Paula Garb
Ph.D. Anthropology, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Peacemaking Practice at George Mason University. Since the early 1990s, Dr. Garb has facilitated citizen dialogues and taught peaceful problem-solving skills in conflict zones in the South Caucasus, Middle East, and gang neighbourhood of Southern California. She also taught mediation and conflict resolution at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) for twenty-five years. She serves on the board of UCI’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding which she co-founded and co-directed for twenty years. 

A Brief History of the University of California, Irvine Peacebuilding Program

In the summer of 1994, when I began discussing with Abkhazian and Georgian nongovernmental leaders the desirability and feasibility of dialogue, their communities had recently been at war, from August 1992 to September 1993. The conflict had begun before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because the two ethnic groups disagreed about governance of the Abkhazian autonomous republic within Soviet Georgia. After the Soviet Union broke up and Georgia became an independent country, the dispute escalated into violence between Georgians and Abkhazians on the territory of the Abkhazian autonomous republic. The war ended with an Abkhazian military victory and the territory’s de facto independence from Georgia. No country recognized Abkhazia, including Russia, which enforced a blockade. The war resulted in tens of thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, and survivors suffering psychological trauma. Although a ceasefire agreement was signed in May 1994, it was periodically broken when violence erupted on both sides of the Ingur/i River, the boundary between the former autonomous republic of Abkhazia and the rest of former Soviet Georgia.

When my Abkhazian and Georgian colleagues decided to pursue unofficial dialogue across this bloody divide, we knew from established research that a bottom-up peace process can enhance the top-down official process. We agreed that outside facilitation was necessary because of obstacles to travel to each other's cities, and that I would organize a U.S. based team to facilitate these conversations outside the conflict zone. The entity that sought funding for the program was the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, housed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where I taught conflict resolution courses.

Our first initiative, from 1994 to 1998, brought together Abkhazian and Georgian environmental experts who shared similar concerns about the degradation of the Black Sea and surrounding environment. Our local partners included 12-16 civil society actors, sociologists, Black Sea environmentalists and scientists. The biggest challenge was that political leaders concerned about security issues eventually discouraged participants from conducting research together, or sharing sensitive information obtained by one side or the other about conditions on their side of the ceasefire line along the Ingur/i River.

That is why in 1998, I initiated a successor project resulting in a series of conferences with local participants who were mid-career professionals in their thirties and forties. These Georgian and Abkhazian academics and leaders of nongovernmental organizations conducted research on various topics, including policy options for overcoming obstacles to peace and preventing resumption of military action. Research conducted separately was discussed at the conferences. We hoped that eventually our efforts would foster a strong constituency for peace in both communities that would assist the official negotiators to reach a mutually satisfactory peaceful resolution and sustain peace. The 16 conferences resulted in 15 fully transcribed proceedings called Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict. My original facilitation team was comprised of Susan Allen (George Mason University), Jay Rothman (ARIA Group), and Amra Stafford (UCI). Later I co-hosted the conferences with Conciliation Resources and the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

The conferences provided a safe space for dialogue between civil society activists, academics, journalists, and policy makers from the two communities, even when negotiations stalled at the official level. Our activities during those periods were even more important because they kept some channels of communication open. At the latter conferences we involved counterparts from Russia and various international organizations. Because of the project's dedication to full transparency, the conferences engaged many more people in the dialogues through the publications and post conference meetings held in each community. Due to lack of funding for hosting in person conferences, our last conference was in 2009. See all publications at

From 2011-2016, I organized through UCI’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, our Distance Learning and Dialogue Project. Our partners included 6 university faculty and 95 university students and young professionals located in Georgia/Abkhazia/South Ossetia. The purpose was to build relationships between university students and young professionals through online courses and in-person conferences. They would also interact with around 225 UCI students in 6 distance learning courses (2011-2016) and 2 in-person conferences at UCI (2014 and 2015). The courses were designed to provide all students with knowledge, skills, and abilities to analyze causes and consequences of conflict over territory and sovereignty; generate a problem and solution analysis of case studies; write a policy paper convincingly arguing a policy position based on data analysis, write, and present a briefing memo, and mediate between different parties of a conflict. The goal was to build a foundation of trust among the South Caucasus and U.S. students so that they could learn from each other about their societies and conflicts and connect with each other in positive ways. Another goal was to give students practice in discussing their conflicts with an international audience unfamiliar with their communities and the conflicts.

