On reconciliation in Kosovo

The Balkans, in general, and Kosovo, in particular, will not come to terms with the past without real political determination and recognition. The process of reconciliation cannot be taken as a separate process in Kosovo, since the legacies of the armed conflict affected all countries in the Former Yugoslavia, and thus needs to be addressed as such.

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Conflict Background


By Nora Ahmetaj

Post-war, there is always a need for reconciliation initiatives and the building of mutual trust between communities. Reconciliation is not a static process; instead it is fluid and requires a holistic approach to dealing with the past.

The entire process of reconciliation, like reparations, must be understood in the context of a holistic set of objectives. This includes securing justice for victims, accountability for perpetrators, the establishment of democratic institutions and the rebuilding of those destroyed through violent conflict and systematic/institutional destruction. Eliminating the fear of living together involves rebuilding trust in government and its institutions, and building social solidarity amongst citizens. All these objectives together constitute a holistic transitional package that contributes to restoring the society.

In the context of transitional justice, one asks how a society that has been traumatized by conflict can truly heal itself? Transitional justice that does not go hand-in-hand with the political objective of conflict transformation – allowing society to both “council” (place of meeting, community, social fabric) and “counsel” (exchange of words and views) – risks losing its power to heal, becoming, instead a source of new troubles, fostered by a culture of impunity, in a vicious circle.

Such political transformation and dialogue requires a set of tools with which we identify to assist us in overcoming anger and revenge. While the anti-enemy sentiments remain, the healing of emotions, memories and experiences takes time to move on. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in her book ‘A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer‘ reminds us that, “the question is no longer whether victims can forgive ‘evildoers’, but whether we – our symbols, language, and politics, or legal, media, and academic institutions – are creating the conditions that encourage alternatives to revenge”. What a process of dealing with the past suggests is that cycles of political violence should indeed be broken and that there are alternatives to revenge and retributive justice.

The Balkans, in general, and Kosovo, in particular, will not come to terms with the past without real political determination and recognition. The process of reconciliation cannot be taken as a separate process in Kosovo, since the legacies of armed conflict affected all countries in the Former Yugoslavia, and thus needs to be addressed as such.

Daniel Bar-Tal in his article on ‘Reconciliation as a Foundation of Culture of Peace’ argues that, “There is no doubt that the first condition for reconciliation is legitimization and humanization of the rival. This recognition allows viewing the rival as a legitimate partner in peace and deserving of humane treatment. In addition, reconciliation requires viewing the conflict as solvable and recognizing that both sides have legitimate contentions, goals and needs that must be satisfied in order to establish peaceful relations.” The ethnically-polarized societies that emerged from the conflict, in general, and victims, in particular, very often confuse the meaning of what it is meant by ‘rival’ and what this word implies. Who is the rival? The enemy and the perpetrator who has committed crimes, the society at large that share the same identity with the perpetrators, or only individuals whose crimes were documented, so the victims can freely point a finger at them and seek justice from the system.

On the scale of horrible things that can happen to people, there are some for which the language of apology and forgiveness may be entirely inappropriate. Gobodo-Madikizela, wrote that, “Feelings of anger and revenge against those who commit gross abuses are, understandably, easier to develop and to sustain than an attitude that seeks engagement and dialogue. One reason we distance ourselves through anger from those who have hurt us or others we know is the fear that if we engage them as real people, we will be compromising our moral stance and levering the entry requirements into the human community.” (1)

From a Hegelian point of view, one can ask how this can happen, if the recognition of the ‘Other’ identity has never taken place. Two opposing sides are difficult to confront, when each side introduces victimhood as their only identity.(2) This implies that neither side has ever and explicitly recognized the Other side’s sufferings, sacrifices and lost dignity. For this to happen, a good will of individuals and their communities is essential. Furthermore, political recognition is inevitable in societies which are divided by a history of political violence. In such contexts, the discourse of recognition provides a frame in terms of which reconciliation might be considered.(3) Philosophical questions can and should give way and be subsumed to human questions, Gobodo-Madikizela argues that, “…for in the end we are a society of people and not of ideas, a fragile web of interdependent humans, not of stances.” (4)

