Report of Dealing with the Past at Ohrid Seminar 2004


The last day of the seminar was devoted to the programme, Dealing With the Past, organized by programme staff person Roberta Bacic.


Roberta presented some of the theoretical concepts we have been developing around the experiences we have been looking into.

Dealing with the past of war and violence

Some reflections on what we mean by dealing with the past

If we are war resisters and do strongly believe that war is a crime against humanity, then we have no alternative but to approach the issues, dilemmas, pain and consequences that arise from the actual experience of war and its war machinery.

Dealing with past is an ethical as well as a political task. During transitional times or at times of ongoing conflicts, reconciling the ethical demands with the political constraints create serious dilemmas. It means struggling/coping/dealing with the past in the present so as to be able to see a future.

When dealing with post-conflict situations, we must be aware that there is a duality between the individual victims and the nation. Most of the time, the society is divided and there is no sign that this will change. Both are very important and must be kept linked. The victims and their relatives deserve respect and should be consulted when it comes to issues that impinge directly on them. Nonetheless, it is also true that the process of moral reconstruction is in the hands of the society we have; that not always will their demands be accepted by the majority; and they are not even always considered in the political agenda or as a first priority. Nonetheless it is important to have in mind that the lack of political pressure to put these issues on the agenda does not mean they are not boiling underground, waiting to erupt.

"The meaning of the past is placed unequivocally in the present and in relation to a desired or non-desired future" (Jelin, Elizabeth). Debates over memories of past repression and political/ethnical violence frequently surface in specific historical contexts and times when societies undergo political change and there are widespread feelings of urgency to construct democratic regimes. The actors participating in these debates link their democratizing projects and their orientations over the future with the memories and traumas of their violent and conflictive past. In the south cone of Latin America the association between past violations of human rights and violence with the will to build a different and better future is very strongly established.

The present contains and constructs past experience and future expectations.

"Experience is present past, whose events have been incorporated and can be remembered" (Koselleck, Reinhardt). The past can therefore be condensed or expanded, according to how these diverse past experiences are integrated.

New historical processes, as well as changing social and political conjunctions, inevitably produce alterations in the interpretative frameworks for understanding past experience and for constructing future expectations. The complexity is therefore based on the multiplicity of meanings, and ongoing transformation and change in actors and historical processes.

"As a distinctive feature of the human condition, work is what puts the individual and society in an active and productive position. The person is an agent of transformation, and in the process transforms him or herself and the world. . . to assert that memory involves 'labor' is to incorporate it into the activity that generates and transforms the social world" (Jelin).

"The presence of the past can disrupt, penetrate, or invade the present as something that makes no sense" (Ricoeur). In such a situations, the memory of the past intrudes, but it is not the object of labor. There is no sense of distance from the past, which reappears and makes its way, like an intruder, into the present. To overcome such situations requires considerable labor, working through the painful memories and recollections instead of reliving them and acting them out. In working through these memories of the past, the person tries to gain critical distance on a problem and distinguish between past, present and future. It is via working through the painful memories of the past that one acquires the possibility of being an ethical and political agent. This involves a difficult journey for subjective processes: distancing oneself from the past, and learning to remember. For the public and political sphere, it involves rethinking the relationship between memory and politics and between memory and justice.

Locating past memories in the present gives that past a fundamental quality that enables survivors to access and construct that past without reliving the horrors. To do so, it is fundamental to create and erase distance from past horrors. The relationship with the past is one of proximity and distance, returning to the extreme situation, as well as returning from it.

We must see dealing with the past as a process. As such it might lead to healing, reconciliation, empowering to action, political action, acknowledgement of truth and many other possibilities. It is the process itself which will shape our roads and give hints on how to follow up.


We then organized a role play resembling a TV interview on the way different countries, cultures and people belonging to our WRI network have reacted and dealt with past wars. In that context, I approached Jan Van Criekinge (Forum voor Vredesactie, Belgium), as an historian, editor and active member of WRI to prepare questions to the participants. Angola, Colombia, Croatia, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and the USA were represented.

Jan started by saying that he had accepted the role because, as an historian, he is used to having to deal with the past. He added that we live today with that past acting on us. Jan pointed out that we should be aware that the concept of time, and how people look to the past, is very much culturally influenced. Each country's representative responded to a brief statement about his/her country and then answered the question made by Jan.


