A Forgiveness Method In Sierra Leone

It is quite possible that forgiveness is one of the most potent human tools to heal rifts, conflicts, hurts and the many other harms humanity is known to commit. Civil wars, tribal strife, armed conflicts, the globe is unfortunately rife with them, and all, it seems, could benefit from a dose of forgiveness. In most instances, past conflicts could also benefit from its practice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa brought the idea to the forefront, demonstrated how powerful it can be and taught us that wherever forgiveness is trying to forge new bridges among former adversaries, it is undeniably noteworthy. Right now it could be of use in places like Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, even Zimbabwe and Darfur… and for all we know be more effective than the status quo.
A very good example of forgiveness in action is what John Caulker is attempting in Sierra Leone. A former undercover worker for Amnesty International, Caulker is trying out a new version of achieving forgiveness in a country that was devastated by a long and very bloody civil war that began in 1991. He calls it Fambul Tok, Krio, an English based creole, for family talk. It is an old Sierra Leonian way of sitting around a bond fire and talking to resolve disputes. In this case it is an alternative to prosecution. Not only is prosecution a Western concept and the court system throughout the country in shambles, prosecution primarily focuses on the defendants and leaves out an important part of the equation, the victim. Fambul Tok is also hoped to be an opportunity for confession of war crimes, and hopefully the release and healing that can come from them. Many of the perpetrators were victims themselves, abducted and forced to fight by a group now infamous for chopping off limbs of civilians. They had to kill, main rape or be killed.
Caulker tries to be realistic. He says he doesn’t want to make the mistake that this in itself constitutes reconciliation because he knows that what he’s doing is only the start of a process. It’s a village by village approach–so far 35 have signed up–where victims are listening, even if not necessarily talking, all in all a good beginning when there are still so many wounds to heal, reconciliation has such a long way to go, and people have so much to overcome.
Early efforts at a TRC in Sierra Leone failed, partly because they were not as rooted in the communities, raised too many hopes and perhaps set people up for disappointments. But Fambul Tok while a longer-term process may feel more authentic than anything that may seem too much like a Western institution. Meanwhile Caulker does believe in the future of his method, “People will not forgive if someone does not come forward to them in person to acknowledge what they did…Someone has to acknowledge that this person was hurt, that restores dignity to the victims.”

Progress Nonetheless

The G-8 is meeting on the island city of Toyako in Japan. The world’s industrial nations meet periodically (in no particular order: France, Russia, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Canada and Germany) to discuss world problems, common interests, bridge building, how to address new issues, even how to agree to disagree. These meetings are frequent enough, so much so that the journalists that cover them can end up being jaded. This time not much was hoped for in the way of breakthrough. Although were there to be, it does not mean it would be carried out. Not long ago, for example, the G-8 agreed on funds for Africa, much of which still have to be allocated or given. Still these meetings are important, for they underline and solidify a world order which is obviously vital to a modicum of peace.
This time two things struck me as particularly important. The first is the pre-meeting exchange of ideas and agenda setting. For whatever reason the Japanese Prime Minister was reluctant, some even said he lacked the courage, to put 3 main crises on the agenda, the food crisis, the economic crisis and the energy crisis. All three converge and threaten a large portion of the world’s population. So last April Gordon Brown, the U.K. Prime Minister, wrote his Japanese counterpart. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, also recognized the need and together they called for an inter-ministerial group to address the issues and present them to all the member countries. That report is a 6 page letter which is now guiding the G-8 discussion and makes it clear that the issues of food, energy, price explosions, consequences and the like must be addressed.
The second thing that impressed me was how much things have changed. World diplomacy is relatively new, centuries ago, and even generations ago, its equivalent was the king of X country marrying the daughter of the king of Y country. We can therefore criticize the lack of decisive action that is sure to come out of this meeting, or even the lack of concrete results, but we must praise the process, the very existence of these get-togethers and see them as part of some evolving way to conduct world diplomacy. We must recognize they signify progress nonetheless.

Erring On The Side Of Caring

Ten-year old Michael Campo, has a problem which many others could soon share if the way we are enforcing immigration laws continues. His father, Carlos Alvarado, here illegally was arrested for drunk driving and referred to Immigration by the County Jail. He has now been ordered deported to his native Mexico. Alvarado pays $276 a month child support and though the court order says he is to see his son every other week end, he sees him every week. A lower Immigration court had allowed Alvarado to stay in the U.S. and continue working at the same plastering job he’s had since he’s been in the U.S., but a higher court disagreed and referred the case back to the lower one.
In Mexico, Alvarado who has joint custody with Michael’s mother, would be deprived of his custody rights, and since it is doubtful he would be able to send child support (he would no doubt earn less and has other children) would be in violation of that court order. Immigration officials contend that this is no different than when a parent moves to another state, and refuse to grant or entertain the idea of hardship. Michael’s mother, herself an illegal immigrant from Brazil fears sending her child to Mexico, so it is doubtful he would be able to continue seeing his father on a regular basis. Michael is a U.S. citizen and while he has rights these may not apply or make a difference.
The issues of the case involve two different legal systems, that of the State which oversees family law and that of the Federal government which oversees Immigration laws, two systems which in this, as in the many such similar cases in the future, come in conflict. Seen in terms of its underlying values, rather than in terms of conflicting legal systems, the issues seem much simpler. In our eagerness to enforce immigration laws and be tough on illegals and other non-citizens, are we loosing track of what is right for families? Are we allowing what may well be our prejudices about illegal immigration to supersede the rights of this young American citizen and do what would be best for him and for his family including a father who is employed but who made a mistake? If we believe in family values, then oughtn’t we to make them count when the chips are down, when the situation is difficult and the choices not clear cut?
Let’s hope judges and others deciding guidelines for such cases allow themselves to be informed by the values hidden in this case and err on the side of caring.

Touching Evil

Douglas A. Blackmon is making the rounds with his book Slavery by Any Other Name and if one takes the time to hear him, one will undoubtedly have much to ponder. What stirred me after I heard him talk was not so much the suffering of African Americans in post Civil War United States because I’ve read many books about that subject–though I must admit it is not the kind of suffering one can easily dismiss– what gnawed at me as it has so many times before was how could someone inflict such harm, willfully, deliberately, repeatedly? How can one flaunt the absence of decency, morals, ethics, principles? How can one use, exploit, beat, imprison, mistreat, flog, deceive, torture another and do it, not in whatever small measure the people around us may sometimes do, but on such a large scale. How could one own another? I read this morning about sugar cane workers in Brazil who work up to 12 hours a day in the back breaking cutting down of sugar canes 6 or 7 days a week. I could not do that to another human being. The people I am close to could not either. And yet, history is filled with people who committed atrocities, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust to mention but two. And what of people who sexually molest young children?
Are we all capable of malevolence? Studies say most of us are. What is it in us that makes us so blind to others, to their suffering, to the consequences of inflicting pain? New research shows that during WW II ordinary Germans helped the Nazis and engaged in committing horrors.
We tend to focus on the results of perpetrators’ actions and on the suffering they cause perhaps at the expense of not sufficiently focusing on those who are responsible, the perpetrators themselves. We can be very judgmental about those who commit ordinary crimes, pass laws that are punitive and unforgiving. Yet so much of these horrors are not committed by criminals but by people much like you and me. Could we not learn to recognize them, to figure out what it is about them that lies behind their odious acts? Such closeness would be unsavory, like really touching evil. But I wonder if touching evil isn’t in order not only to better understand what makes human so depraved, but also help us to stem the smallness impulse from within us, and make it that much harder to engage in the worst of human behavior?