Dealing with the Past


Placheolder image

Back to table of content

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean junta, backed by the CIA and the Nixon Administration, overthrew the democratically elected government of Socialist President Salvador Allende. Priscilla Hayner, in her book Unspeakable Truths, Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (2001) outlines the devastating impact: “The regime espoused a virulent anticommunism to justify its repressive tactics, which included mass arrests, torture (estimates of the number of people tortured range from 50,000 to 200,000), killings, and disappearances.” The dictatorship assassinated, tortured, and exiled thousands of political opponents and visionaries.

Under these conditions, a foreboding silence, the result of threats and terror, hung over Chile. Some of us wondered, “could Gandhian insights about the power of nonviolence help the struggle to defy the terror?”

Nonviolence refers to a philosophy and strategy of conflict resolution, a means of fighting injustice, and — in a broader sense — a way of life, developed and employed by Gandhi and by followers all around the world. Nonviolence, then, is action that does not do or allow injustice.

Crying Out the Truth

A few of us decided to try to inspire others to speak up against the dictatorship by “crying out the truth.” We faced a double suffering: the pain involved in enduring the dictatorship’s violence, and the suffering caused by keeping silent out of fear. To not cry out while those we love were killed, tortured, and disappeared was unendurable. Clandestine pamphlets and leaflets were printed. Slogans that denounced human rights violations were painted on the walls at night at great risk to safety. Underlying these actions was the principle of active nonviolence: since there is injustice, the first requirement is to report it, otherwise we are accomplices. The clandestine actions helped spread the principle of telling the truth and acting on it. Yet, despite the risks, we needed to move beyond clandestine protests: we needed to move the protests against the Chilean junta into the public arena.

Activating the Public Movement against Torture

José Aldunate, a Jesuit priest who became the leader of the Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture in Chile, says in his memoirs, “A comrade came to us and brought up the fact (of torture). We educated ourselves about torture and about the dynamics of nonviolence. We watched a film on Mahatma Gandhi. I was more motivated to protest against poverty, but I responded to the discipline of the group. We deliberated and decided to undertake a nonviolent demonstration to denounce torture... to break the barriers of silence and hiding with regards to torture, we had an obligation to denounce it in public. We needed to shake the population’s conscience.”

On September 14, 1983, ten years after the regime took power, the anti-torture movement was born in an action in front of the headquarters of the National Investigation Center, 1470 Borgoño St., in Santiago. Around 70 persons interrupted traffic, unfurling a banner which read “Torturing Done Here.” They shouted their denunciation and sang a hymn to liberty. The group returned to this scene to denounce the regime’s crimes against humanity at least once a month until 1990.

In order to act, we needed to openly defy the State of Emergency provisions decreed by the junta in order to terrorize the population. We needed to break through our own sense of powerlessness, isolation, and fear.

The movement denounced torture. It left to other entities the task of investigating and making declarations. It had no meeting place, no secretariat, no infrastructure. It met in the streets and plazas when it was time to act. It had no membership list. Participants came by personal invitation, as the movement had to avoid infiltration from the secret police and other repressive institutions. Instructions were passed from person to person. Participants were mainly trained during the actions themselves, where we evaluated each action on the spot.

Participants faced legal and illegal sanctions when detained and prosecuted as they often were. Tear gas, beatings, detention, and prosecution were common practices used in retaliation against demonstrators. Torture was also a possible consequence of being arrested. Not only Sebastian Acevedo movement participants faced these sanctions, also reporters and journalists willing to report on the actions and the issues that were exposed. At some of the actions, there were as many as 300 participants. Some 500 people participated in total. There were Christians and non-Christians, priests, monks, slum dwellers, students, aged persons, homemakers, and members of various human rights movements; people of every class, ideology, and walk of life.

The main goal was to get rid of torture in Chile. The means chosen was to shake up national awareness (consciousness raising) and rouse the conscience of the nation until the regime would get rid of torture or the country would get rid of the regime. In 1988, after a widespread anti-intimidation campaign, the nonviolent “Chile Sí, Pinochet No” campaign helped, to Pinochet’s shock, to defeat a plebiscite designed to ratify Pinochet’s rule.

Efforts to end the culture of impunity that arose during the Pinochet years, and to engage in national reconciliation, continue, but nonviolent protest provided an important means, amongst others, to overthrow the dictatorship.

Roberta Bacic is a Chilean human rights researcher and activist who now lives in Northern Ireland. She has worked with War Resisters International’s Dealing with the Past Program. A version of this article was previously published in the "100 Years of Gandhian Nonviolent Action" special issue of Peacework Magazine. For more info on Gandhi and Gandhianism, see more WRI links, and selected links to historical Gandhianism from the Peacework issue mentioned above.

Placheolder image

Back to table of content

By Roberta Bacic with thanks to Clem McCartney


People protest for many reasons but often it is because we are confronted with a situation to which we must respond and take a stand. The reality we face - be that our own or that of others - pushes us to act/react/challenge/change what we are experiencing and seeing. We forget to take into serious consideration the possible consequences of any such choice. Positive consequences are often empowering. Negative consequences can be disempowering. We need to think about them in advance to be prepared for the next steps but also so we are not surprised by them and suffer even more stress.

