By the time the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II in 1945, an estimated 65 million to 75 million civilians and soldiers were dead. To prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, the Allied powers had already begun to build a system of political and institutional safeguards even before the war was over.
Despite all efforts — including the conferences leading to the establishment of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — civilians continue to be killed. Between 1945 and 2000 alone, according to military specialist Milton Leitenberg, an estimated 41 million people died in wars and conflicts, making the 20th century the bloodiest ever.
The 21st century is shaping up to be just as violent, as civilians are increasingly targeted deliberately for rape, torture and murder as tactics of war. Three books, collections of personal narratives, out this fall give us some insight into the horrors of this modern-day reality. One of them concerns the 50-year civil war in Colombia, and the other two offer very different views of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But each of these narratives challenges the reader to think deeply about the nature and the relationship of those who cause harm with those who refuse to be destroyed.
The first collection is entitled "Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence." Compiled and carefully edited by journalists Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening, it contains the narratives of various Colombians — using pseudonyms to protect their identity — who have been caught in the crossfire among government forces, paramilitary groups, guerrillas and drug lords who have been terrorizing their country for decades.
By including the narratives of everyday people, usually from modest backgrounds — among them farmers, teachers, street vendors, cooks, a midwife, and even a fashion model — from different parts of the country, the editors have been able to offer a picture of what it has been like for normal people living for the past decades in Colombia. Many have lost their land and their means of livelihood — often not once, but several times — and in many cases, those they love the most. The people in this book describe land and property seizures, harassment, rapes, beatings, torture, disappearances and death. By standing up for their rights, and in some cases, by doing nothing at all, they have been caught up inevitably in the violence. Parents, siblings and children all are sacrificed to the greed and vengeance of armed groups: A planeload of passengers en route to Cali is blown up, a child loses his leg to landmines, a son attempting to investigate his brother's death is murdered, villagers are taken to the local soccer field and massacred. And the worst of it all is that these accounts mention only a few of the tragedies that have led more than 4 million Colombians to flee from their homes. But at the same time, they are often able to muster a stubborn, even heroic courage to resist their tormentors and maintain their humanity.
The introduction to this absorbing book was written by Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002. She was held hostage for 6-1/2 years in the jungle before being rescued by Colombian government special forces in 2008, so she speaks with a singular authority about the suffering of her countrymen. In her essay, Betancourt emphasizes the importance of bearing witness so that those who have suffered can "transform their ordeal into social wisdom. They offer the intimacy of their pain to enrich our lives and to make us reflect."
In most cases, oral histories of human rights record the voices of those who have been harmed or who have witnessed violence at close hand. In the recent book "Our Harsh Logic," however, it is the perpetrators and other soldiers who speak.
In this shocking and compelling collection of testimonies, based on a report compiled by Breaking the Silence, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2004 by Israel Defense Forces veterans, former Israeli soldiers describe a pattern of harassment and violence among members of the IDF toward the Arabs living in the occupied territories. They claim that this is part of the Israeli army's broader strategy: to intimidate and control the Arab population by conducting nighttime raids and searches, destroying or stealing personal property, beating and arresting people, even torturing and murdering.
Not only are the Arabs mistreated, witnesses say, but soldiers who refuse to participate are intimidated as well. When one young soldier refused to fire a riot control grenade at a group of children, he was harassed by his commanding officer.
Among other duties, they say, the IDF protects the settlers residing in the territories, even when those settlers beat up, harass, intimidate and sometimes even kill Arabs. The soldiers report that they are not allowed to use force against the settlers, no matter how out of control they become, and arrests, they say, are rare. One soldier describes witnessing some young male settlers beating up an elderly Arab woman, and no one from the army made a move to intervene.
Within the territories, the army has established a system of checkpoints and barriers, which serves to segregate Palestinians and Israelis and allows Israel to maintain tight control over the movement of Palestinians. Since there are now areas where settlers may go and Palestinians may not, Israelis can restrict access to land that had formerly been open to Arabs. As the soldiers make clear in this revealing set of interviews, the army generally acts with impunity because it has total control.
As an antidote, and even a response to this bleak and brutal depiction of the Israeli Army's treatment of the Arabs in the occupied territories, an Oxford University Press book entitled "Bridges Across an Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers" by George Mason University professor Marc Gopin has gathered testimony from an altogether different group: a grassroots movement of idealistic people determined to dramatically change the dynamic in Israel and the West Bank.
In the book, drawn in part from interviews Gopin conducted for a film project about Arab and Israeli peacemakers, Gopin's interlocutors, though not particularly affluent or well-educated, are extraordinarily eloquent about what they are advocating. Nearly all of them have been affected personally by the violence in that region, and in order to transcend their own pain and build a better future, they have resolved to make friends with their foes.
In his introduction, Gopin quotes Ibrahim, a peacemaker whose cherished only son was run over by an Israeli settler. In response to that hate crime, he joined the Bereaved Parents Circle, which includes more than 500 Jewish or Palestinian families whose relatives have been victims of the violence. Here, he explains why:
"Those families … lost relatives from the first degree, sons or fathers or sisters or brothers. And they … revenge in another way, to sit and make dialogue with the others."
As Gopin points out, violent revenge, though allowed in many cultures, is a "morally problematic choice," as it invites more violence and neither promotes the long-term happiness of others, nor contributes to a just society. Opening themselves to others, even to those who might do them harm, is the gamble these peacemakers take, but they are willing to do it because the rewards are so large.
In a very moving passage, Gopin recalled the moments after the death of Ibrahim's son, when his Arab neighbors were consumed with anger and the desire for revenge. Nonetheless, Ibrahim's Jewish friends were not afraid to come to his house to share their grief and to console him. All of these peacemakers, Arab and Jewish alike, believe that compassion and forgiveness will engender a new and better society.
To forgive or be forgiven, however, both victims and perpetrators need to tell their stories. For the victims, there is often a compelling need to unburden themselves of the anger and hatred they feel toward their tormentors; for the perpetrators, there is often the desire to confront their guilt. Sharing painful details of abuse is indeed the most intimate of revelations, in part because of the shame victims feel because of being abased and degraded, and the shame perpetrators feel in exposing their own cruelty and perverted behaviors. But by telling their stories, the heavy burden of memory begins to dissipate and the speaker can begin to heal.
And we, the listeners, are forced to confront the cruelty and destructiveness of others. We imagine the suffering of the victims, and find the capacity for compassion within ourselves, while at the same time holding up a mirror to our own consciences, wondering what we would have done in the same situation.