Restoring Humanity

by | Dec 24, 2008

Cultural agency: preventing violence through art. Photo by Donna Decesare

There was an eerie darkness that flooded the room except for the spotlights that the BBC engineer aimed directly at our faces. We were in a makeshift studio in a private home 40 miles outside of Belfast—the setting for Facing the Truth—a three-part BBC television series that brought victims and perpetrators of the conflict in Northern Ireland together for face-to-face encounters.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who presided over countless such encounters in his homeland of South Africa, led the facilitation team along with me and Lesley Bilinda, whose husband was killed in the Rwandan genocide. His presence created a sense of possibility that healing could be started in this war-ravaged country. The BBC knew that although many of the political issues that had divided the country had been settled, the human suffering brought on by the conflict had never been addressed. They knew that if the two Belfast communities were to envision a future together, the human consequences of the conflict had to be acknowledged. Peace agreements are not designed to attend to the unspeakable loss and trauma people endure during protracted conflict, whether the victims are from Ireland or El Salvador, South Africa or Colombia.

I think of the war-ravaged countries of Latin America, where I have also worked, where stories of loss and suffering could fill volumes. And war is not the only source of violence—the pain caused by domestic abuse, class struggles and other violations of dignity are just as damaging as being caught in political crossfire.

Facing the Truth was telling the story of North Ireland and one reconciliation process. Thus, over a twelve-day period, we brought together six pairs of victims and perpetrators. The process enabled everyone to tell their stories of what happened during the fateful encounters that changed their lives forever. We all agreed that in order for the stories to unfold, we needed to create a process that was dignified, in which everyone involved felt listened to, heard, understood and responded to. They needed to be given the benefit of the doubt—that their intentions for participating were good—and to receive acknowledgment for what they have been through. The perpetrators also needed to be given a chance to be understood and if they felt so moved, to express grief and remorse for what they had done. At the end of their sessions, most of the pairs of victims and perpetrators experienced reconciliation. One pair even went out to dinner together following the encounter. Given the right process, anything is possible.

What did we learn from these experiences? As the Archbishop said, “people seem to need a public ritual when they’ve been roughed up.” Human pain and suffering do not go away on their own. The longer we wait before recognizing and acknowledging what people have been through, the longer the past contaminates the present. Even if a peace agreement is signed, without an opportunity for a public healing ritual where people can tell their stories in a safe and nurturing environment, resentment and distrust are likely to dominate the way people interact with one another. The pain that fills our inner world needs as much attention as a gunshot wound, but what is being done about it?

Perhaps the process we developed in N. Ireland could be useful in Latin America for alleviating the historical and present traumas that are buried in the souls of the living. There can be no more urgent human need than to heal the wounds of the past so we are free again to hope, dream, and to be together in a way that enables the full extension of our humanity. As Archbishop Tutu says, “we can only be human together.”

Winter 2008Volume VII, Number 2

Donna Hicks, Ph.D. is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

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