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Preaching Reconciliation in a Bitter War

Graca Machel seeks to rehabilitate the children abused and orphaned by 14 years of civil conflict. INTERVIEW: EX-FIRST LADY OF MOZAMBIQUE

WHEN Gra,ca Machel talks about forgiving one's bitterest enemies, she's not dealing in abstractions. She's been there. ``I have to tell you that it's not easy,'' says the former first lady of Mozambique during a lengthy interview here following a speaking engagement. ``But what we have to give [our enemies] is understanding - and give them love.''

In a world of warfare and terrorism motived by revenge, her plea for forgiveness sounds hopelessly idealistic to some. Yet in a world needing ways to reconcile long-warring factions, hers is a message of hope.

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From a worldly perspective, she has ample reason to hate. Her late husband, Samora M. Machel, died in an airplane crash over South Africa in 1986 - a disaster engineered, she says, by the South African government. [South Africa denies any involvement, and a 1987 inquiry by an international team of aviation specialists tends to support their denial.] Now, as president of the National Organization of Children of Mozambique, Mrs. Machel sees first-hand the devastation that 14 years of warfare has wrought on children.

Citing figures from UNICEF, she notes that 750,000 children have been killed as a result of the Mozambican conflict - a number she compares to one jumbo jet crashing every day for a year.

The bulk of her work centers on rehabilitating the 250,000 orphans in Mozambique whose parents have been killed, forced to flee, or simply lost. Many of the children, she says, were kidnapped by right-wing antigovernment rebels belonging to the Mozambique National Resistance Front, or Renamo. The children were then forced to serve the Renamo guerrillas.

Help children be children

Her goal, she says, is to ``try to make these children become children again - to do things normal children do.'' Her greatest concern is for the children so ``traumatized'' by their experiences that they refuse to communicate. Breaking through to these children, she says, requires motherly affection, so that they once again begin to trust adults. Since her program has no psychologists or psychiatrists, it relies on such ``community forces'' as finding surrogate mothers and placing the children in village homes.

African specialist Michael Sinclair of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation calls her the ``philosophical agent'' behind the children's program, which he describes as ``immensely successful.''

``She's been through things that would have overwhelmed the average person,'' adds Prexy Nesbitt, an American teacher in Chicago who is a senior consultant for the Mozambican government. From those experiences, in her own life and in daily contact with children, he says, Machel has learned ``a tremendous lesson'' in the nature of reconciliation.

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Asked to elaborate on the morality of that lesson, Mrs. Machel explains her convictions simply. Killing, she says, is ``absolutely wrong.'' Revenge is not acceptable. And the values of family, community, and mutual respect are essential.

``I think especially based on my African tradition, what I would suggest is that the base of moral behavior is first of all solidarity, love, and mutual assistance - starting within the family.''

Describing a nation as a ``huge family built by the different cells'' of individual families, she says that if a stable nation is to be created, ``all of us have to look at what is happening in our families - how far we have been able to build stability, understanding, even tolerance, to accept that we can have different ideas, different positions.''

Such a tolerance for diversity, she feels, is ``very important. If you have a different idea from mine, it's not because you're worse than me. You have the right to think differently.''

But can that tolerance be stretched so far as to permit any behavior - even kidnapping?

Not at all, she insists. ``When you kidnap someone, you are forcing someone to do something he doesn't want to. If you were convincing him to join a movement, that would be different. But no one has the right to impose positions through violence or force.''

Yet however bad the situation in Mozambique, she insists that the way forward lies through ``nonviolent and nonconfrontational'' means that eventually allow the reintegration of the Renamo fighters into communities.

``We know that they have killed thousands of people,'' she explains. ``But we say, `We're not going to kill them.' We'll bring them again to society, and we'll try to make them become normal people again....

``I think one of the historic responsibilities of the oppressed is to liberate the oppressors,'' she says, in language echoing the Marxist orientation of her husband's government. ``That's why we say, `OK, come join us. We know that you made all these decisions within a system. So let us struggle together against a system which made you turn on the citizens of your country.'''

Machel recognizes how difficult such reintegration will be. ``Many families in Mozambique have lost their parents, relatives, children. And then you go to them and you tell them, `You have to accept that [the former guerrillas] have to come back to your village.'

``Personally,'' she says, her voice rising with feeling, ``it's not easy. But morally we cannot do anything else. This is the only way to behave.''

Machel admits that ``I had to talk to myself for a long time'' to reach that position of forgiveness, given her conviction that her husband died as the result of a South African plot.

What she concluded was that ``I have to try to be cool, and understand that maybe my message has to be to the young whites.'' Her own children, she says, will ``have to know why their father was killed. I hope in their future they will never have to be in a position to face something similar.''

What gave her the moral strength to take this position? She traces it to two influences: her Christian upbringing, and the ``core of morals and principles I learned when I joined the liberation movement.''

Dance parties and politics

Born in a rural area to Christian parents, she was sent at age 6 to a Methodist mission school where her brother and sister worked. Following secondary education in what is now Maputo, Mozambique, she went to Portugal in 1968 for university studies on a mission scholarship.

``Being in Portugal gave me the opportunity to get in touch with people of other [Portuguese] colonies - Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tom'e. We had to pretend that we were having parties,'' she says, ``and play the music very loud and pretend we were dancing. But we were talking about politics.''

Returning home in 1973, she joined the Mozambican Liberation Front (known by its Portuguese acronym Frelimo). Although she received some training as a soldier, she worked with women and children and taught school near the border with Tanzania.

``We were fighting against the Portuguese Army, and of course many times many people were obliged to kill. But every time we captured a Portuguese soldier, he was not treated as enemy,'' she claims. ``Because we always had this sense that people can be slaves of a system, but people themselves are not bad people, and they have the same rights as we do have.''

What one ethical principle, today, would she single out as most important for her nation?

``I think it's respect for human life, and a strong sense of helping each other.'' The need at present, she says, is to recognize that ``no one can do things alone - we have to do it together. We have to be able to know that when you are helping someone, you are helping yourself.''

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