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On the long track to freedom

Sarah Hills travelled with bomb victims for a remarkable encounter

I HAVE just returned from the most remarkable train journey.

I travelled with 47 survivors of a bomb attack that took place in Worcester, South Africa, on Christmas Eve, in 1996, in which four people died, and 70 were injured. We journeyed to meet one of the perpetrators, now in Pretoria Central Prison ( News, 1 February).

Stefaans Coetzee, who was 18 at the time he planted the bomb, was a member of a white-supremacist group that targeted black people. For years, he has been asking to meet the survivors so that he can make an apology.

Setting off from Worcester Station on "the Peace Train" felt like the first stage of a pilgrimage - a journey to a place of encounter, and then a return to the ordinariness of life, yet with hope of transformation. Everyone was given a food parcel for the 28-hour journey (made by the ladies of the local Dutch Reformed Churches - a powerful symbol in itself), and the travellers were blessed with interfaith prayers.

Pilgrimage involves time apart to prepare for encounter, and, as we slid past the barren Karoo landscape baking in the sun, the turmoil of people's emotions was clear. Anger, fear, and grief, were contained by the rocking of the train and the growing sense of community as we went into groups to prepare the survivors for the encounter with "the bomber".

To see the person who left your family without its breadwinner, who took away your child, who left you scarred, was very important. Some wanted to tell him how angry they were; some wanted to be able to forgive; all wanted to share their stories of that Christmas.

It felt crucial, however, to help people understand that forgiveness was not expected of them; rather, that we were travelling in the hope of a real encounter with "the other", and a space to be heard at last. Of course, forgiveness may follow, but the discovery of a common vulnerability between victim and perpetrator is the first step on a long journey towards healing.

And the encounter? A hall in the prison filled with survivors, prison staff, the press, and a choir - and then Mr Coetzee entered. Thin, upright, and tearful, he listened to people's stories, and answered their questions. There were gasps when he said: "We wanted to kill as many people as we could. . . We were extremely disappointed that so few people were dead." But he added quickly that he was shaken to the core when he realised that children had died.

"I am really sorry for what I have done. I don't deserve anyone's forgiveness." Some of the survivors gave him their forgiveness, others said they were still angry and could not forgive him. A queue of survivors embraced him before he was taken out. It was an encounter that felt truthful, hugely painful, embodied, hopeful, and sacred.

Waking up in my cabin on the train the next morning on the journey back, I watched a herd of springbok jumping in the veld. The sense of relief on the train matched their lightfootedness. Two of the survivors told me: "I slept so well because my heart is now clear," and "I have got to this old age, and for the first time, because of this train, I feel like somebody."

The journey is not over. Economic inequalities and poor education are realities, and meeting Mr Coetzee cannot fix these things. The journey towards reconciliation needs to address these material differences. But, for some on that journey - bomber, survivors, and support staff - a new way of being with "the other" is forming, and that is a beginning. For others, the continuing hurt and anger remain.

It was a huge privilege to journey with them. The journey was risky: it took courage, and it took faith; but in a world which is so broken, the Peace Train provided a beacon of hope.

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