We are yet to give a true accounting and take responsibility for our history
Stabroek News
November 29, 2001

Dear Editor,

"History grants all of us a unique opportunity. To exchange this opportunity for a bowl of lentil soup of the past, and negative bravado, is to deny the future." The words are Nelson Mandela's, spoken in 1992 at the opening of the talks that started the negotiations for a peaceful settlement of South Africa's racial conflict. They are a perfect denouement for the words of the respected historian and political analyst, Michael Ignatieff, as quoted in the editorial "Escaping from history" (SN 22-11-01).

In his book The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, he deals with postmodern ethnic conflicts as they unfolded in countries such as Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan and takes in not only the role of the media and why Western nations feel responsible for strangers thousands of miles away, but the function of memory and social healing in helping countries to transcend their past differences.

Ignatieff's elegant language gives us a view of life beyond conflict and also tells us some of the hard truths necessary to arriving at reconciliation and healing. However, in the context of Guyana this is still idealistic and perhaps the editorial's intention was to give us a view of what is possible if only we can begin the process.

For reconciliation to begin, there is first acknowledgement on all sides that the period of conflict is ended. We do not have that in Guyana. We do not even admit that we have conflict! On one hand there is total denial of any wrongdoing and on the other, acceptance of the denial based on some futile hope that if we do not speak about the conflict it will simply go away. In between the bouts of ethnic violence we maintain a simmering peace.

Ignatieff states that reconciliation is built on the acceptance that "history is not fate, that history is not to blame. Nor are cultures or traditions - only specific individuals whom history must name." We are yet to name names, give a true accounting and take responsibility for our history, and our denial of it all only leads to a repetition of it all.

Again, Mandela: "We can neither heal nor build with the victims of past injustices forgiving and the beneficiaries merely content in gratitude." He said this at the opening of South Africa's Parliament in 1996 and his presidential words were followed by the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which helped South Africa wrestle with the truths of its past and begin its healing process.

South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) would be among the many who would question Ignatieff's statement that nations forget their past crimes to forge "myths of unity". "The ANC had to find a way of forgiving without forgetting," Anthony Sampson reports in Mandela: The Authorised Biography.

It is not only South Africans who must never forget the evils of apartheid but all of us, just as we should never forget the Holocaust, the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, the massacre of the American Indians, and the horrors of ethnic cleansing and slavery. Forgetting opens the door to a repetition of the horrors. Most would agree with the ANC that it is forgiving not forgetting that allows us to transcend the past.

As to how much truth is enough to allow for forgiveness, there is no fixed yardstick. The main criticism of the TRC was that it did not go far enough. However, it provided South Africa with enough truth to help the country to start healing its divide. In another troubled area, Eastern Europe, the editor of the Reporter magazine, Perica Vucinic, has been named International Editor of the Year 2001 by World Press Review for "recording the truth and restoring common sense in the midst of Yugoslavia's breakup and the region's successive conflicts".

Of the role of the press, Vucinic says: "Besides the need to inform people, to sell magazines, and to earn a living, the press has a mission: to see who we are, what we have done, and who did it, so it will be much easier someday to look each other face to face. It is very difficult for people here to admit that among us there have been war criminals, but it is something that must be done."

Vucinic continues to brave the odds - the Reporter was once banned in Serbia - and last May, following two attacks on mosques in Bosnia that left one Muslim dead and more than 30 injured, he wrote in the magazine: "By refusing to assume responsibility, to take a clear stand on events, to identify and punish the masterminds of the violence ... the authorities revealed that they are flirting with the principle of negativity. Nothing positive has ever originated from such a principle."

Vucinic not only echoes Ignatieff's analysis that a true accounting must be made and responsibility taken, but establishes the media's leading role in the process. We are yet to have editors as courageous as Vucinic in Guyana. Everywhere there is partisanship, with each content "to see who we are" as reflections of their own group, their own truths.

Guyana's situation is not so unique that we cannot learn from the experiences of conflict and reconciliation in Eastern Europe and South Africa, but our political leaders have so far proved unequal to the task of grasping the opportunity presented them to change the course of our history. That takes statesmanship and like so many other things, we seem to lack that too. They continue to feed us the "lentil soup of the past" and here's the rub: we continue to drink it.

Yours faithfully,

Ryhaan Shah