‘It wasn’t danger that was at the front of my mind.’

Thought for the week: is John Lampen spoiled for choice?

‘Should I have refused to join the walk when we were told that we must have an escort of soldiers?’ | Photo: courtesy of John Lampen.

Working in situations of conflict is never easy. But I have always been particularly impressed by those Friends who have refused to travel under armed protection when it was offered, or even insisted on. They thought it was crucial to maintain our witness against all ‘carnal’ weapons, as stated in the 1660 Peace Declaration.

So, should I have refused to join a day’s walk into the cloud forest of the Rwenzori Mountains when we were told at the edge of the trees that we must have an escort of soldiers?

Described by Ptolemy almost 2,000 years ago, the beautiful Rwenzori Mountains boast some of the tallest peaks in Africa. Their streams form one of the sources of the Nile. But their location between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has meant that, in more recent years, they have been witness to some destructive conflict. The area is strewn with landmines and unexploded ordnance.

I was there with colleagues from the Anti-Mines Network, which we had founded together. We were looking at the problems of mapping the location of minefields in the mountains. I was the only mzungu (white person), and the only Quaker, in our group. I knew that, if I stopped at that point, several of my Ugandan friends would feel that they must stay with me. Besides landmines and cluster bombs, there might be armed rebels in the forest. I knew that we could be attacked either way, whether we went on or stayed at the boundary, though it was not very likely.

But it wasn’t danger that was at the front of my mind. It was the question of whether refusing to go on with the escort would be a clear act of witness. Or would it just show that I enjoyed the luxury of choice, when my friends did not? Was it right to allow my sensitive conscience to spoil their plans?

I decided to go on with the soldiers, and it gave me the opportunity for a good conversation with them. I believe pacifists should engage in these discussions more often.

This is not the only time that I have reluctantly accepted the so-called protection of weapons, however. I don’t feel good about my failures to make a stand and demonstrate what I believe in. I can only say that I have never felt safer because of the guns – I have always believed they put me in greater danger.

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