War made him a good negotiator

October 13, 2008 12:00 am

, HELSINKI, October 13 – Finnish conflict mediator Martti Ahtisaari, awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Friday, said childhood experiences of war had prepared him to become perhaps the world’s most hailed peace negotiator.

Experiencing war "gave me sensitivity … Perhaps that made me a peace negotiator," the 71-year-old former Finnish president told reporters a few hours after winning the prize.

People around him noticed his gift for diplomacy early on, he said, pointing out that "I was surprised when my old basketball teammates told me that I was always the one who was mediating quarrels within the team."

It was not until later in life that Ahtisaari realised his childhood experience of fleeing from his family home in the Karelia province when it was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II had prepared him for his diplomatic calling.

Having to move from relative to relative had made him more sensitive to the reactions of people around him and had helped tune him into what others were feeling and thinking.

"I understand people well," he said.

Ahtisaari also stressed that his early work as a teacher had given him priceless experience in defusing conflicts.

"I have enormous amounts of patience. I don’t usually get angry, but I can be tough," he said.

The Finn who has spent 30 years helping end conflicts in troublespots around the globe said his work in Namibia, where he first gave peace mediation a shot, was the most difficult of his career.

"Perhaps the most traumatic experience was on April 1, 1989 when SWAPO (rebel group) troops came from Angola and more than 300 people were killed.

"If I could manage to sort out that, I have the feeling there is no problem I can’t solve," he said.

Ahtisaari, who had been tipped to win the Nobel Peace Prize for years, said he had his own theory about why he received the honour this year.

"When I turned 70 last year, my friends realised that I’m getting old, so they have been hurrying things," he joked, pointing out that he had also received the UNESCO peace prize last week and a number of other awards since the beginning of the year.

At 71, Ahtisaari still has a busy schedule, with plans to travel to Jordan and Britain next week, and says his retirement "is not yet in the cards."

Still, with so many unsolved conflicts raging around the world, he emphasised the importance of getting a younger generation of peace negotiators out in the field.

"A fortune teller in Rome told me I would live until I’m 90. I hope she was right, but I don’t think I will be carrying out this work for decades," he said.


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