House keys represent safety, family, independence and new beginnings. In a sense they are our most valuable possession. They are always with us, and yet they are the first thing a person fleeing from crisis no longer needs.
These are stories of homes lost to conflict, of keys waiting to be brought back in use and of people hoping to find a way to return home. Each of them is a reminder that every conflict involves human loss. But also that every conflict is human made and that it is humanity that can end what it started. We all hold the keys for peace.
Back in Afghanistan we lived in a lovely apartment on the 9th floor. I had decorated our terrace with little lights, palm trees and other plants – it was our family’s own little haven in a restless country. I was an entrepreneur with several businesses, but I was also an activist, which led to our family being persecuted. Eventually, the disturbances and attempts on our lives made us flee the country.
And yet, on August 21st, the day we fled, I was not somehow ready to leave Afghanistan, though I knew it was the right decision for my children and their safety. The airport was chaotic – people were crushing and crawling over each other. I still see it in my nightmares. My husband and I were held at gunpoint, my children were crying and one of them almost got shot. After many attempts, we got on a plane towards Poland.
I am a woman of many titles: an entrepreneur, a journalist, an activist and now I am also a refugee. I miss the life we had built in Afghanistan, but I no longer believe returning is an option. We are now opening an Afghan restaurant in Poland.
Fled from Afghanistan to Poland in 2021.
I lived with my children in Sévaré in the Mopti region. We lived in a mud house with two rooms and a toilet. Life was good because even though we were poor and lived in precarious conditions, our home was a safe and peaceful place.
We fled on a Tuesday morning in 2012. I feared for my safety, we had to leave everything behind and escape. My key, which became redundant that morning, is large and light-coloured, the lock on my apartment was black. I got the keys a long time ago. I’ve heard that my home is run down and a total ruin these days – something I expected, as the building requires constant maintenance.
Just the fact that I can feel safe today gives me a sense that I’ve survived. If I get guarantees of safety, I will return home. But I would like to be able to support myself and my children, and build a new life and house so that we could live in peace.
Internally displaced person in Mali.
I fled my home and country for Belgium on 19 August 2015. I made this decision after receiving death threats and spending four months in hiding. I left alone with some personal belongings with the hope of returning to my country after a few weeks, just long enough for the situation to calm down. But I was wrong. I had to wait six long years before I set foot on Burundian soil again. Life in exile is never easy, even though I had already experienced it 41 years ago.
When I arrived home on the evening of 29 August 2021, I felt an indescribable inner peace within me but also sorrow for not having succeeded in bringing with me all my unfortunate companions who remained in exile.
The key to my house symbolizes a safe, calm and peaceful place for me and my family. This is the key to my social stability. I believe every Burundian should have the right to live or to return home at any time they wish without any conditions. Exclusion and selfishness can in no way help Burundi develop or its people live together like brothers and sisters.
Returned home to Burundi from Belgium.
Back in Timbuktu I was a radio host. My fondest memory of my home is when just before dawn I’d take my chair and sit in front of my door and contemplate everything I see. At that moment, it became like a place of devotion for me.
On one April day in 2012 we left our house in a rush. We couldn’t take everything we wanted with us. We were just looking to get out and save our own lives. We didn’t even close the door after us. My uncle tried to save whatever things he could, then he locked the house and sent us the key after.
I dream of one day returning home and living like I did before. But it all depends on peace. Confidence must be rebuilt in our lives and in our hearts. For peace to return one day, we need dialogue. We need to sit down, understand each other and find agreement. We need to understand that we are one people who must live together, move forward together, and understand that these weapons are not going to fix anything for us.
Talfi Ag Mohamed
Internally displaced person in Mali.
My home was an apartment on the 12th floor of the Palestine Residential Tower, in Gaza. It is where I spent my childhood, where I later married and had children. I lived there with my wife, four sons and my mother.
On Friday 5 August 2022, eight bombs struck the east and west sides of my home building. At first, we were not sure whether the first explosion had been inside the apartment building. Then we saw shattered glass everywhere, window frames plucked out, and the door to our apartment wide open. There were no warnings and the tower was targeted without any warning.
