War enjoys exciting press in our storytelling tradition. Photographs of men
firing guns and charging forward make great selling visuals. A Pandora’s box
of pestilence, humiliation, rape, egos’, NGOs’, poverty and intensely debated
editorials read by people too far away most of the time, usually do not.
Our images are often of the ordinary and the obvious. They reinforce our
worldview and our view of ourselves. We can remain comfortable, removed from
violence and its responsibility whether its 75 policemen murdered in North India
or the disregard for tribal lives over generations. After all we are normal and
ordinary people deserving of justice and peace. Until Pandora comes knocking.
In 2007, I traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia. I immersed myself in stories
and on occasions experienced great fear for my own life. Unlike many people,
I was fortunate enough to leave. The former liberian warlord “General Butt
Naked” got his name from fighting stark naked and claims to have personally
killed more than 10,000 people during Liberia’s civil war. He commanded his child
soldiers to commit unspeakable crimes and enforced his command with brutality.
The general is now a Christian evangelist named Joshua. We accompanied him
as he walked the earth, visiting villages where he had once murdered, seeking
forgiveness and endeavoring to improve the lives of his former child soldiers.
I expected him to be killed outright but what I witnessed opened my eyes to an
idea of forgiveness, which I always thought impossible. In the midst of incredible
poverty and loss, I watched people who had nothing, absolve a man who had
taken everything from them.
Our ideas of victory often involve defeating an enemy outside ourselves. A
terrorist. A naxalite. A monster. Not within. Does forgiveness or redemption
replace our idea of justice? Joshua says that sorry isn’t enough and one has to live
it and prove it. He says he does not mind standing trial for his crimes and speaks
about them from soapboxes across Monrovia to an audience that often includes
We look upon these victims and perpetrators as others far away. We prevent
ourselves from seeing ourselves in them, in what we might fear the most, and
which is so much a part of our deepest potentials. I am fascinated with the general
because he represents the possibility of what we could be, for worse and possibly
for better as well.
“The banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt that was used to
describe how the greatest evils in human history were not executed by psychopaths
but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and
participated with the view that their actions were normal and ordinary.
I have come away from war with a sense of guilt which for a long while I could
not explain. I wondered what use it would be to exhibit photographs of faraway
wars, which I know would not sell in India, until I decided that the most depressing
thing about working in war zones was not the fear of death. It is seeing the same
things, perhaps the seeds of the same things within ourselves and in the way we
treat our own people.
Disease, war and horror weren’t the only things that exited Pandora’s box. The last
to exit was hope. If someone as atrocious as the general can attempt to redeem
himself, regardless of whatever idea of justice prevails or its execution and
regardless of the good or bad opinion of anyone, there is hope. Before he begs
for forgiveness, he had to forgive himself. Healing comes with confession and
then hopefully, forgiveness. Healing for all sides.
And that is hope. For all of us.
- Ryan Lobo 2010