The Power of Forgiveness

“In the late summer of 1999 I visited Kosovo. The NATO action was nearing its end. The refugees had returned. There was some semblance of normal life. Yet the tension was palpable. A few months earlier it had been the Kosovar Albanians who had been in fear of their lives. 800,000 had fled. Ten thousand had been killed. Now it was the Serbs who were afraid. Some had fled. Others were in fear. There were murders taking place nightly. Outside every church we passed, there was a NATO tank. At the start of the conflict it had been Serbian Christians who had attacked mosques. Now there were fears of reprisals. The military leaders and chaplains to whom I spoke were not optimistic about the future. They did not feel that the campaign had ended the conflict. It had merely frozen it in place. It was liable to erupt again at any time. There was too much bitterness between the sides.”

“It was then, standing in the centre of Pristina amid the wreckage and rubble of war, that I understood as never before the power of a single word to change the world – the word forgiveness. The conflict had started more than six centuries earlier, in the Battle of Kosovo of 1389. Both sides retained strong memories of that event. It had been a recurring theme in their history ever since. If Serbs and Albanians could forgive one another and act so as to be forgiven by one another they would have a future. If not, they were destined to replay the Battle of 1389 until the end of time.”

“Nothing is more dispiriting than the cycle of revenge that haunts conflict zones and traps their populations into a past that never relaxes its grip. That has been the fate of the Balkans, Northern Ireland, India and Kashmir, the Middle East. The virus of hate can lie dormant for a while, but it rarely dies. Instead it mutates. Under a dictatorship, Serbs and Croats had lived peaceably together for 50 years. They had become friends and neighbours. But, as in virtually every other zone of historical conflict, something happens: there is a shift in the power structure, a totalitarian government that had held local populations together by fear disintegrates, an episode occurs in which the members of one side commit an atrocity against the other, and it is as if the years of coexistence had never been. Friends become enemies; neighbours, antagonists. A wall of separation is then the least bad outcome, and even that often fails to end the violence.”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 152