As in war, peace requires foot soldiers on the ground, says Paula Garb, associate director of UCI’s International Studies Program in the School of Social Sciences and a founding member of UCI’s Citizen Peacebuilding Program, an international clearinghouse for research, education and action on public peace processes.

“The best way to prevent violence, and even overcome it, is to try to understand the other side,” says Garb, a lecturer in anthropology and political science. For years she has built an arsenal of experience working in war zones, and now plays a central role in trying to find a permanent peace between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and its breakaway province, Abkhazia.

“Experience tells me that conflict can be avoided if people have accurate information about each other. Certainly, it’s the only way to overcome a violent situation.”

John Whiteley, a professor in the School of Social Ecology who has worked with Garb in Georgia, praises her for her “fearless determination to do all she can in the cause for peace.

“She is trusted by people on both sides of a conflict because it is so apparent to all that she is committed to the goal of peaceful resolution and preventing the resumption of deadly conflict.

“Governments and the nation-state do not have a strong record for much of the 20th century as forces for peace. She and her colleagues are pioneers in a different model: what citizens can do working together.”

Raised in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, Garb became fascinated with the then-Soviet Union. After several trips to the country, she married a Soviet citizen and settled in Moscow where she had two sons and studied anthropology. Working on a master’s thesis, Garb studied the child-rearing customs of Abkhazia. In addition to her work, she made close and long lasting ties with many of its people.

Eventually Garb’s path led her to UCI in 1991. But war broke out the following year in Abkhazia after the break up of the Soviet Union. Once the smoke settled, Garb felt a calling to return.

“I lost some very close friends. That was the first time war had touched me in a very personal way. I was a trained mediator, so I went there and offered to help mediate.”

With the assistance of UCI colleagues, Garb established a dialogue program among academics, journalists and organizations trying to build a civil society.

“What we wanted were opinion-makers on both sides of the conflict. We assumed that dialogues build closer relationships among people, and that these particular people have relationships with decisions-makers and people at the grass roots. These people are in the middle levels of society and can leverage both up and down to build strong constituencies for peace.

“Abkhazia was an urban war with neighbors fighting neighbors in hand-to-hand combat, not some far-off war on distant battlefields. After blood is shed like that, it takes a long time for people talk, let alone live together.”

Rather than discuss the war itself, Garb pushed her people into a neutral topic: pollution of the Black Sea they shared.

“Once people started talking to each other and liking each other, we moved into another topic: the role citizens play in peace efforts. It became a research project, again trying to avoid hitting the political issues head-on.

“About a year and a half ago, we reached a point where they wanted to discuss the politics of their situation. We hope some real policy options will evolve from the discussions, and that the discussions impact many more people. We want to create a loud discourse in the communities for solving the problem. That will hopefully push the decision-makers into a positive action.”

Garb thinks the lessons learned from the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict and similar wars are meaningful as Americans try to come to terms with terrorist and Middle East violence.

“We live in an interdependent world and we understand that more than ever before. That requires that we work on all possible fronts to prevent further violence. I hope more ordinary Americans make themselves visible to people in the Islamic world so they have a better chance to understand who we really are, and we get to know them better, too. This sort of citizen diplomacy can make a difference.”