Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)

 

It could be me, it could be you…

I want to talk about Ukraine in a very personal way and this story starts in Thailand… of all places.

My former home in Chiang Mai was in a small and quiet neighborhood close to Chiang Mai University. There were not many foreigners living there. So, when a foreign family moved in, everyone took notice. I have one of those habits of trying to guess where people are from. My husband and I would look at each other and say, “what do you think? American, British, German?” I saw this new family walking down our street and I said, “Definitely from eastern Europe.”

And then I heard them speak Russian. And then I finally introduced myself and found out that our new neighbors were from Ukraine. (Not born there but it is too long to explain how people moved around in the former Soviet Republics.) David is an astronomer who works for an Observatory and has looked through some of the biggest telescopes in the world. His job is very fascinating but I still don’t remember the name of the specific space objects he researches and teaches about. His wife Sveta and their two children adjusted to the new life in a country far far away from home. I was glad to practice Russian and they were mutually glad to speak their mother tongue.

In 2013 they went to Ukraine for a holiday and family visits and I remember Sveta’s worried look after they came back. I had been following the news of unrest and people’s protests in Kiev and asked them what was going on. Sveta was very anxious and said that if things continued like that, there could be a civil war. I realized at that moment that for me it was an interest but for her it was very personal.

This is what I want to talk about. The personal tragedy of war and conflicts. The deepest tragedy of it, besides death and destruction, is the broken and destroyed relationships. Between friends, colleagues, relatives, siblings, families, even spouses… and, of course, nations.

I remember talking to David many months later when the conflict had become violent, Crimea annexed by Russia, the war in two eastern provinces had started and the propaganda campaign was in full swing. Of course, he was very emotional and clearly and understandably angry about many things, but the deepest pain and grief was the loss of friends. Not physically but relationally. Some of his good friends and colleagues in Russia and Crimea were now on the ‘opposite side’ and held strongly to beliefs that Ukraine is turning into a fascist state and that Putin is the savior with the best intentions.

David described this pain as similar to grieving over someone’s death. And he is not the only one. There are thousands, even millions of people who have experienced this grief and loss. I have met other Ukrainians with the same story. It is hard to imagine two other nations that used to be as closely connected as Ukraine and Russia. Through culture, history, economy, religion, family ties. Thousands of intermarried families who never used to think in terms of their nationalities. So many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia and vice versa.

Now there are countless families that don’t even talk to each other, that have cut off any contact. One young family I also met in Chiang Mai were serving as volunteers at an orphanage in Thailand. Their hometown in Ukraine is Kharkiv. In her youth, Yulia lived in Crimea and she has her own perspective on the challenges and situation but her aunts who live in Russia and used to call her all the time, now have stopped calling.

Yulia also had a story of being at the post office in her home town during the early days of the conflict and some people getting upset because her little daughter had hair ribbons with the colors of Ukraine national flag. The hostility and anger was very real and scary. She was helped by another customer who got them out of the situation. I can only imagine what a trauma it was for her little girl. Because of hair ribbons!

And one more story. During a visit to Minneapolis, USA I met an older gentleman, Viktor who is an active member of local Russian speaking Pentecostal church. He was born in Ukraine, came from a pastor’s family and was very much a patriot of his birthplace. This church in Twin Cities was very multinational – people from all over former Soviet Union who were united by their faith in God and worship in Russian language. Then the war in Ukraine started and the church was very active in praying for peace and sending aid to afflicted people. Viktor told me about his personal pain how the church was affected by it all. He said, “When we started praying for Ukraine, there were church members who said that they will leave the church if we keep supporting Ukraine.” I asked how they responded to this and he replied, “Well, we tried to talk. We decided that we need to sit down and listen to each other and seek unity as Christians above all else.”

When I pray for peace in Ukraine, I think about David, Sveta, Yulia, Viktor and many others. I think about myself. It could have been me. It could have been you. What if I lost friendship with my colleagues? What if I lost contact with my relatives? What if my church was splitting because of war? How would I respond? I hope that I would respond with as much grace and humility as my friends have.

I believe that peace will come, that Ukraine will find its identity and the suffering will not be in vain. Meanwhile I grieve with those who are grieving and pray for a time of healing and restoration.