We now live in our relatives’ house. The Tower would need three to six months of renovation work. My wife tells me to sell it, because we would be re-living the painful memories of the incident. But my heart, soul and mind tell me that I should not be selling our home. I have so many memories there. It has the soul of my late father. I am just a human being who has nothing to do with any conflict. The Palestinian people in general, and the people of Gaza strip in particular, they have very simple wishes. We only wish to be able to live in peace and we do not ask for the impossible – only the implementation and respect of humanitarian standards and laws.
Lost his home in Palestine in August 2022.
My name is Aminoutou and I come from Kabara, a district of Timbuktu. Before the crisis, I was a housewife. I also helped women to become organised and we set up an association. Everything was going very well, but then the conflict started.
I left Kabara on 2 April 2011 with my mom, uncles, aunts and my three children. We left everything we had and just ran for our lives. We came to Bamak. Here, we stay in only one place from morning till night, never leaving it. We’re not used to staying in just one place, it’s even traumatising. Not having our own house here is very difficult for us. We live in a rented place and we don’t know where to go.
The memory I carry with me from our home in Kabara was how the women used to come every morning and evening to fetch water. It gave us a chance to just talk about things. I really miss that a lot. Now every three to six months we hear that someone has been murdered in Karaba. For peace to return, one day, we must join hands and forgive each other. And as a Christian I believe praying helps too.
Internally displaced person in Mali.
I remember our time in Kabul very vaguely. It was a small home, we weren’t rich. We lived on rent. Father was in the military and he also worked a second job, so he could provide food for our family. I lost my father when the Taliban first invaded Afghanistan. In 1999 we fled to Iran. I was five years old. We lived in Iran for six years before coming to Finland.
When we left Iran, one key was left in mom’s bag. It’s a really ordinary key. When mom told me this was the key to our old home, I didn’t really believe her at first. That kind of key goes into regular locks – thin, narrow, made of metal. Kind of like a bike key.
When you escape conflict, it can be hard to figure out what to take with you. It all happens so suddenly. But your memories are the most important. Mother took a few photographs and some papers with her – one with a poem written by my father.
I don’t think military action could ever be a solution. The most important thing is dialogue because that gives us hope.
Fled from Afghanistan to Finland via Iran.
The house I lived in was a mud-brick house, like most houses in Timbuktu. I really enjoyed spending time outside with friends in the corner of the yard where I could see the sun.
Even though there had been uprisings, rebellions and famine before, I never thought that one day I would have to leave my home. The attack began on the 2 April 2012 and at first I was determined to stay. But after a few days, the pro-independence groups had been replaced by jihadist terrorist groups. I knew that my job made it unsafe for me to stay.
The day I left home, I was wearing a suit and could only take a spare suit and my ID card with me. This key was not actually with me at the time and its story is a difficult one for me to tell. After I had left, some men ordered my neighbour to let them into my house. They took pretty much everything I had. It was only after the intervention of the French army in 2013 that my neighbour managed to send me some of the possessions that had not been taken – including my guitar and the key to this house.
Today we are living in a place we don’t know and in houses that are not ours. Living in the conflict is very hard and we struggle just to pay rent. But we are forced to stay here as it is not safe to return home. There are too many robberies, roadblocks, bandits and settling of scores. People are targeted and killed at night and there are land mines everywhere. I want to go back home so badly, but I know it is not yet possible. We need peace, security and government back in the region first. I also think some financial compensation is important to avoid future tensions. But the art of forgiveness is the key to real, lasting peace.
Mohamed Aly Ag Aleyda
Fled from Timbuktu to Mali in 2012.
My parents currently live in the house that we had to leave. It is a very old one, I think from the 17th century. It survived two world wars, many Balkan wars, but it did not survive the last one. It was almost obliterated. My mother was never sorry about the house, because it could be repaired, but she was sorry about losing family items of great emotional value. I am the fourth generation to have lived in this house.
I just gave birth to a daughter. When the war started, in 1992, I was the same age as my daughter is now. My mother couldn’t take anything with her, she only managed to hide some money in my diapers. We got separated from my dad, who was in the military. It is hard for me to imagine that my own daughter would not see her father in three years. But there is a stroke of serendipity in our story: my father survived with a bullet in his leg, as the person who caught my father refused to kill him then and there. Later in the post-war years, this person was framed by his own military for war crimes he didn’t commit. It was my father who then found documents that confirmed his innocence. Today they are very good friends.
