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"Acknowledging each other's pain - Celebrating togetherness"

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Wednesday, 9 December, 2009

Reflecting on his years of peace-building work, Nicos Anastasiou argues that the acknowledgement of each other's pain can help to transform divisive memories of the past into a vehicle for building trust in the present.

From my years of involvement in peace-building work I have discovered some basic 'raw' truths that have also been the experience of possibly everyone who has been involved in this kind of work. First, is the fact that the pain of 'our' side blinds us to the pain of the 'other' side.

In both communities what is high on the social agenda and dialogue is the sufferings that 'we' endured at the hands of the 'other'. This process results in the creation of a generalised image of the 'other' as a barbaric monster rather than a human being. Put simply, this process dehumanises the 'other' and thus makes the prospect of peaceful coexistence that much more remote.

At the same time, inside both communities, the issue of the sufferings of the 'other side' is invariably a taboo subject, virtually a non-issue and those who dare raise it are most likely to be branded as traitors, politically immature, hurting the 'national cause', propagandists of the enemy and so on.

For example, in the Greek Cypriot community very little is known of innocent Turkish Cypriots who suffered especially from the 1963 till 1974, while in the Turkish Cypriot community the sufferings of Greek Cypriots especially during and since the 1974 war are not subjects that are particularly talked about.

This blindness to the sufferings of the other functions as a major obstacle to building peace on this island. The prospect of a solution creates fear in the hearts of many ordinary people as the questions are worriedly being asked: "What if all these terrible things happen again? How can we trust them?". This lack of trust caused because of the mistakes and crimes of the past must be dealt with, otherwise no political solution can survive the test of time.

I wish it was as simple as some people sometimes say, "Why don't we just forget the past and just look to the future?". I believe that in order to 'close' the book of the past we first need to know what is in it, no matter how ugly or politically uncomfortable for 'our' side or 'our motherland' it may be. Otherwise it will haunt us for ever and the prospect of a truly peaceful solution will never become a living reality. In Cyprus we desperately need at the level of the ordinary citizens to initiate a process for healing the deep wounds of the past.

What we have experienced in many bi-communal encounters is that the critical turning point, where fear is replaced by trust, where the humanity of the other is rediscovered, where mutual tears initiate the healing process, is the point where one acknowledges the wrong that his/her side has caused to the other.

This acknowledgement encourages the other side to also come out and speak using similar language. In this way the pain of the past, instead of being a stumbling block to building the peace, instead of being an instrument of one-sided propaganda to gain political points, is being transformed into a vehicle for building the much needed trust between the ordinary people of the two communities in Cyprus.

But the past was not only pain and suffering. On the contrary, for every act of violence there were immeasurably more cases of ordinary people from both communities who experienced deep and genuine and truthful friendships that are still treasured in their hearts today, despite the long years of separation.

These experiences of the older generation of Cypriots are also part of our history that is often ignored. And yet it is from here that we can start building the hope of the future. These bridges between the older generation that were severed by violence must be rebuilt and, at the same time, we must also continue building new bridges among the young generation of Cypriots who never had the chance to know anyone from the 'other side'.

'Acknowledging each other's pain', and 'celebrating togetherness'. These two terms are not mutually exclusive. They are both real and are both very much needed. It is my firm belief that speaking out by using such terms is one of the most important actions that can be performed by citizens who want to contribute to the building of peace in our island.

We need to become, each in our own community, 'ambassadors' of the pain of the other community, and at the same time engage in a tireless campaign to both re-build the old bridges, and to build new ones.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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