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Photos from the Internet

Latviski:

Es gribu pastāstīt ko ļoti personīgu par Ukrainu, un, kas to būtu domājis, ka stāsts iesāksies Taizemē.

Mana agrākā dzīves vieta Čangmai pilsētā bija mazā un mierīgā rajonā netālu no lielākās universitātes. Tur nebija daudz ārzemnieku, tāpēc katrs iebraucējs tika ievērots un novērots. Man arī piemīt tāds ieradums novērot cilvēkus un mēģināt uzminēt, kādas tautības viņi ir. Sava veida derības ar vīru, kad viens otram jautājam – kā tu domā, no kurienes viņi ir? Amerikāņi, briti, vācieši? Mūsu mazajā ieliņā ievēroju kādu jaunu ģimeni, un uzreiz ‘secināju’ – viņi ir Austrumeiropas.

Un tad viņi pagāja man garām, un izdzirdēju krievu valodu. Līdz kādu dienu saņēmos (tādi mēs, eiropieši, esam) un iepazinos. Izrādījās, ka jaunie kaimiņi ir no Ukrainas. Dzimuši gan Gruzijā un Kazahstānā, bet mums, Latvijā, ir saprotams, kā cilvēki pārvietojās bijušajā PSRS darba un studiju dēļ. Dāvids ir astronoms, un strādā Taizemes galvenajā observatorijā. Viņš ir pētījis Visuma brīnumus caur daudziem pasaules lielākajiem teleskopiem, un ilgus gadus strādāja Krimas observatorijā. Es klausos ar milzīgu interesi, bet vienalga nevaru atcerēties nosaukumu tieši tiem objektiem, ko viņš pēta, un par ko pasniedz augstskolās. Viņa sieva Svetlana ar bērniem pamazām pielāgojās dzīvei šajā svešajā valstī tālu no mājām. Es biju priecīga, ka varēju atjaunot savas krievu valodas zināšanas, un bērni bija bezgala priecīgi, ka kāds viņus saprot.

Viņi devās uz Ukrainu nelielā atvaļinājumā pie radiem 2013. gada beigās. Atceros, cik Svetlana bija bēdīga pēc šīs ciemošanās. Apmēram zināju par protestiem Kijevā, cik nu no ziņām var uzzināt un izprast, tāpēc jautāju, kas tur notiek. Sveta ļoti negribīgi atbildēja, ka viņai bail no pilsoņu kara. Tajā brīdī es aptvēru, ka man tā ir vienkārši interese, bet viņai tās ir mājas, radi un draugi.

Par to arī ir šis stāsts. Par šo personisko traģēdiju, ko izraisa karš un konflikti. Visdziļākā sāpe, neskaitot nāvi un sabrukumu, ir izjauktas un iznīcinātas attiecības. Starp draugiem, kolēģiem, radiem, brāļiem un māsām, ģimenēm, pat dzīvesbiedriem un, protams, tautām un valstīm.

Pēc vairākiem mēnešiem runāju ar Dāvidu. Spriedze jau bija pāraugusi vardarbībā, Krievija bija anektējusi Krimu, austrumu provincēs bija sācies bruņots konflikts, un informatīvais karš bija uzņēmis milzīgus apgriezienus. Dāvids runāja ļoti emocionāli, un es varēju saprast viņa dusmas, bet viņā lielākā un dziļākā sāpe bija zaudētie draugi. Ne jau fiziski zaudēti, bet pārrautas attiecības. Daudzi no viņa labākajiem draugiem Krievijā un Krimā tagad bija “pretējā pusē”, un stingri turējās pie savas pārliecības, ka Ukrainā valda fašisti, un vienīgi Putins glābj situāciju un cilvēkus.

