The Way to Reconciliation Leads Through Empathy


Photo: ROM – Renewing Our Minds group prays in Vukovar, Croatia. Picture taken in 2006.

A new report argues that using the word ‘reconciliation’ does not help families of Kosovo Albanian and Serb war victims to deal with the past because it suggests that crimes should be pardoned or forgotten”, quotes the Balkan Transitional Justice news portal, as it reports on the research released recently by the Pristina based Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication.

I do not agree with the report. It assumes that reconciliation is only possible when all the facts and truths about atrocities committed by the other side in the conflict are agreed to, confessed and admitted. Otherwise, as Nora Ahmetaj, a cofounder of the Center for Research, Documentation and Publication said: “The word ‘reconciliation’ simply causes irritation to victims”. She was also reported to say that the word “reconciliation” should be replaced with “living in solidarity with each other.”

Considering that in almost all modern conflicts no side wants to take responsibility for any atrocity or wrongdoing, should we ban the word “reconciliation” from use in every post-war situation, and discourage any attempt at reconciliation until we all agree somehow that the blame is solely and publically to be placed on one or the other side?

According to this kind of reasoning, for example, there should be no attempt at reconciliation between Republicans and Democrats in the US because at any given time someone will be hurt, thinking that he or she is wronged through an “unfair” process. Nor should ever a process of reconciliation start in the Middle East, because so much hurt has been caused across the region in the past decades by various sides involved, that any idea of reconciliation would certainly feel insulting to many in the region. And all attempts at reconciliation through the “Truth and Reconciliation” movements in Africa were simply wrong because some war criminals were forgiven for their atrocities.

Of course, a separate work needs to be done in regard to any conflict in order to deliver facts, truth and justice as much as possible. Of course, the global community of the powerful should take upon itself, too, part of the responsibility and blame for manipulating a number of international conflicts to their advantage, or engaging in proxy wars, thus causing even more damage and suffering to the lives of people caught up in the violence. Of course, not all war crimes are simply the work of some crazy unknown individuals for which no general or government wants to assume responsibility. Of course, it is true that some governments, country leaderships and military commanders are more responsible for the calamites of war than others. Nothing in the war situation happens in a vacuum, and seldom are war atrocities the result of some spontaneous, coincidental circumstances.

But if the work of reconciliation solely depends on those being set right first, we will only have more conflicts, more war crimes, and more never-ending cycles of retribution, and more obstacles in the way of reaching any meaningful reconciliation. And, in the countries of the Balkans reconciliation is already long overdue.

Balkan countries need to consistently work on reconciliation at many levels because even though more than twenty years have passed since the last round of wars blame-shifting continues to flourish abundantly across all ethnic lines. Across the territories of what used to be a unified former Yugoslavia each side continues to blame the other, while itself ‘innocently’ continues to play the role of the sole victim. If in the Balkans we take the inconvenient word “reconciliation” out of use, we will have even less of a chance to move forward towards meaningful acts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and mutual ‘life of solidarity’.

Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative, that was born in post-war Croatia almost two decades ago, and remains very much alive today, desires to make its contribution to the reconciliation processes in the Balkans. Over the years ROM has been suggesting a different approach to the challenges of reconciliation in the region and elsewhere – one we have learned from Jesus of Nazareth, who, while innocently suffering on the cross prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34.

We believe that given the opportunity people across the lines of conflict would find a way to reconcile sooner than their governments. There is a power in grass-root initiatives that bring together individuals, groups of people, especially young people hurt by recent and old conflicts into the intentional and relational learning communities in which sincere friendships are forged and empathy practiced. Under those conditions of togetherness, people hurt by recent or more distant conflicts are helped to interact with other victims of war, irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity.

All involved soon realize that war crimes across all lines of division look alike, and that the suffering of all victims, regardless of which side of the conflict they find themselves on, hurt the same. A mother whose family was slaughtered in the heat of war, whether she is a Kosovar, Serb, Croat or Bosniak, suffered at the hands of the same kind of evildoers. There is healing in the process that helps victims of any war empathize with the sufferings war victims on the other side. It is only when we are brave enough to place ourselves in the life story of the raped, tortured, brutality murdered and otherwise abused “enemy” mother, father, grandfather, son or daughter, whose suffering was caused by brutality of our own people, that we become ready to embrace genuine reconciliation, and reject retribution.

Indeed, there needs to be place for repentance and truth telling in any process of reconciliation. But those can only take place when we become vulnerable enough to deal with our own demons of injustice and hatred first. When one’s heart becomes broken through empathy for this and that man, woman or child who suffered at the hands of my own people, one is only then ready to move forward into whatever else is needed to achieve honest, truthful and long-lasting reconciliation. When I realize that appeasing my thirst for justice needs to be refined through the acknowledgment of the hurts of others, my enemies included, a true process of reconciliation will be well under way towards genuine peace and reconciliation between nations, neighbors, families and individuals.

There exists a world of difference between the retributive reconciliation (retributive justice) and restorative reconciliation (restorative justice). The first one believes that all wrongs done to me, my family or my country must be paid in full and made right first, without much consideration for the hurts of others. The second moves forward towards redemptive rebuilding of human relationships through empathy, recognizing that “no one is without sin” and humbly admitting that others suffered too.

As soon as we are ready to realize that “eye for an eye” will not bring about peace, justice and reconciliation, but only more black eyes and more heads chopped off, our eyes and hearts will become open for new ways of seeking justice. The ways to reconciliation lead through empathy. When we learn to identify with the hurts of others – our enemies included – it will become increasingly more difficult for us to become the source of abuse of others in the future. It would certainly help the Balkan countries to relax somewhat, break the vicious cycle of blame-shifting and start “living in solidarity with each other”.

About Tihomir Kukolja

Tihomir Kukolja, born in Pozega, Croatia. Studied, lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism. Worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. Lives in Houston TX, USA. Until recently served as the Executive Director, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation (Forum), and Director of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative. Loves photography, blogging and social media.
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