Riflessioni sul Perdono, sulla Dignità e sulla Riconciliazione

Svetlana Kijevcanin

1. I negoziati di pace, generalmente, sono incentrati sulle dimensioni politica ed economica. Quale è la Sua percezione della necessità di toccare aspetti più profondi e genuini della riconciliazione e come si può ottenere questo?

My first association to this question was J.P. Lederach comparison between dichotomy of the “Big brother-International Relations” dealing with hard politics of the real world and power driven versus the “Younger sister-Conflict Resolution”, well intentioned and soft, driven by sentimentalism, who sees her Big Brother locked into power paradigms, and unable to reach the root of the problems in creative ways. On the other hand the Younger sister sees herself as integrating the emotional and substantive concerns in the resolution of the problems.
I definitely belong to the younger sister side. “While contemporary conflicts are indeed hard-core situations, the “real politics” of hatred, manipulation and violence, and require grounded political savvy, traditional mechanisms relying solely on diplomacy and realpolitik have not demonstrated a capacity to control these conflicts, much less transform them toward constructive, peaceful outcomes. Contemporary conflict thus demands innovation, the development of ideas and practices that go beyond the negotiation of substantive interests and issues. This innovation pushes us to probe into the realm of the subjective—generationally accumulated perceptions and deep-rooted hatred and fear. In dealing with the challenge posed by contemporary conflict, an important meeting point between realism and innovation is the idea of reconciliation.
The paragraphs below represent my real life experience, being a peace activist and practitioner for almost 20 years of living and working in conflict area, with people affected by war. Together with the people I’ve been working with I, personally have direct experience of war, through which I witnessed a history of grievance and enmity that has accumulated over generations between the people in the Balkans, who live as neighbors and yet are locked into long-standing cycles of hostile interactions. The conflicts are characterized by deep-rooted, intense animosity, subjective perceptions, emotions, fear and severe stereotyping. To be able to tackle contemporary conflict, peace building must be rooted in and responsive to the experiential and subjective realities shaping people’s perspectives and needs.
In light of all the devastating events such as wars, conflicts, isolation from the rest of the world in the Balkan region from the beginning of the 1990s, communities of the Former Yugoslavia, nowadays independent national countries, are still affected by the consequences. Despite the fact that the wars in Croatia and BiH were officially over almost 15 years ago, and almost a decade passed after the conflict in Kosovo and NATO intervention to Serbia, and there are no open conflicts anymore, we can’t speak about real and full reconciliation among different national ethnic groups who were on the opposite sides in the recent wars. Above all, all counties experienced great social and economic crises. Balkan is an area with a multiethnic history, in which different ethic groups used to live together. Being surrounded with different cultures for ages, Balkan region became rich with differences of all kinds – religious, national, political…Having so many differences among population, and being experiencing war, the new young generations were born in “absence of war” or in the time of peace, but raised and influenced in such environments full of negative social phenomena like discrimination, nationalism, prejudice, stereotypes, xenophobia, even though they didn’t have their personal negative experiences with “different” others by themselves. Models of promoting us over others and even open expression of hate towards others are still very present.
I am not a politician neither economic expert. I am psychologist in my profession, but I was unemployed for years until the war started in Former Yugoslavia. At that time I became a peace activist and trainer and I participated and created many projects that actually “touch deeper and more genuine aspects of reconciliation”, primarily working with young people. My work was mostly done through the nongovernmental organizations, in forms of short or longer projects, trainings and workshops, usually done in groups composed of people of different ethnic, national and/or religious background. The projects were mostly based on voluntarily participation of the participants who gathered around certain ideas. If it was happening in school setting there were mostly extracurricular activities.
I am a great believer in such forms of work regardless the fact that the results are sometimes invisible in a wider society, that they are reached in small steps and often very slowly, and successes sometimes are really small in comparison with obstacles and difficulties. As long as there is even one young person, who participated in some program I implement, who says that they see value and sense in respecting differences, in socializing with persons “from other side”, find satisfaction in looking for personal values and exploration of unknown, it all makes sense, despite inevitability of global events “happening outside our reach” and maybe some other “rules of game” are in place on a wider plan.
Probably due to all of the above, there are not too many true activists. It must become personal determination and way of life, otherwise it will not be authentic or it will be short lasting, be just a passing adventure in a life of an individual. For me it is way of living; I only act in accordance with my basic principle “do as you preach” and I live my activism! Everything else would be hypocritical!
In my experience the projects I’ve been running contributed to creation of atmosphere of respect and understanding in communities they had been implemented in. They usually brought out certain social phenomena and motivated participants to take an active part in consideration of those phenomena and searching for alternative outcomes.
The projects I am mentioning hereby tried to create such environment in which communication between young people of different ethnic, national and religious background would be possible at all, as usually even if there are “multiethnic” communities, they are still divided in most cases, and people live next to one another but not with one another. There are the same school buildings, but actual classes occur in two shifts, for the one ethnic group in the mornings, and another in the afternoon. And this happens in many places in the Balkan region. Children learn a different history (defined by a nationally based school curricula) and actually there is no general climate that promotes appreciation of diversity and reconciliation. National histories and glorifying of the national characteristics that present us “better” than others create such climate in which we bring up young people who can’t be positive towards those who are different from them.
These projects aimed to bring young people together and try to engage them that through mutual communication, first of all to gain personal experience with “the other side” and not just to build their knowledge from the stories they listen from their adults and in schools, and through that personal contacts and experiences, led by professionals, using some “neutral” tools such as theatrical tools, to express themselves in some “fictional space” that is safe and to create mutual product, i.e. performance.
First phase of every change is awareness of alternatives. Within scope set in that way, people can communicate in more humane manner and consider negative social phenomena (such as prejudices, social distance, intolerance) together, for those are mutual problems. Greater level of closeness was achieved among participants of different religious beliefs, nationalities, social background and that were very aims of the projects I am mentioning here. (“Tolerance Building in Sandzak region using Theatre education methodology” and “A View from the other Side” implemented in South Serbia).
The greatest changes were made on the personal level of the participants and it is a great foundation for all social and community changes. These projects improved interpersonal skills of the participants such as communication skills, openness toward others, team work, as well as their understanding of the world, people, problems…
Projects empowered a lot of local potentials and created specific network of young people, local community organizations and others, who would at local and regional level, get acquainted with, develop and disseminate beneficial praxis and promote tolerance, as well as awareness of the needs and rights of young generations in a multicultural society.
The phrase “mutual respect” is described by the project participants by pointing out indicators of respect of other people (respect towards opinion, way of life, needs, culture, and religion of others). At the same time these answers include reciprocity in showing of respect. (“…It means that you respect someone and that someone respects you. You value his opinion and he values yours. Although there may be a difference in religion, education, culture, nation, you respect him as equal to yourself, just like he respects you.”).
 “Tolerance” is defined in a similar manner. Answers relevant for the project are those that define tolerance in perspective of co-existence – to build a joint life, to live in peace and harmony, to make an agreement…(“Tolerance is a skill of finding mutual language with others and respecting their differences.”; “To create, live, exist together”.)
The emphasized facts about both notions (mutual respect and tolerance) certify that participants probably had a chance to experience mutual respect and tolerance them selves, as important principles of work on the project, hence these notions got clearer and deeper meaning for them.

