Perpetrators And Victims Need To Tell Their Story

Posted (binsar) in Article, Reconciliation, Remembrance on June-22-2007

Indonesia has faced a lot of conflicts that have to be solved in order to move forward towards a new atmosphere of peace and reconciliation. Without true reconciliation among conflicting parties, it would be difficult to go into the future together. Without true forgiveness and reconciliation, there will be prejudice, vengeance and revenge. Therefore, true forgiveness and reconciliation can only be achieved when victim and perpetrator share their stories about painful events. Having a common story enables victims and perpetrators to celebrate and reconcile, building a new identity for the future. This calls for a need for remembrance in Indonesia, which is often lacking.

The history of Indonesia has been characterized by poor human rights practices, especially during Soeharto’s 32-year regime. There have been many cases of human rights violations and many of them have accumulated without further investigation. Some of the problems that have not been completely resolved have even led to separatist movements, such as the ones in Aceh and Papua. Problems on top of problems were merely ignored…..

To certain extent, the decision not to talk about past traumas seems make common sense because there is nothing positive to be gained from passing on the story. It is too painful to tell through the generations. The retelling and remembrance of painful pasts could cause suppressed hidden anger to emerge from the people who experienced the conflict. There is also the danger that remembrance could be a form of vengeance.

We try to forget because it hurts too much to remember. However, if someone cannot forget their trauma and hurt, how should they overcome it? By forgetting, or remembering?

Some will take their way of forgiveness, letting go the pain, accepting the perpetrators, and be willing to start new relationships. However, forgiveness and reconciliation are not as simple as they seem. There are difficulties in practicing and embodying forgiveness. How forgive a social guilt? What about the violence that was perpetrated within a system? How can you forgive such a system? What about the people who have been injured or who have died? How can one forgive on behalf of others? Who should forgive the perpetrators? Do victim and perpetrator share the same memory about an event? If not, how can they have true reconciliation? There are many questions about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not as simple as saying “I forgive you” or “please forgive me”.

I have read a true story about a touching moment with a group of Germans and their Belorussian counterpart in 1994. It was a story about a group of Hitler’s army veterans who had been in Belorussia during the Second World War. They came back to the country and decided to do something productive. At the end of their stay, they went to see the war memorial at Chatyn. There was something happening that night upon their return.

The toasts had all been very personal. Then one man from the German group got up and struggled to say a few words. I noticed that he was still distraught by what he had seen in Chatyn. He talked of his own history; that he had been in the war, that he had been in a Russian prisoner-of-war-camp, and then he stopped, and we all sensed that the moment had come at which one could not go on remembering — something redeeming might happen. And it happened.

The man excused himself. He said that he felt deeply sorry for what he had done as a person, and for what the Germans had done in Russia. And then he tried to say that this must never happen again, but his voice broke. He had to sit down because he wept so hard. Around him there were young people. They were overcome and they too were weeping. Then an old woman got up, went over to that man — she was a Belorussian woman — and took him into her arms and kissed him.

The old German allowed himself to remember the past, triggered by the Chatyn memorial, and somehow had the courage to lower his defenses. He remembered. As a perpetrator, he too could have taken his guilt to the grave, but he chose to admit it and plead that this must never happen again. The old Belorussian woman could have thought that it was not possible to embrace a former German soldier who had brought such terrible things to her past; nevertheless, her kiss and his tears brought down all those around the table. It was a sign of forgiveness and of the power that transcended vengeance into a new ground for reconciliation for both of them.

Remembering to forgive could be a way towards a real forgiveness. This demands that both sides lay their cards on the table, are willing to listen to others and share their stories. This is not easy either for the perpetrator or the victim. Nevertheless, it might be an important moment on the path to forgiveness and reconciliation. An act of remembrance is important for real forgiveness and reconciliation.

This is what Indonesia needs to see; an act of remembrance could be a better way of dealing with painful events instead of forgetting them. Nevertheless, it is never been easy dealing with memory in Indonesia.

It is surprising that although there are a lot of unsolved cases in Indonesia, people seems to forget them easily. However, in order to achieve real reconciliation one must think about the importance of forgiveness. This is where the dilemma lies; we cannot talk about forgiveness in the midst of forgetful people. We cannot forgive something that we do not even remember. We must remember what really happened to be able to forgive the perpetrator. Therefore, “to remember” is an important step towards real forgiveness and reconciliation. The question then is how can Indonesia remember and share their common story? What causes Indonesians to forget their problems so easily?

Despite the fact that a new era has started since 1998, a lot of things remain as they were (i.e. strong military influence, corruption, limited transparency, confusing justice system). This is why accessing the past is considered a difficult task in Indonesia. Surprisingly, the post-reformasi era has seen little effort towards revealing what really happened during those times of repression. We should have expected that a new era of democratization would open up a whole new investigation into the nation’s history, while what really happened was exactly the opposite.

I feel that a lot more has to be done. Forgiveness and reconciliation are essential and important. Remembrance is a way towards real forgiveness and reconciliation, even though it is not a road that is easily traveled. Yes, it is difficult to remember our past, either as victims or perpetrators.

The writer is the secretary for the secretary general of the PGI (Communion of Churchesin Indonesia) and a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. He can be reached at

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