Consequences of taking a stand

In taking a stand, we may be putting ourselves into situations that will push us to our limits and put ourselves at risk. If this happens, negative experiences will be almost inevitable and fear will most likely surface as a response. In situations of insecurity and anguish, those feelings will merge: fear of being arrested, fear of being denounced, fear of being tortured, fear of being caught in an illegal meeting, fear of being betrayed, fear of again not achieving our goal, etc. Fear of the unknown (what happens if I am arrested?) and also of the known, be that a specific threat by phone or being aware of what has happened to others. We need to know what can be done to avoid those consequences or cope with them when they arise.

Three main elements can help us to function: confidence and solidarity with our fellow protesters, good training and emotional preparation and debriefing. (resource list at end? More Description needed?) For more on go to

Some of the consequences we need to be prepared for.

1. Dealing with fear consequences

When we think of traumatic consequences we immediately think of the physical consequences. Being manhandled, arrested or beaten and our human rights violated. This is a greater risk in some societies than others, and people protesting in very militaristic and authoritarian states are particularly courageous. But all of us will normally feel at least some anxiety and fear and at least be aware of the risk of physical pain or discomfort. These fears may immobilise us. But it is not good to ignore them. If we are not prepared our natural reactions in the situation may actually lead to greater hurt. For example we may have an urge to run, but if we start running we lose our discipline and those opposing us may be tempted to attack at that moment. Being prepared, rationally, emotionally and practically, is therefore important and training in fear control is very helpful. The physical risk is well understood but other risks are not less real and receive more attention here. See Consequences of fear Exercise.

You can also look at a specific example on

2. The strength of coming out in public

We need to be aware that we are choosing to stand outside conventional opinion. It is not so difficult to share our feelings in private with those who share our views, although we may worry about being betrayed. Coming out in public is more difficult. We are taking a stand not only against the state but also against common social attitudes. The very reason that we need to protest is to challenge those conventions, but knowing that does not make it easy. We are exposing ourselves. We think of Women in Black in Israel who simply stood there as a silent witness to what they could not accept in their society. Now that form of witness has been used in Serbia, Colombia and elsewhere. Solidarity with our colleagues is very important in such situations, and to create space to air our feelings and deal with them. Even those who appear confident may have worries that they need to acknowledge and deal with. Use a Hassle line exercise to practice expressing our position.

3. Preparing ourselves to deal with distress

There are other risks and other consequences that are subtler but for that very reason can be more distressing. We may face disrespect and humiliation, be mocked and goaded by bystanders or the state forces. Again Women in Black come to mind, spat at and abused by a hostile public, yet remaining silent and not reacting. This can be emotionally distressing. Role playing the situation in advance at a training or meeting of the participants helps us to prepare ourselves emotionally and to understand more fully the motivations (and fear) of our opponents. Solidarity and confidence in our fellow protesters is again important and that is partly built up by such rehearsals. Less emotionally distressing, because it is less immediate, is bad publicity. The press, who may libel us with all kinds of inaccuracies, may challenge our good faith and motivations. Preparing ourselves for such humiliation makes it easier to cope with it when it comes.

4. Putting yourself in the position of the other

We may even seek out humiliation as part of the statement we are trying to make, as when protesters try to put themselves into the situation of people they are defending. Many groups have done street theatre playing the parts of prisoners and guards at Guantanamo Bay. Here unanticipated feelings rise to the surface, which participants sometimes find difficult to control. The “prisoners” may in fact begin to feel violated while the “guards” find themselves entering into the experience too enthusiastically or on the contrary feel a sense of revulsion. Either way the participants may feel defiled and polluted. To deal with such possibilities they need to be prepared for such reactions in themselves and be debriefed sensitively afterwards. Another example was the protests over factory farming when volunteers used their own bodies to model slabs of meat. The reaction may be to feel really enthusiastic and liberated by taking a stand or alternatively troubled at the situation they have put themselves into.

5. Dealing with disillusionment

Sometimes we have few problems before and during the protest but it is a real blow if we seem to have had no impact. The huge protests against the war in Iraq on the 15 February 2003 did not stop the war. Our worst fears were realised. Not surprisingly, many people were disillusioned and disempowered. Naturally they asked “Was it worth doing it?” They may not want to take part in any other actions on this or other issues, feeling it worthless. What can be done to address this disillusionment? We need opportunities to reflect together on what has happened and what we can learn from the experience. See Evaluation section. We need to adjust our expectations. Protests are important to show our strength, but they alone will not stop a war.

