Interview: Desmond Tutu on Cyprus

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Tuesday, 5 January, 2010

While in Cyprus, Desmond Tutu spoke to Christiana Voniati from POLITIS newspaper. During the interview, he tells her about his reasons for visiting Cyprus, the importance of dealing with the past when resolving conflicts, and what, if any, place there is for a truth and reconciliation process on the island.

Some call him Father; others call him "the voice of global consciousness". As a child, he experienced the criminal nature of Apartheid in South Africa. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the man who, along with Nelson Mandela, brought an end to the racist regime of his country, marking an immense victory of humanity. Small in stature, giant in spirit, Tutu has become a global symbol, not only for peace, but also for reconciliation, which "can only come about through forgiveness".

In the post-Apartheid era, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which aimed at examining the circumstances of horrific crimes which took place under the racist regime. The Commission had the authority of granting amnesty to those who gave a full confession concerning the politically motivated crimes they had committed. Transferring the wisdom of his struggle and experience, the Chairman of The Elders has recently visited Cyprus, offering his moral support to the negotiations for a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem. When asked why he chose to visit Cyprus, of all the other problematic areas of the planet that may need his support, Tutu answered: "I can smell the scent of peace here… I came to give it a little push, if I can"…

You said you are inspired by the negotiations of the two leaders, Christofias and Talat, in working out a solution to the Cyprus problem. Why is that, isn’t it their duty to negotiate?

Well, as you know there are others that take different positions from their own. As you know, when you had a referendum in 2004, one side accepted the solution plan and the other rejected it. So it’s not a straight-forward matter. As leaders, they are up in front where perhaps some of their people in their community, and perhaps a large number of them, they might be saying, "Ah, we have been in this for too long", and I gather that some of your polls are saying, the people do not expect anything. But they wish there could be a resolution that meant peace and stability. This is why it’s so important to encourage both leaders to keep negotiating for a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem.

You say that the worst enemy of peace is suspicion. But how can one overcome all this bitterness if one has seen their loved ones being killed and tortured?

Well, it's never easy. And you shouldn’t beat yourselves up for being angry. You cannot control your feelings, but what you can control is what you can do with your feelings. What are you going to do with the thing that provoked those feelings. And I think it isn’t fair to expect a mother who has seen her child killed brutally, to say, "it doesn’t matter". Because what kind of a mother would not be bitter and angry? Bitterness is natural. But then you say, by the way, there are other mothers from the other side who have had the same experience as I have had. I don’t know if you have heard of a thing called 'The Parents' Circle' in Israel and Palestine. I mean, look at that! It would be something you think it could never have happened. But there are two people in conflict who have bereavement in their families. And instead of that bereavement separating them, they say we have had a common experience, let us come together, to comfort one another, but even more, to prevent situations happening that will make other mothers and fathers mourn as we are mourning.

How important is it to deal with the past, during a peace process?

The past always returns to haunt you. You know, it’s like a couple has a quarrel. And the man goes away and buys flowers. And they say "let the past be bygone". The past never just disappears, because it has a life of its own. If you don't face up to the awfulness and the beast of the past, it's going to return and tear you apart. Even if I come along and give you a gift, at the back of your mind you still have a wound that is festering.

In South Africa, we discovered - it's something we copied from Chile and Argentina, we learnt from them and made small improvements - that it is important to face up to the past for people to be able to acknowledge that terrible things happened. People always need to know who ordered those things to happen. What happened to my loved ones? Have they just disappeared? Were they abducted? And I‘ve said, there is really no future without forgiveness. And forgiveness looks back and it looks forward.

Do you see any similarities between Cyprus and South Africa, both in terms of the conflict and the peace process?

One must always be careful not to draw easy parallels with different situations. You know how the Israelis get upset when you parallel the situation there with apartheid in South Africa. And so, each situation is peculiar and unique. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities. A mother whose child is killed brutally in South Africa feels the same pain and ache and anguish as a mother anywhere in the world, as well as a mother in Cyprus. And when people are separated artificially by laws when they are occupying the same land, then there are some similarities to a situation wherein people live in the same country but are told to live apart.