Dāvids teica, ka viņš sērojot. It kā kāds būtu nomiris, un vairs nav. Un viņš nebija vienīgais šajās sērās. Tūkstošiem, pat miljoniem cilvēku piedzīvo šo sāpi un zaudējumu. Esmu satikusi citus ukraiņus, kuriem līdzīgs stāsts. Mēs taču zinām, ka bija grūti iedomāties vēl tuvākas un ciešākas attiecības starp divām tautām un nācijām kā Ukraina un Krievija. Visas iespējamās saites – kultūra, valoda, vēsture, ekonomika, reliģija, radi. Tūkstošiem kopā savītu ģimeņu, kur agrāk nešķiroja pēc tautības. Tik daudziem ukraiņiem ir radi Krievijā, un krieviem Ukrainā.

Tagad ir neskaitāmas ģimenes, kur vairs nesazinās viens ar otru, kur šīs radu saites ir pārrautas. Vēl viena jauna ģimene, ko satiku Čangmai, bija atbraukuši uz gadu kā brīvprātīgie palīgi nelielā bērnunamā. Viņu mājas Ukrainā ir Harkivā. Savos pusaudzes gados Jūlija bija dzīvojusi Krimā, un viņai bija savs skats gan uz notikumu attīstību, gan situāciju, bet viņas tantes, kuras dzīvoja Krievijā un agrāk bieži zvanīja, jo ir vecas un vientuļas, bija pārstājušas zvanīt.

Vēl Jūlija pastāstīja kādu epizodi pasta nodaļā Harkivā, kas notika pašā konflikta sākumā. Viena daļa cilvēku bija sadusmojušies, jo viņas mazajai meitiņai matos bija lentītes Ukrainas karoga krāsās. Situācija kļuva visai draudīga, līdz viens svešs vīrietis viņas aizstāvēja un izveda laukā no pasta ēkas. Varu iedomāties, ko juta mazā meitene. Matu lentīšu dēļ!

Un pēdējais piemērs. Ciemojoties Amerikas Savienotajās Valstīs, Mineapolē es satiku kādu vecāku vīru Viktoru, kurš bija aktīvs vietējās krievvalodīgās Vasarssvētku draudzes loceklis. Dzimis Ukrainā un uzaudzis mācītāja ģimenē, Viktors bija liels savas dzimtās zemes patriots. Šī konkrētā draudze bija ļoti starpnacionāla – cilvēki no visām bijušajām PSRS republikām, kurus vienoja ticība Jēzum un pielūgsme krievu valodā. Tad sākās karš Ukrainā, un draudze no visas sirds aizlūdza un sūtīja palīdzību cietušiem cilvēkiem. Viktors man atklāja savu lielāko rūpi. Viņš teica – kad mēs sākām aizlūgt par Ukrainu, bija draudzes locekļi, kuri teica, ka iešot prom no draudzes, ja mēs atbalstīsim Ukrainu. Es jautāju, kā viņi to centās atrisināt, un atbilde bija – caur sarunām un dialogu un pārdomām par to, kas mūs, kristiešus, vieno.

Kad es lūdzu Dievam par mieru Ukrainā, es iedomājos par Dāvidu, Svetu, Jūliju, Viktoru un pārējiem. Es iedomājos par sevi. Jo tā varētu būt es. Tas varētu būt tu. Ja es pazaudētu draudzību ar labiem draugiem un kolēģiem? Ja es pazaudētu kontaktu ar radiem? Ja mana draudze varētu sašķelties kara dēļ? Es varu vienīgi cerēt, ka manī būtu tāda pati žēlastība un pazemība kā manos draugos.

Es ticu, ka miers atgriezīsies, ka Ukraina atradīs sevi, un ka šīs ciešanas nebūs veltīgas. Bet līdz tam brīdim es sēroju kopā ar tiem, kuri sēro, un lūdzu par dziedināšanu un atjaunošanu.

Why is Angelina Jolie causing a traffic jam in Battambang?

It turns out I have a few things in common with Angelina Jolie. She is in Cambodia and I am, too. She was in Battambang and I was there, too. She was shopping at the Night Market in Siem Reap and I was, too. She is researching the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide of 1975-79 and I am, too.

