A Forced Reconciliation

Written by Katherine Arce, Psychologist in the Strategic Litigation Program at Cristosal

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“What would happen when you were younger and fought with your sibling?” I ask. Some people in the group responded with nervous laughter, looking furtively at each other. An older man in the group responds, “Well, I remember that they would punish us. It would consist of putting salt on our backs, and we were obligated to pick it off of each other...until our anger would pass.” An older women add: “If you didn’t do that, you had to kneel on sorghum while they hit you with a branch from...what’s it called? Ah yes...the chilillo plant! After that, your anger wasn’t mentioned again.”

“Do you think that solved the problem?” I ask. After a moment of doubt, the same man answers: “No, because it would happen again. My brothers and I would fight again or stop speaking to each other. I never heard from one of them again...I don’t know what happened to him.” After he says this, the group falls silent. I continue: “I know it’s hard to talk about this, because it brings up lots of memories...but I’d like to know, “what do you think of reconciliation after the armed conflict?” An older woman with a furrowed brow speaks: “Does reconciliation mean we have to forgive those who hurt us? How can we forgive someone if no one has stepped forward to accept responsibility and ask us for forgiveness?” Another man adds: “What happened is that they forced us to forgive...then the government forgot about the communities that suffered the most during the war and pushed us aside...but resigning ourselves, silencing ourselves, and ignoring what happened would be a betrayal of the memory of our families. The people who were killed were victims, and we want justice.”

“So, what do you think is needed for there to be reconciliation?” I ask. A man responds, “I think that we’ll have reconciliation when the law is applied to the people who did this...then there’ll be reconciliation! How is it possible that someone who steals a hen is incarcerated for years, but those who commit crimes like what they did to us are calmly living at home?” Another participant states, “I think that reconciliation starts when we listen to the victims, and hear their stories. It’s not easy to forgive but, at the same time, it can make you feel better. Even in the case of such serious acts...it’s not simple, but it’s important that these people are tried before the law. It’s true that we are willing to forgive, but we will continue pushing for justice because that will give us individual and collective peace.”

These are some of the discussions that we have had in the psychosocial accompaniment groups that we hold with communities affected by the armed conflict. These spaces were created to reconstruct emotional support networks and revalue collective history. The process helps people recognize that their pain is shared, and that they can respond to the situation in an organized manner.

Workshops led by Katherine Arce with victims of the armed conflict in the department of Morazán, El Salvador.

Workshops led by Katherine Arce with victims of the armed conflict in the department of Morazán, El Salvador.

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Even though the previous Amnesty Law aimed to silence cries for justice and avoid any kind of investigation into war crimes, when it was overturned these communities grew hopeful; nevertheless, this same spirit and hope is not shared by some State powers. For example, the Legislative Assembly created an Ad Hoc Commission to study the National Reconciliation Law, a proposal made in response to the ruling that overturned the Amnesty Law. However, the Commission proposed a new amnesty whose technicalities would make it impossible to truly investigate crimes against humanity. With pressure from victims and human rights organizations, we managed to raise questions at the national and international level about the ethics of the Commission members who proposed a law without consulting the victims and without including recommendations made by international human rights organisms.

Weeks later, the Ad Hoc Commission tabled the law proposed by Deputy Parker due to all of the criticism it received, deciding to instead write a report for the Policy Commission of the Legislative Assembly in order to resumed the discussion. In the past few weeks, a new Sub-Commission has prepared a draft law that, according to their statements, they aim to approve in an “express” manner on Thursday, May 23rd.

With the recent hurried actions and the manipulation of the participation of civil society organizations, it is clear that the Assembly has no real desire to engage in dialogue with the victims or their representatives, and that they are willing to impose their own legal framework by force. It is now clear that this pact to uphold impunity has been made along different levels of political influence, and will benefit the perpetrators of the most serious crimes. Only a collective response can impact public opinion, and open up a democratic debate in which citizens can express their unconditional support for the victims and survivors of the armed conflict.

Up to this point, the phrase “forgive and forget” has been central to discussions that favor impunity. It represents a forgiveness granted by the victimizers to themselves, and an order to forget that is imposed by those who would most benefit from an amnesty. Letting these crimes be forgotten would egregiously communicate that those who committed the crime are right, and implicitly endorses these types of crimes should they occur again.

For decades, the victims have demonstrated that it is possible to persevere in the fight for dignity and justice. They have reminded us on innumerable occasions that it is necessary to insist on the right to truth, justice, and reparations, and the guarantee that this won’t be repeated. Thanks to their struggle, on May 21, 2019, the victims and the organizations that represent them, presented the “Special Law for Comprehensive Reparations and Access to Justice for the Victims of Serious Human Rights Violations in the Context of the Armed Conflict” to the Legislative Assembly.

A forum with victims of the armed conflict to approve the law they presented in May 2019.

A forum with victims of the armed conflict to approve the law they presented in May 2019.

Victims and civil society organizations as they submit their law proposal in the Legislative Assembly.

Victims and civil society organizations as they submit their law proposal in the Legislative Assembly.

This is the result of the legal and psychosocial accompaniment given to the communities that are represented by the Group Against Impunity: the group that proposed the comprehensive reparations law, and under which victims’ associations and mothers’ committees have united into one collective. We have borne witness to the fact that the victims are tired of waiting and are now taking the reins of their own history: our history.