Accept and Forgive

Last year, the Rwandan government, under the leadership of Tutsi president Paul Kagame, rewarded thousands of mass murderers with freedom simply for telling the truth. Special courts, called gacaca courts, summoned the imprisoned perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in an attempt to peacefully reconcile with the past. Criminals made public confessions of their misdeeds and asked for forgiveness. Now these rapists and slaughterers live side by side with the families of their victims in a nation which, as a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out, has become “one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa.” The situation in Rwanda is not perfect: people are still plagued by poverty and the memory of death. But Rwanda’s rapid and hopeful recovery begets an important question, especially as Genocide Remembrance month draws to a close: is “sorry” good enough? By the standards of our society it is absurd to offer pardon to killers who apologize after committing irreversible atrocities. After all, a formal apology is not necessarily heartfelt. In a world in which most ethnic conflicts are deeply rooted in the past, reconciliation may be the only and best solution. Last week, Tina Su addressed the need for formal reconciliation in her Commentary article “A Sorry would Suffice.” She explained that Japan has failed to apologize for the war crimes that constituted the Nanking massacre of 1937 and has actually denied that the massacre took place. Reconciliation is complicated and nearly impossible when the guilty party has little at stake. Unlike prisoners in Rwanda, most current Japanese leaders feel no pressure to comment on the past, since a formal apology will occasion no reward. Furthermore, condemning an event in Japan’s history would insult national pride. The Japanese government rejects the responsibility of voluntary confession since there are no immediate consequences of inaction. The government of Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which over one million Armenians were slaughtered. If Turkey apologizes, there will be consequences: Armenia may demand land reparations. As an Armenian, I would love to see the lands of Eastern Turkey, which contain important landmarks of Armenian history, rightfully restored to our country. But as time goes by and the centennial of my ancestors’ slaughter approaches, I think an apology without reparations is better than living with history unresolved. Various examples from history suggest that reconciliation is possible. After all, didn’t German-Jewish dialogue follow the Holocaust? Yes – but only after most Nazi leaders were tried and convicted by the international community and Germany paid due reparations to Israel. The apology did not stand alone, and Germany didn’t apologize decades after the fact. Perhaps a more appropriate example is the Australian government’s apology to the aboriginal peoples of Australia last year- an admirable and unprecedented effort to come to terms with an unfortunate chapter of the past. Congress has yet to pass its own “apology bill” in support of a formal expression of regret to the Native Americans. History cannot be reversed. The dead cannot be resurrected. Killing the memory of the dead constitutes a double murder, a killing of the truth. Thousands of memorials erected across the globe in the last few weeks indicate that much of history has been accounted for. But until all nations come to terms with the past, we live in a world in which historical truths stand contested. The killers in Rwanda did not receive the death penalty. Men who killed hundreds of people apiece served little more than ten years in jail. Survivors made a true sacrifice in granting forgiveness: they gave up the pursuit of vengeance in order to secure the truth. A painful and necessary reconciliation has brought peace to one nation. Acceptance and forgiveness must become worldwide priorities if we hope to make the 21st century less bloody than the last. Eric Sirakian is a three-year Upper from Andover, MA. He is Executive Secretary of the Student Council and President of STAND.