"I would like to start this panel discussion with our hosts here in Macedonia. Macedonia is one of the youngest countries in Europe. Even the name of the country is disputed by neighbors who find the reasons for that dispute in the very far past. More recently in 2001, the rest of the world was looking anxiously at the conflict between Slavonic Macedonians and Albanians"

  • how did the Macedonian society overcome this crisis and what are the consequences of these traumatic events?

Answered by Damjan Donev (Peace Action, Skopje, Macedonia) Every new nation state is producing its own historiography and is rewriting the history. The question of the identity of the Macedonian state and people is an old question in the Balkans. That's why even the name of the state creates problems with the neighbors. As in the Balkans in general, Macedonia has not yet finished with its own recent history.


"Nearly 40 years of war. First the anti-colonial struggle against the Portuguese and then 27 years of civil war that destroyed the country completely. These very tragic experiences came to an official end in April 2002. But for years the Angolan society will face the consequences"

  • what about war crimes?
  • will the people responsible for this drama face punishment?
  • what will be done for the war victims?
  • will a truth commission like in South Africa bring a solution?

Answered by Emanuel Matondo (IAADH, Dortmund, Angola/Germany). The war in Angola is still not yet completely over. In Cabinda the armed forces are committing war crimes every day. How can someone talk about the peace process while the population is being bombed by the army? The militaristic ideology is very much dominating the Angolan society and as long as the same people who were responsible for the war are still in power there will be impunity for war crimes and war profiteers. Civil society has started a new project for a new Angola, but the way is long. How can we collect facts about crimes committed in the past if we do not even have archives to refer to?


"How could one speak about dealing with the past if violence is so much part of everyday life, like it is in Colombia? The history of Colombia is full of violence. So very many people are left behind with their pain and anger. Some may even be looking for revenge."

  • what has to be done for the victims of violence in Colombia?

Answered by Alex (Redes Juveniles, Medellin, Colombia). Colombian society is facing different forms of discrimination. The widespread macho culture is narrowly linked to the violence in everyday life. Nearly everyone in Colombia is a victim of violence. Redes Juveniles did a lot on this problem, but people do not like to be reminded of the massacres and the violence of the past.


"The 20th century history of Croatia was full of dramatic changes in political history. From Austrian Hungarian empire, the Ustasha State during the Nazi occupation, the communist partisan struggle and Titoism to the falling apart from the former Yugoslavia and the nationalistic approach of the new state under Tudjman. Many people were forced to leave their homes during the ethnic cleansing"

  • how are the common people dealing with this traumatic past?
  • is there a possible dialogue about war crimes?
  • is the government prepared to promote a public debate on what happened during these years?

Answered by Natalie Sipak (ARK, Zagreb, Croatia) History school books gave us different views on our recent past. When I was at school the partisan struggle was seen as a good and heroic struggle against oppression. After the independence of Croatia the way people looked to that past changed dramatically. The present government is not dealing with the past even as it is forced to do so by the international community. A dialogue about war crimes will be a long and difficult process. At least the civil society is now working together in the whole region to create 'centres for war crimes'.


"The Pinochet dictatorship became a kind of symbol of the brutal repression of a unique social and political experiment in a continent in the shadows of the USA. Many years later the past is still omnipresent in the Chilean society".

  • how do young people - who were not politically active during the dictatorship - deal with this traumatic past?
  • and in particular COs?

Answered by Oscar Huenchunao (Ni Casco, Ni Uniforme, Santiago, Chile) I was born in 1973, the year of the coup, and as a child our parents warned us always not to get involved in politics to keep out of trouble. That's one of the reasons that the younger generation was afraid of the past. But now people are asking questions about what happened during the dictatorship. We have to find answers for our movement of COs.


"On a first view one could be wondering; what problems of a traumatic past can a country like Finland have? When I was visiting Helsinki last year it became clear to me how much Finland's history was influenced by its mighty neighbors: Sweden and Russia. On top of that there was a civil war."

  • what does dealing with the past mean for the Finish society today?