I guess that is where our commonalities end. She is spending much more money and actually making an important movie about the history of Khmer Rouge, based on the autobiography “First They Killed My Father”, written by a survivor Loung Ung. Angelina Jolie has been interested in Cambodia for years and one of her sons was adopted from here. So, obviously with such a high-profile global celebrity in town, the people of Battambang have noticed the presence of film crews and other entourage.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It is a sobering place. The Khmer Rouge (or Red Khmer) were a very radical Communist group with a utopian idea of restructuring the whole society. To create a class-less society,  they turned against education, religion, private ownership and any kind of freedom. Here are some of their slogans: “If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals” or “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.” (Mind you, many of the leaders were highly educated and had studied in Paris. Including Pol Pot himself.) The cities were emptied and the whole country was turned into a big labor camp with starving and suffering people. Almost 2 million died.

The Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21 (S-21) had been one of the best high schools in the city before it became a place of torture. This was a special prison for mostly Khmer Rouge cadres and their families and many other random people. Approx 17, 000 people were held, tortured and killed in this place. The torture was meant to extract ‘confessions’ of what kind of traitor are you and who are you spying for – Americans (CIA) or Russians (KGB)? Men, women, teenagers and children, even babies… all were killed.

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The Khmer Rouge had photographed every victim at the time of arrest and many after their executions. Now there are thousands of photos of faces… smiling, sad, angry, confused, beaten, hopeful, hopeless and scared. I look at these faces and I think, it could have been me since I was born in the 70s. These could have been my parents, my grandparents, my brothers. I was fortunate to be born in Latvia and they were unfortunate to be born here.

I met on the survivors of this horrible place. His name is Bou Meng and he is 72 now. What saved him? His skill of painting and ability to draw portraits of the Khmer Rouge leaders. His wife and two young children perished. Bou Meng has written his testimony and advocates for justice and truthful remembering of Cambodia’s past.

One researcher said, “Wartime brutality, Marxist fanaticism, obsessive and threatened nationalism – these seemed to be three of the principal elements that had contributed to this totalitarianism. … I was disturbed not by the banality of evil but the intellectual pretensions behind it.” Words to reflect upon since these kind of ‘intellectual pretensions’ still exist. How to vaccinate yourself against it?

And no, I did not meet Angelina Jolie… but I will be waiting to see her new movie.

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Meeting Bou Meng, one of the survivors of S-21

Latviski:

Izrādās, ka man un Andželīnai Džolijai ir šis tas kopīgs. Viņa ir Kambodžā, un es arī. Viņa bija Batambangā, un es arī. Viņa iepirkās Siemrīpas nakts tirdziņā, un es arī. Viņa pēta Kambodžas vēsturi, konkrēti Sarkano hmeru (Khmer Rouge) režīmu un genocīdu no 1975. līdz 1979. gadam.

Te laikam kopīgais beidzas. Viņai ir daudz vairāk naudas, ko tērēt, un šobrīd viņa uzņem spēlfilmu par Sarkano hmeru teroru. Stāsts būs autobiogrāfisks, balstīts uz grāmatu “Vispirms Viņi Nogalināja Manu Tēvu” un Lungas Angas atmiņām. Andželīna jau daudzus gadus interesējas par Kambodžu, palīdz dažādos humanitāros projektos, un viens no viņas dēliem ir adoptēts no šejienes. Tāpēc saprotams, ka tādas pasaules mēroga slavenības un filmēšanas grupas uzturēšanās mierīgajā Batambangas pilsētā rada lielu burzmu un sastrēgumus.

Kambodžas galvaspilsētā Pnompeņā es apmeklēju Tuol Sleng Genocīda muzeju (S-21). Ļoti traģiska vieta. Sarkanie hmeri bija radikāla un fanātiska komunistu organizācija ar utopisku ideju par visas sabiedrības pārkārtošanu un ideālas zemnieku valsts izveidošanu. Tika likvidētas, skolas, rūpnīcas, nauda, privātīpašums un aizliegta jebkāda reliģija. Viena no šī režīma devīzēm bija “Ja vēlies iegūt bakalaura diplomu, dari to, būvējot dambjus un kanālus.” Vai arī “Izglītība nav svarīga. Svarīgs ir darbs un revolūcija.” (Tas nekas, ka paši ‘revolūcijas’ vadītāji bija guvuši augstāko izglītību, piemēram, Francijā. Arī pats Pols Pots bija studējis Parīzē.) Pilsētas tika iztukšotas, un visa valsts pārvērsta par vienu lielu darba nometni ar izsalkušiem un nomocītiem cilvēkiem. Aptuveni 2 miljoni bojāgājušo četru gadu laikā.

