Five months after
pro-Russian forces seized the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine, the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and the death of all 298 people on board has threatened
to directly involve other EU countries in the conflict, with EU ambassadors meeting
tomorrow to discuss imposing new sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, thousands
of people across Europe, from Paris to Vienna, are protesting against the rising
escalation of violence in the Gaza strip, where conflict deaths have recently passed 800. Some demonstrators have attacked Jewish-owned
shops and synagogues in a show of anti-Semitism that has, itself, become concerning
enough for the foreign ministers of France, Italy and
Germany to issue a joint statement condemning
the acts last week.
It is against this bloody
backdrop that some 200 individuals are embarking on Europe’s first Peace Walk.
Started on 28 July in Vienna,
Austria and ending 23 days later in Trieste, Italy, the 550km walk was
officially created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War
I, stopping in some of the areas most affected
by both world wars. Today’s Europe,
with its 28 member states bound together by the 21-year-old European Union, is a
vastly different place than the continent was after its devastation a century
Yet recent events in
the Ukraine and
across Europe may be calling the aptness of that celebration into question – not
to mention, the walk’s organisers say, underlining how much initiatives like this one are still needed.
there’s anything that the European Peace Walk should show to the world, it is,
‘Look: we had it all, we went to war, we annihilated each other – and then 20
years later we did it again,” said Grattan Lynch, the walk’s founder. “So it’s
time to share our differences. And the only way you ever get over fear of any
other country is by meeting people from it.”
Walkers this year hail
from countries around the world, including the UK, US, New Zealand, Denmark,
Italy, Indonesia and Honduras.
Lynch had the idea for the walk some seven
years ago, while trekking Spain’s well-known Camino de Santiago pilgrimage
route. Sitting at a table one night with hikers he’d met from the US, Hungary,
France and Germany, he thought about how 100 years ago, they all were in
violent conflict. The four-year
war ravaged Europe, killing what was, at the time, more people (nine million
soldiers and five million civilians) than any other war in history, laying waste
to thousands of kilometres of land and destroying four once-powerful empires.
Yet here they were, sitting together and sharing
food, stories and cultural differences. Lynch thought of how beneficial it
could be to develop a route that treated that friendship and socialisation as
its main purpose – rather than a mere consequence.
He and other organisers approached the United
Nations, EU and others with their idea, but it went nowhere. So they decided to
organise the walk themselves. After some four years of research, the route they
chose runs through six European nations, including cities such as Bratislava, a
metropolis under the Hungarian Empire that became the capital of the new nation
of Czechoslovakia in 1919 (and now is the capital of Slovakia), causing
enormous population upheaval as Czechs and Slovaks moved in, and Hungarians
The walk’s concept of crossing borders is
paramount. On one day, the walkers have breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovenia
and sleep that night in a Croatian brewery. And it was that concept of overcoming
barriers that drew Ruthi Solari, a nonprofit founder from California and the walk’s
US representative. “Pilgrimages are amazing, but what about creating one that
connects the internal journey with truly promoting something greater than
ourselves?” she said. “We are crossing so many borders, and really sending a
message of, ‘We are all on one single journey as humanity’.” The interaction
with walkers from different nations, as well as locals in each of the villages,
she said, is also a way to break down divisions – not to mention the walkers’
use of social media to share stories and images from the walk on a global level.
As hopeful as walkers like Solari are that the
walk may lead to change, however, they agree that recent events in Europe are
giving the walk a wistful tinge. “It’s one of those moments where we can see
how far we’ve come since World War I. But it’s such a critical time to pause
and ask ourselves, ‘What do we really need to move toward a global family, and
make that a possibility?’” she said. “The more we can have conversations about
what peace looks like, the better.”
Because the walk is about far more than just
World War I or even Europe, Lynch said, at some point, he’d like to see similar
routes created elsewhere – perhaps Central America, or – “dare I say it?” he
said, with a rueful laugh, “Israel and Palestine”.
While the walk kicked off on 28 July, walkers
are leaving in waves, with 50 setting off each day until 11 August. Because
accommodations are limited – in some cases, areas had so little tourist
infrastructure that organisers had to create accommodations in places such as a
horse range and a converted school – walkers must register in advance. Accommodation
averages about 10 euros per night.
Next year, Lynch said, the goal is to have the
walk open for a full six months.