New Beginnings

Shining a torch on torture; a stellar Sabiti

We live in a society polarised by good and evil. Where the perpetrators of violence shed their human skin and take on a monster’s hide. Our despair for humanity is expressed by anger, fear or indifference. Yet amidst the war and chaos there is a beacon of hope. A woman who sees beauty in the crevices of cruelty. Her name is Stella Sabiti. Her story is one that needs to be told and, most importantly, heard.

Stella turned her own experience of war and torture into a passion for peaceful conflict resolution. Born in Uganda, Stella is the founder of the Centre for Conflict Resolution. She is currently visiting the Cape as part of the delegation of peace builders at the Unyoke Leaders Exchange in Stellenbosch.

CapeTalk's Pippa Hudson spoke to this remarkable woman and asked her, “How do you start to have the conversation about how to make peace?”

We start from a positive place, because we know very well that in the midst of chaos there is always stability and wonderful things going on. In fact, there is a tribe in Kenya and Tanzania called the Maasai. They look at Mount Kilimanjaro, they look at the dark parts of the mountain and then the snow, they look at the contrast and they say in order to see beauty sometimes you have to see ugliness. They believe that in war if you look very closely you’ll find peace. We just grab onto that and build on that.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

When Stella talks about finding the beauty in ugliness she speaks from personal experience. Her journey to become a peacemaker had a violent birth. In 1976 Idi Amin was president of Uganda. At the time Stella was a university student, married, and pregnant with her first child. She was also one of the many Ugandans who were tortured.

I wondered why the soldiers were accusing me of things they knew very well I hadn’t done. When I looked them in the eye I discovered they were sad at what they were doing to us and that gave me strength and energy for me to not fear them but take them as human beings like me.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

Stella’s innate ability to see her own reflection in the eyes of the very people who were abusing her has transformed the essence of her experience.

It’s very strange but I’ve shared this with many people who have gone through the same kind of treatment and they also say that when you are being tortured it’s as if you step out of your own body and you can look down on your own body being tortured or cut to pieces or raped or whatever, but you don’t feel it’s you and then you eventually afterwards, thank God, then you come back and re-join your body and that’s when you can talk about it.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

While being tortured it wasn’t the physical sensation of pain that Sabiti was feeling, rather she was grappling with why the soldiers were deliberately falsifying their accusations.

I didn’t feel any pain, but I kept wondering why are they accusing me of doing things they knew I hadn’t done. I was a student of psychology at that time and I thought maybe they were using that as an excuse to do that. I really believe that human beings don’t want to do harm to others, it’s because of maybe fear or they don’t have any other alternate way of behaving. I thought they were telling lies to give themselves permission to dehumanize me, do anything they wanted with me.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

Having seen the worst crimes of humanity, Stella remains firm in her belief that humans really don’t want to harm each other.

“How do you hold onto that sentiment, that hope in the midst of that kind of violence?” asked Hudson.

Stella’s response was one that makes us want to rebuild the word compassion to allow for a higher level of benevolence, namely Stella-compassion.

Because all those years ago when I saw that there were tears in the soldier’s eyes I felt so sad and I said to myself, if I get out of this thing alive I’ll have to look for a job where I’ll be working with armed groups that do harm to others. I saw it very clearly. I always just point to my left shoulder and say, this shoulder has seen a lot of tears from those whom we take to be very powerful.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

Sabiti’s ability to see the humanity behind the rebel has been the driving force in her work over the last three decades. In 2002 she helped negotiate a peace deal in her home country, Uganda. Ironically she was working with the same rebel group that had tortured her 26 years before. Pippa asked her how one starts to bring parties to a table and mediate a settlement.

Understanding war & peace

  • Almost every individual has their own version of the same conflict
  • You’re not going to argue with a person and say no that’s not how it happened, that’s not the sequence of events
  • That’s the way they see it, that’s what they believe and you start from that point and work with them
  • People who are causing harm to others would give anything to be helped to stop doing that

After the challenging job of negotiating a peace settlement the work begins with integrating people into society. One of the strongest tools that society has in both the prevention and reparation of war is the media.

“We have seen in Rwanda the terrible way the media was used to incite hatred, you’re looking at it from the other perspective, how do you view the media’s role?” asked Hudson.

Stella is a media person herself and has a history with radio broadcasting which began at university. Her tribe in Uganda lived close to Rwanda. Just before the Rwandan genocide she heard the Ugandan radio station propagating and inciting violence.

While not many people in villages in Africa have a television at least in every village one person has a radio set. The media influences almost everything we do, it shapes our thinking, so combining peace work and the media makes so much sense and we even have a slogan, media as a mediator.

Stella Sabiti, Peace Builder

Whether it’s in her role as a media person, peace builder, or as a woman operating in a male dominated landscape, she embodies hope, strength and positive action. Stella Sabiti is the snow capping the triumphant peaks of the human spirit.

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