BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
She crushed the cigarette butt with her heel in the bitter wind outside Srebrenica’s town hall and said “never, I shall never forgive him. His apology is not even worth the little finger on my son’s dead body.”
The other women gathered on the broken sidewalk all nodded in consent and laughed mockingly at the idea of forgiving.
The women were all widows and had come in order to get information about their lost family members. During this meeting to bring the sides together, a short a film was shown, initiated by the Hague Tribunals.
One of the convicted mass murderers spoke into the camera from his cell in prison: “I am sorry,” he said.
Not so long ago, the person on trial had the power to play God, to murder at will. Now, the women gathered on the sidewalk were dissecting his little words and dismissed the apology, calling it empty, worthless.
Grasping the power to forgive is a notion that the South African Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu made his mission. And now he is conducting a Web campaign, in which one can learn the “healing power” of forgiveness in 30 days.
When we discuss forgiveness, we see that it is a phenomenon that mainly belongs in the realm of personal relationships. But an examination of Tutu’s new project reveals forgiveness rendered as a social and political tool in post-conflict societies.
In the last few decades, a global discourse has emerged in which reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace are intertwined to create a potent trinity. This approach and its practitioners have had an astounding impact. It is now a key element in efforts to rebuild communities after war. A key catalyst was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Tutu chaired. His message of “forgive but not forget” spread all over the world. He was offering a moral and seemingly manageable template for the international community as investigators tried to understand how to build peace in the new age of war and genocide, where violence unfolds on city streets rather than on distant battlefields.
Since then, a substantial “reconciliation industry” has been built up. Forty truth commissions have been established where reconciliation and forgiveness occurs periodically. In almost any post-conflict country there are countless NGO projects – sometimes frighteningly naïve – trying to get perpetrators and victims to reconcile and forgive, all largely financed by international aid.
The reconciliation efforts that we are witnessing today concerning Turks and Armenians are no exception. These, too, are enormously naïve, again, financed by international actors, including the EU, Russia, and the US.
There are at least two problematic aspects to this development. First, it places responsibility on individual victims. In practice, it is thus expected that Srebrenica widows accept the offender’s plea for forgiveness, through this individual act, taking moral responsibility to “heal the nation.”
The same is happening with the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process. A Turkish individual is saying “I am sorry,” and on the receiving side is an Armenian, an individual, who is expected to accept the apology. Thus we are supposed to heal the nation and go on with our lives.
The second is that Tutu’s “Christian” message of forgiveness maintains the illusion of a smooth transition to a harmonious society where a neat line can be drawn between war and peace.
The “forgiveness” discourse as advertised around the world is a denial of a conflict’s ongoing consequences. Everyday life in post-conflict societies is often not at all harmonious, but rather filled with uncertainty—whether that rises from the expectation that you sit calmly on the bus beside someone who took away your father or that go hungry and watch your children’s lifetime opportunities shrink rather than grow. Forgiveness is obviously a flawed strategy to deal with these profound problems of security and livelihood.
The discourse seems to be flawed on a larger scale, too. Imagine the life of Armenian survivors’ children today, who are offered a cup of tea to share with, for example, Cemal (Jemal) Pasha’s grandson, or given posters with texts that say “make dolma, not war.”
We are offered the chance to visit our ancestral homeland as tourists, enjoy koufte and other local dishes. They are so similar we are told. And, we are offered the chance to listen to a lecture or two and then shake hands.
We are expected to bite the bullet and then go on with our lives. As if nothing has happened. As if all the pending questions of justice and restitution are only unnecessary details.
The “forgiveness” discourse acts as a potent tool in the friction-laden (re)negotiation of power that is so central in post-conflict Turkish and Armenian societies, as both victims and perpetrators will be establishing a coexistence under a new set of rules.
However, taking a look around us, we see what the forgiveness discourse is not telling us. It is not telling us that we will never be able to create a new order. The forgiveness discourse makes unreasonable demands of those who have been abused.
I am not against dialog. But I am against this forced forgiveness template.
