KAMPALA, UGANDA – Besides “I’m 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 Africa where a transitional government wants to move forward.
“We’ve passed through 15 years of civil war,” President Abdullahi Yusuf said, closing 2006. “Now we need to forgive each other.” Somalia is a burial ground for untold thousands who’ve died brutally through political execution, clan warfare and plain starvation. How is such a place to know forgiveness? How is any place?
According to the annual listing of Canada’s Project Ploughshares, there are now 32 armed conflicts worldwide – 13 in Africa – involving about one third of the globe’s population.
These clashes are part of history’s fourth generation of warfare. It’s a style of fighting no longer waged on battlefields, or with linear attacks, or even state-versus-state.
Instead, wars now typically revolve around so-called “non-stable actors” — fighters with no capital to bomb or, sometimes, even uniforms to see. If they’re not terrorists raising hell over ideology, they’re resistance fighters, or rebel-militias fighting civil wars over things like natural resources.
Innocent civilians get dragged in. They lose their economic means, their homes and their lives to what are often ambiguous forces. 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 fighters wanting to return to their homes? In Somalia, many of the 80,000 militia, in 50 groups, now want to settle down. After 20 years of war in northern Uganda, peace with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army depends on their leaders’ amnesty. But the UN wants them tried in The Hague.
South Africa’s well-known Truth and Reconciliation Commission put that country on a new road. It gave amnesty to 849 of 7,112 apartheid criminals. Was that right? Today dozens of reconciliation tribunals are active worldwide, also trying to somehow 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, didn’t wait for his former enemies to show any regret. He found the rebel commander who killed his father — a man who’s now in Liberia’s parliament — and forgave him unconditionally.
That led the perpetrator to take responsibility, to apologize, and give information that, in turn, helped Kulah’s healing.
“If you don’t forgive, you’ll carry that burden your whole life,” says Kulah.
They’re noble words in a country where soldiers routinely decorated roadblocks with human intestines, during a 1990-2003 war that killed 150,000 of 3 million Liberians.
Some will disagree. The West tends to tilt away from the mercy of amnesia, toward 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.
This, arguably, keeps the dignity of both victim and perpetrator intact.
But what if nobody is deserving? Could anyone ever atone enough for something as heinous as the Holocaust?
Yet in one of history’s most striking examples of reconciliation, Germany was rebuilt by former enemies. During following decades, Germans responded with “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung” a deep introspection dealing with the guilt and shame of their past.
They dialogued, made apologies, built memorials. They 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.
Even on a personal level, who among us has never been deeply hurt by someone?
Still, it seems that the only thing harder than forgiveness, is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness has its own price. It destroys the bridge over which anyone must cross.
Individually, this is really what Somalians, and others in the reconciliation process, are being led to consider. It’s something for all of us to keep in mind. We can’t, and shouldn’t, 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.