Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.

Borders check more than our passports: Story about fault lines

On May 1, I woke up and felt like going to the cinema. Latvian cinema. This year we have many new movies – fiction, documentary, animation, TV, etc. – since 2018 celebrates 100 years of national statehood. Since these movies are also a gift to me as a Latvian citizen, I better go and support and enjoy.

I have seen a few but the documentary film D is for Division” (Wall) by director Dāvis Sīmanis impacted the most. The story of physical and mental boundaries or fault lines between present day Latvia, its Soviet past and its neighbor Russia as in ‘Putin’s Russia’. It hit emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Because this story focuses on ‘today’. We cannot live in the past or the future. I have only the ‘now’ and what impact is my life having on the present and how does the present impact my future.

The film was very open and honest. The director talking about personal fears, anxieties, questions, observations, hopes… about personal and collective memories that divide… about injustices in the past and the present… about us.

In teaching and studies I often use the same symbols because they are so clear and visual – wall, bridge, wall, bridge. What are we building? What do we need most? What are we becoming? Walls separate into ‘us’ and ‘them’, divide, protect and exclude. Bridges connect two sides, provide meeting place, cross over and include. The documentary portrayed many walls and some bridges. Visible and invisible walls between Latvia and Russia, between ‘Homo soveticus’ and people who have shed the Soviet mindset and past (or at least try to shed it), between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between different ways of practicing faith.

Even tough the film in Latvian is called the “Wall”, I see it as a bridge. For sure an attempt to build a bridge from ignorance to awareness, from indifference to responsibility and involvement.

Just a few observations about the different levels of fault lines. First, Latvia (as independent nation, as a member of European Union and NATO) and Russia (Putin’s version of it). The ‘wall’ has gone up high and it keeps going. Latvia would say that we have withdrawn our bridges for the time being. The movie also has great reflections about the life of ordinary people on both sides of the border.

The divisions between those who have moved on from our Soviet past and those who still live in it, miss it and maybe even dream about the return to ‘those glorious days’. There is one guy in the story, Beness Aijo, who dreams of Latvia becoming communist republic again and now fights in eastern Ukraine to see this ‘Soviet’ dream fulfilled there. Obviously these two groups live in different past, present and future. Both have their sacred memories as bonfires to gather around, to tell stories and to feel united. The clear message to the other side  – Do not dare to touch our bonfire!

Today on May 4, people in Latvia are gathering to celebrate our independence from the USSR/Soviet Union. Others, not as many but still a large group, will gather on May 9 to celebrate the victory in WWII but also to celebrate the former Soviet Union. Our collective memories clash and our visions of the present and the future diverge. The film obviously raises the questions and seeks the answers of how to live side by side and how to remember in a way that unites, not divides.

Last but not least. There are scenes from a Russian Orthodox monastery inside Russia where the paintings on the wall depict soldiers as heroes of the past and the present. During the film you see Jesus face on military flags. It is our Christian never ending story and shame that we ‘recruit’ God to be on our side  or that we ‘elect’ Jesus as our leader into the battle. I am glad nobody was sitting next to me as I was fidgeting in my seat and silently praying, “Jesus, forgive us! Forgives us all for we don’t know what we are doing.”

Go and see this film if they show it anywhere near you (with English subtitles, of course) and if you are interested in questions that are relevant not just to Eastern Europeans.

Thank you, Dāvis Sīmanis and the crew, for building this bridge through the camera lens!

Latvian:

Brīvdienā pamodos noskaņojumā, ka gribas aiziet uz kino. Uz latviešu kino. Galu galā jānovērtē tās Latvijas simtgades radošās dāvanas, kas domātas arī man. Un tā diena iesākās ar režisores Ināras Kolmanes “Billi” un beidzās ar Dāvja Sīmaņa dokumentālo stāstu “Mūris.

Un šoreiz mērķī trāpīja Mūris. Trāpīja emocijās, domās, aktualitātē un vispār. Daudzu iemeslu dēļ, bet viens no galvenajiem, ka filma stāsta par šodienu, par mums, par mani. “Latvija 100” ietvaros liels uzsvars likts uz notikumiem pagātnē, kad manis vēl nebija (protams, protams, ka tas ir svarīgi, un no pagātnes mēs gan iedvesmojamies, gan mācāmies). Nākotne man vēl nepieder, taču tagadne ir tepat, un tā ir manējā. Tikpat daudz cik tavējā, jūsējā, mūsējā.