Sure there are similarities, but it’s always important to say "what are the distinctive things about this particular situation?" Let’s learn whatever we can learn that might help us understand this particular situation. But we mustn't draw parallels too bluntly. And that is why for instance, if people say we want to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cyprus, it must be specially tailored for Cyprus. It must be a Commission ad hoc. The situation in Cyprus may have some similarities with South Africa, but it is unique and it has to be dealt as such. Learn from others, and then recognise that our situation has these particularities or that characteristic and take account of it in the arrangements that you make.

Judging from the experience you personally had from the TRC in South Africa, would you think it would be helpful if each community in Cyprus put their own war criminals to trial?

As you know, with our TRC, we were not looking to charge people. We agreed that, if people who had committed politically motivated crimes or atrocities came forward and if they made a full disclosure and tell about all the factors that lead to that particular incident or event, then they may be granted amnesty. The TRC, therefore, was not like the Nuremberg Trials. You have to work out yourselves what to do. We thought TRC worked well for us; in a way it was like a carrot to attract people and persuade them to tell us about things that were very difficult to discover.

You see it here in Cyprus too, how difficult it is going to be for the relatives of the victims, on both sides of the border, to find out who killed them and how. So you have to provide a mechanism that is largely acceptable to the people and that people see it as an instrument that is fair. That it is an instrument that is going to ensure that - as far as possible - there is no resentment that remains. It may be that you say well, yeah, we are going to have to chase after the perpetrators and bring them to trial. But that does not usually help the process of healing.

We were in Nuremburg when they were celebrating their 50th anniversary of the Nuremburg Trials, and it was quite amazing how Germans felt about it. The Germans on the panel had a deep resentment - 50 years later! They were feeling that quite a few of those who had sat in judgement on them had committed worse things. So, your country will have to sit down and figure out how do we deal with the past in a way that brings closure to the beasts of the past. Dealing with the past is not about forgetting about it, it’s about saying I want to know what happened so that we can remember, so that we do not repeat. It’s a very sensitive process, and very traumatising.

Back in South Africa, we discovered that, amazingly, when people were given a chance to tell their story, it had an incredible therapeutic effect on them. Just to be able to tell their story, they felt they were being acknowledged. That their experience was acknowledged as authentic. Just a short example: There was a young black man who was shot by the police (of the apartheid establishment) and he was blinded by that, in the townships. He came to tell his story at the TRC. And when he finished, one of the TRC panel asked him: "Now that you have told your story, how do you feel?" And a big smile broke out in his face, and he said "you have given me back my eyes!" Most of those stories were told on television, they were broadcast live. And for people that have been told for such a long time that they were nothing, to be the star of the show, to be in the front page of the newspapers, had an incredible power of affirming them.

You have to work out for yourselves what will be the best mechanism, one that would not just rouse people but one that makes people feel that they have faced the beasts of the past and now we can walk together into the future.

Our educational system - and particularly the lesson of history - on both sides of the border, has a very nationalistic approach concerning the narratives of the conflict. Do you think a change in how history is being taught could play a role of reconciliation between the two communities?

Absolutely! I know I shock you with this single word answer. But it is true. They say history is in the eyes of the beholder, in the eyes of the one who narrates. In many of our history books in the past, they used to say the white man (Livingstone) came and discovered the Victoria Falls! There were Africans living around the Victoria Falls for so long, and they had to wait for Livingstone to "discover" the Victoria Falls! So that’s how it goes, one tells the story from one's own perspective.

It will be important for Cyprus that the different perspectives are accommodated. For a long time, Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist. The one side saw him as a freedom fighter and the other as a terrorist. Which is the truth? I gave a one-word answer to your question. I hope you could set up workshops and look at how you could depict your history. Because what we see in our history books can serve to separate us, or it can serve to bring us together.

Christiana Voniati is the Head of International News Department POLITIS Newspaper, Nicosia, Cyprus.
Blogspot: (Greek); (English)

This article was published in December 2009.

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