Paaugstinātas Drošības cietums Nr.21 (S-21) tika izvietots vienā no galvaspilsētas labākajām vidusskolām. Bijušās klases kļuva par cietuma kamerām. Pārsvarā te turēja, spīdzināja un nogalināja ‘savējos’ – Sarkanos hmerus, kuri tika apsūdzēti nodevībā. Arī viņu sievas un bēŗni, pat mazuļi, un ģimenes locekļi tika nogalināti. Apmēram 17,000 upuru. Spīdzināšanas mērķis bija noskaidrots, kā labā tu spiego – vai amerikāņu (tātad CIP agents), vai krievu (tātad VDK)?

Sarkanie hmeri fotografēja visus apcietinātos aresta laikā, un daudzus arī pēc nāves. Tagad piemiņai un liecībai ir tūkstošiem fotogrāfiju. Sejas, kas raugās uz mums… ar skumjām, ar smaidu, ar dusmām, apjukumu, cerību un reizē bezcerību un lielām bailēm. Skatos šajās sejās un domāju, kā tā varēju būt es, jo esmu tās desmitgades bērns. Tie varēja būt mani vecāki, vecvecāki, brāļi. Man bija tā laime piedzimt Latvijā, un viņiem bija tā nelaime piedzimt šeit.

Muzejā satiku vienu no nedaudzajiem, kas izdzīvoja. Šo vīrieti sauc Bou Mengs, un viņam tagad ir 72 gadi. Kas viņu izglāba? Spēja zīmēt un gleznot Sarkano hmeru vadītāju portretus. Viņa sieva un divi mazi bērni gan tika pazudināti. Bou Mengs ir pierakstījis savu liecību un atmiņas, un aktīvi piedalās taisnīguma un dziļas pagātnes pētīšanas procesā. Viņš bija liecinieks tiesas prāvā pret vienu no bijušajiem Sarkano hmeru vadītājiem, kas notika visai nesen. Šie tiesu procesi sākās tikai pēc 30 gadiem. (Taisnīguma meklēšana Kambodžā ir garš un sarežģīts stāsts.)

Viens no Kambodžas pētniekiem nonāca pie šāda secinājuma. “Kara laika brutalitāte, Marksistu fanātisms, milzīgs un it kā apdraudēts nacionālisms – tie bija trīs no galvenajiem elementiem, kas noveda līdz šādam totalitāram režīmam. … Mani satriec nevis ļaunuma banalitāte, bet gan tā ‘intelektuālās pretenzijas.” Svarīgi pārdomāt šos vārdus, jo līdzīgas pēc dabas ‘intelektuālas pretenzijas’ jeb pamatojumi pastāv vēl šodien. Kā iegūt imunitāti pret šādām idejām?

Un, nē, es nesatiku Andželīnu Džoliju, bet es gaidīšu viņas jaunāko filmu.

 

Lessons from Ukraine: peacemaking can be counterintuitive

My current ‘office’ is a nice coffee shop in Riga where I enjoy the warmth and tasty treats. The days are getting shorter and the evenings darker. The air is much colder, too. Is it just me or the autumn is a perfect time for reflections?

As promised in my last post about Nobel Peace Prize laureates, I will continue my thoughts on people who are peacemakers. People who should be honored and supported and imitated. And my mind is in a country not too far from Latvia. Where the days are also getting shorter and the weather colder – Ukraine. I think of people in eastern parts of Ukraine who are bracing for another winter without all the things we appreciate so much. Heat, electricity, food, accessible healthcare…

The global community, including Europe, is facing many challenges and it seems that news headlines change very fast. But the issues and conflicts don’t go away just because the attention shifts elsewhere. I wish I could think of Ukraine as “yesterday’s news” but I cannot. The war in the two eastern provinces – Donestk and Luhansk – is still there. Yes, there is ceasefire (mostly holding) and negotiations and different initiatives but there is no peace. Not yet. And it will not come easily.

