Dealing with the Past


Facilitation: Roberta Bacic, Brandon Hamber, Elisabeth Stanley, and Andrew Rigby

Storytelling, denial and silence Dealing with the past is not an objective exercise. It is about connecting to personal truths and values in a way that eases the struggle of life in the present and enables them to be projected into the future.

During times of repression and conflict, there are few opportunities to tell diverse stories. Storytellers who challenge dominant discourse may face ideological denigration or direct brutality. Stories are silenced in many ways, e.g. use of censorship, demonization of opponents, restriction of access to democratic processes, through group pressure.

In the aftermath of repression, storytelling can be a cathartic experience -- to expose what was previously denied can be an act of power. Storytellers can make sense of their identity and place in the world through the telling. Storytelling offers an opportunity for an individual to rebuild or make connections with society. The story teller can do something with their experience, now in the present, of their memories and associated feelings of traumatic past events.

To collect, listen to and acknowledge stories are also important aspects. To make sense of the past, diverse and complex stories [that situate individuals in their wider social and structural context] should be listened to. While storytelling is often a powerful act, silence is also a means to deal with the past. Silence can also hold power for the oppressed as stories can be used and abused by oppressors. Silence and stories, are subject to change over time and space.

Trauma and Healing

Civilians are the main casualties of war and conflict (over 90%). In South Africa, for example, people have been directly victimised by structural violence, systematic segregation and human rights violations. Such a culture of violence can result in extreme traumatization.

Trauma is a concept that is often uncritically adopted. Used to describe "insane" responses to circumstances, trauma is distinguished by the collection of individual symptoms.

The current dominant response to trauma does not address the cause and context of traumatic experiences. Traumatic expressions may actually be healthy and "sane" mechanisms to deal with repressive and violent events. Trauma should be identified in a broader framework that recognises gendered, neo-colonial, capitalist and multi-cultural conditions.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in the wake of apartheid in South Africa, was firmly linked to notions of healing and reconciliation. It operated in a state of tension (between the internal needs of 'victims' and the political constraints of the society). It attempted to deal with trauma and provide healing. Through reparations and official acknowledgement of individual stories, a truth commission can facilitate healing. But, a truth commission must be followed by strong support groups. A truth commission, by itself, cannot meet all needs.

National healing and individual healing are not necessarily the same thing. For the individual, related broader truths, justice, compensations and acknowledgement, can be needed to move forward.


It was in the process of this session that the message came through rather than the content: an inquiry into the meaning and nature of forgiveness reveals there is no consensus about what it means. There is no possibility of imposing an understanding of what is the nature of forgiveness for different people. Thus from the standpoint of this 'not knowing', the basis of projects aiming to achieve forgiveness looks undermined.

However the experience of this group's inquiry showed that once liberated from attempts to define/ identify forgiveness a powerful openness was arrived at in which the difficulty of the experiences of pain and healing came to be shared. Indeed the difficulty of the attempts and frustration about trying to reach an apparently 'false' goal forced out into shared space the common shared difficulty of living with past painful experience.

Thus an open meaningful 'space' was created and arrived at by the group's struggle with forgiveness and journey beyond the term. This in itself was an act of 'Dealing with the Past' in the way it developed in this theme group. i.e. of struggling with it in all aspects in the present.

This suggests that discussion and sharing about people's expectations of themselves and beliefs about what they should be able to do and how, with regard to forgiveness may offer a contribution to us in dealing with the past.

In the attempts to approach, identify, forgiveness, and the complex relationship between justice and forgiveness, the following was expressed:

What can make it easier to forgive?

  • Allocation of guilt/understanding the 'tapestry of guilt' within which the act occurred .e.g.interconnectedness, structures in the world/global capitalism in which many forces, actors and even the 'victim ' may be complicit ; Retribution/Consequences
  • The "Selfish" desire - to get the burden off one's back by forgiving
  • Acknowledgement of wrong/ imbalance and culpability; request for forgiveness; dialogue.

Contrasts to forgiveness

Revenge; Hate/Anger; Dehumanization; Ignorance; Victimhood; Imposed 'solutions'; Resentment; Forgetting; Bitterness; Confusion; Demands

Truth Commissions

The experience of Chile was considered where problems encountered included the shift of activists from being part of an NGO to becoming part of a state organisation; not all victims/survivors getting reparations; the results being insufficient for some actors.

Outcomes in Chile were: monetary compensation; exemption from military service; access to education; healthcare; human rights education; legal processes; essay competition.

Concrete cases gave the possibility to illustrate issues of judicial process; power in social, economic, and political structures; and the relation between the content of suffering and the form of redress.

Concluding remarks

A broad range of elements are involved in dealing with the past as well as the political aspects. The many access points to this work and forms to develop / implement it are based in context and direct experience. There is not one answer, nobody owns or has the power to define words such as ' forgiveness' or 'reconciliation'; it seems that this is a field that we can prescribe very little ; meaning or authenticity slips away very quickly at the first hint of any imposed definition or proscribed route. Being present to individual truths and perspectives without solutions seems to be the starting, and possibly the end point, of how we can influence/facilitate this process.

Cultures of violence accumulate voids, silences and great collective pain.

In these situations, we see mediators and peacemakers struggling to contain or neutralise the current crisis. Following this period a process of peace building occurs, sometimes in a situation where wounds are deep, issues unresolved, and justice not seen to have been done. Thus the idea of 'Conflict Transformation' is more useful as a process not as an event. This process aspires to be one in which each individual has a stake and from which each participant seeks empowerment to find their own particular points of departure. This valuable and critical process dealing with the past cannot begin, end or progress along the timelines of conflict. This process is part of a Culture of Transformation, of society that has an ideology of participation and consensus.

One participant represented his reflection on the topic through this poem:

Tears, a ripping of tissue inside
pain, to hear and empathise
conviction, a passion for justice
clarity, to see my life's purpose
open-like a flower.
Sun, shine, petal, power
to reveal the alternatives to war
to create the culture of peace.

Programmes & Projects

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