Answered by Simo Hellsten (Union of COs Finland, Helsinki, Finland). Especially the civil war between the leftist and conservative political forces in Finland divided the society so much (like in Spain) that it is even today a kind of taboo. Why had the Finnish society never dealt properly with this aspect of our history? During the Second World War the Finns had to unite against a common enemy: the Soviet Union. That was a good reason to forget the past. Only very recently people have started to get interested in what really happened during the civil war. But what is the 'real' history? It's always someone's vision of the past.


"Some aspects of the colonial past are still today a source of great controversy amongst the French population. Most specially the Algerian war (1954-1962). In February I visited a very remarkable picture exhibition in the Hotel de Sully in Paris. For the very first time since 1962 uncensored photos about the Algerian War were shown to the general public. Some visitors wrote in the guest book that it was a shame that the `honor' of the French Army was dishonored".

  • why was there such a long silence about what really happened in Algeria?
  • what happened to the war victims?

Answered by René Burget (Union Pacifiste de France, Paris, France) As we have seen in the case of the 'famous' war criminal Maurice Pappon, the recent history of French militarism is still a source of great controversy. Veterans of the Algerian War and former French colonies who spent their life in Algeria are using these issues for political reasons. Do not forget the influence of the French arms industry on politics in general and the position of the military in particular. There was never a real debate about the responsibility of the French military for atrocities abroad.


"The heritage of the Nazi period will, for a long time, influence public life in Germany. The past may not be forgotten as a warning to everyone of what a totalitarian regime without respect for human rights can do to human beings".

  • But is the German society today really prepared to deal with this past and its consequences?

Answered by Julia Kraft-Garcia (Tübingen, Germany) and Andreas Speck (WRI office, London). As youngsters at school we learned a lot about the responsibility of Germany for what happened during the Second World War. There was always that warning that it should not happen again. But on the other hand the position of the German Defence Force was not really questioned and the role of some army officers in the attempted coup against Hitler in 1944 was given so much attention in official history.


"The funding of the State of Israel in 1948 was a direct consequence of what happened to the Jewish people during Second World War. One should expect that people who survived these atrocities would have learned lessons from the past. But today the State of Israel is oppressing the fundamental rights of the Palestinians."

  • Why did dealing with the past for the Israeli society not result in the prevention of violent conflicts with their Arab neighbors?

Answered by Sergeiy Sandler (New Profile, Tel Aviv, Israel) In fact the funding of the state of Israel was decided a long time before the Holocaust took place, but the interpretation of the Holocaust in Israel is a source of great controversy. For the more 'liberals' the Holocaust is a crime against humanity in general, but for many others it is a particular crime against the Jewish people and the state of Israel should do everything that is in its power to prevent that such crimes could happen again. In this interpretation the present day politics against the Palestinians is completely in line with such behavior, even if the fundamental rights of another people is at stake.


"During the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War many examples of nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation took place. On the other hand there was a person called Quisling who was collaborating with the Nazi regime."

  • what consequences did this political division have on the post-war society and what did the Norwegian society do to overcome this dark page of history?

Answered by Thomas Tallaksen (FMK, Oslo, Norway) and Ellen Elster (WRI Exec, Oslo, Norway) What happened during the Second World War has remained a part of our national history but clouded in many myths. Sometimes it was presented as if the whole Norwegian population were active in the resistance against the Nazis and collaboration was a taboo issue. Just after the war there was a feeling of glorification of the 'heroic resistance against an evil regime'. Even today the war period is not completely dealt with.


"More than in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia was made responsible for the war that started in 1991. Nationalistic and militaristic politicians were spreading the idea of a greater Serbia, ethnically `pure' and struggling against the whole world. Milosevic is in The Hague, many other `war criminals' are still free, and even seen as heroes."

  • how can a radical network like Women in Black make a difference in the process of accepting what really happened?
  • will there once be a Truth Commission?
  • can impunity for war criminals lead to a sustainable reconciliation?

The respondent was to have been Ksenija Forca (Women in Black, Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro), but unfortunately she was unable to take part in this discussion.

United States

"As a superpower, the United States of America has been involved in more wars worldwide than any other country. The Vietnam war left behind a society with lots of wounds and unanswered questions; but also with a critical and empowered civil society. Nontheless, the majority of USA society supported Bush's idea of revenge after September 11"

  • what could make a change?
  • what role is there for the peace movement in this context?