One of the things I have learned and start to experience in the times of tension, pressure and conflict is that everyone talks about “peace” but not everyone wants to be a “peacemaker”. Because honestly – real peace is counter intuitive. It goes against our emotions and our normal thoughts. It is much easier to get angry and hateful when you get hurt then to do the hard work of searching for some grace and forgiveness deep inside. It is much easier to blame. It is much easier to seek justice as in ‘eye for an eye’ but it has to be ‘my’ justice. Or even revenge as in “your whole head for my eye’.

In the times of war, the peacemakers can be some of the most ‘unpopular’ people. Admired by many but hated by others. I want to honor all the men and women in Ukraine who are committed to non-violent and sacrificial resistance to any kind of oppression, corruption, aggression and hatred. I hope to meet some them in person in the future. Meanwhile one of the ways we can support peace and restoration in Ukraine is by sharing the stories of love and compassion and great sacrifice.

Through social media and some personal contact I know one of these remarkable men. A local pastor from Donetsk who was forced to leave his home city and his church in 2014 because his humanitarian work was putting him and his family’s life in danger. Sergey Kosyak would not like to be singled out but he has inspired and encouraged thousands of people. In Ukraine and beyond. I love his motto “Do good. It is possible.”

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Last year when the violence and conflict broke out, many cities organized prayer tents, including in the Constitution Square of Donetsk. The tent was there for many months with the banner “Pray here for Ukraine” and it united people from all Christian denominations and even other religions. A local Muslim imam joined. They faced harassment, violent opposition, eggs, bottles, even rocks. Eventually the tent was removed by force and destroyed and the prayer movement had to go “underground”.

Here is a story from his FB posts which Sergey Kosyak gave me permission to share. (Also all photos in this post are from his personal archive.) On May 23, 2014 he wrote: “Friends, today was a tough day, but for me very difficult. To begin with, representatives of Donetsk People’s Republic destroyed our tent, and then there was the following story.

Several times I have gone to the city administration building to talk with the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, so I went once again. I didn’t find the person I had talked with earlier there but happened to see someone who attended my church. I was glad when I saw him, but he didn’t seem too glad we met. He began to yell that I was manipulating the people and things like that. In short, the negotiations failed, in the eyes of these people I had become the enemy. You tend to have short conversations with your enemy.

People are very angry, because, first of all, their hearts are empty and not filled with God. I told them that God loves them; I harbored no anger or hatred towards them in my heart, even when they beat me. I will not describe the beating itself, but that I am still alive, is just by the grace of God.

Among them were people who knew about our prayer tent, they cursed the others for what they did to me. After that, they gave me my things back and my money, then asked for forgiveness from me and that I would not be offended.

Before they started beating me I told them about Christ, called them to turn their hearts to God, and while they beat me I just prayed. I couldn’t make it to the prayer meeting in the evening because I had to go to the hospital.

Dark times have come to our region, people hate each other, they’re ready to kill, beat for a preposterous idea, and to die for those ideas. And they cannot see Him for whom it is really worth living and dying. God save the people, turn their attention to You.”

Since my post is getting long, I will continue with other stories later. But let me finish with the same encouragement that is even truer in the dark times… Do good! It is possible!

Volunteer team

Latviski:

Mans patreizējais ‘ofiss’ ir jauka kafejnīca Rīgas centrā. Te ir silts un garšīgi smaržo. Dienas kļūst īsākas, un vakari tumšāki. Gaiss arī daudz aukstāks. Kāpēc rudens vienmēr mani vedina uz dziļām pārdomām?

