Many cities across the U.S. South have been struggling over the issue of how we remember the war that tore apart our country 160 years ago. The statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been removed in some cities either by city employees, sometimes in the middle of the night, or by irrate crowds. Meanwhile white supremacist demonstrators demand that the statues remain in honor of Southern history and heritage. What these statues commemorate is viewed in dramatically different ways. What honors cultural heritage for one upholds the legacy of slavery for another. These statues convey messages and values, not just about history but also about how we envision our current community and what we desire in the future. And these memories can become battlegrounds as was seen in Charlottesville, Viriginia where the protests erupted over the issue of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Amid the demonstrations a white supremacist aggressively drove a car into a crowd killing one person and injuring many others. Two police officers were killed in a helicopter crash as part of the effort to control the crowds.
How do we remember our conflicts? How do we tell the story of something that often has two opposite sides that are passionately held to be true? Is there a way to get to a story that all sides can say is true, or do the ways we remember become the new weapons in the on-going conflict?
I spent a month in Sri Lanka, including in the war zone around Kilinochche and Mullivaikkal where the 26-year long civil war came to a cataclysmic end that may have left as many as 40,000 people dead in that final battle. The northern region where the Tamil minority live and where the Tamil Tigers insurgents had their base of operations is now all under Sri Lankan Army military occupation. The army has erected many memorials in celebration of their victory, describing their courageous action against terrorism which has restored peace to Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile Tamil victims, particularly among the civilians who suffered horrific casualty rates in the last battle, have a different story to tell. They wish to remember their suffering. Small memorials have been told in areas where the debris of the war–abandoned sandals and shredded clothing–still litters the sandy area of Mullivaikkal where civilians and Tamil Tigers were herded into free-fire zones with almost no shelter from the bombs and artillery shells. The Army deliberately targeted hospitals and told civilians to go to “safe areas” which were then turned into free-fire zones. Meanwhile the Tamil Tigers tried to hide among the civilians, putting their own people at greater risk, and many times they shot terrified civilians trying to flee for safety out of the Tiger areas into Army-controlled territory. So the victims tell their story with poignant bits of art and artifact.
Here is a brief slideshow of the memorials in Kilinochche and Mullivaikkal, including a memorial also for the 2004 Tsunami.
It’s obvious that the question of how to remember those events is still under contention. So often one side of the story is told. One side of the suffering is acknowledged. Victors celebrate their glory. Victims lift up their suffering. But is there any healing or any hope?
In our conflict transformation workshops throughout Sri Lanka we talked about trauma, trauma healing, and the journey toward reconciliation. We lifted up the Bible story of Rizpah in 2 Samuel 21 (click here for videos about that story), a remembrance that is nuanced with the suffering and wrongs committed on all sides. Then I invited the participants to create their own memorials using their bodies and materials in the room to speak to their experiences and their hopes. Here are some of the memorials they presented.
How we remember is not just an issue for those in Sri Lanka or in the U.S. It is a concern anywhere that conflict has left its deep scars. In We Are the Socks I tell the story of two memorials in former Yugoslavia, one outside Vukovar in Croatia remembering the massacre of patients and health care workers at a hospital, the other remembering those who were killed in Serbrenica in Bosnia. One memorial keeps the bitterness stirred up, fanning the flames for the next round of conflict. The other memorial speaks of a possible future reconciliation and a time when massacres will never again happen to anyone on any side. One memorial picks at the scab while the other memorial applies balm.
We cannot forgive and forget. Nobody forgets. The question rather is how we remember. Do we remember so as to some day destroy those who did the terrible things to us? Do we remember so as to celebrate our strength as the good side in the struggle against evil? Do we remember so as to heal, to create a safe place to both grieve and to hope? Do we transform or even transfigure our memories so as to transform our conflicts? That is the challenge!