Long road to healing in Zimbabwe

On the second day of the National Healing and Reconciliation Workshop, after a period of heartfelt prayers and singing, one pastor stood and read the following: "Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

"This is a day for victims," facilitator Mazvita Machinga announced.

It was a day when organizers hoped to create awareness among pastors and community leaders of the needs of victims of political violence within Zimbabwe. In the first exercise of the day, people were placed in small groups and asked to discuss the following questions: What types of victimization have people in your community experienced? What do these victims feel as a result of their suffering? What do these victims need for healing?

The responses to these questions were heart-breaking: A widow's car was torched simply because a mob from the ruling Zanu-PF party suspected she would vote for the opposition party; a pastor was beaten simply for receiving a visit from a white pastor; a woman's hand was chopped off for hesitating when a mob of so-called Zanu-PF "War Veterans" asked her to fake an illness so that the state could vote in her place.

Some victims feel anger and bitterness, others are lost in grief and depression, others are still shocked and confused.

The pastors agree that most victims feel great fear and uncertainty about further violence.

The group created a list of what these victims need: medical assistance, shelter, homes repaired, property returned, financial help, therapy, regular visits from pastors and community leaders, and most of all perpetrators confronted. The most common response was that victims wanted guarantees that they would be safe from future violence and reassured that perpetrators would face legal prosecution.

Frank Rogers then talked about the two most common responses to violence: fight or flight. Rogers explained that in the first instinctive response there is a great desire for revenge or "an eye for an eye." The problem, however, is that this only escalates the cycle of violence and makes the perpetrator want to fight back harder. Rogers counseled, "We end up mirroring the violence that was done to us and become what we hate."

In the second instinctive response, flight, we passively submit to the violence or simply pretend it never happened. The problem with this response, Rogers argued, "is that it does not bring healing to the victim who simmers in resentment and the perpetrator becomes victorious. The perpetrator is allowed to steal the victim's power, soul, and dignity."

Rogers spoke about a third option, forgiveness: "Forgiveness is abandoning your right to pay back a perpetrator with violence. It is no longer letting the violation of violence diminish our own humanity. It is learning to be free of resentment and vengefulness toward a perpetrator."

There were three clarifications to this definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness is excruciatingly difficult. It's difficult to transform honest reactions like anger, resentment, and vengefulness into the freedom of forgiveness. Secondly, forgiveness is the victim's journey, not the perpetrator's journey. Forgiveness is when the victim heals from the wounds of the violence enough that they can become free from its effects. Thirdly, forgiveness is a gift — it is a spiritual journey that comes from grace. A victim cannot force themself to feel forgiveness. It is the endpoint of a period of healing.

The last day was spent focused on reconciliation and what the facilitator called, "The perpetrator's journey." Presentations were made focusing on the two common responses to perpetrators of violence: retributive justice, punishing the perpetrators for wrong-doing, or national amnesty, allowing perpetrators back into the community without any punishment or acknowledgement of the offense. Both responses have their attractive benefits and yet each is inadequate in resolving the needs and suffering of both victim and perpetrator.

A third option, restorative justice, was then advocated by presenters, in which the community brings victims and perpetrators into dialogue for the purpose of mediating an accountable reconciliation between them. Restorative justice allows victims to share their story and be heard, gain information about the violence done to them, restore their personal power, and gain restitution. Restorative justice also ensures perpetrators understand the consequence of their actions, empathize with the victims, make amends to victims, own their need for healing, and are responsibly integrated back into the community.

At the end of the day the pastors and community leaders began to design practical plans for a national movement of healing and reconciliation. They drafted a letter of recommendations to be given to the national government asking that church and grassroots community leaders be placed in charge of national programs, they planned workshops within their communities that would teach the process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restorative justice. Plans were made to begin documenting the names and experience of victims and the names and locations of perpetrators.

At the end of the day, five chairs were placed in the middle of the group. These chairs had been sitting at the front of the room, facing the group, for the final day of the workshop. Each chair had a piece of paper taped to its back reading "victim," "perpetrator," "government," "church," or "chiefs." The facilitator asked volunteers to sit in one of the labeled chairs. Five pastors came forward and sat in one of the chairs representing victims, perpetrators, government leaders, and the various spiritual and community leaders across Zimbabwe. They sat in a small circle and held hands.

The members of the conference then gathered around this symbolic group, prayed for them, sang over them, and then with great tears and smiles, exited the conference center to begin the real work of mending broken lives.

Mark Yaconelli is the co-director of Triptykos and the author of "Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers." Read about his experience in Zimbabwe at www.triptykos.com.

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