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When Should Society Tire of the Voices of the Past

Brandon Hamber

The kitchen of a small house in downtown Sao Paulo is the meeting place of the Comissao de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos Politicas (Commission of the Families of Political Murder Victims and the Disappeared), an organisation of family members whose loved ones were killed during the military dictatorship in Brazil. The kitchen is lined with filing cabinets that contain information collected by the families on some 400 cases of murder and disappearances . Unlike in South Africa, there was no official investigation in Brazil following the military regime. Without any governmental support, it has been these families and human rights activists who have had to try to find information on the missing and the dead. Some 20 years since the disappearances the relatives are still trying to establish the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

During the period of military rule in Brazil (1964-1985) thousands of citizens were persecuted, forced into exile, murdered and tortured. The official lists compiled by human rights organisations report thousands of cases of torture, 240 people murdered and 144 missing. Relative to other countries in South America these numbers are negligible. Comparisons to the 30000 disappeared in Argentina are of little comfort to the relatives who feel that the atrocities committed by the Brazilian government have received little attention since the passing of a general amnesty in 1979. Although a civilian government was instated in 1985, the families of the disappeared have continued to seek the truth and draw attention to the numerous atrocities carried out by the past government.

Groups of this nature are not uncommon around the world and such organisations have emerged in at least 16 countries. Most of these organisations have developed spontaneously. Their roots lie often with relatives who have met as a result of their common experiences. Stories of meeting one another at government offices and police stations while seeking information about their loved ones are common. Groups exist in almost all Latin American countries and have also been established in African countries such as Chad, Ethiopia and Morocco. Similar groups also operate in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Turkey, Croatia and in China.

These groups are diverse in membership and objectives, but generally share three common aims. These are: a demand for information about what happened to their loved ones; a need for official acknowledgment; and a quest for justice in respect of those responsible. Certainly in Latin America, truth, social and psychological rehabilitation and acknowledgment, are generally placed before the need for compensation. As most of the groups have developed in the context of blanket amnesties, there is an ongoing demand for justice. Impunity for crimes committed under military regimes is the issue that sits hardest with relatives of the murdered and disappeared throughout the world.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is one of the boldest international efforts to try to meet some of these needs. Unlike a blanket amnesty , the South African TRC trades full-disclosure or truth recovery for amnesty - thus, potentially meeting victims needs for truth and public acknowledgment. In South Africa, amnesty is justified as being necessary to ensure peace and logistically it is argued that prosecutions could not have been guaranteed due to inefficiencies in the criminal justice system and a lack of access to information necessary to sustain successful prosecutions.

Most victims would probably agree that an investigation like the TRC is a necessary first step to uncovering the truth. However, the onus is not on victims to accept any amnesty agreements. Rather, the TRC has the responsibility to explain amnesties and has to be prepared for the angry responses. It is critical, that it is not demanded, either implicitly or explicitly, that victims are expected to forgive the perpetrators. Families' anger, or other emotional responses, to the granting of amnesty to perpetrators has to be legitimised and space provided for people to express their feelings. The lessons from other countries are that amnesties are always unpopular. Ironically, if the truth is uncovered this may stimulate rather than eliminate families demands for justice.

Furthermore, even with the efforts of the TRC, the varied nature of the cases and the impossible search for the truth means that the issues of the past can be expected to remain on the agenda for many years. Despite the Chilean Commission of 1991 being reported as the most successful Truth Commission to date, today people still seek to report past cases and many are unaware that the Commission even took place.

In South Africa we need to guard against the attitude that once the TRC is over, the chapter on the past is closed. For the victims of past abuses the chapter only closes when they are personally ready. This can be more challenging than it sounds. Take the one faction of the victims' group the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for example, who refuse any form of reparation or compensation. They will not even participate in any official investigations or bodies and insist that "you took them away alive we want them back alive." Perhaps they only want others to experience the frustration they have felt and are determined to offer constant reminders that, in reality, there is nothing that can ever be done to replace their missing loved ones. As bizarre as this extreme position sounds, if we are to truly sympathise with victims we are required to understand it.

In Brazil, the government has recently agreed to compensate the families of the murdered and disappeared , but the relatives say that compensation was never their goal. They see this as the government's final attempt to buy their silence and close the book on the past, but without revealing the true facts of what happened. As a result, the families of the disappeared in Brazil are referred to by both those from the left and the right as dinosaurs . They are seen as harping on the past. The society is tired of these mothers who will not be appeased or who cannot forget

The real question is: at what point does a society become tired of hearing the voices of the past? In South Africa, despite even the most valiant efforts by the TRC, we can expect to hear the voices of victims long into the future. The challenge to all South Africans is to learn to cope with and accept as legitimate, the ongoing anger and even impossible demands of victims who will continue their struggle for an ever elusive truth.

Brandon Hamber is a clinical psychologist and the co-ordinator of the Project on Truth and Reconciliation at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

In Mail & Guardian, Vol 13, No 2, 17 - 23 January 1997.

Posted on 1999-01-01


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