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In the run up to Interfaith Week, we have been working with Shawlands Academy in planning a series of events on the theme of forgiveness.

On Thursday Kemal Pervanic spoke with pupils from Shawlands Academy and Rosshall Academy about his experiences as a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, which was set up by Bosnian Serb forces in the early days of the Bosnian War.

Two events were held in Shawlands Academy, one for S5s (15 yrs old) in the morning and one for S2s (12 yrs old) in the afternoon. Around 80 pupils in total had the opportunity to hear Kemal tell his story and then to engage in small group discussions with eachother considering the questions “What motivates you to forgive?”, “What do you need in order to forgive?” and, “can you empathise with perpetrators of violence?” Kemal also spent some time with each small group, answering their many questions.

Kemal described how he was taken to the concentration camp  – where conditions were horrific and where those imprisoned were often tortured and sometimes killed – purely because he was identified as a Muslim. He explained that people of different ethnicities and religions – Muslims and Christians – had lived peacefully side by side in what was then Yugoslavia but they were successfully manipulated by propaganda to see one another as a threat and the cause of their economic problems in the lead up to the war. Former neighbours became enemies and Kemal told of how one of his favourite teachers at school interrogated him in the concentration camp. One of the questions Kemal was asked by pupils was  – “why do you think he did it?”Kemal_forgiveness project website pic

Kemal’s answer was that ordinary people can become violent given the right circumstances –  particularly if they have been taught to believe that other people are inferior to them.

Another searching question was- “why did you forgive them?” Kemal responded that if he were to continue to hate those who imprisoned and tortured him, as he did for many years, that would have finished the job they had started. It was appearing in a radio interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that sowed the idea of forgiveness in Kemal’s mind as a way out of the cycle of hatred. Although dismissive of the idea at first, it was something Kemal eventually felt he could do for himself – without requiring anything from those who had hurt him. In the absence of an apology it is Kemal’s empathy with his captors that has enabled him to forgive. Forgiveness, he explained, does not mean condoning or excusing or forgetting, but it does require that we understand that all humans have the capacity for both good and evil.

Kemal was keen for the young people to recognise that forgiveness isn’t just relevant to the extreme acts such as he experienced, but that to be forgiving is important for all our relationships. In his conversations with pupils Kemal was encouraged in finding that many did make this connection with their own lives, and he was deeply impressed by their level of engagement, their independent thinking and the quality of their questions.

Kemal’s feedback was at least matched by the pupils’ appreciation for him. They described how hearing his story had been “eye-opening”, that they were saddened by his experiences and challenged by the idea of forgiving such terrible acts, but also “heartened” and “inspired” that he has been able to let go of the hatred and anger.

Kemal is a contributor to The Forgiveness Project, whose exhibition “The F Word: Images of Forgiveness” was also on display, giving pupils an insight into the deeply personal nature of forgiveness. The exhibition features the stories of people from different parts of the world, each exploring forgiveness in the face of atrocity. Over a hundred stories have been collected so far and you can read them – including Kemal’s – here.