For Syrians, truth and reconciliation must start today

July 17, 2015

Although the political and military facets of the war dominate popular and policy debate, addressing the individual grievances of Syrian refugees and the internally displaced may be the single most important factor in determining whether a sustain­able peace may exist in Syria — not this year or next, but ten years from now.
The scale of this crisis means a new generation of angry, unedu­cated and disaffected children and youths is set to be unleashed in Syria in the decades to come. If they do not receive the right education, specifically in the form of truth-and-reconciliation workshops, to help them under­stand the other side, the situation in Syria is doomed.
Oftentimes figures betray scale. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey equals the population of Barcelona while refugees in Lebanon would fill the city of Dallas, Texas. Combined, seating the region’s Syrian refugees would require 44 Wembley stadiums stretching over 14 kilometres end to end.
They are angry with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the West and their fellow countrymen. This resentment is being passed from parent to child of the families who have had their homes and lives destroyed. They will pick up the baton of hate unless they hear of alternative ways of thinking about their society and country going forward.
National reconciliation com­missions do not always work, but some do. During the 1980s and 1990s in Peru, for example, almost 70,000 people were killed by government and rebel forces in a war over political ideology. Within seven months of the fleeing of former President Alberto Fujimori, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up resulting in reparations being paid to the families of victims; a small victory but a crucial and symbolic acknowledg­ment of wrongdoing nonetheless.
Writing about societal attitudes in post-Apartheid South Africa, the authors of Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commis­sions found that: “The public shaming that came through the open nature of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission procedures substituted reason­ably well for penal justice. Exposure is punishment. It is a powerful component of account­ability.”
Yet food, water and shelter shortages dominate the concerns of aid workers and governments alike when thinking of Syria, and rightly so. Aid agencies are in deep financial trouble. In Leba­non, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced it will let go 85% of its international personnel on short-term contracts over the next two months because of a $101 million funding deficit. This means thousands of Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugees will lose access to support networks that keep them alive.
Critics may aver that it is much too early to be talking truth and reconciliation in Syria — men, women and children are being slaughtered every day and that will continue. Moreover, how could the topic of reconciliation or understanding of Assad regime supporters be broached in refugee camps where people have lost loved ones, livelihoods and pride?
But attempting to sow the seeds of forgiveness or at least to try to banish the poisonous atmosphere of hate and revenge that pervades the tents and streets of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan can be addressed now.
The keys to a functioning state in Syria in the long term are in the hands of the millions of displaced children around the region. They must be informed of Syrian history under the Assad regimes, the 2011 revolution and the violence that followed. They must know “why”, more than “how”, and that their country’s unique beauty lies in its various religions and interests, all of whom are Syrian.
They must hear the voices of those they oppose, though it would be painful to listen to.
For outside interests seeking a peaceful Syria, be they govern­ments, aid agencies or the general public, talking reconciliation is an important and perhaps low-cost way to help start the rebuilding of Syria; for if the truth, like the thousands of dead, is swept into the soil, Syria will haunt the region — as well as Western states — long after the last shot in war is fired.

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