Kā jau solīju iepriekšējā rakstā par Nobela Miera Prēmijas laureātiem, es turpinu savas domas par cilvēkiem, kuri, manuprāt, ir miera veidotāji. Cilvēki, kurus jāciena, jāatbalsta un jāatdarina. Un manas domas ir valstī, kas nav pārāk tālu no Latvijas. Tur arī dienas kļūst īsākas, un laiks aukstāks. Ukraina. Domāju par cilvēkiem Ukrainas austrumos, kuri gaida kārtējo ziemu bez visām ērtībām un pamatvajadzībām. Siltums, apkure, elektrība, veselības aprūpe…

Pasaulē šobrīd ir daudz grūtību un izaicinājumu, un ziņu virsraksti strauji mainās. Taču problēmas un konflikti nekur neaiziet un nepazūd tikai tāpēc, ka mūsu uzmanība ir vērsta citur. Gribētos, kaut Ukraina būtu ‘vakardienas ziņas’, bet diemžēl tas tā nav. Karš divos austrumu apgabalos – Doņeckā un Luhanskā – turpinās. Jā, ir pamiers (kas pārsvarā tiek ievērots), tiek vestas sarunas, un ir dažādas idejas, bet miers vēl nav iestājies. Un neiestāsies tik drīz, jo smags darbs priekšā.

Es sāku arvien vairāk ievērot un piedzīvot, ka ‘juku’ laikos, kad ir liels sabiedrības spiediens un konflikts, daudzi runā par “mieru”, bet ne visi vēlas kļūt par “miera veidotājiem”. Jo atklāti runājot – īsts miers nav pašsaprotams. Tas ir pat pretrunā mūsu tā brīža emocijām un domām. Ir daudz vieglāk un ‘loģiskāk’ ļauties dusmām un naidam, ja tev kāds dara pāri. Nekā cīnīties ar naidu, un meklēt sevī spēju sniegt kaut kripatiņu žēlastības un piedošanas. Ir daudz vieglāk vainot. Ir daudz vieglāk dzīties pēc taisnības, lai būtu “acs pret aci”. Vēl vieglāk dzīties pēc atriebības, lai būtu “visa tava galva pret manu aci”.

Kara laikā mieru turošie var kļūt ļoti nepopulāri. Vieni viņus apbrīno, citi ienīst vai nosoda. Es gribu izteikt dziļu cieņu visiem cilvēkiem Ukrainā, kuri izvēlas cīnīties pret visa veida agresiju, korpupciju un naidu, bet ar nevardarbīgiem līdzekļiem. Tas prasa no viņiem ļoti daudz. Es ceru kādreiz satikt viņus personīgi, bet šobrīd es vēlos atbalstīt šo pašaizliedzīgo miera celšanas darbu Ukrainā, nododot tālāk stāstus par mīlestību, žēlsirdību un cerību.

Caur soctīkliem un saraksti, es pazīstu vienu lielisku cilvēku, kurš ir šajā komandā. Vietējais mācītājs no Doņeckas, kurš 2014. gadā bija spiests pamest savas mājas un dzimto pilsētu, jo viņa labdarība apdraudēja viņu pašu un ģimeni – sievu un bērnus. Sergejs Kosjaks negribētu, ka viņu īpaši izceļ, bet viņs ir iedvesmojis un iedrošinājis tūkstošiem cilvēku. Gan Ukrainā, gan ārpus tās. Man patīk viņa motto: “Dari labu. Tas ir iespējams.”

Pagājšgad, kad spriedze pārauga vardarbībā, daudzās pilsētās tika uzceltas lūgšanu teltis. Arī Doņeckas centrā, Konstitūcijas laukumā. Telts tur stāvēja vairākus mēnešus zem plakāta “Šeit aizlūdz par Ukrainu”, un lūgšanas apvienoja cilvēkus no visām kristīgām konfesijām. Pievienojās arī vietējais muslimu kopienas vadītājs. Viņi tika nosodīti, apsaukāti, pat apmētāti ar olām, pudelēm akmeņiem. Beigu beigās telts tika ar varu nojaukta, un aizlūdzēji nogāja “pagrīdē”.

Šeit viens īss stāsts no Sergeja Kosjaka Facebook lapas. (Viņš man deva atļauju izmantot gan stāstus, gan foto.) 2014. gada 23. maijā viņš rakstīja tā: “Draugi, šodien bija smaga diena, bet man pašam ļoti grūta. Iesākumā Doņeckas Tautas Republikas pārstāvji iznīcināja mūsu telti, un pēc tam sekoja šis notikums.

