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The New York Times
December 9, 2001

Designer Truth Commissions


When Argentina set up the world's first major truth commission in 1983, the
participants never imagined their invention would someday become a required
part of any transition to democracy. But truth commissions have proliferated,
and now every nation emerging from dictatorship or war wants one. This year
Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Peru, Panama, East Timor, Yugoslavia, Bosnia
and South Korea all began commissions or have them under way.

At the same time that truth commissions have gone global, they've gone local
as well. The commission that Sierra Leone is constructing, for example, must
wrestle with one of the cruelest aspects of its war - child soldiers. There
were perhaps as many as 10,000 of them, as young as 7 or 8, abducted,
indoctrinated, some forced to kill their own friends and family. They were
among the war's most vicious killers and are now its most shattered
survivors. The truth commission is charged with helping reintegrate them into
their communities.

The most likely arrangement will be that if they come before the commission
to confess privately, their confessions will not be used against them.
Afterward, the commissioners will work with village leaders to arrange a
traditional ceremony for the child soldiers from each village, in which the
community will express its condemnation and then welcome the children home.

This year Alex Boraine, one of the chief architects of South Africa's truth
commission, founded the International Center for Transitional Justice in New
York. The group has an initial grant of $4 million from the Ford Foundation
to advise nations on mechanisms to deal with the past, including truth
commissions. Staff members come from all over the world, and they encourage
each nation they consult with to tailor its truth commission to its own
specific needs, drawing on its own traditional practices.

In East Timor, the truth commission is trying to help low-level offenders
rejoin society after hundreds of people were killed by Indonesian troops and
their militia allies in September 1999. About 10,000 East Timorese
collaborated with the Indonesian military in its crimes. Many fled to West
Timor, which is part of Indonesia, and are now afraid to come home, fearing
acts of revenge, even lynching. So the truth commission is encouraging
village elders to hold ceremonies to allow the offenders to hear the
community's disapproval. The offenders are assigned community service and are
then embraced.

A typical ceremony took place in July in the village of Viqueque, to deal
with a fight between two youth groups that resulted in two murders. The
leaders were arrested, but to deal with the lesser participants, Viqueque
held an all-day ritual on the grounds of a church.

According to a United Nations official who attended, the four young men sat
on one side of the stage with the victims on the other. In between, a
traditional village judge, barefoot and in costume, sat cross-legged on the
floor. Several hundred people watched while the judge delivered a long,
chanted song detailing the crimes and asking for reconciliation.

When the judge finished, he slaughtered a cow and sprinkled the men with its
blood, a symbol of cleansing. Then the local Roman Catholic bishop celebrated
Mass, and the men signed a 21-point agreement governing their future
behavior. The ceremony was followed by a feast, a concert, a soccer match and
(rumor has it) a cockfight. This is a long way from the sober closed-door
interviews with the victims of Argentina's dirty war. But war and
dictatorship are not modern inventions, and neither are the basic ways
societies find to respond.