Theatre in education methodology turned out to be excellent way of starting dialogue about negative social phenomena and bringing out some important issues in local communities. This was a considerable move forward in sensitization of local communities for different, more creative way of dealing with social problems.

One particular issue, relevant for this theme, emerged during work in one of the projects. We faced with the fear of young people that individual forgiveness and giving the hand to the other side would be perceived as betraying by the members of their own ethnic group.

Participants wanted to know how they could integrate this new experience in their every day life. “People won’t understand” stated one participant. The question was how to maintain the closeness with persons from another ethnic group achieved during project, outside of workshop context. The fact is there is strong pressure within existing social setting to keep the distance with members of other ethnic groups. This is related with common phenomenon of social psychology, emerging often in situation of social conflicts. When social standards are low, dissatisfaction increases in time and in the end it divides the community. The most frequent factor of dividing is nationality. In order to preserve idea of some (ethnic) group as true, respectable and supreme members of the group have tendency to see their own shortcomings (that could ruin idyllic image of their group) as features of another group. In that way the group conserve good self image in generally lousy social conditions. If someone dares to disturb that equilibrium (e.g. by communication with members of other ethnic group) the whole group will turn against that individual, with the intention to put him back into preceding frame and to cancel the threat. Each positive contact can possibly destroy bad image of another group and consequently, can reduce ‘perfection’ of one’s own group. This system can only endure in “we-good, they-bad” mode. This phenomenon is more obvious in communities that are really multi-ethnic, with approximately same population of major ethnic groups, because in such communities contacts between members of various groups are more probable. 