Vairākas reizes esmu gājis uz pilsētas administrācijas ēku, lai runātu ar Doņeckas Tautas Republikas pārstāvjiem. Tāpēc gāju arī šajā reizē. Nesatiku cilvēku, ar kuru runāju iepriekšējās reizēs, bet satiku kādu, kurš agrāk bija manā draudzē. Es priecājos viņu redzēt, bet viņš nelikās pārāk priecīgs. Viņš sāka kliegt, kas es grozot cilvēkiem prātus, utt. Vārdu sakot, nekādas sarunas nesanāca, jo viņu acīs es biju kļuvis par ienaidnieku. Un ar ienaidniekiem ir īsas sarunas.

Cilvēki ir ļoti dusmīgi. Pirmkārt, viņu sirdis ir tukšas, un tās nepiepilda Dievs. Es teicu viņiem, ka Dievs viņus ļoti mīl, ka es nedusmojos un neienīstu viņus. Pat tad, kad viņi sāka mani sist. Es nestāstīšu daudz par savu piekaušanu, bet tā ir Dieva žēlastība, ka paliku dzīvs.

Tur bija arī kādi, kuri zināja par mūsu lūgšanu telti. Viņi nolamāja tos, kuri mani piekāva. Tad viņi atdeva visas manas mantas un naudu un lūdza piedošanu. Lūdza, lai es neapvainojoties.

Pirms tiku sists, es stāstīju viņiem par Kristu. Aicināju vērst savas sirdis uz Dievu. Lūdzu Dievu, kamēr tiku sists. Vakarā gan es netiku uz lūgšanu sapulci, jo braucu uz slimnīcu.

Mūsu pusē ir pienākuši drūmi laiki. Cilvēki ienīst viens otru, ir gatavi nogalināt un sist kaut kādu iedomātu ideju dēļ. Ir gatavi arī šo ideju dēļ mirt. Un viņi neredz Personu, kura dēļ tiešām ir vērts dzīvot un mirt. Dievs, izglāb ļaudis.”

Vēl ir daudz stāsti, bet tos vēlāk. Nobeigumā es gribu citēt vēlreiz šos iedrošinājuma vārdus… Dari labu! Tas ir iespējams!

Hannover and Hiroshima and the church without roof

So many reflections after my recent trip to Hannover, Germany. I had the most unusual tour of the city. It told a story of significant past, diverse community, powerful kings and fascinating facts, but also tragedy, violence and beauty from the ashes. In the literal sense.

In just one night of October 8, 1943, more than 200,000 bombs were dropped on the city of Hannover. Not much was left standing. I think of my own city, Riga, and what it looked like after the war. I think of Sarajevo in Bosnia, Aleppo in Syria, Gaza in Palestine, towns and cities in eastern Ukraine…

Now you walk around and enjoy beautiful buildings and parks and street-side cafes. You see people enjoying a good life. You see diverse cultures welcomed here. Hannover is a very nice place to be. Still, the scars remain and I appreciate how people in Germany do not hide from these scars. As painful and ugly as they are. It speaks about healing and restoration.

There is a church without roof, now covered by our beautiful sky. Aegidienkirche originated in the 14th Century. It was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1943 and has not been rebuilt. Its ruin is now a memorial to the victims of war and violence. Like many other people before me, I stood there thinking, “If these ruins could speak…”

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The church has a Peace Bell, which the city of Hannover received in 1985 from its partner town of Hiroshima. The bell has a twin, which hangs in Hiroshima. Every 6th August a special memorial service to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is held in this church. As part of this service the peace bell is rung at the same time as its twin in Hiroshima chimes.

There is a statue of person who embraces. The person is on his/her knees. To me it shows humility, brokenness and longing to embrace and to be embraced. When we speak about forgiveness and repentance and redemption, there are many powerful and beautiful symbols. During workshops on reconciliation I ask for mental pictures and commonly people see ’embrace’ or ‘handshake’.

‘Ubuntu’ is an African thought and expression which is usually translated as “humanity toward others”. No wonder my African friends love to hug and to hold hands. There is something deep within us that tells us that an act of embrace is the acknowledgement that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa describes it like this, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

And one more thought as I reflect on this embrace. Theologian Miroslav Volf from Croatia said it the best: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

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