How does a country or culture move on after war crimes have been committed?
An exhibition and book by former correspondents sketch out a roadmap based on work in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and other conflict zones, and underscores the power of forgiving.
“In France, in Britain, in America, we have a lot to learn from Rwanda or Northern Ireland,” remarked British photographer Gary Knight, a driving force behind the project.
“If you look at the divisions in our own societies. If countries that have (suffered) genocide… can progress” nonetheless, it gives hope, he told AFP at the Bayeux Calvados Normandy Award for war correspondents.
Knight, 56, and more than a dozen other experienced war correspondents, including photographer Jack Picone and reporter Philip Gourevitch, compiled “Imagine: Reflections on peace” as a counterpoint to the grisly fascination with war.
They highlight how hard it is to consolidate peace after bitter conflict has taken place.
While far from attaining the kind of horrors seen in the past few decades, Knight warns that in increasingly brittle Western societies today “politicians are increasingly amplifying the differences”.
– ‘Decided to forgive’ –
After becoming disenchanted with how his work was being used, Knight stopped taking war photos 13 years ago to focus on other kinds of journalism.
His VII Foundation sent reporters back to places they had covered in times of conflict to document the aftermath.
That led to the 150-photo exhibition and book published in English and French along with two video documents.
One witness is Alice, who could not speak for three years after the genocide of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and murder of moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.
“I felt like the world was ending,” she said. “My baby was taken from me and killed. They chopped my hand off and I was cut here as well. Twenty five years later I still have the scar.
“I was stabbed with a spear here,” she said, indicating wounds to her shoulder and torso.
She nonetheless “decided to forgive” her tormentor Emmanuel, who came to her home and kneeled before her.
“We are friends … we live in peace now,” the Rwandan mother said.
“I forgave because I wanted to save my life,” she told Gourevitch. “If I did not forgive him I would have passed the hatred on to my children.”
A video team filmed Emmanuel against the lush backdrop of Rwanda’s countryside.
“It’s easy to kill. The difficult thing is to ask for forgiveness from those who survived,” he said.
Picone said that in Rwanda he found a country where raw wounds were slowly healing.
A different story emerged from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Amela was 25 years old in 1992 when Europe’s worst war since World War II erupted.
She told journalist Anthony Loyd she has tried to teach her children to renounce resentment but her sister Atija said it was hard to heal old wounds and reach out to former neighbours.
“The efforts made to divide us from each other succeeded in preventing us from speaking again,” she said.
– ‘Confessions’ –
A question that quickly emerges is why some countries seem to have overcome bitterness and hatred while others have not.
In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame “is certainly not innocent, but he clearly committed to making a peaceful and stable society,” Knight noted.
He said that now in Rwanda, there is no mention of whether a person is Hutu or Tutsi on ID cards.
Rwanda is “a dictatorship”, but Kagame set up tribunals staffed by “ordinary people” where victims could hear “confessions” from those who had persecuted them, he added.
In Cambodia, leader Hun Sen did not want tribunals to pursue a similar path, Knight said, while British reporter Jon Swain charged that interference by Western governments there created obstacles as well.
In Bosnia, political will was completely absent, Knight said, which resulted in a “multiheaded government” that was “totally dysfunctional” and “did not commit at all” to a robust peace process, he added.
Another key factor in Rwanda was the presence of women in the political structure, Knight added.