The power of forgiveness

Cali: this city, the third-largest in Colombia, South America, is set in a beautiful green valley, with mountains that stretch out as far as the eye can see. From a distance, Cali looks like a tropical paradise, beautiful with its palm trees towering in the sky, warm weather and a refreshingly cool evening breeze.

But beauty is not the reason we are in Colombia. We are the first to arrive here among a group of South Africans invited to speak at a conference on restorative justice and peace in Colombia.

It is late evening. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his assistant Dan Vaughn and I are being driven to our hotel, an hour’s drive from the airport.

As we near our hotel, evidence of the tragic devastation suffered by ordinary Colombians unfolds before our eyes: shanty quarters flank the road, many of them built on top of each other, stretching for miles and covering the bottom of the beautiful hills of Cali, their lights dotting the area and cascading down into the valley in what would otherwise have been a “prime location”, with the backdrop of the elegant mountainside that is typical of the Colombian landscape.

Colombians are tired of the cycles of violence that have dominated their lives and plunged them into the doldrums of poverty and fear. They want peace, and freedom from fear.

That is why we were in Cali last month, five South Africans invited to address the first international conference on Restorative Justice and Peace in Colombia: Albie Sachs, Tutu, Penuell Maduna, Tokyo Sexwale and I.

One could say we were in Colombia as ambassadors of South Africa’s peaceful transition. In my international travels and public lectures on forgiveness and dialogue, I have been amazed by how much South Africa continues to enjoy respect globally as the country that successfully carved a unique approach to democratic transition and created a new language for dealing with past conflict, the language of reconciliation.

No one epitomised the role that South Africa has come to play in countries emerging from conflict more than Tutu. When he spoke about hope in the way only he can, hope as something that we can all touch, the audience in the full-to-capacity conference hall rose to its feet, applauded and shouted cheers of excitement. The hunger for peace was palpable. It reminded me of the excitement and the hope generated at once by the negotiation process, the 1994 elections and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

“We belong in a moral universe,” Tutu said in his opening address. “There is no way in which evil can prevail.” And to a standing ovation that reverberated throughout the huge hall and echoed far beyond, he concluded: “Ultimately, goodness, joy, laughter and peace will prevail — these are God’s gifts to you.”

All the South African speakers had one message for the Colombians: to tell the story of a country that was ravaged by years of violence, fear and anger, but sought dialogue instead of revenge.

Sachs spoke about the importance of the South African Constitution and “the honour of being the generation that broke the cycles of violence and domination”. He related his own encounter with Henri, the apartheid security policeman who tried to kill him, Henri’s quest to meet him to ask his forgiveness, and the first time he shook Henri’s hand after he had testified before the TRC.

Sachs movingly described the process of creating a Constitution that captures the essence of transformation, and explained why the Old Fort building was chosen to house the Constitutional Court.

“The site of pain, the site of negativity, is the very site we chose to build a Constitutional Court that defends the rights of everyone. We took negative energy and turned it into something capable of creating beauty,” he said, making reference to the role of the Old Fort from the days of the Anglo-Boer South African War, and the cycles of hatred that the building had come to embody over the decades.

That these cycles of hate were broken, Sachs said, was owed to the “spirit of humanity, the sense of humanity that can be found anywhere in the world”.

The spirit of humanity was indeed present among Colombians themselves. Every Colombian we met could tell of family members who had been kidnapped, killed during a kidnapping, or friends or neighbours’ children who were forced to join one of the parties involved in the Colombian war.

There seemed to be some urgency among family members of victims of kidnappings to tell their stories; they wanted to speak to anyone who would hear their tales. Patricia, a young mother of two teenage sons, was among them.

If the wounded can be healers who can bring peace in a land torn by violence, Patricia, whose husband was kidnapped by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, would be one. She is one of many voices calling for peace in Colombia: “I do not want these people who kidnapped my husband to go to jail,” Patricia said through the simultaneous translation.

“That will only lead to more violence; their children will revolt. All I want is for my husband to return to us, alive. If peace negotiations are not implemented, if this decades-old problem in Colombia is not resolved, I fear that my children might become vengeful. I pray this does not happen.”

