Three stories about people who have confronted tragedy yet managed to see a way to get beyond rage and revenge and move toward reconciliation.
Elik Elhanan | May 2008 issue
Learning to speak
How one Israeli man lost his sister in a terrorist bombing and found his voice to fight for peace. By Elik Elhanan.
I was born and raised in Jerusalem. I had a normal, happy childhood. I came from a liberal, left-wing family, which means I knew something of the situation. I was for peace, but I never saw myself as part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My life and dreams were very far away from all that. The reality of Israeli life helped a lot. Even though I grew up in Jerusalem, the biggest Israeli-Palestinian city, I never met with Palestinians and never talked to them. As far as I was concerned, we lived in different worlds.
When I was 18, I joined the army. It was mandatory, but I went gladly. I believed it was my civic duty. I believed one should contribute oneself to one’s community. I believed I was going to protect the borders of my country and defend its citizens. But even there I couldn’t see myself as part of it all. Again, my dreams lay very far away, and I knew this soldier thing would end one day. But a piece of reality burst my bubble.
I got the news that there had been a bombing while I was training for something or other far from home. My sister Smadar was missing. I remember the long ride home, hoping for the best. But the second I saw my parents, I knew. They had just come back from the morgue where they’d identified the body of my sister.
Smadar died on September 4, 1997. On that day, two Palestinians blew themselves up in the centre of Jerusalem, killing eight and wounding another 50. Smadar was 14 years old. She had gone downtown with some friends to buy things for school. My sister and her friends had the misfortune of being close to one of the bombers. She died instantly, as did her best friend. The third friend was critically injured.
When we’re confronted with such a situation, the first question is, of course, How do I go on? How do I deal with the pain? Society offers several solutions to this problem. One is to be sad. Another is to be angry. I refused to take either path.
Life is too precious to be wasted in sombre reminiscence. I thought my sister, who was full of life and love, deserved better than to be remembered in such a sad fashion. I understood that the first victim of my anger would be me. It’s easy to succumb to anger, hate and fear, especially when we’re hurt by a faceless menace such as terrorism. You can’t hate someone so you hate something—not a Palestinian, but the Palestinians, all of them.
But this prospect of living my life as someone who fears everything and hates everyone was unacceptable. The possibility of revenge didn’t give me any peace either. Who would be the object of my revenge? Would it make me feel any better? The man who killed my sister was dead.
What was missing from my life was Smadar, my sister, not honour or satisfaction. It didn’t matter how many Palestinians would die; she’d never come back. Because of my pain, should more lives be ruined? I decided I couldn’t allow it.
What had happened to me was beyond repair. In trying to “fix” it, I’d only destroy myself. My sister didn’t die so Israel would be safe; she didn’t die because Arabs are naturally bad or because Islam is an evil religion. She died because of a political situation, man-made and solvable.
The events of our time show us there’s no violent solution to violence. If you want people to stop trying to kill you and themselves, give them a reason to live. I became aware of the contaminating nature of violence, of its incapacity to generate anything but more violence.
If we really want to stop the violence, to make sure no more innocent lives are lost, we must struggle for a peace agreement. I work for peace in many ways, but the most significant one in my eyes is through the Israeli-Palestinian Families’ Forum, a group of 500 families—250 from Israel and 250 from Palestine—that have lost a family member in this conflict. Through this group that I co-founded I’ve met Palestinians, real ones, not stereotypes or caricatures, but real people like Ali Abu Awwad, who spent four years in Israeli jails. He was shot by a settler, his brother murdered by a soldier. Nevertheless, Ali still wants peace. There are many others like him.
If I can talk to these people, many of them former members of Palestinian resistance movements like the one that killed my sister, and if they can talk to me after losing their family members, no one has a reason not to communicate.
We want to show people in pain that there’s another way to deal with it, through hope rather than hate. In our group, we know peace will only be achieved with dialogue. We know it’s imperative that each side knows the story, the suffering and the hopes of the other side. If we can speak to each other, anyone can!
Elik Elhanan is co-founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Families’ Forum, known as Bereaved Parents for Peace. This is excerpted from a speech published in Occupation Magazine (kibush.co.il).
Simon Atem escaped a civil war in his native Sudan. Now he wants to go back, to build a school where kids can learn the difference between right and wrong. By Stacey Kalish.
