Taming the desire for revenge

African nations draw on cultural heritage to heal wounds of war andrestore social fabric

'When people come here who have been exposed to violence, we ... ask [them] to see a specialist in healing the war. These people have seen so much violence, it can destroy them and those around them, because ... they continue to act it. So these specialists, they teach them how to live without this violence; they take the violence out of them.'

- Mozambican, on front lines of civil war

(as told to anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom, University of Notre Dame)

'Antoinne, a survivor of an earlier round of fighting in Rwanda, told how at the age of 5 he was made to watch the killing of his father.... He grew up knowing his neighbors were his father's killers. Over the years, he struggled not to strike back.... "Many didn't kill out of hatred," he realized, "but out of fear. People were told to kill or be killed."

'Yet as the years went on, he witnessed incident after incident of violence.... The anger and rage built up in him until he ... questioned his Christianity and stopped going to church. Still struggling, he decided to read his Bible through three times.... Finally ... Antoinne decided to pray for his enemies.... "It was so difficult to give away my anger." He remembered each incident of violence and each perpetrator, and he forgave and blessed them.'

- In Rwanda after the 1994 genocide

(as told by sociologist Nancy Good Sider, Eastern Mennonite University)

When whole societies are torn apart by conflict, the future depends on individual and collective healing.

"When a group of people has been victimized, this deeply affects them. And without some experience of healing, they are more likely to become perpetrators themselves," says Ervin Staub, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who spoke last month at a symposium on reconciliation sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

Dr. Staub, known for his research and writings on genocide, is now working in Rwanda. Healing and reconciliation are interconnected, he says. The healing has to begin first, but when the two groups live together, "something has to happen with 'the other' " so that healing progresses and cycles of violence can be halted.

As the international community strives to restore stability in Kosovo and East Timor, two African countries with their own traumatic histories have dug deeply into their cultural reservoirs.

A route strikingly different from Western therapeutic approaches has been taken in communities across Mozambique, where 1 million people lost their lives in a 16-year civil war that devastated the country.

Mozambique's peace accord has held steady since 1992. This is due, suggests anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom, to "cultures of peace" introduced by civilians during and after the war to resist terror and, in their own words, "remake society." Dr. Nordstrom, known for her research on the front lines of war around the world, spent many months in Mozambique over a period of 10 years.

What struck her most was ordinary Mozambicans' concept of violence as something that could be cleansed from people, and the involvement of an entire community in restoring perpetrators and victims alike to a place in that community - without minimizing the wrongs they had done. She spoke with more than a hundred African healers, she says, and "each acknowledged the importance of treating not only the wounds of war but war itself. Each defined violence as an illness, not a biological imperative, and they had a professional mandate to cure it."

Based on traditional belief systems, the process extended even to ex-soldiers who had committed atrocities within their own communities. If these soldiers were banished, people felt, they would only use violence to sustain themselves.

In a paper presented last spring at a conference on reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Nordstrom quotes what village elders said to one young soldier during a long and complex "cleansing ceremony":

"Time will not erase the fact that you killed people. People we all care about. It is something ... we cannot pretend you have not done. But you did these acts in a time of war so horrible none of us has been left unscathed. War makes terrible demands on people.... We cannot condemn you for the war, you too were held in its grip.... We have to go on now to create a better place for ourselves. Take what you have learned and turn it into good, into rebuilding." They then worked daily to help the soldier reintegrate into community life.

"What is so powerful and innovative about this social process," Nordstrom says, "is that it is predicated on redefining violence in a nonviolent way. People choose to fight, not against one side or another, but against war itself."

In Rwanda, the 1994 massacres of some 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus were so horrifying, many may question the feasibility of reconciliation. The two tribes have a history of conflicts and shifting power relations complicated by colonialism.

Staub, whose project deals with forgiveness and reconciliation, did not use those words when he began work in Rwanda. But on returning there recently, he says in an interview, he found Rwandans themselves have begun using them.

They have set up a Unity and Reconciliation Commission to give people at all levels of society the opportunity to speak their minds about what reconciliation requires. Forums are being held for a host of groups, from women to taxi drivers. Speakers have emphasized the need to deal not only with Hutu-Tutsi tensions, he says, but also economic conditions and other societal divisions (such as that between Tutsis who were survivors and those who returned from other countries).

"I admire this process of gathering ideas about how to go about reconciliation," Staub says. "It gives people a voice and fulfills basic needs for a feeling of connection and a positive role."

Essential steps in the healing process, he adds, include telling and acknowledging the truth about the past, and instituting measures of justice and accountability.

Rwandans are also reactivating a pre-colonial system of justice called the gacaca. Western-style tribunals can't handle the huge numbers of people incarcerated for acts of violence. This local conflict-resolution process in which the perpetrator and victim go before a group of elders is also a "healing of the community process," Staub says. "There is an acknowledgment of the harm done, there is compensation, and a kind of punishment determined."

But to prevent genocide in the future, he says, both victims and perpetrators need to find a degree of shared healing. Perpetrators are often groups victimized in the past that have not found a way to heal. Staub is training staffs of eight local organizations, from religious to agricultural groups, to work with people at the grass roots - both Tutsi and Hutu. In group settings, they encourage people to tell their stories and respond with empathy, and they educate them about the origins of genocide. Sharing experiences for the first time since the massacres can be a profound first step in healing. It was for one young woman whose entire family had been murdered while she visited at another home. That family took her in, she said, not as a daughter but as a virtual slave. The combination of experiences was devastating, and she had never before been able to express her feelings.

But what has seemed most galvanizing for participants, Staub says, has been learning in the workshops about the forces in society, in culture, and in the psychology of individuals that lead to genocide. When Rwandans realize that what happened in their society has happened to other people and that there are explainable forces that lead to these things, he says, it seems to give them back their humanity. "If there are understandable forces, even though they are so terrible and our fate was so terrible, then we are still part of the human family!" has been the response.

This new realization, Staub adds, seems to open the door to two things - the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, and, "as people said over and over again, if we know the factors, then we can do something about them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.