“We can never live side by side in peace after the atrocities have perpetrated against our people.” This is the sentiment that dominates the discourse in conflict-ridden societies, where the violent conflict has left deep wounds. The sentiment is acutely felt especially in ethnic conflicts that resulted because of the carefully crafted symbolic politics. Kaufman refers to symbolic politics to describe any sort of political activity focused on manipulating people’s emotions and invoking the “ghosts” of the past rather than addressing the current concerns. It works to divert people’s attention from the lack of economic or political opportunities to less tangible ideas of ethnic pride and glorious past of one’s group. Emotions such as the fear of group extinction help mobilize people and drive ethnic violence.

Once violence reaches the point of atrocities, the old symbols and myths are reinforced and the vicious cycle begins. These fresh memories of massacres and bloody violence provide new myths and symbols, which are, in turn, used to further demonize the enemy, justify further fighting and delegitimize any compromise or peace talks. These myths and symbols serve as the only truth especially to those born and raised after the violent period.

As a result of the physical separation of the warring parties, most of these young people never come in contact with people from the opposite side, which further reinforces their images of the enemy as a monstrous creature incapable of civility and compassion. It, therefore, becomes very easy to fear or hate this faceless creature. It also becomes incomprehensible to imagine sitting across the same table, let alone living side by side, with this monstrous creature, if one even dares to imagine such a thing in the fear of being labeled a traitor.

I was once again reminded of these realities when the Azerbaijani community throughout the world came together in commemoration of the18th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre. The tragic event of February 26, 1992, where 613 innocent civilian Azerbaijanis were brutally killed in the heat of the escalating Nagorno-Karabakh War, has become lodged in the collective memory of the Azerbaijanis as unseen brutality and a sign of Armenian aggression. For the generation of Azerbaijanis who grew up in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Khojaly Massacre offered the only understanding of the neighboring Armenia: blood-thirsty aggressors who want to annihilate Azerbaijanis and occupy our lands. So as schoolchildren, we drew pictures that depicted mothers weeping over the bodies of their slain children, corpses scattered all over the ground, burning homes, and blood. We did not fully grasp the idea of genocide or massacre, but year after year, we drew these pictures thus keeping the memory alive and hatred growing.

Can there be reconciliation when the memories of such atrocities are vividly alive? Some suggest that, in fact, choosing to forget is the way to peace and reconciliation, since keeping the painful memories alive prods the old wounds and prevents the “healing” process. However, if history has taught us anything it is that unaddressed and suppressed grievances have a tendency of bottling up and surfacing in the most explosive and violent ways. Furthermore, by choosing to forget Khojaly and countless other atrocities around the world carried out in the name of religion, ethnicity, or motherland, one runs the risk of overlooking an important lesson: A human being, regardless of creed, race, ethnicity, or nationality is capable of inflicting unfathomable pain to a fellow human being. Others, on the other hand, suggest that there can be no reconciliation without justice.

Justice, however, is an ambiguous term, especially in the context of violent conflicts. For some, justice simply means an official apology from those responsible for the crimes, while others demand monetary compensation. Although often logistically difficult, there is also the possibility of bringing such crimes before the International Criminal Court. Yet for others, justice means retaliation or getting even with the perpetrators of such crimes.

This kind of an “eye for an eye” attitude, however, is counterproductive to any peace process, since violence begets more violence and perpetuates a vicious cycle. Therefore, true reconciliation can be achieved by finding a middle ground between forgetting and vengeance. Finding the middle ground is not easy. It requires adopting a future-oriented remembrance and, however uncomfortable it might be, sitting across the table with the enemy and listening to his side of the story.