Why Baghdad must follow the path of Pretoria

IT WAS Oscar Sunday in the United States last week and millions of people stayed home to watch the glitter of the awards ceremony. Movies play a big role in our lives, particularly in the United States, where Hollywood’s output impacts millions of people. In fact movies are so central to our behaviour that the US military often turns to the seventh art to help train its troops.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Fri 10 Mar 2006, 10:51 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

Despite the dazzle of what is called Hollywood’s biggest night, it was not this year’s crop of films that got my interest, but rather two older films. The first dates from the 1960s. It’s Gillo Pontecorvo's epic, The Battle of Algiers, a black and white dramatisation dealing with the Arab insurrection against French rule in Algeria. Ever since the US invasion of Iraq three years ago, the Pentagon brass have periodically dusted it off to show it to selected audiences. The aim is that some of the Department of Defence’s officers and intelligence personnel, struggling to make sense out of the chaos that Iraq has turned into, might learn something about urban warfare from the movie.

There are numerous similarities between the Algiers of the 1960s and the Baghdad of 2006; the use of torture by the occupying power, frustration by a superior military force fighting an invisible insurgency; and the use of indiscriminate terror by the insurgents against civilian and military targets. But there is another film, somewhat more recent having been released in 2004, and which the Pentagon should seriously consider showing. Only the viewing this time should not be reserved exclusively to its officer corps and intelligence personnel, but should be made available to the Iraqi people; to as many of them as possible. And while on the subject, that same film should be shown in the Palestinian territories to members of Hamas, Fatah and other groups. And it should be shown in Israel; and in Afghanistan and Kosovo and other parts of the globe where there is conflict.

That film, In My Country, directed by John Boorman (The Tailor of Panama, Excalibur, Deliverance) touches upon South Africa's post-apartheid period. It deals particularly on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. The South African TRC was set up by the Government of National Unity to help the country deal with the ugliness that had transpired under apartheid rule. It was a period during which time no section of South Africa's society escaped unscathed. All sides turned to violence and all sides suffered from violence.

Yet what the TRC hearings accomplished is unprecedented in areas of conflict. The Commission hearings — established all over the country — brought blacks who had been imprisoned, tortured, abused and discriminated against in the most horrific way by white police officers, soldiers and vigilantes, face-to-face in tribunal-like settings to air their grievances — and then forgive each other. Victims of violence were able to come forward and be heard at the TRC. Perpetrators of violence could give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution, as long as they told the truth. Many of these hearings were carried live on national and international radio and television. It was confession on a national scale. The hearings were a crucial component in allowing South Africa to transition to full and free democracy.

In My Country, starring Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson, was therefore a good choice for the opening night of the Search for Common Ground 2006 Film Festival in Washington, one day after the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood’s Oscar night. "A beautiful and important film about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It will engage and influence not only South Africans, but people all over the world concerned with the great questions of human reconciliation, forgiveness, and tolerance," said Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, himself a victim of apartheid who spent 27 years in prison.

When asked why the miracle of South Africa could not be replicated in other parts of the world where conflicts are tearing societies apart, Derick Moyo, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of South Africa in Washington, replied: "The leaders of South Africa were committed to finding a solution." But more importantly, he added: "They had vision." It is precisely this vision that is lacking in the Iraq war — a vision for peace. Indeed, making war is easy, it's making peace that requires greater courage because it demands that one listens to his enemy’s concerns and fears, and then acts accordingly.

Be it the Shias and the Sunnis in Iraq, who are engaged in a conflict that has all the hallmarks of a civil war except the name, or the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinian government now in the hands of Hamas. It requires great courage, daring initiative and most of all, as Moyo, the South African diplomat pointed out, "it requires vision." Unless the leaders of Iraq, Palestine and Israel are able to develop a vision similar to the one so bravely adopted by post-apartheid South Africa, the Pentagon may continue showing reruns of The Battle of Algiers, rather than In My Country for many years to come.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington. Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com

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