When we were able to return to Bosnia we found our house key under some trash in the yard. We have a hidden place for it in the garden. If my mother was not home when I got back from school, I would just go there and take the key. My friends also knew where the key was. Now that I think of it, anyone could have robbed us quite easily.
It’s not easy to build lasting peace. We would be closer if we would have more justice in my hometown. The flag and many other symbols remind Bosniaks in Stolac of ethnic cleansing they endured in the war. We will build peace when everyone is equal and everyone feels welcome.
Returned home to Bosnia from Croatia.
I remember my house well. We had a traditional and spacious family home with a big yard. We had to leave our home behind when we left Mopti at noon on 2 February 2012. It was no longer safe for my family nor for my children to stay, so all of us left together – me, my wife, our children, my mother and brothers.
Our life in Mopti was challenging but we managed. We are currently living in Fana where we have felt welcome. However, we have little income or resources, so life for us is very, very difficult.
I know our house is still there, although it is run down. I actually got this key back three years after we had left. Our front door was broken and the key had fallen on the ground, but my friend found it and sent it to me. Once Mopti becomes safe again, we’ll go back home.
We should bring all the different communities together to discuss. We know what our problems are, so we will find a solution. I would hope that we could seek peace with all the means at our disposal, so that one day we could all return home.
Mohamed Ag Maha
Internally displaced in Mali.
When bullets are flying everywhere, the only option you have is escape. All the people of Tawergha were forced to leave their homes. Some even had to leave their food cooking, burning on the stove.
I am a member of the reconciliation committee of Misrata and Tawergha. I still have the keys to my home in Misrata, but someone else is living there now. Right after the war in 2011, we started working on bringing the 42 000 inhabitants who had fled Tawergha and scattered across Libya back to the city. On the 1st of February 2018, the return finally started. We could not have come back to Tawergha without the help of local NGOs and international NGOs such as CMI.
When I returned to Tawergha, it was a city of ghosts. The roads were closed. No power, no water supply, no life. But after two years of construction work, I now have my own key – to my new home.
Abdelnabi Mohamed Abdelnabi Abuaraba
Former internally displaced person in Libya.
I was born in Viipuri in 1937, then part of Finland. My father worked for the Viipuri Army Service’s vehicle maintenance and my mother stayed home looking after our family. In November 1939, the President of Finland Kyösti Kallio declared over the radio that Finland was at war with the Soviet Union. We were told to leave our home and take with us provisions for five days: a blanket, cooking utensils, a change of underclothes, socks, a towel, and some soap. I was only two years old at the time.
Along with 400,000 fellow Karelians I became an internally displaced person. A refugee inside my own country. My house key never found its way back to the lock it belonged to.
My own experiences as a child of war have greatly contributed to my commitment to work in conflict resolution. I feel we have a moral responsibility to help those who’ve had to leave their homes, and work to resolve conflicts so that as many as possible could return home.
Evacuated from Karelia in Finland during World War II. Former president of Finland and founder of CMI. Winner of Nobel Peace Prize 2008.
The Keys for Peace exhibition will tour Finland in autumn 2022. Check out the venues below and come along to the exhibition.
As part of the exhibition, you will have an opportunity to show your support for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Bring your own key or an old key that is no longer needed and help create one of the installations.
September 20–21 Nordic Business Forum, Helsinki
September 26–28 Iso Omena, Espoo
September 30– October 2 Tuku Book Fair, Turku
October 3–9 Forum, Helsinki
October 17–23 Ratina, Tampere
October 27–30 Helsinki Book Fair, Helsinki
November 14–20 Jumbo, Vantaa
December 5–9 Kallio church, Helsinki
Currently, more than 100 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. Each year CMI receives more requests for peace mediation than we can manage to respond to.
A donation to CMI is an investment in peace. By supporting our work, you can help people in the midst of conflict to find sustainable solutions to end conflicts and war. Join us in building peace.Support our work
Throughout its history, CMI and its partners have advanced more than 50 peace processes in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eurasia and Asia.
CMI – Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation is an independent Finnish organisation that works to prevent and resolve conflicts through dialogue and mediation. Founded in 2000 by Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, CMI is one of the world’s leading peace mediation organisations.
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