Coming to terms with the past: Colombian delegation visits German memorial sites. | Latin America | DW | 08.07.2019
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Coming to terms with the past: Colombian delegation visits German memorial sites.

How does a country work through its conflict-ridden past? To learn more, Colombian journalists and scholars visited Germany to find out how the country has been addressing its own past.

Delegationsreise der DW Akademie März 2019 (DW/L. Weller)

The Colombian delegation visited numerous memorial sites in Germany, including the former Buchenwald concentration camp

Healing the wounds of a conflict-ridden past is an arduous process and one Germany has been going through for decades. Colombia is just starting its own journey after having ended a civil war that lasted more than 40 years.

How do different generations in both countries deal with the past? Which didactic methods work? And what role do media and journalists play in this?

DW Akademie recently invited Colombian journalists and scholars to take a closer look at how Germany is dealing with its past. The group met with local experts during visits to memorial sites and educational centers in Frankfurt, Berlin and Weimar.

A different perspective promotes understanding

At the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, Colombian researcher Andrés Restrepo studies a simple sketch of a man. When he puts on special glasses that are part of the exhibition, the man appears as a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist. This is repeated with similar sketches with a goal to address prejudices, discrimination and racism.

"I'm inspired by the fact that visitors can develop their own story by interacting with the exhibition pieces," Restrepo says.

Delegationsreise der DW Akademie März 2019 (DW/L. Weller)

Andrés Restrepo works for the Hacemos Memoria project in Medellín

He works with the Hacemos Memoria project at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín. Supported by DW Akademie, the project explores and promotes the role of journalism in public debates on the past.

During visits to other German memorial sites, Restrepo focuses on didactic methods for addressing the past. "The challenge is to encourage visitors to discuss current issues such as racism and discrimination," he explains. "I'm interested in how we can apply methods like these to issues that move us in Colombia."

The group discusses these issues with the educational heads of various institutions. Elke Gryglewski is Deputy Director and Head of the Educational Department at the House of the Wannsee Conference, near Berlin. In her office she shows the group books and files containing notes. She also reads them a letter written by her grandmother's brother, making it clear that Gryglewski's own family members continued to play down the Nazi era long after it was over.

Working through the files

The group also visits Berlin's former Stasi headquarters. It is an austere building that now holds the Stasi archives where official files document countless human rights abuses by the former East German state. They provide a basis for appraising the former dictatorship with its political party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

Delegationsreise der DW Akademie März 2019 (DW/L. Weller)

Sandra Arenas is interested in how Germany deals with Stasi documents

Sandra Arenas, a professor at the University of Antioquia's Inter-American School of Librarianship, is particularly interested in how Germany is working the Stasi documents – how the information is processed, how documents are digitized, and the rules for those wanting to access the files.

Arenas' interest is closely linked to the current situation in Colombia: decades of conflict between the state, guerilla and paramilitary forces have traumatized much of the civilian population.

Countless human rights violations by state security have so far not been resolved and is a process strongly opposed by major power holders. The implementation of the 2016 peace treaty signed with the former FARC guerillas also continues to drag.

According to Arenas, an archive could help Colombia advance the peace process but says, "There haven't even been talks about an archive. It's still up for discussion."

Painful past

A "post-colonial" walk though Berlin leaves a strong impression on the group, and shows the gaps as Germany continues to address its own history. Most Germans are unaware of the crimes committed during the colonial period although clues exist throughout the capital. Ethnological collections at Berlin's museums point to stolen art and the cultural heritage of former colonies.

Street names in the city's African Quarter are also reminiscent of the colonies and their perpetrators. Petersallee (Peters Avenue), for example, was named after Carl Peters, the racist founder of the German East-Africa colony.

"This isn't an exception," explains Abdel Amine Mohammed as he leads the group through the neighborhood. Activists began their "Post-Colonial Berlin" project in 2004 and things are slowly progressing.

A plaque at the corner of Müllerstraße/Otawistraße now explains the history of the African Quarter, and the former Gröbenufer street – once named after the slave trader Otto Friedrich von der Groeben – was in 2010 renamed after the Afro-German human rights activist, May Aymin.

The group's visit to the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar is a highly emotional one. It is now a memorial site and walking through the gate and onto the huge square is daunting – even for people who have read books or seen films about former camps like these. It is part of the overall site where more than 56,000 people died, victims of torture, medical experiments and emaciation. The site's memorial rooms and displays of prisoners' belongings leave the Colombian visitors with a lasting impression. They are especially moved as they lay their hands on a commemorative plaque. It is heated to 37 degrees celcius.

Panel discussion at the Ibero-American Institute

The panel discussion "Telling the painful past: The German-Colombian Exchange of Experiences" is the last item on the program. Held at the Ibero-American Institute in Berlin, many questions from the audience focus on the current situation in Colombia, the role of journalists and the need for public debates.

"We work with memories that are malleable, that can change but that can also be damaged," says Patricia Nieto, a journalist and head of the Hacemos Memoria project. "The version a society tells about its history can change quickly. Working through the past is not a inflexible process," she explains. "If we can agree on a narrative, we can develop a different relationship with our history."

Anne Huffschmid, a researcher focusing on violence and memory in Latin America, adds that referring "to Colombia's conflict since the peace treaty was signed as 'post-conflict' is as it were something that's over and resolved. But it isn't, and won't be, as long as we're coming to terms with the past."

Professor Adriana González from the Institute for Political Science at the University of Antioquia stresses the importance of a symbolic atonement for the victims. "This includes memory and making sure there are a variety of stories. This is not about an 'official' memory or a single valid truth," she says.

"Memories are being roused in Colombia," concludes Patricia Neito as the panel discussion comes to a close. "And just like the mountain water springs from the source, each stream carries its own story and then flows, together with the others, to become a river."

DW Akademie has supported the "Hacemos Memoria" project since 2014 with funding from Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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