Patricia had highlighted a well-known psychological consequence of trauma: how mutable the roles of victim and perpetrator are, and how easily cycles of violence are repeated and passed on inter-generationally, transforming victims into the embodiment of what they hate in the other.

At the end of a workshop I ran at the conference in Cali on trauma and forgiveness, two women came up from behind and tapped on my shoulder. One of the participants at the workshop immediately volunteered to act as translator between their Spanish and my English. The first woman wanted to talk about her husband who was kidnapped three years ago.

It was hard for her to mention his name; she hadn’t spoken it for a long time. The last time she heard from her husband’s capturers was shortly after he was kidnapped. “Having your husband captured is the most unbearable thing that could happen to anyone. But there is nothing worse than not hearing from those who are keeping him captive,” she said, her voice breaking.

The second woman’s two young sons were kidnapped. She tried to describe how she heard about the kidnapping of the younger, who was 10 at the time, but the more she tried, the harder it was for her to tell his story. She began to choke up, and as she tried to continue, she broke down in uncontrollable sobs.

Silence about one’s pain, I thought to myself, is a heavy burden that no one should carry. Earlier at the conference Sexwale had introduced Mpho Hani, wife of Chris Hani who was assassinated by Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis, who, at his TRC amnesty hearing said he couldn’t apologise “for an act of war”. Mpho’s quiet tears as she was introduced were testimony to how silence freezes the pain of trauma and its associated emotions.

Mpho Hani, however, is also an example of the immeasurable capacity for human goodness even after so much trauma. Talking to her during a lunch break at the conference I was struck by her commitment to the reconciliation agenda in South Africa.

In the centre of the strife in Colombia are various groups: left-wing organisations that were originally established as a liberation force against conservative rule in Colombia, the National Liberation Army or ELN, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; drug cartels; and paramilitary “self-defence” units that were created to assist the government in fighting left-wing organisations, but which have now been outlawed.

On the last day of the conference Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez appeared in a televised dialogue with Tutu, Maduna and Sexwale. Sexwale delivered a pointed message to the guerrilla groups.

“Those of us who have fought for freedom of our people,” he said, “not once ever thought of kidnapping as a strategy for liberation … We compromise not because we fear war, but because we love peace more.”

The audience roared with applause and rose to a lengthy ovation. “No fighter worth any respect as a fighter will kidnap other people.” And addressing the Velez, Sexwale said: “Mr President, it is time for courage … As a citizen of the world I say rise from being a president — presidents come and go — to being a statesman.”

Maduna spoke about how he was once called a “cockroach” by a prison warder when he was a liberation fighter. He asked Velez whether he had ever reflected on the real needs of those fighting the state, and how he planned to include them in the political negotiations that were being discussed in Colombia.

“Out there on the mountains are fellow human beings,” Maduna said. “We must draw them out and bring them into the valleys” in order for any process of negotiation to be successful.

Colombia is one of the most troubled countries in the world. And, as always, those affected by the strife there are the most vulnerable members of society: woman, children, peasant farmers and ethnic minorities.

The long and painful list of countries currently facing immeasurable strife and genocide shows that the world’s most vulnerable are displaced and voiceless. They are hungry for peace, and long for normalcy in their lives. Countries such as Colombia, and many others on our own continent, highlight what was the moral challenge of the past century, and will be the central moral challenge of this century: as member countries of the United Nations, what should our response be to the destruction of the voiceless?

Well, Tutu, Maduna and Sexwale showed in Colombia how “citizens of the world” can become alternative voices to lead international responses to countries whose citizens are crying out for peace.

In response to Velez’s not so overt plea for help from the South Africans, the South African threesome issued a joint statement, read by Tutu, making a commitment to approach President Thabo Mbeki to facilitate initial talks to encourage warring factions to join in dialogue with the Colombian government.

“Come down from the mountain,” Tutu called out to the fighters through the live TV broadcast, “come down to help rebuild your country, Colombia.”

It may be a small gesture from South Africans, but when the people of Colombia responded with a standing ovation, it was as if Tutu’s statement was enough to move mountains.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town and winner of the 2004 Alan Paton Prize for non-fiction for her book A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness

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