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Mending the Past: International Truth and Reconciliation


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Love and peace. Without solicitation, boys in the Jerash Palestinian refugee camp gather together and raise their hands to show peace signs. Photo by (cc) Flickr user Omar Chatriwala.

After Apartheid, after genocide and after civil wars—how do nations, or people who’ve been pitted against each other, resolve their differences and live together in peace? On this edition—reconciliation. How does it work? And is it even necessary? We’ll be hosting a round table discussion with community organizers from Serbia, South Africa, Azerbaijan and Sudan.

This discussion was recorded at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in March 2012, in Mexico.

See the transcript below.


Ahmad Mahmoud, rapper and resident of Khartoum; Ivan Marovi?, co-founder of OTPOR in Serbia; Arzu Geybullayeva, Azerbaijani blogger & organizer; Anele Mdzikwa, South African journalist and organizer


Full length reconciliation discussion 
Full length discussion on reconciliation, featuring Ahmad Mahmoud, Ivan Marovic,  Arzu Geybullayeva & Anele Mdzikwa–moderated by Andrew Stelzer. This interview was conducted in March 2012 at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico.


For More Information:

Caucuses Edition—Journal of Conflict Transformation
The Neutral Zone
Nonviolent Resistance Movement
Youth Initiative For Human Rights
Truth and Reconciliation Commission-South Africa
Narco News
International Center on Non-Violent Conflict
Victimology Society of Serbia
Justice in Conflict
Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines
A Force More Powerful
DZA the Dissenter
Nile Rhythmik


Nile Rhythmik, “Augmented Realities”
Nile Rhythmik, “Junkyard Musician”



Andrew Stelzer: Welcome to “Making Contact.” I’m Andrew Stelzer. Today we’ll be having a discussion about reconciliation — the processes by which peoples who’ve been at war or had unequal status or have a history of conflict attempt to move past that conflict towards the goal of living together peacefully and as equals.

It’s a difficult road, especially after decades, if not generations, of racism, prejudice and, in some cases, genocide. How to forgive and how to recognize the past in a way that honors but doesn’t shame?

Those are some of the questions we’re going to explore with four guests from different parts of the world which are all at some stage of the reconciliation process.

So, let’s have the folks here introduce themselves: Anele Mdzikwa, let’s start with you. What’s your background and what does reconciliation mean in your home country, South Africa, at this moment?

Anele Mdzikwa: Well, I’m from South Africa; I stay in Johannesburg. I grew up in Durban in a village called Umlazi. I do a lot of work in the township, in South Africa. I have a very long history, in terms of the apartheid struggle, which is very personal to me and has quite a lot to do with the reconciliation process. Reconciliation, to me, means… At one point, it meant revenge, but I think I’ve gone past that now. Reconciliation means coming together and healing as well as making a connection with your present and your future and, moving on.

STELZER: Up next, we have Ivan Marovi?. Tell us a little about yourself, your history, and what are the issues of reconciliation in Serbia?

Ivan Marovi?: I come from Serbia, which is one of the seven countries that came out of the former Yugoslavia after the civil war that happened in the 90’s.

So, for us, reconciliation, and for me, personally, reconciliation is the process by which we are learning to become good neighbors, when we could live in one house, and then we had like a decade-long tension, conflict and civil war with the ethnic cleansing and genocide, which was over some twelve years ago; but, still, the wounds are deep, and there is a need for reconciliation to heal these wounds — but also to have us live. Because we are still in the same region, and we have to live next to each other, if we couldn’t live together.

STELZER: Thanks, Ivan. Arzu Geybullayeva is from Azerbaijan. I think the conflict in your part of the world is a little less well known than that in South Africa or Serbia. So, Arzu, why don’t you introduce yourself and talk just a little bit about what you do in regards to bringing people together?

