East End 'massives' take the path of peace

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The Independent Online

A unique project that can turn street-fighters into firefighters is helping to quell a wave of teenage violence in the East End of London.

Instead of fighting in the streets, sworn enemies from rival Bangladeshi youth gangs have come together to eat restaurant meals and go on bonding trips to the Cornwall coast, where they go canoeing and raft-building. Some have become best friends.

The initiative has reconciled two East End "massives" that had been feuding for more than six years, often with more than 100 youths involved in fights. Some of the teenagers who led the peace talks, and coaxed younger members to turn their backs on violence, are being courted for jobs by the London Fire Service.

Soydul Uddin, a youth worker with Tower Hamlets council's rapid response team, who mediated the truce, said: "There were a lot of differences between these young people. What started out as a playground fight had ended up on streets and estates. Neither group would back down and it had become really serious."

Five months later the transformation in relations between youngsters from Stepney and Whitechapel is almost complete. "Suddenly these guys are walking down the street together," Mr Uddin said. "The community is shocked."

Ruhel Ali, 19, from Whitechapel, and Miah, 18, from Stepney, were among the five individuals from each group whom Mr Uddin selected to bring about the reconciliation. The first meeting of these 10 peacemakers at a neutral community centre last January began in nervous silence but ended in hugs. They agreed to meet again for Friday prayers at a mosque and afterwards went for a meal at an Indian restaurant. Last month, members of the rival groups went on holiday together in Cornwall.

Mr Ali said the group was working hard to use its influence to turn younger boys away from street-fighting by visibly mixing with former rivals. "We are trying our best to integrate the younger lot," he said. "We are going to schools, youth clubs, even mosques."

The youths are attending workshops with London Fire Brigade but also express interest in police and community work. Mr Uddin said: "They can now go freely into each other's areas to do things for younger people. Hopefully, they will also become the first Bangladeshi firefighters."

Police and social workers hope that the project's approach can be applied to pacify members of groups who have been involved in more serious violence.

In the past 18 months in the East End, large groups have fought in the street with machetes, knives and baseball bats. None of the youths in the rapid response project has been involved in these more violent clashes.

Last month at the Old Bailey, two members of the Brick Lane Massive, Shahin Haque, 18, and Mahdoob Hussain, 19, were jailed for their part in a pitched battle with members of the rival Poplar Massive outside Tower Hamlets College. The court heard that carloads of the Brick Lane gang arrived in cars, wearing balaclavas and carrying baseball bats, sticks and an axe.

Commander Mark Simmons, the senior police officer in Tower Hamlets, said there was no link between these "massives" and organised crime. But he said overcrowded conditions in the East End meant that gangs of 50 youths could easily assemble.

He said: "The difference we are seeing is in the level of violence in the conflicts in the streets and the weapons that are used. That's what sets this apart from what you would see in other areas and cities around groups of youths."

"Skipper" Rahman, 18, said the peace between rival groups had been a liberation. "Before it was hard to walk down the street, even in your own area. You had to look over your shoulder the whole time," he said. "Now it's like freedom."