Our major achievement is that most of the local participants in the UCI programs who began this difficult journey together in the 1990s are still interacting with each other, with the UCI facilitation team, and most of the other outside facilitators with whom we coordinated our projects from their earliest stages. We never wanted to control the outcomes of the top-down official negotiation processes. What we controlled completely was our bottom-up processes and our enduring commitment to long-term programs working for a mutually acceptable peace agreement.

For an independent assessment of the UCI based South Caucasus program, and those of other organizations we partnered with, please see -- Analysis of 30+ Years of Working with Conflict in the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian Contexts (Indie Peace).

What follows are the most important lessons I’ve learned about peacebuilding by working with these extraordinary individuals who are committed to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Lessons Learned

  • Building relationships across a conflict divide takes much effort and patience after entire communities are traumatized by violence, especially when sporadic violence continues for months and years.

It took our UCI team two years of shuttle diplomacy before participants agreed to meet in person. During this long preparatory period I organized and recorded parallel dialogues. This enabled each side to hear presentations by the other side. With patient and appropriate facilitation that creates a safe space for in-person dialogue, I learned that in the early meetings one can expect participants to accept the humanity of the other side and to understand their perspective without agreement. All this leads to mutually respectful and trusting relationships.

  • Sustaining trusting relationships requires even more effort, patience, and long-term commitment as the political context changes, and people become better acquainted, thus experiencing each other’s flaws as well as assets.

The core participants generally liked each other when they first met because we created a safe space to get acquainted and deliberately avoided talking about opposing perspectives regarding the war. Instead, we focused on shared concerns about how to prevent a resumption of violence and other topics of common interest that side-stepped controversy. It took several such in-person conferences during two years for participants to feel comfortable enough to discuss their opposing perspectives and grievances. What helped to sustain the relationships despite the challenges going forward was the core participants’ high level of commitment to the process, the goal of preventing further violence, and our UCI program’s funding that enabled us to hold meetings every few months. This momentum allowed for more nuanced communication for a few days, each time increasing everyone’s insights about the other and offering opportunities to clear up misunderstandings, develop more trust, and sustain it. As we added new people to the process from both communities, most of them contributed to a constructive exchange of perspectives and remained in the process, while a few from each side did not and eventually dropped out.

  • Third-party intervenors experience transformation as the process develops

At the outset of our dialogue program, I had long-standing collegial relationships and close friendships with Abkhazians from the previous decade before the war, while I was conducting anthropological research on long-living populations in the region. I had no such ties with Georgians. Early in the process my asset was my ability to persuade Abkhazians to engage with me in dialogue with Georgians at a time when Abkhazians were turning down other facilitators. Abkhazians were more reluctant to meet with Georgians than the other way around because so many people in Abkhazia spoke out against such encounters, arguing that Georgians were the aggressor and were preventing the international community from recognizing their new state. In these circumstances my Abkhazian colleagues trusted that I would not manipulate them into a process that might hurt them or their community. Even though I had experienced the trauma of the conflict from the Abkhazian perspective and grieved with my Abkhazian friends the deaths of their loved ones and my friends, I had no stake in the outcome of the conflict. My life in California would not be affected. I genuinely wanted to help the sides reach a mutually acceptable agreement, offering no solutions of my own. The Georgian participants seemed to trust me as a fair mediator even though I had no pre-war contact with them and they were aware of my close ties with Abkhazia.

After facilitating several in-person dialogues, spending equal time with Abkhazians and Georgians in their respective communities, I not only started to comprehend the Georgian perspectives, but also began to feel their deep trauma, especially that of Georgian refugees and other Georgians grieving the loss of Abkhazia and the loss of their loved ones in war. I observed similar transformations in international officials and facilitators who seemed to be more understanding of one side over the other before spending more time with all parties.

  • The dialogue is more likely to move forward when the parties choose the topics to discuss, facilitate the meetings, and decide what information to make public.

At first the participants preferred that I and other outsiders facilitate the meetings. It was a familiar format used by other third-party organizers, and therefore it felt more comfortable to them while they were still getting to know one another. After the first few meetings, individuals from each community agreed to co-facilitate (one Georgian and one Abkhazian). Occasionally it was necessary for a member of our facilitation team to step in and run the meeting because the local co-facilitators wanted to engage in the conversation rather than mediate.

  • Collaboration with fellow third-party intervenors creates opportunities to share information, resources, and fill gaps in the dialogue process.