It is important to note that around the world, resistance is growing. For example, in Rwanda’s new free speech climate more and more critical voices are heard that protest against the forced forgiveness culture, while in South Africa and the Balkans people are examining strategies for co-existence that is not based on forgiveness.
Opposition to the forgiveness discourse says something important about the victims’ possibilities for action, and the power relationship they have with the perpetrators. Forgiveness can only be given, not taken.
The power of this decision rests neither with the perpetrator, an NGO, Desmond Tutu, nor anyone else who advocates forgiveness as a “quick fix” for individuals or communities.
No one claims that forgiveness means that the victims and perpetrators have to live harmoniously in close proximity– but whoever forgives gives up his natural right to retaliate.
In the context of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide there is a lot of talk about sharing pain and thus forgiveness. I have listened to Turkish journalist Hasan Jemal’s candid talk with Civilitas’ Maria Titizian, in the context of a project called “Climbing the Mountain.” It was supposed to be candid. However, my disappointment was great. The whole discourse about sharing pain and understanding each other verges on ridiculous.
Let me say it loud and clear. I am a firm believer in dialogue, especially when it comes to the “normalization of Armenian -Turkish relations.” Yet here and now I am not interested in meeting Jemal’s viewpoints nor arguing against his case.
What I find repulsing is the atmosphere of falseness and duplicity that is growing by each day.
That is why I brought up the issue of forgiveness. The expectation is that as an Armenian I should forgive. Forgive the wrongdoing of the Turks, because we too as Armenians have done wrong, including illegal behavior, unlawful activity, and crime.
However, I think those who have initiated the work of creating dialog between the hostile sides are trivializing the process of forgiveness. They have absolutely no idea how daunting a project they have undertaken, a project that is indeed needed in both the individual and political conflict fields. No one claims that forgiveness means victims and perpetrators will hug each other and live harmoniously beside each other forever after. Instead, forgiveness should be seen as an ongoing process in which one discovers that it is subject to confession/admission and does not rely on a common understanding of the past, nor is it an excuse for the perpetrator’s actions. In this context of Armenian-Turkish relations the one who forgives is expected to give up his natural right to retaliate, dispense with restoring trust, draw a line, and move on.
So, the process the way it looks now raises nothing but suspicion and is ridiculed on both sides. At least from my side. Today my life is not dependent on what the perpetrator side does or says, I am no longer a victim.
But what gives me the strength to move on and develop is the people who have broken with victimhood and bitterness and transformed their lives to the magnificence that I am naive enough to believe is every man’s heritage.
I listened to Mr. Hasan Jemal with anticipation. Yet his themes of “I understand your pain,” and “let us bring down the walls,” are equivalent to making unreasonable demands of the injured, the victim.
Forgiveness in certain situations is destructive for the victim’s self-respect and society’s common morality. In some circumstances it may be inappropriate, even morally indefensible, to forgive. There are things that are unforgivable.
Forgiveness is a phenomenon that belongs to the realm of personal relationships, and in such relationships that are valuable to maintain. To be human means occasionally both betray and become a victim of betrayal, which means that the person who does not forgive will end up very lonely. Forgiveness is essential, important and sound, in the case where a ruptured relationship is more painful than the violation that caused the break. It is possible to forgive lies, betrayal, infidelity – but somewhere we must draw the line when the violation is so harsh, that maintaining a relationship becomes hurtful. As with physical and sexual abuse. And murder!
Suzanne Khardalian is an independent documentary filmmaker and writer living in Sweden. She has studied both in Beirut and Paris. She has directed several films, including “Back to Ararat” (1988), winner of a Guldbagge award (Sweden’s Oscar equivalent) for Best Film and a Red Ribbon at the American Film and Video Festival. Her other films include “Unsafe Ground” (1993), the most frequently shown documentary in Sweden, “Her Armenian Prince” (1997), “From Opium to Chrysanthemums” (2000), “Words and Stones – Gaza” (2000), and her most recent film, “Grandma’s Tattoos” (2014).