Friday, May 16, 2008

Truth & Reconciliation: A National Reckoning

The second event I went to on the Sunday before last was a panel on truth and reconciliation in countries that have seen great violence, repression, civil war, etc. The panelists here were Rian Malan, of South Africa; Alexandra Fuller, who wrote Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight; Francisco Goldman, who has written about the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala; and Lieve Joris, who has written about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The moderator was Paul van Zyl.

Instead of asking general questions van Zyl asked the individual panelists specific questions, which resulted in interesting answers but not much discussion. He started out by asking Goldman why it is important that nations grapple with a past of abuse and whether or not there is a case for forgetting? Goldman explained that in Guatemala the military imposed blanket amnesty. They then allowed a UN truth commission that was only allowed to speak generally, not lay specific blame. The government was a "democratic institution" based on forgetting. So the church formed its own truth commission, spearheaded by the bishop, and two days after it gave its report he was murdered. Van Zyl then asked if he thought the commission served Guatemala well and Goldman said that he thought it had been both essential and indispensable. He said that having to keep silent about that kind of trauma was a form of violence.

Van Zyl then asked Malan how he thought South Africa is progressing with dealing with the past. Malan said that he had been convinced that the South African drama would end in race war. After apartheid ended the next 18 months were a sort of honeymoon for South Africa and he feels that the truth commission succeeded primarily in opening old wounds. He also stated that he felt that the truth hadn't been obscured in South Africa as it had been in other countries. He then said that a truth commission needs to be impartial and theirs wasn't. He elaborated on this a bit after being asked if there was a case for reconciliation, saying that their truth commission wanted to refocus what happened in the soft focus of human rights and this was too simplistic. As an example he noted that all but one member of the ANC was secretly a member of the communist party. By way of conclusion he said that he felt alienated by the truth commission.

I don't think I quite caught the question for Fuller correctly but it had something to do with the complexity in Zimbabwe and also both Mugabe and the previous white regime. Fuller said that she once led people to leave a reading of hers in Colorado by comparing Mugabe to Bush. She then said that any peace birthed out of violence will eventually spawn violence. She said that Mugabe can be effective because there was no truth after the war there. It allowed him to jump on the abuse and push the right buttons. There was no reparation so there could be no reconciliation. Van Zyl then asked about complicity and Fuller said that the Rhodesians are not a good example of how to run a war, but they are a good warning. She compared their rhetoric to Bush's. Who takes responsibility? No one.

Continuing on the issue of complicity, van Zyl asked Joris about the role of Belgium and France in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She said that there is also a role for the United States, and soon for China as well. The people on top are helped from the outside so there is no opportunity for opposition from below. The pacification groups are a business. Where there is a void--no laws, no human rights, no economy--it allows people to do and become horrible things. Van Zyl then asked how you deal with child soldiers. Joris said that they are sometimes given into war by their families in return for money at a later date. Again it is an economic void that allows this to happen. It is important that there are witnesses on the ground. She then talked a bit about trying war criminals and said that sometimes when she is looking at these people she thinks, "haven't they suffered enough?" It is a situation in which there are not good guys and bad guys like we would want.

Van Zyl asked Goldman about the role of the US in Guatemala, pointing out that the truth commission there said that the genocide there could not have happened without the support of the United States. Goldman explained that at the time the United States was formulating the policy of waging proxy wars against communism. In the 60s they created a world of clandestine power. At the same time, progressive people in the state department began a program in Guatemala where they would handpick bright young people for scholarships to US universities. These people then returned to Guatemala and began influencing things. But, "reform is the door through which communists enter," so by the 70s, seventy percent of these young people had been murdered by the other branch of the US government active in Guatemala--the clandestine one of military power. He also said that the political criminals now own the drug cartels and organized crime.

Van Zyl then backtracked to address the idea that the South African truth commission, which he was a part of, was biased. He said that in the 48 hours before the report was made it was the ANC that tried to stop the South African truth commission. Thus he is hard pressed to concede the issue that the truth commission was biased toward the ANC. (I personally have no opinion on the bias or lack thereof of the truth commission since I know almost nothing about it, but I do, for the record, think that's a pretty weak argument.) He acknowledged that the commission had the responsibility to look at all sides but also said that in the end someone is more culpable, even if crimes are committed on both sides. Malan said that 72 people died in the dungeons of South Africa and while that is certainly too many it's not the equivalent of Pol Pot and that he would like precision in the crimes he is accused of. I think I was missing something (a lot) in this exchange, partially because I don't know a great deal about South Africa and partially because I don't know anything about Malan, never having heard of him before attending this panel.

That topic was then dropped and van Zyl asked Fuller about a book of hers in which she tells the story of an Evangelical Christian soldier. Fuller said that it actually makes sense because who is righter than God? She noted that it is so hard to argue with someone who has a highly literal belief in God.

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience of which there were a few. The first was about the responsibility of writers to transmit truth to a broad audience. Joris said that she wanted to give back to the Congolese a part of their history that they don't know. Malan said that he is just a journalist and a storyteller. Fuller talked about The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera and said that they should have paid more attention to his howl (which seems to be more about the responsibility of readers to listen to truth than the responsibility of writers to transmit it). Goldman said that people don't realize how difficult it is to create justice.

Another woman asked a rather long-winded question about what would happen to people today returning to their countries after being educated about democracy in the United States. Van Zyl mentioned that the US is probably not the best place to learn about democracy these days. Malan said that South Africans would probably just want to say in the US and also that since the Bush presidency began he has no longer been able to defend the US as he once did. Joris said that this has happened in the Congo and the educated people come back and get involved in the very worst things; education is no guarantee of good behavior.

Someone then asked Fuller if interpersonal reconciliation is possible without economic reconciliation. She said that for real reconciliation you can't be sitting there aching for something someone else has. The final question was also for her and asked about Britain's failure in Rhodesia. She said that Britain refused to be involved in the corruption. A grand idea doesn't do any good if the people in power are so corrupt that the idea rots in their hands.

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