Patika, ka stāsts ir atklāts un personīgs. Par to, ko redz neapbruņota acs, par bailēm, par neziņu, par satraukumu, par bezspēcības sajūtu, par sarežģītiem jautājumiem, par spriedzi un aizspriedumiem, par vientulību, par netaisnīgumu, par pagātnes un šodienas plaisām.

Darbā un studijās man tuva ir izlīguma un kolektīvo atmiņu tēma. Lasot lekcijas ir tik viegli un uzskatāmi izmantot šos simbolus – mūris, tilts, mūris, tilts. Ko mēs ceļam? Kas mums šobrīd vajadzīgs? Kas mēs esam? Mūris, kas atdala ‘savējos’ un ‘svešos’, norobežo, nelaiž iekšā, pasargā no reālām vai iedomātām briesmām, vai tilts, kas savieno divas puses, iekļauj, ļauj satikties, iet vienam pie otra, pat pāriet ‘otrā pusē’. Mūris var būt arī plaisa jeb dziļa aiza, ko nevar tik vienkārši pārlēkt, kā stāstā par Ronju, laupītāja meitu.

Filmā ir gan mūri un plaisas, gan tilti. Mentāli atķeksēju dažus redzamos un jūtamos ‘mūrus’ – starp Latviju un Putina Krieviju, starp Rīgu un pierobežu, starp Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Latvijas sabiedrību, starp Benesu Aijo un Latvijas valsti, starp kolektīvām atmiņām, starp ‘Homo soveticus’ un ‘ne-padomju’ cilvēkiem, starp manu kristietības izpratni un filmā dzirdēto un redzēto. Arī tilti tur bija vairāki. Pati filma, lai gan saucas “Mūris”, manuprāt, ir izcils tilts. Kaut vai no nezināšanas uz zināšanu, no vienaldzības uz iedziļināšanos.

Īsumā par dažiem attiecību līmeņiem.

Latvija un Krievija. Ko tur vēl teikt?! ‘Neredzamais’, bet draudīgais mūris ir izaudzis pamatīgs. Kā zinām, Latvijā teiktu, ka tas uzcelts vienpusīgi no Krievijas puses, un mēs tikai pacēlām jeb atvilkām savus tiltus uz doto brīdi. Un tagad esam spiesti celt nostiprinājumus savā mūra pusē.

Rīga un pierobeža. Varētu teikt arī Rīga un lauki. Latvija ir tik maza, bet tik viegli dzīvot savā ‘burbulī’ un nezināt, kas notiek citur. Kā tur izskatās, ko tur dara, ko tur jūt, kā tur vispār dzīvo. Es tagad rādu ar pirkstu pati uz sevi. Latgalē neesmu bijusi daudzus gadus (labi, man ir neliels attaisnojums, ka pēdējos 10 gadus dzīvoju ārpus Latvijas). Uz Krievijas vai Baltkrievijas robežas neesmu bijusi nekad. Jo parasti lidoju pāri robežām, nevis šķērsoju pa zemes ceļiem.

Filmas epizodes par Draudzības Kurgānu uz triju valstu robežas (Latvija, Krievija, Baltkrievija), un tur rīkotajām 4. maija un 9. maijā svinībām, bija izglītojošas. Cik tur daudz simbolikas! Abpus robežai tiek dejots un dziedāts, karogi vicināti, foto uzņemti, bet svētku saturs tik strīdīgs. Katrai pusei ir savs ‘svētais atmiņu ugunskurs’, ap kuru pulcēties, un viens otram atgādina – Pat nedomā aiztikt vai jaukt manu ugunskuru!

To pašu var attiecināt uz 9. maija svinībām Daugavpilī. Ja godīgi, bija grūti skatīties. Pamatīgi dīdījos krēslā. Visa tā nostalģija pēc ‘padomju’ laikiem, slavas dziesmas un  mazie bērni padomju karavīru formas tērpos. Cik tas viss ir pazīstams no bērnības, un cik ļoti gribas to visu aizmirst! Atceros, ka mans brālis arī saņēma dāvanā padomju jūrnieka formas tērpu, un cik viņš bija lepns. It sevišķi par savu plastmasas duncīti pie sāniem!

