LEADERS of Bangladeshi youth gangs in the East End of London have put aside their violent vendettas to take part in a unique experiment to bring long-term peace to some of Britain's poorest streets.
They have formed a committee, made up of the "top boys" from the various gangs, to work together to resolve conflicts.
It also addresses the desperate problems triggered by the hard drugs that have flooded into the borough of Tower Hamlets in recent years.
Organised by former gang members turned youth workers, the project has already claimed its first success - a trouble-free summer in the East End for the first time in living memory.
Three leading members from each of the warring street gangs, such as the Whitechapel-based BLM (the Brick Lane Massif), the Stepney Posse, the East Boys from Bethnal Green and the Cannon Street gang, now work together to keep the peace. The Committee of Youth Against Violence was recently renamed "Asha" (hope), by its members.
Teenage street gangs have been a part of East End culture for generations, but in recent years the old-fashioned punch-up has mutated into lethal violence.
Abul Khayar Ali, 25, a youth worker with the Brick Lane Youth Development Association (BLYDA) which brokered the initial gang truce, estimates that in Tower Hamlets there are 2,500 youths affiliated to one of the myriad local gangs. A former member of the BLM, Mr Ali has won the respect and trust of the area's disaffected youth.
"The fights used to be with fists and maybe sticks but the new generation of gang members are using machetes, knives, meat-cleavers and baseball bats."
He said the gang violence, fuelled by machismo, drugs and unemployment, was beginning to replicate that found in American inner cities.
The turning point in Tower Hamlets was a violent ambush in an East End park earlier this year. Fifteen members of the Cannon Street gang - one of the largest in the area - were attacked by an alliance of 50 youths from three smaller groups. Shahin, 20, a youth from Cannon Street, said: "They were all tooled-up. Three of our people were seriously injured. One has lost the full use of his arm which was sliced open and another was left with his ear hanging off."
Immediately, the Cannon Street group began plotting revenge. Word got back to the BLYDA that they were trying to obtain guns. "There was going to be a blood bath," said Mr Ali.
A meeting of the warring gangs was hastily organised. None would agree to travel to their opponents' area, so it was held on the neutral territory of the East London Mosque. The outcome was an agreement to stop the violence and the establishment of the gang committee.
According to Mr Ali, Tower Hamlets council officials had coincidentally been at a meeting near the park when the fighting erupted and had witnessed the mayhem. Chastened by what they saw, they did not need much convincing to allocate pounds 15,000 to fund the gang project. But another pounds 25,000 is still desperately needed to help Asha continue its work.
Shanin is now an active member of the gang forum and is learning to be a role model. He won't even smoke a cigarette in front of the younger boys, out of "respect". As well as helping to mediate arguments before they turn into violent conflicts, he and his peers have also started to tackle the drugs menace in their neighbourhood. "We gave all the smackheads a time limit to leave the area or we said we'd inform the police, and now the drugs situation has really calmed down."
His friend Hannan, who has an ear-to-ear scar stretching across the crown of his head, the result of a "battering" he took from a group of racists in 1995, said: "We want to stop the cycle of violence with our generation and develop friendships rather than being rivals. We don't want the younger kids to have to live like we had to."
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