Arzu Geybullayeva: The conflict that we’ve been dealing with for the last several years since 1994, actually, when we signed the ceasefire with Armenia, is over a territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. And my main job as a co-director of a small non-governmental organization called “Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation” is to work with young people from Armenia and Azerbaijan, bringing them together to dialogue retreats once a year, where we go over history; we go over present-day fears, needs, concerns, and we discuss future project planning. Because the big portion of the project is actually focused on building a relationship between the people of the two countries — especially between young people of the two countries

STELZER: Thanks. And the last of our four guests is Ahmad Mahmoud, a resident of Khartoum in Sudan. Ahmad, tell us what reconciliation means right now, in 2012, in your homeland.

Ahmad Mahmoud: Well, Andrew, the word “reconciliation” I actually got to learn recently, in 2011, after the secession of my country, which seceded into two countries: a geographical North and a geographical South, — after one of the longest civil wars in Africa ended.

I’m involved in a movement of non-violent resistance, and we kind of established a campaign of reconciliation to finish building a school in the South. Particularly in Turalei town, which is a town that the basketball player Manute Bol was born in, and he was actually finishing-, starting… And he started building a school there, but, unfortunately, he died before finishing this school, so… We kind of took on that.

So, yeah, in Sudan, it’s not the only the South and North which now… it’s two separate countries, but we also have to reconciliate with other parts of the country, because there’s so many ethnical conflicts going on and it appears like something happens every day that adds to the fire.

STELZER: And you had a rhyme you were going to kick, or a little poem about the situation?

MAHMOUD: Yeah, I kind of… On the Independence Day of the… Separation Day of the South, like, everyone was, in the North, everyone was kind of emotional about it, and I couldn’t help but try to answer the question, “Why is everyone suddenly all emotional?”

So, it goes something like:
“Last night, I tried writing about unity and such…
Couldn’t draft that much

I couldn’t even write the words: Sudan Unite
Because my pen knows that I memorized a lot of Jahili Poetry
And still don’t know how Nuer tribes write

I learned more about how Sahaba used to fight
But I was never told of how Shilluk people love
Or at the very least, what are their pick up lines

I learned more about Greek mythology, than Dinka mythology…
And, oh, the ghost of Che follows me…
But I hardly know of any Southern prodigy
except for John Garang, maybe — not so true, probably

Because I could have said to him Thank You in five different languages, you see…
‘Thank you,’ ‘Shukran,’ ‘Arigato,’ ‘Gracias,’ and ‘Merci,’
but only today I learned how to say ‘Yin Cha Leech’,
five years after he passed away.”

STELZER: Nice. Ahmad is an MC, and we’ll be linking to his music on our website, but I’m wondering, for the rest of you, hearing what each other have said, and also hearing that poem, what thoughts come to mind about some of the similarities, differences, between… in your different countries, of the reconciliation process?

GEYBULLAYEVA: Well, I specifically liked the part where Ahmad was talking about, you know, how they learned about different histories and how the warriors fought, but they don’t learn how to respect each other or love each other.

I relate to this, in Azerbaijan because, you know, we learn our history textbooks teach us, both in Armenia and Azerbaijan; the other is the enemy; they occupied our territories; they killed women and children, innocent people.

And none of us in Azerbaijan are taught how to reconciliate after that. In the present day, especially, when we have the two governments, together with the Russian government, as well, meet every now and then and discuss the peace treaty, but on the ground, when they come back to their countries, they continue the hatred speech, and they continue propagating aggression,

MAROVIC: Well, for me, the song Ahmad just recited is actually very interesting; because we had our own emotional moment with Kosovo seceded, like, four years ago. It was like a huge blow for the self-esteem of the Serbian people, especially. But, you know, it was like the last episode in the decade-long conflict — which wasn’t as long as the conflict in Sudan, but, you know, it was long enough to create, like, total chaos and disaster in the region.