Simon Atem was 7 when he watched soldiers shoot and kill his uncle while he held Simon’s hand. He was visiting his relatives, a day’s walk from his home village of Aweng in southern Sudan, when militia suddenly stormed the area and opened fire on civilians. The last word Simon heard from his uncle was “Run!”
It was 1995, and the Second Sudanese Civil War was ravaging the country. The southern non-Arab populations, led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, were fighting for independence from the northern Arab-dominated government. Islamic military forces were attacking villages in an attempt to purge the Christians. The soldiers killed adults and enslaved girls while the boys, many of whom had been tending the herds, escaped into the jungle.
After his uncle’s murder, Simon walked and ran through bush so dense it was black as night during daylight hours. He spent the first three days alone, sleeping in trees and surrounded by wild animals, with nothing to shield him from the thorny foliage that tore at his skinny frame and left him with scars. On the fourth day, he found other groups of wandering boys. This cohort, ultimately amounting to 27,000 displaced or orphaned males, later became known as the “lost boys” of Sudan. Together, they trekked approximately 100 miles a day with no shoes, clothes, water or food. They ate wild fruit and dead animals to stay alive and drank their own urine. It took two months for Simon’s group to reach a UN refugee camp in Dimma, Ethiopia.
Simon barely survived the next eight years. In 1997, after a year of difficult living conditions in the refugee camp, the Ethiopian government was overthrown and the rebels wanted the boys to return to Sudan. When they didn’t move quickly enough, the rebels began shooting at them. Simon, in his soft voice, thick with an African accent, recalls, “Running back was hard. Many were shot or eaten by crocodiles in the river. Coming to Ethiopia had been hard. Going back to Sudan was harder.”
Thousands died along the way. When the remaining boys eventually reached the Sudanese border, armed vehicles met them and forced them to turn around. They trekked through the desert for another month before reaching the refugee camp. Simon spent the next few years moving among refugee camps in Sudan and Kenya until finally, in 2003, the Canadian government approved his visa. UN representatives lied, saying Simon was 21 to aid his application. He was 15 at the time.
Now a towering 19-year-old with sunken cheeks and jutting bones, Simon remembers his first airline flight four years ago. Along with 50 other boys, he boarded a plane heading to Canada. He didn’t sleep the whole way: part excitement and part vigilance. He insisted on keeping a close watch on the flight path on his TV so he could “see where this one goes.” When the inflight meal arrived, Simon ate the chicken and rice and pushed aside the “strange” foods like salad and dessert, not realizing they were edible.
When Simon arrived in Winnipeg, immigration officials greeted him with jackets and boots for the snow he was about to experience. The learning curve was steep, but Simon was a quick study. After a few trials and errors, he soon understood that, unlike in Africa, you couldn’t stand anywhere in the street and expect the bus to pick you up. Simon has since moved to Calgary and is in his final year of high school. He lives in the basement of a house owned by another Sudanese family.
He hasn’t seen his own family since the day his uncle was killed. He couldn’t run back to his village after the attack because it was too dangerous. For many years, he had no idea whether or not his family had survived. Then after a decade, Simon heard through friends that everyone in his family was alive. He spent a year trying to make contact, and finally, in December of 2006, he was able to arrange for his mother to make the four-day drive to a phone in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Now he’s able to speak to family members once every three months. That first call lasted three hours. “We were just crying for an hour,” Simon remembers. “They thought I was dead. They had two burial ceremonies for me. But no, Simon is alive!”
As he eats chicken fingers and onion rings, Simon comments, “I don’t blame the soldiers who did this.” He’s wearing a striped, collared shirt and trendy, faded jeans with a thick parka. “I blame the government that caused them to do that.”
Simon refuses to succumb to feelings of rage against his attackers. “I could be angry at the Muslim soldiers because of what they did to my people and me,” he says. “I could hate them, but if I did, then I would be just like them.” Instead, Simon chooses to focus on his story of survival, which he feels a pressing need to share. “I don’t have a business card to give, so I give my story to people,” he says. “The more I talk about it, the more people will learn about what others go through.”
Simon found integration easy. He is outgoing and has no problem meeting people. But his past is always with him, and not just when he shares his story. He still has nightmares about his “lost boy” days. Luckily, he has other dreams as well. “One day, I was sleeping in my room and something came as a human,” Simon explains in a matter-of-fact tone. “And he was just sitting in front of me and talking to me, saying, ‘Simon, there is something you have to do. You have to build a school. You have to build a shelter for young people. You have to teach people how you have gone through difficulty in life.’”
