Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It is not often that prime ministers or former prime ministers or coup leaders ask for forgiveness for their actions. Though their opponents may often call on them to apologize.

The Pacific island of Fiji has seen four coups in the last twenty years largely motivated by tensions between the Indian Fijians and native Fijian populations. One of them, in 1987, was led by a Fijian officer, Lt. Col. Sitveni Rabuka, who subsequently was elected prime minister, having reversed his position from being for Fijian political domination to being a proponent of multiracialism. However 21 years later deep divisions and bitterness over what he did still prevail.

Earlier this year Rabuka apologized for what he did in 1987 when removing Prime Minister Bavadra’s government but, as he said this summer, only one of the people he had hurt had told him he forgave him.

Something deeper had happened in Rabuka’s spirit in August. When he visited the University of Fiji medical school, he was given by the head of the university, Professor Satendra Nandan, three books as a gift. Nandan had been a member of the Bavadra government that was overthrown. One of the books The Loneliness of Islands contains poems Rabuka had never heard of and many of which were written after 1987.

Rabuka has for some months been doing regular columns in the Fiji Times. In his column on 2nd September he wrote that many of Nandan’s poems ring of the hurting feelings of a man deeply affected by his actions of that year. ‘But no line hurt me and caused me more guilty grief than the bracketed line in the second verse:

I’ve traveled from an island
With a soldier’s wound in my side
(One who should have protected me);
Still I am alive
Something precious remains

That part in parenthesis is like a bullet to the heart. I realized that I have not done enough to console or repair the spirit of those I had hurt. No good deed can ever repair a non-forgiving heart. This article is not an “opinion column”. It is an appeal for forgiveness from all I have hurt and have not been able to forgive me.

My duty is to appeal for forgiveness; you have the right to refuse. These include the soldiers who obeyed as a matter of loyalty to superiors saying “ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die”; members, supporters, families and relatives of Dr. Bavadra’s government, the vanua (land, people and custom), churches and religious organizations, those who lost friends and relatives to immigration, those who lost jobs or promotion opportunities, and all others who were hurt, some simply as loyal subjects of the crown – to you all, I apologise, and say I will never support anyone promoting divisive strategies in this God enlightened land.’

He concluded, ‘People in leadership positions now must pray for the courage to say sorry but also remember the hurt have the right not to forgive. All should know that forgiveness heals.’

I asked Ratu Meli Vesikula, who has been working to build bridges of trust between the communities, about the significance of this apology. He emailed me, ‘For the first time in 21 years the writer has shown true humility and humbleness of heart. Freely admitting that his actions were wrong and asking those who he had hurt or harmed to forgive him. I think the people of Fiji, especially the Indian Fijians, will endorse the sentiments above and some healing may have taken place privately and some hitherto unforgiving hearts may have opened slightly after yesterday’s heartfelt apology.’

Ratu Meli has himself made the journey from racist to healer. At the time of the 1987 coup he was enlisted as a leader of the nationalist movement whose slogan was ‘Fiji for the Fijians’. He advocated violence, even threatening to put Indians in a lovo, a Fijian oven in the ground. He became a cabinet minister in the interim government. When later removed from the post, he led a breakaway and even more extremist faction.

It took Ratu Meli five months to realize that the coup had not been mounted to benefit the indigenous people but to restore a certain group to power. For the chief, this realization came, he told me, through a forty-day period of prayer and fasting, and seeking divine guidance, which resulted in a ‘personal revolution’. He began to realize that God had no favorite race. ‘We are all his children, standing equal in his sight. I began listening to God and found new ideas were put into my heart.’ This led to his publicly apologizing to the Indian community and asking for their forgiveness.

Professor Nandam has responded generously to Rabuka’s apology for the 1987 coup. In an article in Fiji Times ‘A Strange Meeting’ he described their encounter. Rabuka had come to the university campus to see how he could help students from his province. ‘I greeted him with all the courtesy that any visitor to the University is entitled. My first comment was: “You always give me surprise visits, Mr. Rabuka!” Twenty-one years, 3 months and 8 days before, Nandam had a glimpse of Colonel Rabuka, then unknown  to him. ‘Then he was surrounded by masked gunmen.’

Mr. Rabuka now, like most of us, is growing grey with a deepening sense of time passing: some work of noble note may yet be done. He mentioned his grandchild and his interest in writing. I even suggested to him, since he has an MA, he should think of doing a
PhD with us. We have a programme in Literature and Writing up to doctoral level which my wife Dr. Jyoti Nandan and I teach to ten delightful Masters students: one as old as me.  And the pen is always lighter than a gun; and more creative.’

As Rabuka left, Nandam gave him three books:  two by him; one by his daughter Dr. Kavita Nandan who is currently on the university staff. The titles of the three books were: Fiji: Paradise in Pieces,  The Loneliness of Islands and Stolen Worlds. ‘So it was a pleasant surprise to see in Fiji Times Mr. Rabuka writing an unusually sensitive piece on “When Forgiveness Heals”

Nandam went on ‘Writing itself is a healing act. No human hand has written more than Gandhi’s. And Gandhi’s grief was often lessened by his writing and a sense of humour.  His words continue to heal those who are dispossessed and displaced in any part of our disjointed world.

Even Jesus, in Chapter 8, St John’s Gospel, writes when a woman, caught in the act, is brought to him for condemnation.  She’s to be stoned according to Moses’ laws carved in granite. Jesus writes on the ground.  And then pronounces the most compassionate judgment in the literature of any sacred text: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. And again he stooped down, wrote on the ground.  And they who heard him were convicted in their own conscience….

Mr. Rabuka’s piece reminded me of many things, many thoughts.  It takes a person of courage to apologize; a person of character to ask for forgiveness; a person of conscience to forgive.

Doubtless the colonel had damaged the lives of many innocent people in a small fledgling democracy.  This hurt was felt near far and no other coup in Fiji has been that shocking or devastating; others may have been more brutal; this was betrayal. He did wound individuals and communities.   Even the Queen of Fiji felt hurt, powerfully expressed.

Mr. Rabuka has, I feel, a genuine sense of healing for our wounded national consciousness.  That is why he deserves the title of Mr. Since 14 May ’87 he acquired several titles but none is more respectful and self-respecting than Mr.’

Professor Nandam said that meeting Mr Rabuka and reading his piece took him back several decades beyond the coups.  It was in form VI that his English teacher, Mr. F E Joyce, gave him a poem ‘A Strange Meeting’ which he’d memorized. It was written during World War I by the poet Wilfred Owen who died seven days before the Armistice in 1918. ‘The futility and pity of violence is deeply felt. The poem may have some resonance and relevance to all our lives:  soldiers and civilians.  It is about the pity of war; and how truth unfolds the deepest healing in the human heart. In the poem two dead soldiers meet–the killer and the killed.  They recognize each other. 

The meeting of dead soldiers takes place in Hell. Mr. Rabuka’s and mine took place in paradise, flawed through it may be. The healing and forgiveness is in being awake to this truth:  So that when our grandchildren meet they may embrace and bless each other. For Fiji is just another four-letter word for Hope, even Love.’