Par diviem filmas varoņiem Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Benesu Aijo (nē, es šeit nelieku vienlīdzības zīmi) es nevaru komentēt. Abi ir aktīvisti un patrioti, bet absolūti pretēji mērķi un līdzekļi. Atzīstos, neesmu padziļināti sekojusi viņu stāstiem, tikai no mediju virsrakstiem. Arī 2009. gada notikumu laikā biju tālu tālu prom no Latvijas. Galvenā sajūta, klausoties un skatoties viņu pieredzi un pārdomas, bija dziļas skumjas. Gan par vienu, gan par otru. Tāda vientulība. Pirms 10-15 gadiem mēs staigātu pa vienām un tām pašām ielām, varbūt sēdētu vienās kafejnīcās…

Šķiet, ka filmas viszīmīgākā epizode ir Adwards apbalvošanas ceremonija “Splendid Palace” zālē. Tie kadri vispār likās kā no citas realitātes. Mēģināju saprast, ko tas atgādina, un vienīgais, kas nāca prātā, bija filma “Bada spēles”. Par sabiedrības eliti, kas izklaidējas ar līdzpilsoņu ciešanām. Zāle pilna ar jauniem, enerģiskiem, radošiem, izglītotiem cilvēkiem, kuri bauda sava smagā darba augļus ar vīna glāzi rokās. Varētu teikt, te sēž Latvijas nākotne. Un uz skatuves tiek būvēts virtuālais tilts ar A.A.Bērziņu ar tehnoloģiju palīdzību, bet paliek sajūta, ka starp abām pusēm ir augsts mūris. Gan Ansis, gan Rīgas publika joko un smaida, bet kas notiek patiesībā? Kadra tuvplānā ieraudzīju kādu paziņu, un tagad gribas uzrakstīt un pajautāt, vai viņa atceras to momentu un savas izjūtas un domas. Izskatījās tāda apjukusi.

Tālāk… Ukrainā filmētos kadrus skatīties vienmēr ir grūti. Tās šāviņu un ložu rētas logos, ēkās, rotaļu laukumos. It kā viss jau reportāžās neskaitāmas reizes redzēts, bet šoreiz sāpināja vairāk. Un separātistu štābiņi viesnīcās, kurās vajadzētu gulēt tūristiem, nevis kaujiniekiem. Arī te vairs nav ko piebilst. Smagi.

Un vēl komentārs par reliģiju. Kristietībai pēc manas sapratnes un pārliecības vajadzētu būt visstiprākajam un drosmīgākajam tiltam, bet realitātē tas var būt vislielākais mūris. Kurā pusē ir Dievs? Uz kura karoga ir Jēzus? Ir viegli reaģēt uz sienas zīmējumiem krievu pareizticīgo klosterī Krievijā, kur attēloti pagātnes un mūsdienu karavīri gluži kā svētie mocekļi, kuriem Dievs dāvā īpašu aizsardzību un labvēlību. Var sašutumā grozīt galvu, ko es arī darīju (un atkal pamatīgi dīdījos). Klusībā teicu: “Jēzu, piedod! Piedod mums visiem! Mēs nezinām, ko mēs darām.” Jo mēs visi spējam tikpat pārliecināti likt Dievu savos kara karogos, kara saucienos. Saviem karavīriem ‘piezīmējam’ eņģeļu sargājošos spārnus.

Skatoties filmu, varētu domāt, ka folkloristi ir vislabākie tiltu būvētāji. Tur bija vērtīga un, manuprāt, patiesa doma, ka tikai pazīstot un cienot savu kultūru, mēs varam cienīt citas kultūras.

‘Soveticus’ nostalģijā dzīvojošie arī nejuta nekādas robežas starp valstīm. Viņi īpaši uzsvēra to, ka ir vienoti savā identitātē, ka ir internacionālisti. Tur bija tā simboliska tikšanās uz robežtiltiņa Draudzības Kurgānā. Ļoti gribējās ielīst Latvijas robežsargu ādā un uzzināt, ko viņi tajā brīdī jūt un domā?!

Un visam pa vidu vēl apcietinātie patvēruma meklētāji, no kuriem daudzi Latvijas valsts un sabiedrības acīs ir “nelegālie imigranti”, un bilde top jau pavisam skumīga.