Answered by Joanne Sheehan (WRL, Norwich, CT, USA). The question that many North Americans asked themselves after September 11th was: "Why do they hate us?" For many people it was just not understandable that 'terrorists' could attack the US on their own soil, because as a superpower "the US gives so many good things to the rest of the world". In a country of immigrants, where many people came to find shelter as draft evaders, political and religious refugees, it was never clear to many people that the US was not just a 'victim', but that the reason of the attack was to be found in the policy of the US elsewhere in the world. The US is also a country of war memorials and glorification of soldiers, but the reality behind these wars is only clear to a small minority (for example the Vietnam veterans are most active for peace). North Americans in general do not know much about their past, about foreign countries and cultures. When something happened like 9/11 the country is in shock. Only grassroots activists could do more to influence society.

After the presentation of the questions to the different countries, there was a plenary debate. Here follows a brief summary.

  • The Macedonian government is not really interested in dealing with the recent past (crisis in relations between Macedonians and Albanians) as they are rushing to become a member state of NATO and EU. It is never quite clear who is a victim and who is responsible for war crimes as there are widely different views in the Balkans.
  • In Germany there is officially little attention to the many 'alternative' nonviolent ways of resistance against the Nazis as the state wants to celebrate the army uprising of 1944. The draft evaders and COs during the Second World War were never recognised as such. The Holocaust was the only crime, and the other victims of Nazi discrimination should not be forgotten.
  • The different views people are looking to their past wars is reflected in the names they give to the wars: 'civil war', 'liberation struggle', 'people's war', 'police action'.
  • We must not forget the economical background of many colonial wars: those who made the greatest profits from the war are the people in power. Are they war criminals too?
  • 'Not in my name': if states are committing crimes, do we as citizens feel responsible for it? What is the responsibility of individuals for what happened by states in the past?
  • The indigenous population of Chile was not really heard in the truth commission. Chile never reached the point of 'confession'.
  • Angola: who is responsible for the ongoing war? Reports make clear which countries are involved, but will there be any prosecution of the war profiteers? What is the role of the radical peace movement in it?
  • How should we deal with 'oppressors'?
  • The legacy of slavery: the lack of recognition of the responsibility makes it more difficult for the victims to live together.


Working in groups according to languages: Spanish, French, English, Scandinavian, Serbian-Macedonian-Croatian, discuss and debate around these questions based on the presentations, the TV program and your own personal and group experience (until break). Please report on charts as there is little time.

  1. Is dealing with the past important for our WRI groups? Why?
  2. How would your group link dealing with the past to what you normally do?
  3. Name some examples of dealing with the past experiences that have come to your attention.
  4. Has anybody in your group been involved in a dealing with the past activity? Refer to it.


We had hoped to work on a proposal to Council on a position WRI could take around dealing with the past. It was suggested to use as a base a document prepared by Vesna Terselic. This had been discussed at meetings of the Dealing with the Past team and emerged as a reflection of these and other experiences around the topic. Being short of time, we were not able to do this during the Seminar, but it was left to be dealt with by a small committee during Council.

The small working group on the 'Dealing with the Past'-Programme at WRI Council remarked that many participants were interested in the theme, but that only very few member organisations inside the WRI network were really working in this field. They proposed that the Dealing with the Past programme should be linked to the campaign on War Profiteers that will be launched very soon. The contacts and the work that has already been done so far (mostly by Roberta Bacic) should be made easily available for all interested peace activists in the WRI network. A permanent WRI Working Group on this theme is not a good idea as it would not be very sustainable, but the proposal made by Vesna, to produce a WRI position paper, was accepted. A small working group (Vesna, Emanuel, Julia, Alex, Roberta) will produce a draft paper that can be presented to the WRI Executive for further outreach. Emanuel is willing to undertake fundraising in Germany if necessary.

Julia will keep in contact with Roberta to produce a list of research persons. The draft paper should include inspiring examples of programme work that has already been done in the Dealing with the Past programme.

On Friday 25 June 2004 the WRI Council meeting in Ohrid accepted the proposal made by the small working group concerning the future of the Dealing with the Past programme work inside the WRI network. A draft position paper, as proposed by Vesna Terselic (Zagreb), will be produced by the ad-hoc small working group, as named before.

Roberta Bacic and Jan Van Criekinge
Programmes & Projects

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