Peace Camp's Sense of Hope Unshaken

The Associated Press
Monday, August 7, 2006; 4:43 AM

OTISFIELD, Maine -- The Seeds of Peace camp that brings together teenagers from warring countries and cultures is accustomed to disruptions stemming from events thousands of miles away.

This summer, however, camp has been especially tense.

Pakistani and Indian teenagers were attending the opening session when terrorists bombed trains in Bombay, killing more than 200 people. Then Israel responded to border raids by Hezbollah by launching its offensive into Lebanon.

Discussions were heated. Many campers said they wanted to leave camp and catch the first plane home.

While the bloodshed is discouraging, counselors say it underscores the importance of the camp.

"What are you going to do? Nothing?" asked Tomas Perry, an Israeli counselor who came to Seeds of Peace in 1996. "There's always hope."

Created in 1993, Seeds of Peace camp is dedicated to bringing together Israeli and Arab teenagers in hopes of moving them beyond deep-rooted hatreds. Removed from the region of conflict, the teens are startled to find themselves sharing meals, bunkhouses and the same sports teams as their "enemy."

The 67-acre camp nestled in the woods on Pleasant Lake has expanded its reach over the years, grouping teenagers from other trouble spots such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cyprus, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

Protected by state troopers, the camp provides a safe haven for the teens, some of whom have had friends and family killed or jailed. But the conflicts in the campers' homelands are never far from their minds.

Last week, camp director Tim Wilson didn't like what he was seeing as campers became increasingly anguished by daily news reports about Hezbollah rockets hitting Israel in record numbers and Israeli soldiers pushing deeper and deeper into Lebanon.

By Wednesday, Wilson decided he had had enough of the shouting and finger pointing. He told the campers he had had enough of their self-pity and anger.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exacerbated by outsiders using it for their own gain, he said. Peel those layers away, and you get to the heart of the conflict. "You can yell and scream and holler, but what are you going to do to change this?" he said afterward.

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