I would have killed Wilhelm: Exploring the promise and pitfalls of compassion and forgiveness in South Africa, Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland
by Catherine DOYLE for Northern Ireland Foundation
19 May 2014
For an event that looks at conflict and forgiveness, the location of the old chapel in Crumlin Road Gaol was especially evocative. OrganiSed by INCORE and Beyond Walls, there were speakers from South Africa, Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland.
The first panel member to tell his story was Wilhelm Verwoerd. He grew-up in an Afrikaner family, and his grandfather was former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who helped develop apartheid. He talked about the racial stereotypes of black Africans by the media, “to demonise people who were fighting against the system”. Talking about a fellow panellist, he said: “The world I grew-up in was so far removed from the world Themba [Lonzi] grew up in.” It was only when Verwoerd went to study in England and Holland that he saw a different perspective to the conflict in South Africa. He described his time abroad as a turning point. This caused contention within his own family, but was “humbled” when welcomed by black South Africans like Themba.
Themba admitted, “Wilhelm was a person I probably would have killed in the past.” In South Africa “violence was the order of the day”. He reflected back on life as a black person during apartheid. “I grew-up as a very angry and bitter young person. I wanted revenge.” As a young boy he looked at the society around him and asked: “Why do they hate us so much? What have we done to deserve a life like this? These questions left a lot of anger.” He described the importance of letting go of resentment and forgiving: “I have the key to his freedom, and he has the key to my freedom.”
Gerry Foster (a former Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoner) was jailed twice during the Troubles. Foster became involved with peace-building talks with Alistair Little (a former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prisoner). He described his feelings of working alongside loyalists as a “reluctant trip”. Foster and Little looked comfortable sitting next to each other, showing how far they have come. Describing their first trips, Foster said: “Although we were working together, there was no trust.” It was these trips that started to affect Foster, such as seeing the pain of the families of British soldiers who were killed. He described the realisation as a frightening journey. It was after this that Foster started “recognising [that] the enemy hurt just as much as you hurt or your community hurt”.
Alistair Little joined the UVF at age 14, went to prison at 17, and was only released at 30. Yet he is convinced that the seeds to the peace process began in prison. It was during his imprisonment that he started thinking about the suffering of the enemy. He said that he began to feel “a strong sense of what I was involved in and what I had done was wrong”. While imprisoned, Bobby Sands died, and Little found himself defending Sands to a prison officer, who was laughing at the hunger striker’s death. After growing up in the Troubles and being involved in the conflict, he said: “The human journey I found more difficult.”
Rachel McMonagle was the next to speak. McMonagle’s father was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). She remembered the constant fear of losing her father, which almost occurred after an attempt at their home by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). She grew up with “no connection to Catholics”. As a child she believed “if you were Catholic you were a part of the IRA”. Once, Little requested she attend a workshop that included republicans; this challenged her comfort zone. She came to realise that “we’re all human beings”.
Netta Hazan, a Jewish-Israeli, talked about the similarities of the environment in Israel-Palestine to Northern Ireland, because of the interface walls dividing the two communities. She said: “I didn’t know that it was humans on the other side of the wall.” Talking about the start of her interaction with Palestinians, she was surprised by their narrative of the conflict. She said: “Everything was different. Where was the truth?” This led her to appreciate both Palestinian and Israeli suffering. She said: “The other side’s pain is just like our side. It’s the same pain.”
Bassam Aramin was the last speaker. Aramin is a Palestinian peace activist and co-founder of Combatants for Peace. In 2007, his 10-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier. Bassam described the difficulty of overcoming the conflict, by controlling his pain and not allowing himself to become “a victim to society” by being a perpetrator.
The conference included a performance of ‘Bassam’, a play inspired by Aramin. This one-man show is a powerful example of how violence can be the easier option than peace, but one that just spreads the victim’s pain into the populace. In one scene, the actor holds a gun in one hand, while chanting: “With blood. With fire. We’ll kick out the occupier.” The lighting used elongates the man’s shadow, so that it towers above him, while the chanting continues. The acting, script and lighting all work together to show the power of violence in taking over a person completely, but the end is hopeful with Bassam reading out his Peace Award speech.
The people who collaborated in the play are as inspiring as the plot. The writer Idan Meir is an Israeli, telling the story of a Palestinian. It is also acted by a Palestinian, Fadl Mustapha. Mustapha grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut, and talked about his difficulty in performing. He said: “I had to suppress a lot within me to deliver an unbiased piece of work.” Mustapha’s performance of the play was empathetic to Aramin’s real life experience, and Meir’s script and direction was effective at showing the human side in a conflict.
Overall, the event was successful at bringing together people who are polar opposites and showing their bravery in working towards a brighter future.
Photos by Nigel McDowell for University of Ulster: https://www.flickr.com/photos/universityofulster/sets/72157644733040081/