This summer I participated in my third International Walk for a Nuclear-Free Future, from Geneva to Brussels. This year’s “pilgrimage”, organised by Footprints for Peace and Sortir du Nucléaire, set off from Geneva on 26 April, the 23rd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The walk passed through Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, covering around 850 miles on foot over 10½ weeks, staging events at the World Heath Organisation headquarters in Geneva, the European parliament in Strasbourg, nuclear power plants in Switzerland, France and Germany and key military installations. In Germany and Belgium we visited three US/NATO air bases thought to house US nuclear warheads.
I joined the second half of the walk in Mannheim. Many of the walkers were French; others came from Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, England (me), Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland and the USA. The group fluctuated in size from 10 to 40, ranging in age from 12 (and younger) to over 70.
In Brussels, we presented two chains of 1,000 origami peace cranes that walkers had folded along the way - to NATO’s deputy spokesperson and to the vice-president of the European parliament, Isabelle Durant of the Belgian Greens.
To each we read out and presented a statement signed by all the walkers, condemning nuclear power and uranium mining as unacceptable risks to humanity and the planet, and a false solution to climate change. We also called for the total abolition of nuclear and “depleted” uranium weapons.
One of the best moments came at the European parliament. After being ordered by the police to put away our banners and flags and to stop chanting, we were informed that because we had been “demonstrating” without authority, parliamentary security were refusing to allow us to enter the parliament building.
Instead, the vice-president, Isabelle Durant, came to meet us outside in the sunshine, over 40 of us gathered in a circle surrounded by trees and birdsong. It was a moment to remember.
There were some impassioned discussions regarding, amongst other things, the Buddhist drum which a few of the walkers objected to, causing a level of tension and division within the group. Aside from this, one of the lowest points of the walk, not long before I joined, must have been in Germany when Jim Toren from the US, “leading” the walk at the time, was taken into intensive care after he contracted a nasty viral infection as a complication of his diabetes; and at around the same time, the support van developed serious mechanical problems.
Thankfully Jim recovered, and the cost of repairing the van and Jim’s medical expenses were covered by a generous donation by a Green senator. Things generally seem to find a way of working themselves out.
It is not so easy to categorise these walks. For some they have a spiritual or religious foundation, like the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks and nuns who often take part, continuously drumming and chanting the mantra “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” as they walk: a kind of prayer for world peace and harmony; while for those of more secular leanings, the purpose is mainly political, like the 1936 Jarrow March in northeast England, or Gandhi’s infamous 1930 Salt March in India, the latter a powerful symbolic act of civil disobedience against the might of the British empire. In this latter capacity, the walks are attempts to sway public opinion and influence decision-makers.
For me personally they have both a spiritual and political dimension. One thing I find especially valuable is the diversity of nationalities and cultures taking part, the international solidarity fostered – disparate individuals brought together through shared concerns and building a level of mutual understanding and respect along the way.
One hopes that walks like these inspire others into action, and they also provide the opportunity to engage face-to-face with a wide range of groups and individuals.
One experiences all the trials and tribulations of living within a temporary but close-knit community, often under stressful circumstances, and working together to resolve issues that arise and making decisions by consensus (usually).
It is encouraging when the media show an interest in us, as they often do: usually this is local and regional media, but these are widely followed on the continent and enable us to reach a wider audience.
All those hours walking provide plenty of space for sharing experiences and ideas with fellow walkers, reflection and meditation or prayer, and connecting with nature. They can be a test and display of one’s dedication and commitment to the cause, which is what generally brings us together in the first place, though everyone has their own motivations for taking part.
Next February, Footprints for Peace will begin a walk from the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to the UN headquarters in New York, arriving in early May ahead of the crucial nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. A parallel walk is planned in Scotland, so get in training and watch this space!