Kā jau minēju, šī filma man liekas spēcīga ar savu aktualitāti. Par tagadni, kuru joprojām ietekmē pagātne, un kura veido mūsu nākotni. Kādu mēs vēlamies šo nākotni? Latvijā un Eiropā! Kā zemi ar dziļām plaisām pēc zemestrīces? Kā mazas feodālas karaļvalstis ar bieziem aizsargmūriem un paceļamiem tiltiem?

Ja pareizi sapratu filmas veidotājus, viņi izvēlas būt tiltu būvētāji. Ar kameru plecā un mikrofonu rokā. Bet, galvenais, ar acīm un ausīm vaļā. Gan fiziski šķērsojot robežas starp valstīm un cilvēkiem, gan savelkot kopā dažādus skatupunktus. Izklausās tik klišejiski, bet nekā gudrāka un vienkāršāka jau nav. Ja gribi saprast, ej, skaties un klausies! Ja negribi dzīvot mūros, ej, meklē patiesību, ceļu uz piedošanu un izlīgumu!

Paldies Dāvim Sīmanim un visai komandai par ieguldīto darbu, laiku un mums visiem uzdotajiem jautājumiem caur kameras aci! Atbildes jāmeklē kopīgi…

Filmmakers as the spies of our present and future

“I refuse your version of humanity and I will continue to struggle against it”, is one of the lines from “The Forgiven”, a British movie directed by Roland Joffé which came out last year . The story focuses on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa which was established as one of the restorative justice and national healing mechanisms after the end of apartheid. The role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is played by Forest Whitaker (who does a great acting job as always) and the other main character is Piet Blomfeld, a fictional former security operative played by Eric Bana (also job well done).

Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of TRC and the movie portrays his personal struggles with faith, forgiveness and mercy when facing the ‘in-your-face’ evil committed and now publicly admitted. There are some very intense and emotional scenes in high-security prison where Tutu visits Blomfeld and the two worldviews collide. Blomfeld tries to shock and win with violence, hatred and his version of life. Tutu responds with words: “Brutality is the aberration, not love. Think on that!”

I have a special interest in movies about reconciliation, especially ethnic or racial but usually these stories are not the big box office successes and often you have to be very intentional to find them. When asked about “The Forgiven”, the Australian actor Eric Bana said in an interview: “If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote.”  True and sad , isn’t it?

There are two more recent films  – “The Journey” and “The Insult” – which I can recommend on this topic. The first I have seen and the other not yet. “The Journey” focuses on Northern Ireland conflict and St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. Directed by Nick Hamm, it is a political drama based on true events with a fictional version how two sworn political enemies meet and start working together. Ian Paisley, a loyalist and Protestant minister, and Martin McGuinness, a republican and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader share a car ride and are forced to simply start talking to each other.

As in any reconciliation and peace process, the first and hardest step are the questions of truth. Whose truth is correct? Which version of historical events is the right one? Which perspective is the most just? There is an immediate clash when ‘enemies’ start talking about ‘facts’. “The Journey” creates a fictional situation but it is not difficult to imagine the ‘real’ meeting between people who could not be more opposite in their views.

In real life Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness did talk for the first time in 2006 and few months later they were working together in the new Northern Ireland government where the power is shared between the unionists/loyalists and the republicans. McGuinness said to the international press, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…. This shows we are set for a new course.”

And “The Insult” (L’insulte) is the story about a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee which turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. It is on my list to see. If you have seen it, tell me what you think!

Someone said that “any human crisis is a creative situation” and it seems it gives creative energy to the artists, including the filmmakers. They see and feel the social processes and often lead the way in starting difficult conversations which others do not dare. Latvian sociologist Dagmāra Beitnere Le Galla said that “artists are the spies of future while historians look at the past”.

What is the version of humanity we choose? These films make us think…

Traitors, doubters, lovers, pragmatists, self-righteous, dreamers at God’s table

 

Is Simon Peter famous or infamous? To be proud or to be ashamed of? Two sides of the same coin? Every year around Easter (and any other time of a year) his famous ‘infamous’ story of denying Jesus three times is told and retold. The moral lessons to be learned; the wisdom and compassion of Jesus knowing our human weakness; the humiliation of self-righteousness; the bitter repentance; the encouragement and strength that ultimately comes out of this failure.