6. Dealing with success in our actions

As well as worrying that a situation may turn out worse than we anticipated, paradoxically we might also find it hard to cope with what might on the surface seem positive - for instance, if the security forces act more humanely than we anticipated or the authorities engage with us and seem willing to consider our demands. This can have an unsettling effect if we have steeled ourselves for confrontation. What happens to all the adrenaline which has been built up in our bodies? What do these developments do to our analysis? Are we wrong in our analysis of the situation? Should we trust the system more? Or are we being duped by sweet words? Our movement may achieve more solidarity when we are faced with harsh opposition and may fracture when that does not materialise. Therefore we need to be ready to know what responses might be most effective and test out through Role playing what is possible and when it happens we need to be able to collectively assess the situation and act appropriately.

7.When the levels of aggression rises up

Many of us have been shocked at the aggression which arises during a nonviolent protest and not only from those opposed to the protest. We may find a wave of aggression rising up in ourselves when we are manhandled by authorities and even if we do not react that feeling can make us very uncomfortable and doubtful. Or other protesters may start to riot and we have to be able to find an appropriate response. Do we join in, leave or hold our ground continuing the protest nonviolently as planned? There is little time to think in such situations, so such possibilities need to have been thought through in advance and we need to have our alternatives clear so that quiet decisions can be made. Use Decision making, Role playing and De-escalation exercises.

Different contexts

We might be protesting in the North in states and cultures, which claim to be liberal, democratic. We might be in an authoritarian regime. But we should not assume that protest is easier in liberal democracies. Some such states can be very harsh in their treatment of protest. There are other factors that determine what is the potential of protest and its limits. The society may be closed or open. In a closed society the risks are greater because dissidents can disappear and there is little possibility of any accountability. It may have a functioning judicial system, independent of the government, which can act as a check on human rights abuses. The culture of the society is also a significant factor as it may value conformity and respect for authority. Or the society may feel weak and vulnerable to the pressures of modernity or of the influence of other states and therefore any form of protest is seen as disloyal and destructive.

While protest is more difficult in some situations than others, all the issues I have discussed here may arise in any context, albeit with varying intensity.


If we prepare for the mixture of emotions and reactions which may result from our protest, build solidarity with our colleagues and analyse and debrief ourselves on the consequences of our actions, then we are better placed to continue the struggle for a better society, even though we may know that that will not be achieved in our lifetime, if at all.

However if we do not prepare well and deal well with the consequences, then we may end up not helping anyone, not even ourselves. We may get discouraged and decide to give up or take up other types of strategies that may be counterproductive, such as mainstream politics and the use of force. Or we may get into a pattern of just protesting for its own sake, without any strategic sense. As such, we may appear superficially to be still engaged in the struggle and others may admire our persistence, but we have lost a purpose for all the energy we expend and our ineffectiveness and purposefulness may discourage others to engage. If - as I believe - we have a duty to protest, then we also have a duty to prepare ourselves well: to identify the risks to our physical and emotional well being, and take steps to ensure that we can overcome these risks and continue the struggle in a positive and effective manner, keeping true to our ideals. Last, but not least, let’s keep trying, have some fun while we do it and by that give peace a chance. We are not the first ones in doing it, nor will be the last ones.

On March the 30th, 2010. the Parliament of Serbia adopted the Declaration on condemning the crime in Srebrenica.

After a long debate in the Parliament, when we could hear fascist statements from the members of Radical party, Democratic party of Serbia and Serbian Progressive party, the members of the Parliament adopted the Declaration on condemning the crimes in Srebrenica.

"Disappearances" for political or ethnical reasons do not occur by chance. During periods of violence they occur as an institutional practice carried out by the state, armed groups, paramilitaries or other kinds of legal or illegal associations. Why are people made to disappear? What are some of the methods used to make people disappear? What is the impact these disappearances have at individual, family, community, country and international levels? Who is responsible for them? Why are they covered by an apparent silence?

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 c

Tony Kempster

APF is an organisation whose members are pledged ‘to renounce war and the preparation to wage war, and to work for the construction of Christian peace in the world'. It has members in some 30 countries around the world some of which are experiencing military conflict. The latest (October issue) of its newsletter, The Anglican Peacemaker focuses on the ongoing conflicts in Africa which are of real concern to some APF's members.

Dr Ruby Osorio

Thirty years after the military coup in Chile, one of its principal "humanitarian legacies" continues to be the task of working out the pain of the unforgettable memories left by the merciless disappearances. Much has been written and is known about the devastating impact that someone's disappearance can have on an individual, a family and a community.

Susi Bascon

During the last three years, Peace Brigades International (PBI) has been providing an international presence in Mexico for human rights defenders whose lives and political space have been under threat as a result of their struggle for human rights. At the request of local NGOs, PBI set up two teams of international volunteers: one in Mexico City and one in the state of Guerrero.

Howard Clark

The past has been a battlefield in Kosovo for the past century. Since Serbia's bloody conquest of Kosovo in 1912, the rival “victim” historical narratives of the Serbian and Albanian communities in the territory have fuelled cycles of ethnic domination and sometimes atrocities. What people choose to remember or know and what people choose to honour or celebrate continue to shape the future.

Subscribe to Dealing with the Past