So, I guess, reconciliation is, you know, also, for at least some of us, learning that, you know, people maybe don’t like you anymore and they don’t want to live with you — but to respect that. And that was probably the biggest challenge for the Serbs, who thought that, you know, Yugoslavia, the country that they lived in was the roof for all its nations. And they just couldn’t understand why all these other ethnic groups don’t want to live with them.

MDZIKWA: Well, what comes to mind, just after listening to what Ahmad was saying, it’s kind of interesting how different divisions cause conflict. Ahmad spoke about geographical divisions but coming from South Africa, we are talking racial divisions. And in terms of the process of reconciliation, I mean, South Africa’s come quite far in terms of trying to build a democracy. But one of our biggest challenges is that as much as we are still very much on a road to healing and trying to move on from our history, the pain might have gone, but the scars don’t heal.

And I’ll give you a specific example. Within South Africa, right now, as much as we are so many years after the apartheid regime, we still struggle a lot with racial inequality, and it’s not “out there”. It’s more of an internal feeling, because you know of your past and you know how your grandparents and your parents struggled and fought for racial equality. You feel the pain of your parents. And we had the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which was set up to, obviously, give those that felt they were oppressed… to those that, obviously, lost a lot of friends and family members to the struggle. It was, basically, a platform set up for you to almost talk about it, and share similar stories with other people. But it’s almost like you cannot, as much as we try to have sessions and debates and, you know, reconciliation programs, the difficulty in it is, it doesn’t replace what you’ve lost.

I think that that’s the challenge that comes with reconciliation. When we’re talking about thousands of people that died. And it’s very personal for me, in my situation, a mother that died, how do I… reconciliation does not necessarily bring her back. And it does a lot for one’s feelings because how do you… It’s very challenging, like I said, how do you move on from that; how are you accepting? And I think with what you’re asking it really is a matter of the individual. I mean, it really does depend on how you are going to act as an individual going forward.

Do you decide to almost connect your past with your present; do you try to move on? And how do you then educate others, and how do you go through a process of healing with others as well?

MAROVIC: Unlike South Africa, we in the Balkans, I mean former Yugoslavia, had a somewhat different approach which wasn’t based on reconciliation through Truth and Reconciliation commissions. Actually, they tried to set up one, but it failed. Our main kind of mechanism was war crime tribunals. Because of the civil war and all that.

And the first war crime tribunal was actually set up by the United Nation — it was the International Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia which was set up in the nineties, and some of the biggest villains of the war, like Ratko Mladi? and Radovan Karadži? and Slobodan Miloševi? were tried there and some of them are still on trial. And what was obvious in the nineties is that those countries that were born after the collapse of former Yugoslavia, they weren’t capable of dealing with their own war criminals. And that was the reason why the International Tribunal was set up, because nobody was putting these people on trial.

What happened in the meantime, especially in the last twelve years, is that slowly, the internal capacity to investigate war crimes and to process war crimes each in their own country, and also the co-operation between different countries on investigations of the war crimes increased and that wasn’t registered because it never came with a bang. It was something that appearing slowly and slowly over the years. But what turned out to be the case is that even these war crime trials didn’t make an effect that was intended, and the victims, and their families were not, in most cases, satisfied with the outcomes of the trials.

So the question is, is the legal side of the reconciliation process enough? Because it seems it isn’t. And it has to be accompanied with something else.

MAHMOUD: Well, I find that quite, like, funny, because in my country we did not have no course; we did not have reconciliation campaigns whatsoever, but we had the exact opposite.

After the separation in 2011, which was a result of a referendum of two choices: either unity or separation, what happened is… OK, after the CPA was signed, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, ending the war, we had a small margin of freedom in Sudan for, like, the first time in a long time. Newspapers emerged; cultural centers started opening their doors for people to actually get to know each other.

What happened after the separation is that the government closed each and every one of those newspapers or centers. And there is one official statement that said, “We will not allow Southerners to stay in the North and they should all go back to the South” — even though some of them were born and raised in the North. And here is the point where he said: “We will not medicate them in our hospitals.”

