More Links in News & Events

The Search for Peace: Healing wounds, two at a time

By Joyce Neu

This article appeared in the June 9, 1997, edition of The Atlanta Constitution.

In Rwanda, three years after a genocide that saw up to 1 million people slaughtered, often by neighbors and friends, tensions persist and sporadic killings continue. In Bosnia, more than a year after the Dayton Peace Agreement, with thousands of troops securing the peace, people still do not have the freedom of movement, security or confidence needed to return to their pre-war homes.

Some members of the international community use the term "reconciliation" to describe the rebuilding challenges in war-torn countries, even making it a criterion for financial assistance. But to reconcile is "to cause to be friendly again, to find agreement between two ideas or situations that seem to be in opposition." Is it realistic, much less humane, to ask of survivors that they "become friendly again"?

Perhaps we don't mean reconciliation. Perhaps what we are talking about is peacebuilding and restoring human relationships. Then we need to say what we mean and mean what we say.

If victims and survivors of crimes against humanity choose to reconcile with their tormentors, that must be their own personal decision. Following outbreaks of mass violence, as the people begin to pick up the pieces, and as factories and fields begin to be worked again, people may come together over work and trade. But they cannot be forced.

To take a step down the path to peaceful coexistence, the international community needs to routinely dedicate a small portion of its reconstruction funds to unofficial discussions that allow people to come together in a nonthreatening atmosphere over shared interests. Letting people hear each others' stories, and then acknowledging and recognizing the harm that has been done, is a critical step in restoring a society. Such dialogues have taken place over the years between Israelis and Arabs, and between Russians and Americans.

The Carter Center has brought together groups in Estonia who have serious disagreements about the present and future of their country. Tensions between groups run deep. One participant in our discussions was a university student whose grandfather hated and distrusted his Russian neighbors. Through many hours of talk with the other group and a team of facilitators, she was stunned to find in herself the same seeds of hatred, sown long ago by her parents and grandfather.

This young woman had learned that prejudice and distrust can take generations to defuse. Because this other group allowed her to share her story with them and because she did so honestly, personal links have been established between former "enemies" and are likely to endure.

Dialogue among peoples cannot resolve all problems- some people may never be ready to talk to each other. It is unlikely, for example, that the young woman's grandfather would ever have joined this kind of mixed group. But in any society, there are those people who are bridgebuilders, those who are ready to renew relationships and move on. These are people who can be tapped to begin crossing lines. Once their friends and families hear they are safely interacting with the former enemy, a few more people may be willing to cross over and resume more normal lives through peaceful interactions with the "other".

As important as demilitarization and demining are, so are efforts to transform the relationships that led to the war or that were created as a result of the war. In any reconstruction efforts, it is the one-on-one relationships of trust that will facilitate healing both physical and psychological wounds.

Joyce Neu is an adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University in addition to her duties as Associate Director of The Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top