When Simon was 6, he had one such dream, which became the inspiration for his current project—building a school in his home village, Aweng. In Sudan, children learn under a tree and often write in the sand because there are no books or materials. They have no curricula and the teachers are mothers and fathers, with little or no schooling themselves, who volunteer for the day. Simon wants children to be able to use their minds and be taught to distinguish between right and wrong. “If you are not educated, people will come to you and tell you to take a gun and go fight. You don’t know what is going on. So I need young people to get an education so they will be leaders for today, not tomorrow.”
Within his first week at Father Lacombe High School in Calgary, Simon set about garnering support for his fundraising ideas. He convinced the fast-food chain Tim Hortons to donate coffee and doughnuts for monthly “coffeehouses” at his school, with all the proceeds going to his Southern Sudan Canadian Education Fund, and he’s constantly working with the school on other fundraising ideas like dinners, cookbook sales and a Mother’s Day Run for Peace. He travels around Canada speaking to fellow students and works with the organization YOUCAN—a student-run organization that encourages youth to create peace in their communities and their hearts—and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Michéal Montgomery, a children’s-rights advocate who met Simon at a CIDA conference, says, “Simon’s gift is pulling action from other people. Once he has decided that you are someone important to him, he is amazingly consistent and persistent. He is not using us, just working us. We are part of Simon’s project. And that is quite incredible of someone of his age.” He laughs as he adds, “He must have an amazing phone bill.”
Simon received a welcome surprise recently—a check for $3,000 from an American businessperson, whom Simon had met for less than 30 minutes. This brought the charity’s tally to about $11,000. Simon’s goal is to reach $60,000 this summer and return to Sudan to start building the school. Then Simon will be reunited with his family for the first time since their separation—and one lost boy will finally have returned home.
He flashes his infectious smile when asked if he ever lost hope in the midst of his journey. “Even though I go through difficult things, God is still there,” he says. “God is trying to see how strong am I.”
Stacey Kalish is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Reconciliation doesn’t always take forgiveness, but asks us to treat former opponents with dignity. By Donna Hicks.
At a round table, two men in their late fifties sit across from one another, shifting in their seats, looking everywhere but at each other. The room is dim except for the penetrating lights carefully placed by the television crew. The two men are mirror images of one another—expressionless yet alert, as if each stands ready for the first strike. Ronnie, a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), served 21 years in prison for nearly killing the man opposite him: Malcolm, a British police officer from Southampton, England.
This meeting took place two years ago at Ballywalter Park, a private home about 40 miles outside of Belfast. It was organized by the BBC as part of the television series Facing the Truth, which brought together victims and perpetrators of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
As a conflict-resolution specialist with Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, I was invited to facilitate the encounters, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Lesley Belinda, a program development manager for the Tutu Foundation UK. In spite of the political progress made in Northern Ireland, the human suffering created by years of violence and hatred between the communities had never been addressed. If there was any chance for reconciliation, someone had to open the door to truth and healing—and the BBC took that bold first step.
The reconciliation that came about between Ronnie and Malcolm that afternoon continues to have a profound impact on me. Their experiences can contribute to our understanding of what it takes to put the past to rest when we’ve suffered in our relationships. What happened to them isn’t unique to war. All of us have been on this battleground. Relationships, no matter what kind, present us with opportunities to showcase our humanity or inhumanity. What happened between these two former enemies demonstrates the triumph of humanity. Their story needs to be told not just to honour the sacredness of their experience, but to give us reason to believe that our hope for healing and reconciliation has a life beyond our yearning.
Ronnie shot Malcolm in December of 1974 at the height of the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The IRA had just taken its bombing campaign to England. For days, Ronnie and another IRA man had been holed up in an apartment in Southampton, waiting for orders to carry out a bombing, when they were discovered by the British police.
Malcolm, one of the officers called to the scene, pursued the men as they fled the apartment. During the chase, Ronnie turned and shot Malcolm. Ronnie watched Malcolm fall to the ground, then continued to run for his life. Ronnie eventually made it back to Northern Ireland only to be caught by the police a few months later. Instead of getting married as planned, he was arrested and sentenced to spend a good part of his life behind bars.
