July 5, 2012
Teshuva in Liberia: Moving from ruin to reconciliation
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What does all of that mean from a programmatic standpoint? Jewish wisdom suggests a threefold strategy for communal or national reconciliation: truth, accountability and memory.
1. Truth. There is a certain irony in the insistence on truthtelling in the aftermath of violent conflict. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and others who have worked to end intractable conflicts have argued that in order to sign peace agreements, the criminality of the enemy must often be temporarily suppressed. But for a country or community to ultimately heal, the events of the past must be actively uncovered. In a national act of loving validation, communities should come together to speak publicly about their losses and to hear one another’s stories. Gbowee writes about sacred exercises she began to hold during the war, called “Shedding the Weight.” Small groups of women would gather by candlelight and share their stories of rape and assault, their terror and their dreams. Many people told their stories for the first time in this setting, and it seemed to create an opening not only for healing, but for empowerment and political activism.
2. Justice. Systems must be devised in which perpetrators are held accountable for the acts they committed. As Gbowee has said, boy (and even some girl) soldiers are “damaged children [who] have grown into damaged young people.” They need the help of their communities, their nation, to transition from soldiers to productive community members. Rwanda’s ambitious multifaceted reconciliation model distinguishes between the masterminds of the genocide (who have been or will be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) and the foot soldiers, who are tried either in criminal courts or in local gacaca (“on the grass”) courts set up around the country. Nearly 1.5 million people have been tried in these courts, designed to help victims learn the truth about the death of their family members and structured to give more lenient sentences to perpetrators who express remorse for what they have done. Safe arenas like these must be created, where perpetrators can hear of the pain they have caused and be guided by local religious and communal leaders toward taking responsibility and expressing regret for what they have done. In Rwanda, after acknowledging wrongdoing, perpetrators go to work draining swamplands and building roads, helping to repair the country they devastated.
3. Memory. Remembering is not about fueling resentment until the opportunity for retribution emerges. Memory — especially of pain inflicted upon our people — is central to Jewish liturgy and ritual; the assumption is that active preservation of memory not only honors those who suffered, but also transforms the consciousness of future generations. Many post-conflict regions have found a need for the creation of designated spaces (memorial structures) and times to remember (national days or rituals of remembrance, like National Sorry Day in Australia or Tisha b’Av and Yom HaShoah).
I understand the challenges of investing time and resources in truthtelling, accountability and the preservation of memory when the people need jobs and food. As one woman from WIPNET said, “We fought for peace, but you can’t eat peace.” And yet it seems to me that the work of social transformation is essential to the rebuilding of a society, and only with attention to war wounds will a new communal consciousness be formed — one that guides the people in addressing basic problems of poverty, unemployment and education. This will surely take time — any authentic process that undertakes the challenge of social, political and spiritual transformation surely would. There is no quick fix to violence and war — especially war this brutal and unforgiving. But dramatic social change is possible, as evidenced by the relationship between Germany and Israel, which most would have found unimaginable in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
It’s true that when you hear so many stories of pain and loss, they tend to blend into one. And yet there are some that, once heard, live in you forever. They change you in some way, push you to rethink all previous assumptions. Cecilia, one of the powerful white-shirted women who made the peace, shared her story with a few of us. She was working in some kind of informal intake set up by the women, hearing stories from men and children after the war. A man approached her and confessed to a brutal murder. Years earlier, Cecilia had been home with her sisters and parents when the rebels stormed their house. She was able to flee, but her sisters were forced at gunpoint to watch their father brutalized, dehumanized and ultimately murdered. She realized, as she now listened to the details pouring out of this young man, that the person he had tortured and killed was her own father. She burst into tears, whispered, “I forgive,” and ran away, sobbing. As she told us this story, we all wept and hugged. Afterward, I apologized, worried that we had unnecessarily provoked her to revisit her deepest trauma. “No,” she said. “It is through the tears that we begin to heal.”
I left Liberia profoundly moved by the strength of the people — especially the women — who continue to fight courageously for peace and the restoration of sanity and dignity in their country. I am proud of the work that AJWS supports on the ground — work that is actually helping to shape history — and touched that while most Liberian villagers have never before met Jews, they know of AJWS’ work and know that we are a people that has suffered terribly and has come out believing in the triumph of the human spirit. My prayer is that the spiritual and social needs of a devastated population can come to be seen as political priorities. I hope that Liberians will craft a system of accountability and justice in which truths are told, people called to take responsibility and given a chance to work toward the healing of the country. And I’d like for the mantra forgive and forget to be permanently replaced with reconcile and remember. But until then, at least we’ll have our shared tears.
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