Healing lessons from another war-torn society - Mozambique

After the guns of war fall silent, what happens to the people whose main role during the war was to be professional fighters? This is an important challenge for US communities as they welcome back soldiers previously deployed in Iraq.

I came to this small town in southern Mozambique to discuss this with a group of men brought together by an organization of people who had fought - on both sides - in the civil war that ravaged this sprawling, ocean-side country from 1976 through 1992.

We perched on a circle of chairs set outside the local office of a human rights group. Participants included two rights activists, four men who had fought in the civil war, and a traditional healer. They all stressed that communities need to take special steps to reintegrate community members who return home after participation in, or close exposure to, a war.

Jorge Moine, the healer, explained that when a community member returns from war, his or her parents would traditionally sit by a holy tree, and ask the family's ancestors for guidance on reintegrating the returning one. Then there would be special ceremonies to "cleanse" the former fighter of the taint of war before he would be allowed back into the home.

"Some people might do traditional ceremonies. Others might go to a church and say a special mass for this purpose," he said. But one way or another, the transition from wartime behavior to peacetime behavior should be meaningfully marked.

During Mozambique's war, around a million of this impoverished country's 16 million citizens were killed, 5 million were displaced, and numerous shocking atrocities were committed. Despite that violence and upheaval, once the government and the insurgent Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) concluded a peace agreement in October 1992, the country rapidly returned to peace. And the peace has proven robust ever since.

How did Mozambique achieve this? Even throughout the civil war, it retained many strong cultural resources for peacemaking and conflict resolution. The ancient traditions of the 16 or so different language groups were one such resource - as were many of its Christian churches.

Churches played an important role throughout the process of making and then consolidating the peace. The first contacts between the government and RENAMO leaders were brokered by local Christian leaders, and the 17 months of negotiations were hosted - in Rome - by a Catholic lay organization, Sant'Egidio. During negotiations, numerous members of the clergy and traditional healers worked in their different ways to prepare the population for the transition to peace.

How did these community leaders help individual Mozambicans deal with the sense of hurt that arose from the atrocities committed during the war? In other countries, such acts would likely have led to calls for revenge - or at least for post-war punishment. In Mozambique, most community leaders met the desire for retribution by explaining that the heinous acts had been committed in the extraordinary circumstances of war, but that with peace, the rules that govern "normal," peaceful life would come back into operation. Wartime atrocities were thus attributed much more to the social breakdown of war itself, rather than to intentional acts undertaken by specific individuals.

I asked the group here if they thought people who'd committed bad acts during the war should be punished.

"If you did that, the whole of Mozambique should have been punished!" one combat veteran replied.

"War is war," another explained. "Everything that happens in war is violent. You can't pick out certain parts of it as worse than the rest."

I found such views expressed by nearly all the people I talked to during two weeks of intensive discussions of this issue. Only one or two of the 30 or so Mozambicans I heard from expressed any concern that the general amnesty for war-era atrocities included in the 1992 peace agreement may have fostered a climate of "impunity" for former perpetrators.

Many Western rights activists believe that when wars end, all atrocities committed during them should be prosecuted in war-crimes courts. But these activists should pay attention to the fact that in Mozambique in 1992 - as in South Africa - it was only an offer of amnesty for former atrocities that allowed a period of conflict and gross rights-abuse to end.

Another lesson Westerners might take from Mozambique is the care people here take to reintegrate former combatants into normal society once the war has ended. The US "discovered" posttraumatic stress disorder in the 1970s. But Mozambique's indigenous leaders have been paying special attention for centuries to the sensitive transition individuals have to make when they exit the war zone and return to peaceful society.

That transition, Mozambicans believe, requires not only the rituals that mark it clearly, but also solid help in connecting former soldiers to productive work and normal family life.

The programs designed to help this happen were far from perfect. But still, 92,000 former combatants from both sides were demobilized - and the peace agreement has sunk remarkably strong roots in the past 10 years.

People who want to see how societies can escape endless cycles of violence can learn a lot by studying Mozambique: an African country that has done just that.

Helena Cobban is traveling in Africa to research a book on violence and its legacies.

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