And there is a bastard named Al-Tayyib Mustafa who is the president’s uncle, who was allowed to actually have a new newspaper called the “Intibaha” which he basically preaches the alienation of the Southerners who are in the North. And he established a party as well, the Just Peace Forum party which he also preaches the dangers of — I’m quoting one of their forums — the “dangers of the alien existence of Southerners in the North” where they openly speak about their thoughts.

A friend of mine once said, “Intellectual war does not end by political defeat.” He was referring to the secession. Because what we would really need to start reconciliation and living peacefully is getting rid of the dictatorship and the stupidity of the racists who are actually running the country.

The army that was active in the civil war against the government — there were many armies, but the most active one was SPLM, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement which was led by Dr. John Garang — well, it had leaders. I mean, their military sectors had leaders who were from the North basically. Northerners who picked the arms to fight this government and now most of them are in prisons for treason. So, yeah, basically, you cannot have reconciliation unless you have democracy.

MDZIKWA: But what is democracy? I pose this question because we are almost 20 years in South Africa into so-called “democracy.”

Democracy in 1994 meant black and white live together, black children can go to “white schools”, and I quote, you know, essentially, we are talking multi-racial schools. Democracy meant the right to vote. Democracy meant we cannot get along, black and white get along, live together, we smile together and we forget our past.

If I look back to the Freedom Charter of the ANC — how we will now be equal, we must share. ”The people shall share”, that’s what they say. Yet right now we have a serious problem of service delivery. I mean, if we’re still fighting for housing and water and education have we even reconciled? We’re living in a democracy — I mean that’s what it was in 1994, those were all the hopes and dreams that we had, but it doesn’t feel like a democracy to me.

GEYBULLAYEVA: Well, I kind of look at it in a different way because in this particular conflict there is lack of communication between the people themselves. I mean the governments communicate enough and what we are trying to do, in our organization, and what organizations similar to ours are trying to do, is to actually get in touch with people and we can settle on that level. It’s like the people-to-people diplomacy because what we see, and what we realize, is that the government might be saying a number of different things at many different levels. What’s absent is the communication between the people themselves, and that’s what, essentially, is actually hurting the whole process of reconciliation in Armenia and Azerbaijan, because there’s not enough contact; there are not enough meetings, and you know sometimes when you talk about — Ahmad was talking about dictatorship, I consider it more on, you know, … but what people can do themselves. And I feel like steps should be taken on that level, on the community level.

MAHMOUD: Well, I agree, I totally agree. I think of art, specifically films, as the perfect tool for doing this, for communicating between people, their experiences and their shared ambitions, because we all want the same thing, in the end.

So, yeah, governments do not care about that. Governments need us to be segregated, because that’s easier for them. But in order for us to actually live together, understand that we need to live together, we need to know each other first.


STELZER: Now, the focus by international media and more structured forms of reconciliation is often the recognition of past wrongs. In the case of South Africa, we’ve talked about apartheid, and in other cases we can go as far as genocide. And different countries around the world have taken different approaches to acknowledging the past, and that includes — whether it’s a government statement, all the way down to what ends up in the history textbook in school, what happened in this country. And sometimes the debate over that recognition, itself, is a sticking point, keeping things from moving forward.

I’m wondering what are peoples’ thoughts about… What are the issues tied to recognition, and what works and what doesn’t work in terms of recognizing the past, and is there a value in that? What is that value?

MI: Well, coming from the Balkans, which many people say produces more history than it can consume, and, you know, having, like, lived in a different time — before the civil war — when the history, our history books — although they were unified were pretty much kind of distorted in order for them to be unified. And that created, over time, this alternative history. So, in families, tales were told about the other side. About, you know, people living on the other side of the river or, you know, living in another village or something, and these proved to be very powerful. So, even when we had the unified history books, it didn’t help. And we ended up with a civil war because of the alternative history which was told in the …

And each of those ethnic groups had their own history, and they were like in mirror to one another. And there has been made, some progress has been made to create some sort of unified perception on what happened and to maybe… There are initiatives where history teachers are brought together to coordinate their works on the curricula and sometimes this work makes some progress, sometimes it doesn’t. But, still, the underlying causes for ethnic tension, as long as they’re still there, you know, we’re still going to have these alternative histories, and we’re still going to have people or political forces that will be preaching ethnic hatred.