Early in our process we reached out to other third-party organizations working on the conflict. The goal we agreed on was to prevent destructive competition and promote collaborative efforts to meet the interests of the outside facilitators as well as the local participants. We organized periodic meetings of third-party individuals and organizations, including local participants. We discussed the general context of the conflict and explored how we could support each other's work and encourage complementarity of our multiple efforts, including funding opportunities. We updated each other on project developments and coordinated plans; devised ways to combine our resources to fund local peacebuilding and democracy building activities; shared analysis of our productive and unproductive activities in the peace process; discussed options for how to continue this kind of coordination--whether as simple information sharing, resource sharing, joint strategy development, joint projects, or as a consortium. We also generated research together on the efficacy of our coordinating actions. These collegial relationships among third party facilitators have continued to this day.

  • It is necessary to engage younger participants in dialogue program at the outset and promote peace education as soon as possible.

I should have included college age students in our dialogue process much earlier, which was around 2007. This was a decade after we had begun working mainly with mid-career professionals who at the outset, as mentioned above, were in their late thirties and forties. I realized too late that a younger generation was growing up with no prewar or postwar contact with people on the other side of the conflict. Had we included younger people earlier in our dialogues we would have developed many more opinion shapers for peaceful problem solving.

  • Prevention. Prevention. Violent conflicts can be prevented by officials who must continue to negotiate conflict issues however difficult and lengthy the process. Once blood is shed, it takes decades to reconcile the communities.

Despite all efforts at top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding, twenty-eight years after the 1994 ceasefire, we have no peace agreement, and we still have large numbers of people on both sides, officials and everyday people who do not want to meet with anybody from the other side. We had underestimated the depth of trauma most people experienced in war, and the resulting resistance to, and even fear of, dialogue. Our local project leaders from both societies have faced negative public commentary and even threats which have also hampered widespread dissemination of dialogue results. This experience has shown me that war not only does not solve the intended problem(s) but adds many new problems that take decades to resolve and cause suffering to more than one generation.

Based on my personal experience, war casualty statistics do not begin to reflect the full impact of war on ordinary citizens trapped in war zones, combatants, medics, war correspondents, humanitarian aid workers, and political leaders. Most people survive wars, often without experiencing physical harm, but not without serious psychological damage. No one keeps track of these statistics, but many may die slow and torturous deaths caused by serious mental health issues that also impact their families. I came to understand this when I lost my son (a war cameraman) to the mental health issues that haunted him until he died at the age of forty-four. How many more daughters and sons are dying slow, torturous deaths like my son from their war experiences that happened thirty years ago? How many more will die from this hard to cure psychological trauma, breaking the hearts of loved ones? All the costs of war are so much greater than any gains some individuals might justify.

  • When violent conflicts occur, the international community must generously fund trauma healing, all forms of peacebuilding, including citizen/bottom-up peacebuilding, and peace education

Funding for citizen peacebuilding and trauma healing after a ceasefire or a peace agreement is a tiny fraction of the millions and billions of dollars that countries and the international community spend on war. Since 2014, when the conflict turned violent between Ukraine and Russia, the minuscule funding for peacebuilding in the South Caucasus, including the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, has become even more scarce. This must change, or we will continue, at best, to have permanently frozen conflicts and – worst case – resumption of violence. This is true for all the South Caucasus conflicts, for the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and all other war zones around the world.  


In a world torn apart in so many places today by conflict and war, this is my hope for achieving peace locally and globally:

  • May our political leaders who negotiate and sign peace agreements feel obligated to the people they represent to always keep channels of communication and diplomacy open at official and unofficial levels in the interests of peace.
  • Let us teach peace literacy to our children, from pre-school through the university. Literacy in peaceful problem solving in the modern world is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.
  • Be kind to ourselves and to others. Forgive ourselves and everyone else everything.

I know. This may sound detached from understanding the realities that make us feel powerless against the forces for militarism. For instance: (1) vested business interests in war and the related weapons industry fed by war; (2) politicians who maintain positions of power by distracting people from domestic failures with nationalistic calls for war and endless bloodshed.

I offer peace literacy as something all people of goodwill can do for a safer world, even when our politicians don’t seem to be working in our interests. We can add peaceful problem solving in everyday life to the practice of recycling/reducing/reusing, what every person can do for peace and climate action.

I conclude with a few resources to consider for teaching and practicing peaceful problem solving from pre-school through the university:

The Holistic Educator:

Peace Literacy Institute:

Education for Global Peace:

Valarie Kaur, Author of See No Stranger:

The ARIA Group:

One Humanity Institute:

Euphrates Institute:

Conciliation Resources:

Indie Peace:

UC Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding:

George Mason University’s Center for Peacemaking Practice: