The Times, UK
Oct 1 2005

Bury a painful past - or dig it up?
Ben Macintyre



WHILE TRAVELLING in Kenya as a student, I met an elderly white man
who had helped to put down the Mau Mau rebellion, the bloody Kenyan
revolt against British colonial rule that erupted in the 1950s. We
got talking at the hotel bar, and this leathery white hunter
described how he had helped British forces to track and kill the
rebels in the Kenyan forest. He summoned over the barman. `You know
who this is?' he said, pointing to the African in his apron. `This is
General Chui, former commander of the Mau Mau.' The Kenyan barman
gave an unreadable half-smile, and slipped away to get more drinks.
I remember thinking what an extraordinary example of historical
reconciliation I had witnessed. Here were two men who would happily
have killed one another three decades earlier, tacitly agreeing to
overlook the past. `We just don't ever talk about what happened,'
explained the white man. `It's better that way.' At the time, I
thought he was right. Today I am far less certain.



After an episode of acute trauma, should societies bury the past,
cauterise history by an effort of intentional amnesia, and move on?
Or should they seek an accounting, punish the guilty and establish
the truth? Is it better to remember, or to forget?

Two recent events have raised those questions with new insistence.
Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter who died last week, excavated and
preserved the memory of what had happened to him and other Jews in
the Second World War as a sacred duty, a moral obligation incumbent
not just on those who lived through the conflict, but on all who came
after, forever.

By stark contrast, the Algerian people yesterday voted to forget the
grim civil war that has claimed 150,000 lives since 1992. The new
charter for `peace and national reconciliation' is a sweeping amnesty
that pardons the few guerrillas still at war who lay down their arms
and, by implication, the police officers and security agents who also
committed terrible crimes. This was a mass exercise in national
amnesia.

The charter makes no provision for the 10,000 people still missing,
les disparues, taken from their homes and probably killed. This is a
guarantee of impunity for the police and army, for the charter
states: `The sovereign Algerian people reject all allegations
intended to hold the state responsible for a policy of
disappearances.'

No one can blame the Algerian people for wanting to draw a line under
the recent, terrible past. It was hard enough to get the world to pay
attention when the slaughter was at its height. The news seldom got
out, for journalists were themselves targeted by the killers, and
even when it did the overlapping stories of terrorist and
state-backed atrocity were almost impossible to tease apart. After
the nightmare of squalid and complex murder, Algeria wants to rest
from remembrance and judgment, only to forget.

But history shows that the act of remembering, of digging out the
truth, however awful, is the only way to defy the killers. `The
struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against
forgetting', declares a character in Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter
and Forgetting. Organised amnesia is only a temporary palliative.

In the aftermath of horror, many nations have caught their breath,
hoping to create the stability to rebuild by setting aside questions
of guilt. But the confrontation with history is thus delayed.
Sustainable peace can only be built, in Algeria as elsewhere, by
coming to terms with the violent past, as both Chile and South Africa
have shown. The act of forgetting silences the victims, leaving the
wounds to fester. Turkey's bid to join the EU may yet be derailed by
its determination to forget what happened to the Armenians of Eastern
Anatolia, murdered in their thousands in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire
disintegrated.

The salve for historical pain is not revenge or time - and still less
monetary compensation - but truth, and the justice that comes from
knowing it has been unearthed.

Which brings me back to the Mau Mau, and a dingy act of amnesia by
Britain that has never been acknowledged, or investigated. Two new
books, by David Anderson and Caroline Elkins, have revealed the full
horror of what happened in this murderous little conflict. British
troops killed and tortured with impunity and largely without scruple.
The Kikuyu tribe, from whom the Mau Mau recruited their adherents,
were herded en masse into concentration camps. The rebels were
depicted as subhuman beasts and brutally suppressed, while British
officers encouraged `loyalist' Kenyans to do their worst; their worst
was truly unspeakable.

When it was all over, 150,000 people were dead (just 32 were white),
and Kenya's independence was brought forward. Leaders on all sides
agreed that peace required forgetfulness. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's
first President, dismissed the Mau Mau as `a disease which has been
eradicated and must never be remembered'. No British official was
ever investigated. The past was buried in a mass grave.

Sure enough, half a century later, memory is stirring again, as it
always does. A Kenyan Government investigation is under way, though
Britain has so far maintained a dismissive silence on the matter. The
few surviving Mau Mau deserve no compensation; they were often as
brutal as their adversaries. But neither should the past be
deliberately ignored.

Wiesenthal urged: `Only remember.' I will not forget a white man
insisting that we forget the past - and the pained half-smile of a
Kenyan barman that I think I finally understand.