We know the story. I know the story. All four gospels tell this story. I was reading the gospel of Mark this week and comparing the parallel passages between the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John. And again I had the question why do they all tell the story of Peter. Especially John who has his own perspective on many things. There are so many other important details that could be told but this just had to be included.

Last year while visiting Ireland I saw this public artwork called “Dublin’s Last Supper”. The author of the large photographic modern-day re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ is the Irish artist John Byrne. It catches your eye for so many reasons. First of all, Jesus. He is portrayed by an Indian student from Trinity College. Then the disciples. Different ages, races, female included, traditional and contemporary dress. All interacting and reacting to life, God, each other.

Original “The Last supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for portraying the moment when Jesus tells his closest disciples that one of them will betray him. Collaborate with the authorities. Make money from this betrayal. Save his own skin only to lose it few days later. And the disciples are shocked and puzzled: “What are you talking about? Surely not I? Surely not one of us?”  The only one who does not act surprised is Judas and in Dublin’s version he is the guy in business suit.

The artwork in Dublin is reflection of a “changing society and the growing cultural mix in Dublin” and the artist expresses “positive politics and faith in ordinary people“.

That’s it! Ordinary people. That is why I could not take my eyes of this scene and kept thinking which person reflects me. One of the traitors? Calculating Judas or self-righteous Peter? Doubting and skeptical Thomas?  Dreaming idealist John? Confused Matthew?

So ordinary and extraordinary because they are brought together by Jesus. And they have walked with him and talked with him and watched him. In the pubs of Dublin, the slums of Bangkok, the refugee camps of Mae Sot, the skyscrapers of New York, the streets of Cairo, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the beautiful beaches of Khao Lak.

The Last Supper is a moment of truth and God’s love. And in the end Peter could not deny that he had been at the table.

Happy Easter!

Platitudes of peace and unity in Korea and one Latvian’s view on it

The 2018 Winter Olympics are called “Peace games” but somehow this message does not stick easily. As my blog page tells, I am all for using every and any platform for peace building, common good, diplomacy, solidarity and sports is one of those forms of fun and entertainment which brings people together. Just like kicking the football will win you instant friends among children from any neighborhood around the world. I could tell so many stories from travels and work where sports was the bridge between cultures, even so called ‘enemies’.

But ‘peace’ is not abstract. It is not a word. It is a state well-being which involves many things. Truth, justice, forgiveness, freedom, choice among them.

And because of this I can assume that the message of these ‘peaceful’ Winter Olympic Games remains totally abstract for most people in North Korea who are supposed to be one of the main recipients and beneficiaries of this message. First of all, the games are not broadcast in North Korea, even with 22 North Korean athletes competing. This is easy to understand – why would the regime show people how South Korea can host such a world event and all the technical, economic and democratic achievements across the border?!

The North Korean people do not need spectacular ‘peace doves’ or over-used John Lennon songs like “Imagine” (I am sorry if you think it is one of the greatest ‘peace songs’ ever written, but I simply disagree with the lyrics and, to be honest, I am tired of it. If we really want universal ‘unity’ anthems, we need new songs to inspire our hearts and minds in this day and age.)

Another reason why all this makes me sad and angry is because I have seen it before. Growing up in the USSR, we were raised to believe that we live in the most peace loving nation in the world and that every other system is oppressive, racist and violent. I know what it’s like to live behind the ‘curtain’ and to be told lies about the life on the other side of it. Even worse, to be told lies about the life we ourselves were living. It is hard to accept that in 2018 there are millions of people who live in this kind of ‘cage’ and prison.

And the injustice continues. The gate keepers get to travel, to act like they care, to pretend they are interested in real peace for their people. The sister of Kim Jong-un gets to sit in the VIP box at the opening ceremony and I can only imagine how most of defectors from North Korea felt watching it. I know how I felt. We talk about ‘interests’ of our free nations or Kim Jong-un and his regimes ‘interests’ and I certainly worry about the tensions and nuclear weapons but what about the people of North Korea? What about the people of South Korea?