2. Quali sono le condizioni nelle quali, al di là dell’assicurare gli interessi della parti in conflitto, può essere stabilito un processo incentrato su un senso di equità e dignità?

I’ll again quote J.P.Lederach and the model he gives in which “reconciliation represents a social space, a locus, a place where people and things come together, and there are 4 important concepts in this model: Truth is the longing for acknowledgment of wrong and the validation of painful loss and experiences, but it is coupled with Mercy, which articulates the need for acceptance, letting go, and a new beginning. Justice represents the search for individual and group rights, for social restructuring, and for restitution, but it is linked with Peace, which underscores the need for interdependence, well being, and security. Curiously, these concepts are played out in the political arena. Reconciliation, involves the creation of the social space where both truth and forgiveness are validated and joined together, rather than being forced into an encounter in which one must win out over the other or envisioned as fragmented and separated parts.
In more specific terms, reconciliation can be seen as dealing with three specific paradoxes. First, in an overall sense, reconciliation promotes an encounter between the open expression of the painful past, on the one hand, and the search for the articulation of a long-term, interdependent future, on the other hand. Second, reconciliation provides a place for truth and mercy to meet, where concerns for exposing what has happened and for letting go in favor of renewed relationship are validated and embraced. Third, reconciliation recognizes the need to give time and place to both justice and peace, where redressing the wrong is held together with the envisioning of a common, connected future.”

  • The state should create conditions and general climate of accepting others, especially after the war. But this process takes time. The work on different levels in society: family, schools, media, social institutions etc. is needed.
  • So, a persistent and continual work with young people (and entire society) on promotion of diversity appreciation and respect of others who are different from them, is essential for achieving a real coexistence.
  • Creation of real life opportunities for young people to experience differences, as chances to break through their own prejudices, to build trust towards others and be able to accept them. The line between trust and mistrust is so tinny in delicate, fragile context in which young people are growing up. Many small positive things could be immediately forgotten if only one negative thing happen. It’s so easy to lose a trust, and so hard to build it again.
  • Promoting positive values and positive models of behavior, and at the same time condemning violence, aggression and hate speech in all spheres of life; have appropriate measures to punish such behaviors

Speaking on a micro level about the concrete projects it is possible to create conditions in which tolerance and mutual respect are achieved.
From the very start of the project an atmosphere of equal possibilities is created, providing opportunity for every participant to fully partake in the process of work, to use native language and preserve his /her own religious and cultural practice. Supporting ambience was created, where participants were feeling accepted and respected for what they were and where they could freely express themselves and take part in all activities in manner and level of their own choice. The group accepted suggested behavior model swiftly, embraced its principles and started to ‘apply’ them in all situations. Positive experience like this one (that it is possible to be treated right within group of people from different ethnic background) is excellent basis and resource of encouragement for participants to continue to set up and maintain positive relations with members of “other” ethnic groups separated by social distance and often by intolerance.
Intensive emotions are very much present in these projects. Both young people and their leaders invest their emotions into group work, and groups function due to friendship, alliance, attachment, deep mutual love among the participants. And if you ask young people how they felt, you’ll hear that LOVE, refining, noble love towards neighbors is possible and could be generated. However there is still a question, how to transfer these feelings from the project context to the real life?

3. Quanto il perdono è essenziale alla dimensione della riconciliazione? Alla radice della Sua cultura politica e/o della Sua fede religiosa quali sono i principi che implicano o escludono il perdono? Quali versi o detti che fanno parte del Suo personale patrimonio spirituale possono, nella sua opinione, avere un significato universale

4. Il perdono richiede qualche forma di pentimento da parte di coloro a cui il perdono viene offerto? Il perdono ha condizioni o è senza condizioni?

In my understanding forgiveness is a highest ethical, moral gesture that could be done in the process of reconciliation. In a very religious meaning, it requires individual awareness on a very high level, consciousness and humanity but more than everything else genuine compassion and love for other human beings, an open heart and minds without expecting anything in reverse. (Here is a part of the answer to the 4th question as I deeply believe that real forgiveness is unconditional). I am an atheist, but the forgiveness I am talking about is similar to what Christ showed to people. It is very difficult to achieve it. The qualities I listed here are exactly those that Lederach describes in the category Mercy in his square that contributes to reconciliation (Truth, Justice, Mercy and Peace) .

