Between Amnesia and Vengeance: A Path to Reconciliation


“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.

Leave a Comment

What are your thoughts on the subject?


Edgar Khachatryan

30 Apr 2010

This is a very interesting discussion and I wanted to add some thoughts. I agree with Afa and Phil that achieving peace for the Caucasus is still possible, but trying to look at Phil’s example of France and Germany I have remembered a funny story told by my German colleague and friend. About 30 or 35 years ago there was a joint German-French youth exchange program where students from a medium-sized school had the possibility to live for one month with families of the opposite country; the children of those host families would, in turn, send their kids to live in the family of the guest student. There was a stereotype told by Germans of French villages along the German-French border that if you went in the morning to get eggs from the hens, but there were none, that it meant the French had come across in the night and stolen the eggs. After one German student had lived with a French family for a month she came back and heard her friends in the village saying this one morning; immediately she told her friends that no, this just was not true, because she had lived with this French family and seen that this could never happen. Every time I remember this story and understand for myself how important it is to organize such programs between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, I am trying to analyze for myself what are the obstacles to doing it. I see that the main obstacle is political will. Every time a peace activist is trying to organize such a program, either on the Armenian side or the Azerbaijani side, immediately they are criticized by the media, by their peers, and by society. Why don’t peace activists try to unite and fight against this resistance within our societies? Only by achieving a relevant approach within the societies can we start the real process of reconciliation. And here I really agree with Phil that this is our task.

Phil Gamaghelyan

29 Apr 2010

Fully agree with Afa. Even if an agreement is signed, there will be no lasting solution, and the conflict will sooner or later escalate into a new cycle of violence, until and unless the societies are reconciled, and both have a chance to return and reclaim their homes. And reconciliation, indeed, is an aspect pretty much ignored in the peace process. Yet I strongly believe it is the reason why finding a solution so far proved to be impossible, and will remain impossible until we have a reconciliation process that goes parallel to the official negotiation process. John, to your bigger question about within society reconciliation vs. reconciliation between people of two different states. I personally think there are cases of reconciliation of societies who experienced violence and ethnic cleansing, yet who live in different states. In fact I think these are typically more successful that the in-state ones. Few major cases would be: French-German reconciliation, to a degree the Jewish-German one, the Greek-Turkish and many others. All of them have a very bloody past, numerous ethnic cleansing, long history of violence. All of them were 'resolved' as a result of a very conscious and a very concerted effort to reconcile and deal with the history of violence. I am sure 40 years back it would have been impossible to imagine that French-German relations could be where they are today. Yet here we are. So it is possible. But not going to happen on its own. It is up to us phil

Afa Alizada

29 Apr 2010

Dear John, That is an excellent observation. I agree that separation of two people via an international border makes it difficult to reconcile differences/grievances, since they do not have to deal with each other on a daily basis. I think that is exactly the problem. I believe there is this notion among the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations that there is a magical solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where they will be able to avoid contact with each other altogether. I think many Azerbaijanis contend that it is as easy as “getting our lands back” , in which case they expect Armenians to leave Nagorno-Karabakh. On the Armenian side, I sense that prevailing belief is that once the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh is secured, no Azerbaijani will dare to go back to Nagorno-Karabakh. This, however, is not a viable solution. There will be no peaceful or sustainable solution to the NK conflict, where either Armenians or Azerbaijanis are expected to “abandon” NK. Many Armenians as well as many Azerbaijanis rightfully call Nagorno-Karabakh their home. Regardless of the final status of the region, Azerbaijanis and Armenians who call Nagorno-Karabakh home will have to learn to live next to each other. This is exactly where the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership is failing. They are not doing anything to close the gap between people’s unrealistic expectations about the outcome of the NK resolution and the reality. For the reconciliation process to start, therefore, our leaders need to move away from their belligerent rhetoric, which fuels people’s unrealistic expectations. I will discuss this issue in more detail in my next post.


29 Apr 2010

The question for me that arises after your second comment is this: how do conceive of this process when the violations are between different states. I think you're quite right to note the reconciliation processes that occur that are somewhere between vengeance and forgetting, and we could provide further examples: South Africa, Argentina, Rwanda. But of course, all these are examples of reconciliation within societies that are forced to live in the same state in the future. How do we extend this process for societies of different states in the same region. It seems to me that this is a much, much more difficult task because nationalism and the ethnic cleansing of a country (something that occurred in both Azerbaijan and Armenia) have left two states in which the conflicting parties don't have to live together in the same country or empire (ala the Soviet Union), but they do have to share a border. How do we begin the process of creating a middle ground in this environment, or can we?

Afa Alizada

23 Apr 2010

Dear George, Thank you for taking time to read and comment on my post. To me that middle ground would look something like this: people would remember the atrocities to honor the memories of those who fell victim and also to recognize the “early warning signs” and prevent such horrors from happening in the future. However, they would not harbor hatred and pass that hatred onto the next generations. It will require an understanding that barbaric actions of a few members of an ethnic/national/religious group do not necessarily reflect the values of the larger group. It will also require an understanding that under even normal circumstances, the most ordinary or ‘normal’ people can be ‘programmed’ to carry out the most barbaric instructions. An example that comes to mind is Stanley Milgram’s psychology experiment. In this experiment set up as a study of memory and learning, Professor Milgram of Yale asked his subjects (some ordinary people of New Haven, Connecticut) to act as teachers and if their learners did not respond correctly to the questions, the “teachers” would inflict the “learners” with increasing amount of electric shock (they did not know it was fake). Professor Milgram’s findings were quite shocking: “I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” (Milgram, Stanley. 1974. "The Perils of Obedience." Harper's Magazine.) My views may seem as naïveté or impractical idealism. However, the fact that Jews, for example, can live and work among Germans today, without fearing or hating Germans and at the same time, retain a strong memory of the Holocaust, gives me hope. As I mentioned in the post, however, the road to that middle ground is long and difficult…


18 Apr 2010

and? what would the middle ground between 'forgetting and vengeance' look like?