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From Kigali to Kabul: The Role of Art in Post-Conflict Reconciliation

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the experience of Rwanda, a post-conflict society that is using art as part of its national reconciliation effort. I argued that Rwanda’s active support of cultural industries, including film, music, crafts, architecture and theater, among other art forms, has played a key role in its peace building efforts  in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide that killed nearly one million people. Using anecdotal evidence, I specifically examined the use of theater, which helped national audiences express difficult emotions, re-examine established ideas, and improve their emotional well-being. In this blog post, I will examine how the creative sector has helped facilitate national reconstruction efforts in another conflict zone: Afghanistan.

To begin with, it is important to note that every country’s experience in using art in their reconciliation process is different – anywhere from how their history of conflict influences their engagement to the state of cultural policies in countries. In Rwanda’s case, the government began working alongside international partners shortly after their civil war to establish a platform for the growth of creative industries. Through relatively peaceful periods, they were also able to create an enabling environment that sustained this growth. However, in the case of Afghanistan, the cycles of conflict have made the growth of the cultural policies all the more challenging. Despite difficulties, there are several interesting examples in Afghanistan of how a network of actors, including government, civil society, and international partners, has used art in its attempt to facilitate healing and rebuild national identity.

In 2006, Afghanistan embarked on a Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice Action Plan that included a component focused on the public acknowledgment of Afghan war victims. One of the key activities intended to facilitate the healing process was the establishment of a national war crime museum. According to the action plan, the museum would “educate younger generations by presenting the history and symbols of three decades of war, including pictures and names of victims, photographs, and films of the war and destruction.” There were various partners that worked together on this project, including the Ministry of Culture and Information, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and several civil society organizations.  As noted in one news piece, when the museum opened in 2008, it was effective in commemorating the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan victims, which was an important step in the healing process, but there are several other aspects of the reconciliation process that the country is still working through.

Other networks in Afghanistan like the Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG) have worked closely with Afghan war victims to help facilitate dialogue through other creative means. For example, in the early part of 2011, TJCG hosted a National Victim’s Conference in Kabul with representatives from government, civil society, and victims of war from various regions in Afghanistan. According to the International Journal of Transitional Justice, the highlight of the conference was a play entitled ‘Infinite Incompleteness’ that was performed by local Afghan actors who were themselves victims of war. A powerful excerpt from the journal reads:

The play begins with a story of a woman who is roaming the streets of Kabul looking for the children she lost during the conflict and ends with the women giving birth to a new baby. While noting she will never forget the hurt and loss she has faced during the conflict, she states, “Justice for us as victims is but one word and has only one interpretation: remembering (us) and acknowledging our eternal life of our beloved (dead)…The audience shifted back and forth from watching with concentration, taking photos or filming the performance with their mobiles phones to crying – some silently and others loudly and uncontrollably. After the performance, there was a rush to the microphone, as women and men in the audience wanted to tell their stories.

There are a number of other examples of Afghanistan’s use of the creative sector in its reconciliation process that include film, where the Afghan film industry is receiving more support in telling their national stories.  The Afghan Film Project is one such organization that is supporting local filmmakers through capacity building efforts. Slowly, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of film in building national identity. As noted in an article about Afghanistan’s booming film industry, this is in sharp contrast to the situation over twenty years ago when motion pictures and theaters were banned and destroyed.

Undoubtedly, the emotional burdens of war can leave deep scars in a country’s psyche and every nation handles its post-conflict reconciliation process differently. But whether you examine the experience through the lens of Kigali or Kabul, there is something universal and powerful about the expression of art. As beautifully stated in the piece If Art Is a Universal Language by John M. Eger, “in creating art, consciously or not, artists are attempting to communicate at a powerful emotional level to those within their own culture. The best work transcends its cultural matrix and speaks directly to our common humanity.”

Photo credit: flickr user Thomas Hawk

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