Can lessons from Burundi combat London street violence?

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Media caption,

Burundian youth worker Landry Ninteretse talks to young Londoners about conflict in his country

"It's all about talking it through."

Sohail Karim has been explaining the importance of communicating his feelings.

The young British-Asian, who sports a crew-cut and baggy jeans, seems very self-aware for his 18 years.

But that was not always the case.

"I got dragged into fights between Asian boys and black boys, I had a very short temper and I got kicked out of school," he told the BBC World Service.

When youth services in the London borough of Newham invited him to take part in a conflict resolution course he admits he was sceptical, but agreed to try it out.

"It helped me, it got me out of thinking that if someone says something to me I have to react violently," he said.

Truce 2020 is a charity that takes conflict resolution skills developed in war-torn countries and brings them to young people in one of the poorest areas of London.

Around half of the children in Newham live below the poverty line and violent crime is almost double the national average.

Territorial gang wars, as well as rivalries between the black and Asian communities in Newham mean that the borough is one of the worst in London for youth violence and knife crime.

"Young people are dying on the streets," said Jasmine Simeron, a 19-year-old who has been taking part in Truce 2020 workshops for two years.

"Just last week a boy I went to school with got shot and died," she added.

"Living in Newham you can't get away from it, young people are at war with each other and I don't think older people can understand that sometimes."

Anger management

Operating out of a small community centre on a busy road, Truce 2020 brings young people together through weekly workshops in which they consider how conflicts evolve and can be contained.

Using a mixture of role play and games, the young people are invited to examine the causes of arguments they have experienced in their homes, at school or on the streets.

They are constantly faced with the question: "Do you have a choice in the way you respond?"

"Sometimes it takes a long time to help the young people see that they do have a choice," said Christopher McDermott, one of the team leaders.

"They believe that if they have been disrespected or attacked, then violence is the only option. But eventually they come to see that revenge rarely gets them the results they want," he said.

Young people are also taught anger management skills and practical exercises to aid communication and self-awareness.

Christopher McDermott says he often sees the positive effect the course has had on the streets of Newham.

"For example, one young graduate solved a serious dispute with a rival gang member without resorting to violence," he said.

"He realised that if he offered a little respect the situation could actually be defused quite easily."

Civil war

Every few months the organisation invites speakers from around the world to share their experiences with the young people, many of whom have never ventured outside east London.

Landry Ninteretse runs a youth club in Burundi that employs many of the same skills that these young people in Newham are learning.

Image caption,
Landry Ninteretse says in both Burundi and London, young people can choose to make a difference

When he visits the group in London, he tells them about the civil war that left more than 300,000 civilians dead.

Although he did consider joining a gang, he did not end up fighting.

"I consider myself a survivor and a miracle," he said.

"A lot of young men like me did join the army or rebel movement and a lot of them were killed or lost some parts of their bodies or have trauma and they are no longer able to serve society."

Now he is focusing on bringing the two sides together through the young people that make up the next generation.

"Sometimes it's challenging, there are a lot of differences of opinion," he admitted.

"Some of them think that dialogue and conflict resolution are such long and difficult processes that we are better off solving our problems violently, using guns and machetes."

Making a difference

It all seems very far from Newham, but Christopher McDermott said the causes underlying conflicts all over the world are the same.

"They stem from the same anxiety about territory, respect and autonomy," he said.

Image caption,
Landry Ninteretse works with young people from the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in Burundi

Landry Ninteretse recognises that there are big differences in context between Burundi and Newham, but he believes that in both places people can decide to go against the grain and make a difference.

"If I can do it in Burundi then they can do the same here," he said.

Since graduating from the course, Sohail Karim has been back to the school from which he was excluded to talk about what he has learnt.

Many of the students there remembered him as a trouble-maker.

But when he began speaking about conflict resolution they listened because he understood where they were coming from, he said.

"It really felt like I had achieved something and it was good for people in the school and in the community to see a person like me change."

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