Trying to think on the societal level, there are levels and different forms of forgiveness, and they are crucial to me in the process of reconciliation. But this is the most difficult process. There is a forgiveness on the country, national level (related to Lederach “Truth & Justice” concepts) and it is usually accompanied by verbal apologizing for the crimes the one side did to another, and this public gesture usually done by highest politicians is the first step between countries that were in the war. I am now referring to the crimes done in the Balkans and apologize that Serbia did to Bosnia And Herzegovina about Srebrenica many years after the war was finished. And that gesture provoked lot of disagreement among general public, firstly, because some of these crimes were not even known to the ordinary people in Serbia, because of dictatorial government of Milosevic at the time, and its huge influence on state media. Most of people were “poisoned” and believed that Serbs never did any crimes in BiH/Croatia, or if they did “The other sides did it too”. So when we came to the apologize, people would question WHY, and have resistance, as they would think WHY WE should apologize first, when the crimes were done on each sides, and what would happen if WE apologize and the other side won’t. In my opinion apologize of MY side has nothing to do with another side in terms of expectations that they will do the same. If we want to be honest and fair towards ourselves, we need to take responsibility for own crimes. We need to start from ourselves. But it is important to create such atmosphere that ordinary people from both sides can accept these political gestures. This can draw the line, and some new beginning can be started and new climate in the society. But it is hard to accept that you take the responsibility for the crimes that minority of politicians created and some people of your ethnic group did that “on your behalf”. It requires high level of awareness and morality. But it is important to talk about it as silence and hiding of these important issues do not lead to progress and peace. We come to the saying that is very universal “It is humane to forgive” Ljudski je prastati, and another one says “Forgive and not forget” (Oprosti i ne zaboravi)…but unfortunately wars provoke in people other deep beastie forces and impulses, where there is no ratio, and no humanity, and it is a long path until you come to the point that one country can apologize to another and both sides can forgive one another.
These gestures such a national apologizes create positive climate in the society and are equally important for ordinary people who did’t participate in any events neither have losses, and especially for those who had losses. But it is much harder for those who experienced losses themselves. Working with refugees I know hardly anybody who returned to their homes in the country from they were expelled because the war, regardless political apologizes or peace accords or any other acts done on the state level and politics. The pain was so deep that one human life is not long enough for people to forgive. It is a long process.
But for those who didn’t have losses it is important to stop feeling unwelcome in the neighboring country, after certain period of time after the war. The communication needs to continue. It is necessary to reconnect relationships, economical, political but also personal.
I used to live in Croatia from my 7-17 years of age. Once when I moved to Serbia, I was just going to the seaside once a year, and then when I got my children war started and it was impossible to go there again.
I didn’t have any relatives in Croatia; I just had my memories and nice friendships with the people there. They were Croats. After the war was over I started traveling to Croatia again, doing trainings and meeting people, I didn’t have any negative experiences, but I didn’t go to Split for 18 years, the town where I grew up. There was a great propaganda for years that Serbs are not welcomed in Croatia, especially in Split. I didn’t have any fears, but I did feel uncomfortable, not being able to predict how people will react when we see each other after 18 years. And finally last summer I found a seminar that was held in Split and I went there. I didn’t have any reasons to hide anything or to feel guilty as I’ve been involved in peace movement, my family members didn’t take part in war, and actually my brother emigrated to Australia, as he didn’t want to participate in war. Why I mention all this? Because these were the things my friends Croats wanted to know and to be sure that I didn’t have any connections with the war or crimes that Serbs did in Croatia. They were testing me, and once when I “passed this initial test”, we came to the stories of our lives. Then we could get back to our schooldays and reconnect again. My very good friend, practicing Catholic told me it was important to him to know that my husband was not in war, neither my brother and I am a peace activist. I needed to prove myself: and then he told me, welcome, you are our little Ceca, and we love you! You look the same, and you haven’t changed in all past years!
What If I had any connections with some people who took part in war on Serbian side? I would never know, but obviously even they wanted to see me, it was important to prove myself being “clean” and not involved in any war events.
This tells me how difficult is really to forgive and to accept. But I reconnected with my town again, I met my school friends, some of them I haven’t seen for 30 years. When they were asking me all these questions, I was just answering but not going into elaboration about Serbia or ordinary people or life in Serbia. I was rather listening to their stories and tried to understand their perception and why all of this was important to them. They were also exposed to the influence of their media for years, and people were also poisoned with the stories about “bad Serbs” and it is hard to believe that there were Serbs who were against the war, and not ALL Serbs did crimes and participated in war events in Croatia. It is hard. It is complicated. But I rebuilt the bridge with my childhood and found a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was missing from the full picture in my memories. I was happy!
