye. It’s a long road that one needs to walk and that’s why we have to keep doing our work and stand by these people on their journey toward peace.”
Irma Pidtepa started to work for CMI in 2014 at the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “Before joining CMI I was engaged with a dialogue project in Crimea, and after that it was a natural next step for me to want to join CMI and its work in Ukraine. Now, when I look back it makes me think that I was ready for this work.”
During the Crimea project Irma realised that by working in the field she could make herself most useful to the peace efforts and really make a change.
She was born in Ukraine but comes from a family with an international background of strong Georgian-Abkhaz-Ukrainian roots. The conflict in Ukraine is already the second to have impacted her family, and these experiences have given her a more in-depth perspective concerning her work.
“I have this personal understanding of what people are feeling in a conflict, and it helps a lot professionally to be able put yourself in the shoes of the people we work with. I am half Georgian/Abkhaz and half Ukrainian. The first time my family was hit hard was during the conflict in Abkhazia.”
“This was when I witnessed how refugees from my own family could not properly settle in another country, even though they had family there to support them. I got to learn about the pain felt when someone is killed in a conflict for no obvious reason, or, say, when a history teacher is found face down in a ditch in the city where he had taught children for more than 40 years. I know the pain of people who ran from the fighting in their night clothes never to return to their homes. I know the pain of when you can’t go to your parents’ or your brother’s funeral, when they died by accident during the fighting. I know all this pain from my family’s experiences. I can easily put myself in the shoes of people having to experience conflict.”
Irma knows from experience that peace is possible but that it takes time and hard work.
“Change will not come in the blink of an eye. It’s a long road that one needs to walk and that’s why we have to keep doing our work and stand by these people on their journey toward peace.”
Working for CMI has made her understand that “at the end of the day it’s all about people”.
Flexibility and long-term commitment make a trusted actor
Irma currently works on dialogue processes concerning the conflict in and around Ukraine. “I take care of the stakeholder relationships and deal with organising our events to make it possible for the dialogue events to happen and the discussions to continue.”
Together with the Women in Peacemaking team, Irma organised and led CMI’s Peace Innovation Challenge pilot project in Ukraine in 2018-2019.
“It was a very successful project and it proved the necessity of having diversity in all the processes focused on peace issues.”
“Peace On a Palm”, the winning organization of the CMI Challenge presented a project about creating a public space called “Lampochka”, where residents of a host community and people displaced by the war in eastern Ukraine (IDPs) can meet, engage and inspire each other to do various joint activities.
The Covid-19 situation has delayed the launch of the public space project. The initiative aims to reduce the stigma that IDPs experience and encourage individuals and civil society organisations to develop creative ideas for enhancing inclusive participation in peace building in Ukraine.
CMI has been working in Ukraine since 2009, when it started supporting Ukraine’s expert community in building a network of experts to work on conflict prevention and peace building in the Black Sea Region. Irma says that CMI is a trusted actor in Ukraine.
“We are flexible in our work, and over the years our stakeholders have seen that we are committed to long-term engagement. We are not going to suddenly disappear from the field, and we are always ready to provide support.”
Creating safe places is crucial in virtual environments
After much of the world switched to virtual mode amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been much discussion about security issues concerning many of the online platforms. Irma and the team have been ensuring that the platforms they use are as secure as possible to enable the safe attendance of stakeholders who want to continue with the dialogue online.
“You had to start building the trust among people within these virtual platforms, not from scratch of course, but had to assure them that all the risks have been identified and taken care of”, says Irma.
In addressing these risks, the team has been able to continue its work virtually.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to operate in a space you do not know or cannot completely manage, because there are so many things that are out of your control. We try to make it as secure, safe and friendly as possible. This is core of the virtual work.”
While the meetings continue online, Ukraine has started to lift its restrictions regarding the spread of the virus. The airports have reopened, even though travel is still quite restricted for Ukrainians. The lockdown has taken a toll on many small businesses, including restaurants and cafes. A lot of people went out of business, meaning that many people now face insecurity and uncertainty.
“The virus does not seem so scary now compared to not being able to support your family. People tend to focus on more obvious threats, unfortunately.”
Stable societies are better able to withstand different shocks to the system, including a disease pandemic. CMI’s work is about bringing people together to engage in dialogue to find ways to resolve their disputes and so to stabilise their societies.
“I think this pandemic and the whole issue of social distancing actually shows the importance of the work we do, and the value of our approach — of making people the focal point of our work.”
Peace Notes is CMI’s series of short accounts of CMI staff in different regions. In each article a staff member describes their work and how the global coronavirus pandemic impacts the situation they work with.