The Truth and Reconciliation
Commission: It's a novel concept that has captured the imagination
of the world. But as South Africa shifts gears for the next millennium,
can this Commission heal the scars left by fifty years of conflict?
That's the question
that propelled Dr. Jeffrey Sonis, an epidemiologist at the University
of Michigan, to launch his latest research project: evaluating the
impact testifying before the TRC has on the survivors of the apartheid
"Torture and other gross
violations of human rights were commonplace during apartheid. The
survivors of such extreme forms of violence are high-risk for post-traumatic
stress disorder, depression and anxiety," says Sonis. "One theory
behind the Commission is that testifying in an open session may
help relieve these conditions. Further, the Commission hopes that
by lessening the pain, it will help promote forgiveness and reconciliation."
But it's a theory that
hasn't been tested, and, according to Sonis, it's also controversial.
In South Africa, he says, "many think of forgiveness as a bludgeon
that is being forced upon them."
A long-time advocate
for human rights, Sonis' interest in healing after trauma was ignited
by his participation in a fact-finding mission in former Yugoslavia.
At a Red Cross transit camp at Karlovac, Croatia, Sonis' team met
with a group of villagers from Ljubija, a small village in Northern
Bosnia. "We asked if the villagers were willing to talk about their
experiences and there was silence," said Sonis. Eventually, one
elderly woman explained: "We have fear into our bones," she said.
But slowly, the residents
of Ljubija began to unravel the past. They described in vivid detail
a mass grave in an iron mine just outside their village - a grave
where the bodies of their families, friends and neighbors had been
left to rot.
While intensely painful
for the villagers, Sonis believes that talking began a form of cathartic
release. The next day, one of the women told him: "When you came
to camp yesterday, we didn't want to talk. But now we are glad that
you came. Talking was painful, but it really helped."
Likewise, Sonis concedes
that testifying may actually increase anxiety in the short term
for the South African survivors. Yet over time, he expects that
it will ease their pain. That's why Sonis plans to interview each
group now, while the experience is still fresh for those who testified,
and then again, one year later.
Ultimately, Sonis hopes
that his work will help identify what enables victims of national
trauma to overcome pain and hatred. "Several other nations are candidates
for commissions like these in the future," says Sonis. "But first
we have to ask a basic question: Do they work?"
Dr. Jeffrey Sonis
is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Associate Director
for Human Rights at the Program in Society and Medicine at the University
of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Sonis is an expert in the connection
between health and human rights. In 1993, he participated in a fact-finding
mission to former Yugoslavia with Physicians for Human Rights. Sonis
is collaborating with a sister project conducted by Drs. Audrey
Chapman and Patrick Ball at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science.