This reminded me of another story when I visited Sarajevo, just after the war. It was hard to people from Sarajevo to meet with any Serb, even with the peace activist, because Sarajevo had 4 years of siege done by Serbs. During that my visit to Sarajevo, actually participating at the peace conference (being maybe the only Serbian there in 1997), I stop in the shop and asked a seller for some chocolates that stopped being sold in Serbia, as it is a Croatian product. She can recognize my accent and started shouting to me, how dare I came to Sarajevo after all that Serbs did to it? I felt really bad, and my first impulse was to apologize for what some of MY people did, and I didn’t participate in that. I apologized, and it was so heavy moment. Not because I apologized, but it was not enough, I couldn’t have compensated all losses of people in Sarajevo. I just did what I could in that moment and I felt her deep sorrow and pain.
It is hard for me to imagine that people who did have losses in this past wars can forgive their neighbors or get back there again. It is possible, but hard and requires all these qualities and skills I mentioned in the beginning of this paragraph: compassion, empathy, open-mindness and a big hearth. And it takes time.
As long as there are people who support war criminals as heroes, and it is happening across the entire Balkan region, it will be difficult to talk about real full reconciliation. It has its phases, and work on it should be done on various levels, and I somehow believe if we start from ourselves, it should be productive. But it is demanding as human beings are fragile and weak! And as I said earlier, one negative incident is enough to dismiss the effect of many positive things, and trust is fragile in this process.
Talking about sayings, I can hardly list some, as forgiveness is really not present in our stories and fairytales, neither in oral literature or people’s wisdom and proverbs. I think there are much more those that talk about heroism, soldiers moral, war ethics etc.
But some sayings that are universal from the Old Testament such as “Who throws a rock on you, you return with piece of bread” (Ko tebe kamenom ti njega hlebom) are not practiced much I would tell. I think that one that tells about “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Oko za oko zub za zub) is more practiced in the Balkans. Actually the recent wars were very much based on this revenge type of sayings. Despite the fact that our parents were telling us “Who digs a hole to somebody else, he/she will fall into it himself” (Ko drugome jamu kopa sam u nju upada), and “Who believes in law based on cannon, his steps smell on unhumanity” which is a quotation of famous poet Njegos and his Gorski Vijenac (Kome zakon lezi u topuzu, tragovi mu smrde necovjestvom) didn’t help much in creation of peaceful climate in society, I’d say on the contrary. In recent wars and even now in Serbian society and other Balkan countries, open violence and aggression are visible and present very much in public life. (Recent examples of threatening the organizers of gay pride, vandalism towards French football supporter in Belgrade, attack to the Australian tourist etc.) Therefore it is so important to develop alternatives to violent ways of communication and violent responses to differences.
The parole about Brotherhood and Unity created in Tito’s time in socialism somehow artificially tried to create equality and multiethnic appreciation. Religions were almost forbidden in that period, and the whole system of punishments was created for those who were disobedient and dared to offend other nationalities, even as a verbal offences. There were various types of punishment (usually jails on Goli Otok) and it was not allowed to speak openly about the past, or crimes done by different ethnic groups. The lesson learned from that period was that silence and closing your eyes, putting the garbage under the carpet and digging the hatred did not contribute to reconciliation. That politics just accumulated hatred for years that finally exploded when it was impossible to keep it suppressed. But the solution isn’t to keep your hatred secret, as Dorothy Rowe says in Friends and Enemies. “Unexpressed hatred makes us physically ill because it creates a stress which prevents your immune system which protects you from illness from operating efficiently. The solution is to give up despising yourself for being weak. We need to let us recognize we’re ordinary just as everyone is. We shouldn’t waste time and energy on hating. Instead deplore and criticize the stupidities and cruelties that people commit and do, what we can, however small, to help people live without the need for hatred.” We need to speak about our hatred. We need to speak about the crimes from all sides. We need to find alternative ways!

Based on your experience on working with reconciliation and forgiveness what are the structure and activities you would offer for a universal council on reconciliation?
I am not sure what concrete activities I can offer to the Council, except my personal experience and being an available resource for any type of peace work, work with youth in any future project. I can offer my openness, enthusiasm, compassion, capacity for stepping into other shoes, i.e. decentration, creativity as well as my contacts and network of many colleagues and friends that I share same values with from all over the world.

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