The seventeen-car train trip that started in Helsinki and ended in Beijing has at least as many images as the thousands of kilometres travelled, and the innumerable experiences of the 234 women, twelve men, and train staff on the journey.
In September 1995, the United Nations held its Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Over 30,000 women gathered to support and spur the agenda that the official national delegations had prepared over the preceding three years. Women converged on Beijing from all over the world and by all means of transportation. I was one of the women who boarded the Peace Train in Finland to attend both the UN Conference and the unofficial Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum.
I took full and active part in the twenty-one-day trip aboard the Peace Train: I got involved in the logistical organization of the train; I was the anchorperson and the voice on the train's P.A. system for the 8 p.m. evening news. But every time I hear someone recounting her or his experiences, read an account or see one of the videos about the journey, I am made aware of how much I have missed. A trip that was "the experience of a lifetime", as I have repeated to friends and family, continues to be enriched by all these different spotlights shone by other participants.
Beth Glick-Rieman's Peace Train to Beijing and Beyond is one more addition to the storehouse of memories of an unforgettable experience. At the very beginning of the book, she acknowledges that she can speak only for herself, can recount only her journey, can talk about "the break in [only her] cosmic egg". At the same time, all these different experiences are fundamentally linked. They all reflect the awe, amazement, and transformational power of the trip; the meetings with such different people and realities on the train, at stopovers, and at the Beijing Forum and Conference; the commonality of purpose, energy, and determination of the participants; the dichotomy between the self-important, sometimes tyrannical behaviour of authorities, and the caring attentiveness of fellow human beings.
Peace Train to Beijing and Beyond is a travelogue with a mission, generally worn lightly: it is a review of world issues quickly named, not explored in depth, but interwoven into the everyday life of these twenty-one days. Occasionally, it turns a bit preachy, a bit rambling, somewhat akin to a long letter from a favourite, idiosyncratic aunt who occasionally indulges in philosophical musings. This is a relatively small quibble with a book that does not aim to be high literature. Also some dates, facts, and details are inaccurate, and editing is somewhat spotty, allowing misspellings and a less-than-ideal structure, particularly in the first two chapters.
The book provides unexpected insights all along its pages. The chapter, "Crossing Borders", takes us through the eight countries (Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and China) visited by the Peace Train. At each stop, meetings with people on the street, government officials or activists in the peace and human rights fields provide vignettes of the country. They also allow Glick-Rieman to touch realistically on most of the social, political, economic, and security issues facing these countries. She reflects on the prevalent desire of those she met to help the world move from the concept of a national, military-based security to a human-based security. Proponents of the latter maintain that most wars and violence are perpetrated under systems of injustice and that if governments were to invest in shelter, health, education, and social justice rather than in military might, military national security would not be needed. Unfortunately, many governments' policies seem to go in the opposite direction.
Glick-Rieman makes a strong distinction between governments (mostly to be wary about) and the citizens and their independent organizations (mostly to be praised). But she has abundant material to support her view. One such example is the following: "When my own government officials visited El Salvador years ago and came back denying the atrocities and poverty I had seen there with my own eyes, I was shocked. They had not seen the El Salvador I saw when I went to stand with the people in remembrance of the hideous butchering of five priests and two women two years before, carried out by soldiers trained in my own USA."
My preferred chapter is "Listen to Women-For a Change". It provides an immediate connection with many impressive women sharing memorable and sometimes exotic experiences. The interviews are reproduced straight from the tape. Keeping all the quirky and broken English detracts little from our understanding, and conveys the immediacy and the atmosphere.
The last chapter focuses on the many ways in which the United Nations' Platform For Action is being used, mostly in her own town of San Diego, to further the progress of policy or legislation in the twelve areas under scrutiny. It illustrates how, even though Beijing was an event in a specific place and at a specific time, its message and work are ongoing.
At the end of her account, Glick-Rieman's voice rings out: "History is in the process of transformation. You and I will never see the `Promised Land' of equality, justice and freedom, but the journey toward it makes every effort worthwhile. As Susan B. Anthony said almost a century ago: Failure is impossible!"
Bruna Nota, who lives in Toronto, is the President of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.