KAMPALA, UGANDA – Besides ‘I am sorry,’ the hardest words in any language have to be ‘I forgive you.’ And never has the world needed them more.
The latest reminder comes from Somalia, a messy corner of this continent, where a transitional government wants to move forward.
“We have passed through 15 years of civil war,” President Abdullahi Yusuf said at the end of 2006. “Now, we need to forgive each other.” Somalia is a burial ground for untold thousands. How is such a place to know forgiveness?
According to the annual listing of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian organisation that monitors global war, there are 32 armed conflicts worldwide – 13 in Africa – involving about a third of the globe’s population.
These clashes are part of history’s fourth generation of warfare. It is a style of fighting no longer waged on battlefields or with linear attacks or even stateversus-state. Instead, wars now revolve around the so-called “non-stable actors” – fighters with no capital to bomb or sometimes, even uniforms to see. Innocent civilians lose their economic means, homes and their lives.
So while one of the greatest challenges in today’s world is finding healing for entire populaces, the issues are increasingly complex. How, for example, do you handle the Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers wanting to return home? The peace deal with Joseph Kony apparently depends on the LRA leaders’ amnesty, but the United Nations wants them tried in The Hague. And, in the case of Somalia, many of the 80,000 militia, in 50 groups, also want to settle down and return home.
South Africa’s well-known Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave amnesty to 849 of 7,112 Apartheid criminals.
Was that right? Today, dozens of reconciliation tribunals are active worldwide, trying to weigh justice and mercy. The secret, according to Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is “to strike a balance between Nuremburg on one hand, and amnesia on the other.”
Arthur Kulah, a leader in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did not wait for his former enemies to show any regret. He found the rebel commander who killed his father and forgave him unconditionally.
That led the perpetrator to take responsibility to apologise, which in turn helped Kulah’s healing.
“If you do not forgive, you will carry that burden your entire life,” says Kulah.
They are noble words in a country where soldiers routinely decorated roadblocks with human intestines, during a 1990-2003 war that killed 150,000 out of three million Liberians.
Some will disagree. The West tends to tilt away from the mercy of amnesia, towards the justice of Nuremburg. Its culture has been influenced by moral philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who reasoned that forgiveness should be granted only to the deserving. But what if nobody is deserving?
Could anyone ever atone enough for something as heinous as the Jewish Holocaust? Yet in one of history’s most striking examples of reconciliation, Germany was rebuilt by former enemies.
During the following decades, Germans responded with “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung” a deep introspection dealing with the guilt and shame of their past. They dialogued, made apologies, built memorials and transformed their identity.
There are other options. One is to do the daily dance of saving face, causing vicious cycles of retribution and counter-retribution, where, like in a Newtonian law, every atrocity must be answered with an equal and opposite atrocity. Look at the Middle East. Unforgiveness has its own price. It destroys the bridge over which anyone must cross.
This is really what Somalians, Ugandans and other Africans are being led to consider. It is something, really, for us all to keep in mind, regardless of where we are from. We cannot, and should not, ever really forget.
But we do need to forgive. Revenge may be sweet today, but, for our own sakes, mercy is sweeter for the long tomorrow.