On the long track to freedom
Posted: 08 Feb 2013 @ 00:15
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
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
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
"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.