About a foot away from where the men are sitting, Archbishop Tutu, Lesley Belinda and I are arranged around a crescent-shaped table. These encounters are nothing out of the ordinary for the archbishop. He has facilitated countless discussions between victims and perpetrators of crimes of apartheid in his homeland of South Africa. Because of this, everyone in the room is scanning his face, searching for a signal that will quiet our anxiety.
The archbishop sits up straight in his chair, leans forward, and with a big smile on his face, welcomes both men. He tells them how courageous they’ve been to agree to take part in the program and that he hopes they won’t only begin their own healing process today, but will be able to help others by their example. He tells them they’ll be asked to describe what happened the night of the shooting, and explains they can take as much time as they want. The archbishop then turns to Malcolm and asks him to begin.
With surprising calmness, Malcolm relates his version of what happened the night Ronnie shot him. In slow and measured words, he tells us, in dramatic detail, the events leading up to the chase, from the time he was called on the radio to assist his fellow officers at the apartment to the moment he was shot.
When he describes being hit, then falling to the ground, his voice breaks and he stops. Head lowered, he weeps. It’s the first time in 30 years he has talked about it. His children had never heard his story. He had kept his grief locked up.
When it’s Ronnie’s turn to speak, he begins by painting a picture of the political environment in Northern Ireland that gave rise to his involvement in the IRA. He says Catholics were discriminated against by the government. He says there was hatred for the way Catholics were treated and he felt there was no avenue into the political system enabling him or others to work toward changing the situation.
He became an IRA volunteer when he was 16. He describes a life-changing incident: He’d been walking down the street one day with another IRA volunteer when she was shot dead by the British army. The experience intensified his commitment to engage in an armed struggle against the regime. He makes it clear he has no regrets about his involvement in the IRA; in fact, he says he’s proud of it.
While he tells his story, he seems determined not to falter under pressure or admit remorse for what he’d done. His body language sends the message, “Don’t take me where I will not go.” His face is stern and unyielding—jaw tight and eyes wide with conviction.
I ask him whether he has feelings for Malcolm after listening to what he’d been through and how he suffered. He snaps back, “Of course I have feelings for Malcolm. I have feelings for everyone who suffered in this conflict, and especially for Malcolm.” And for the first time, I see him make eye contact with Malcolm.
The archbishop sees it too. He turns to Malcolm and asks, “Is there anything you’d like to say after hearing Ronnie’s story?”
Malcolm looks at Ronnie and says, “What I realize now after listening to your story is how difficult it must have been growing up. And I believe that if I had grown up under the same circumstances that I would have done the same thing.”
Ronnie appears stunned. He takes a deep breath, puts his elbows on the table and leans toward Malcolm. His face softens and his shoulders drop. That steely resolve disappears as he awaits Malcolm’s next words. Malcolm goes on to say that if he’d seen someone close to him killed, he knows he would have been enraged. He says, “Yes, I feel I could kill. I make no bones about that.”
Something happens in those moments that creates an opening between the two men. They’re no longer two human beings disconnected by time and tragedy, but are communing, displaying an unusual intimacy. Suddenly it’s as if there’s no one else in the room. There’s a magnetism to the way they begin to relate.
Near the end of the session, Ronnie expresses a desire to stay in touch with Malcolm, inviting him to come to Belfast and have a talk one day over a pint. Ronnie says he’s happy the officer lived, adding that Malcolm was a brave man.
We sit in awe and silence. Finally, the archbishop asks the men if they know how they’d like to end the session. They look at each other for a few seconds, get up from their chairs, reach across the table and extend their hands to one another. Then they go into Belfast and have dinner together. They’ve seen each other many times since.
What happened between Malcolm and Ronnie that made their reconciliation possible? It has nothing to do with forgiveness; it was never asked for nor given. But what did happen was equally powerful: They honoured one another’s dignity, and in so doing, each strengthened their own. If indignity tears relationships apart, dignity can put them back together.
Through this, we learn that by inflicting indignities upon others, we diminish ourselves, and that by extending dignity to others, we build up our own. It’s hard to imagine that we’d make any other choice but to treat others well, knowing that the reward is to contribute to our own feelings of worthiness. After all, is such worthiness not what we all silently yearn for and what the cry is all about?
Donna Hicks is an associate with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and conducts dignity workshops in the U.S. and abroad.