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The UNICEF Peace Camp Program

Prior to the outbreak of war in Lebanon, local organizations and NGOs had operated summer camps. Simultaneous with the successful launch of Sawa, as UNICEF staff considered ways to build on Sawa's success, they began to entertain the idea of organizing summer camp programs as a way to get children from across ethnic and religious barriers to meet each other. UNICEF program officer for education Anna Mansour approached some fifty NGOs, mostly organizations with a confessional affiliation, and asked them to help recruit children from their communities for a summer camp program. UNICEF would provide funding, logistics, and training for camp staff.

UNICEF articulated three simple principles for the camp program: that the camps would bring together youth of different regions, religions, and social status; that they would give youth and children a better chance to know one another and to know their country through discovery and sharing; and that youth and children would experience "living together" positively, sharing human, social, and relational values through creative and recreational activities.

Despite the obstacles posed by the wartime environment, planning went ahead in the spring of 1989, with the training of staff and arrangements for the complicated logistics. UNICEF representative André Roberfroid played on the credibility of his organization to persuade local leaders to cooperate in moving the children securely around the country. The camps began in earnest in the summer of 1989, and were, from the outset, remarkably successful. Children who had, in many cases, never met anyone from one of the other communities, were often slightly cautious and apprehensive at first, but after a few days, recalls Roberfroid, there was a "sort of explosion of will to live together, as if they had been thirsty for it." Besides the benefits for the young campers who met each other and played together for the first time, the older monitors, some of whom had served as militia members during the war, also underwent a transformation. They had been trained as "youth animators," but the staff was uncertain if they would be able to transcend the mistrust and animosity that had developed. To the surprise of some UNICEF staff, they responded enthusiastically to the camp environment. According to Roberfroid, "The more they had been extremists during the war, the more involved they became in the program. These were the most energetic young people in Lebanon."

In its first year, 29,000 Lebanese children attended thirty-four summer peace camps and seventy-nine day camps, concluding in September with a daylong "Peace Festival" bringing together seven hundred youth animators and nine thousand children. By September 1991, UNICEF peace camps had reached one hundred thousand children and had mobilized 240 NGOs to work on the program.