The North Korean athletes get to go to South Korea, they get to see and experience things that millions of other North Korean people cannot even dream about but they are still prisoner’s who are just let out for few days and they are on a very short and tight ‘leash’. You can already guess that there are more secret service staff than athletes. How many people are watching each athlete? Do you believe that North Korean athletes get to actually hang out with other athletes and form new friendships? Do you think the women on the united hockey team get to be left alone and freely talk? No way! Even without the staff or officials, they cannot talk freely because they are made to inform on each other.

Can you imagine how many ‘interviews’ and ‘reports’ they will have to give upon returning home? This totalitarian system of spying and informing on your colleagues, friends and family is one of the most painful scars that our nation of Latvia bears and we are still struggling to reconcile with this past. It has done something horrible to our collective and individual soul. And multiply it when you think about North Korea.

And what about South Korea? If you follow the surveys and research, you will see that the younger generation in South Korea has more reservations about the prospect of future ‘unification’ of two Koreas. The reasons are many but among them economic and financial. If the two Koreas will one day unite, the South will have to cover the bill and it will be trillions of dollars.

I believe that this ‘wall’ will fall in our life time but I also know that it will be only beginning of hard work toward reconciliation and unity. It is easy to win ‘war’, but it is very hard to win ‘peace’. Still, there is no alternative. The people of divided Korea need it and the rest of us will have to help but no more platitudes like “above us only sky… imagine all the people living for today”, please.

Lustration and flushing out the Soviet poison for good

I belong to two generations. One is Gen X – Nirvana, grunge, MTV, alienated youth, indie, The Cure, flannel shirts, cynicism… I am also generation between two worlds, two truths, past disconnected from future. Born in the USSR but becoming an adult in free and independent Latvia.

The feature photo was taken at a former Soviet military facility in western Latvia which used to have many Soviet army bases. The small village of Irbene had one of the top secret facilities, used for listening in on military conversations and spying on NATO countries during the Cold War years. It had huge antennas. Now it is a tourist destination, offering tours in the underground tunnels (which are very long and eerie) and the abandoned laboratories.

A quote by a local astronomer, “It is possible to film a horror movie here called Frankenstein and the KGB, and nobody would need to spend anything on creating the movie set.” Precisely! I felt like I was in one of those movies, except the depressing feeling of familiarity. The faded Soviet star used to be bright red, the warning in Russian used to instill fear, the secret facilities and weapons were meant for the enemies which we were told hated us.

For Western tourists this can be an interesting discovery, for me it is a stark reminder. These secret facilities do not pose a threat anymore but what is the legacy left behind. We can re-paint and re-use but we cannot afford to whitewash.

When talking about our Soviet past, experience and system, people use words like ‘poison’ or ‘cancer’ that infiltrated the individual and collective psyche. Often the outsiders point out things which don’t take long to notice in Latvia. One of the symptoms of this lingering poison is inability or unwillingness to trust. The Soviet system like any other totalitarian regime was built on very twisted human relationships – where people spied on each other,  where friends betrayed friends, where colleagues reported things to authorities. Where you walked the party line to succeed. Where you silenced your conscience or starved your mind. Where you lived a double life – one in public and another at home.

Those who were born in already free Latvia carry very little of this residue but they still feel it. Feel it in their parents, grandparents, older teachers, government, society at large. And they question louder and  louder why are we they way we are? Why aren’t we more trusting, more open to new people, experiences and cultures? Why aren’t we more transparent, willing to take responsibility, ready to take make decisions? Why do we have historic  topics which we avoid or shut down? Something is still holding us back, something is still bending our necks, something is still casting its shadow.

I was a little child but even I remember the manipulation and hypocrisy and propaganda. I remember how it looks, how it sounds and how it feels. It acts arrogant, self-righteous, aggressive (very aggressive); it glorifies military might above everything else.  It always has “us vs them” world, it has many enemies, it punishes those who dare to disagree. It creates its own reality. And it never repents and never admits any guilt… never.

Latvia is not this world anymore but our healing is still in process. Restoring personal and national dignity, respect and justice takes time but time does not heal all the wounds. We don’t have the luxury to wait decades until “the old people from the old system” die and then all will be well. I don’t believe that. I believe that we have to be very intentional and active in exposing this ‘sickness’ and ‘shame’ that still infects us. We need deeper lustration and talk openly about the broken relationships.  Bravely and humbly condemn, repent for the things people did to each other because the whitewash never holds… and then our dignity and respect for ourselves and each other can be restored.

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Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

tutu

photos from internet