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Seeds of Peace Camp Gives Kids Refuge from Violence - 2002-07-03

Otisfield, Maine, looks a little like the summer address of the United Nations. On June 26, a rainbow of colorful flags was raised to mark the first day of the Seeds of Peace camp. The summer camp for children from nations torn by political conflict is in its 10th year.

Seeds of Peace was founded by John Wallach, a journalist who wanted to give children from warring nations a refuge from violence, and a way to work out political differences. Some wondered if Arabs and Israelis would even come to camp this summer, following months of violence and terror in the Middle East. The flag raising ceremony began with a minute of silence for all victims of political conflict, including those who died on September 11. But even that somber mood couldn't dampen the spirits of teenagers happy to see each other in this idyllic lakeside retreat.

Wearing forest green Seeds of Peace T-shirts, the 140 campers include Israelis, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Indians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Americans and, for the first time this year, Afghans.

This morning, six boys and six girls from four tribes in Afghanistan were the first to sing their national anthem as their flag, with green, white and black stripes, was raised toward the sun.

Roman Miraka, 14, from Kabul, has come to Maine after a devastating year in his homeland, where he has witnessed brutality, and often feared for his own life. "I saw many people who died, they were hung," recalled the Afghan teenager. "When a man was walking with a woman, when a boy was walking with a girl, the Taliban was bringing them to a jail, and after some time they were hanging them, because [they said,] why are you walking with a man? And they didn't let the woman walk with a bare face."

Roman often serves as translator for the Afghan girls, who were prevented by the Taliban from attending school. He says they are all here to learn how to make peace. Back in Kabul, he says, even saying that word was risky. "If you said in that time 'peace,' they had to kill you and there was no one to hear the name of the peace," he said.

But for these three weeks, Roman will be able to say almost anything he likes, as long as he shows respect to others. Ola Wazwaz, a Palestinian, spoke at the flag raising about the sense of urgency she feels this summer, making and renewing friendships with Israelis she would not be able to meet safely back home.

"This year is really important for us more than ever before," she explained, "because we feel the need of making this come true, this peace that we are working together, and bring it come true."

Orly Bogler, from Israel, says camp is like a special gift - a gift of everyday life. "It's something that seems so normal, so obvious, to sit around and sleep bed to bed, with someone the supposed enemy, the other side, you live with him for three weeks and its so normal so obvious but no one has been able to do this yet and nowhere else but here," said the Israeli girl.

This morning, each national anthem was sung by a handful of campers, sometimes tentatively, and a little off tune. But voices got louder, and more united, when counselor Jethro Berkman led the crowd in a song that has come to be the anthem for the Seeds of Peace Camp.

For the Massachusetts native, who has worked for Seeds of Peace in the Middle East, the camp is a place where political harmony is, if not achievable, then at least imaginable.

"That's exactly why I continue, even though I have been in the Mideast for the past two years, the last year working full time for Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem. And back there people laugh at you when you say you are working for Seeds of Peace, they get angry at you, they don't like it," said Mr. Berkman, because it's too painful, in the midst of violence, to hope for peace. But in Maine, he says, campers still believe, or at least want to believe, that it's possible for enemies to live together, to play on the same teams, and to eat foreign foods - like the all-American hot dog.