Reconciliation is a term that one avoids using because it is used in such a variety of contexts, and that leads to much confusion. In the West, the term has religious connotations and refers mainly to the intimate, private sphere. In some religions and cultures it is, yet, unknown or it is not explored adequately. “It would be a good idea to give to reconciliation a consistent meaning and a clearly defined underlying concept.”(5)

One acknowledges that there is also a very critical view of the discourse on ‘‘reconciliation’’. Without going into any detail, we quote Horacio Verbitsky, a Chilean journalist, who makes the following point regarding the process of reconciliation in Chile, ‘‘Reconciliation by whom? “After someone takes away your daughter, tortures her, disappears her, and then denies having ever done it — would you ever want to ‘reconcile’ with those responsible? That word makes no sense here (in Chile). The political discourse on reconciliation is immoral, because it denies the reality of what people experienced. It is not reasonable to expect people to reconcile after what happened here”.(6) Maybe ‘reconciliation’ as we understand it is only meant for societies, not individuals. Hence, Mo Bleeker, an expert in transitional justice, tells us how to define reconciliation, “What does it mean reconciliation in the transitional justice discourse? It implies a society that has rediscovered the ability to manage conflicts in a non-violent manner. A society that can live with a plurality of opinions, races, cultures and religions, and which sees this as the basis of its identity.  A society whose structures allow for inclusive development, rather than the exclusion of some, and which has an ethos accepted by all.”

A delivered apology can lead to reconciliation

“A genuine apology focuses on the feelings of the other rather than on how the one who is apologizing is going to benefit in the end. It seeks to acknowledge full responsibility for an act, and does not use self-serving language to justify the behaviour of the person asking forgiveness. A sincere apology does not seek to erase what was done. No amount of words can undo past wrongs. Nothing can ever reverse injustices committed against others. But an apology pronounced in the context of horrible acts has the potential for transformation. It clears or ‘settles’ the air in order to begin reconstructing the broken connections between two human beings.”(7)

To say, however, that some evil deeds are simply unforgivable does not capture the complexity and richness of all the social contexts within which gross evil is committed. In South Africa, for example, where the language of ‘reconciliation’ has defined the way in which that society is beginning to deal with its traumatic past, many stories of forgiveness have indeed emerged. In Rwanda, on the other hand, although the “r word” – ‘reconciliation’ – was taboo for several years after the 1994 genocide against Tutsis,  the government has established a National Reconciliation Commission which has brought to traditional form of justice ‘gacaca’, in order to promote truth telling and hasten the rehabilitation of those who have committed genocide into society.(8)

Although forgiveness is often regarded as an expression of weakness, the decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength; as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator’s wish.(9) Essentially, the act of forgiveness needs to be acknowledged as a noble act of an individual who has been a victim, or of civilized society; not as a sign of weakness and fragility.

The puzzle of forgiveness and apology requires a sustained debate, based on mutual recognition, regardless of ethnicity, religion and gender. Consequently, this involves those most neglected and maligned voices, such as families of victims and missing persons. The political elites of each country in the region have a responsibility to facilitate this process to ensure that the wrong-doings from the past  can finally be overcome. Societies in the region cannot apparently go through this process alone, and by leaving the victims of the wars dealing with the past wrong-doings on their own.

Nora Ahmetaj is Director of the Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication (CRDP), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the CRDP.

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1) Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, (2006), A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer

2) In the ‘Dealing with the Past’ circle of the scholars and practitioners, they prefer to use the term ‘victims’ for all the survivors of the violence (minus direct murderers), and not only for ‘the winning’ side. Subsequently, ‘victims of violence (VVs)’ is a more ‘inclusive’ expression.

3) ‘Reconciliation’ and restoring the victims dignity (however we understand it), cannot still be considered in Kosovo, due to the lack of political recognition by Serbia.

4) Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, (2006), A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer

5) Ibid.

6) Horacio Verbitsky in an interview conducted by Priscilla Hayner, quoted in Priscilla Hayner, Unspeakable Truths — Facing the Challenges of Truth Commissions, Routledge Press, New York and London, 2002.

7) Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, (2006), A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer

8) Ibid.

9) Ibid.

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