So, when I look at the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans which is a very complex place. If we look at all those countries, countries that managed to solve their territorial disputes actually are making much bigger progress when it comes to reconciliation, and the countries that still have some territorial disputes are lagging behind.

So, in a sense, we cannot talk about the process of reconciliation independently of the political, economic, social and other reasons for the conflict. And that is the job for the… especially for the politicians, but also for the organized citizenry, to create political action that is going to lead to the solution of the problems that are fueling the conflict.

GEYBULLAYEVA: Well, building up on what Ivan said, What if the politicians are not interested in creating an alternative rhetoric? Which is really the case in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, you know, having the conflict placed to their advantage because, you know, they can gather assistance, or they can constantly talk about it in their talk, saying that: “Oh, we have conflict,” “We have refugees,” “We have, you know, internally displaced people.” That very much affects the whole reconciliation process.

And you know, the Balkans are much more advanced in terms of coming up with common history textbooks because that’s not even a part of the discussion now in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In fact, one of the projects that we did recently was on history textbook projects, together with some of the teachers from the regions. And once you read the two different versions of history, it becomes evident changing the whole educational curriculum of the schools it requires a lot of work on the side of the ministries of education in both countries to actually accept that step. And this is not happening right now.

MDZIKWA: So, there’s something… This is just something that’s just coming to my mind just listening to both Ivan and Arzu. There’s something about reconciliation that I have a problem with, and it’s the “going back” part of it. Is it really necessary, for example, or do we really want to go back to twenty years ago and open up those wounds?

GEYBULLAYEVA: But I think it’s necessary to go back to twenty years ago or, you know, if it’s necessary, fifty years ago, to actually reconcile. Because you can’t reconcile without addressing, a very emotional, very personal issues. And that’s what we try to do, for example, in our Dialogue Retreats, is that we spend two days just discussing history.

And it’s not about, you know, ignoring history; it’s not about forgetting history — it’s actually about understanding that we both had losses. But to get beyond that you really have to go back, and you really have to sit down and explain to the other side why you think that way. It’s a matter of showing the other side that you’ve been taught this way, just like the other side shows to you that this is how they’ve been brought up, and this the history that they’ve been taught.

I think it’s really important to address those very, you know, specific historical facts if you really want to move forward — because it will come up eventually, in the future, if you don’t address them now.

MAROVIC: I guess if I can add to this that can be a bit optimistic, but also it will a bit troubling, is that, for instance, Serbia had a traditional rival, Bulgaria. For the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century we waged many wars and we had territorial disputes.

Currently Serbia and Bulgaria have no territorial disputes, have no problems with one another. So it seems that somehow, over the last fifty years these things, you know, were reconciled.

So if that brings some hope that, you know, like, at least fifty years from now, our children are going to be OK with people from Croatia, with people from Bosnia, and maybe the underlying reasons for the conflicts are going to be resolved as well.

But that also brings us to the troubling part of that — is that if the reconciliation process, if it’s that long, like fifty years or something, is pretty much irrelevant for us today because we will not be, in terms of political, or any other involvement, we ourselves won’t be relevant in fifty years. And maybe we should, you know, think more about what is going to be our small contribution in the long process of reconciliation rather than thinking about some, like, quick fixes that are going to be bringing reconciliation any time soon.

STELZER: I want to thank all of you for a great discussion, Ivan Marovi?, Anele Mdzikwa, Ahmad Mahmoud and Arzu Geybullayeva thank you all so much for being here.

MDZIKWA: Thank you.


MAHMOUD: Thanks.

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