It is difficult to reconcile: the dream of national destiny with the reality of national shame. My father struggled with that. As a Muslim in a fractured India who lived through the trauma of partition in 1947, you have literally walked through fire to what you were told would be the promised land. When Pakistan was created, it was supposed to be a haven for Muslims fleeing communal killings on the Indian subcontinent; instead, it became a nightmare of corruption and state failure. As an adult, he was forced to flee again, this time to Canada, to another refuge.

To this day, my father still refuses to fully acknowledge Pakistan’s failure. It regrets the corrupt leadership and the crimes committed there in the name of Islam. But Pakistan, the idea of ​​that, still lingers in his imagination. The national destiny that they promised him endures. It’s hard to let go

For the first time in my life, now I can relate. For me, Canada has always been that place beyond the parched horizon, that glittering oasis in a sea of ​​global failures. During more than two decades of working in some of the cruelest places in the world, Canada has always stood out to me as an example of what is possible for humanity. Canada’s national destiny, I have openly argued, is the hope for the world.

Over the past few weeks, I have struggled to reconcile that dream of a pristine and pristine Canada with the reality of the cruelties committed on its soil. I am not naive, of course. Not only am I now waking up to the horrors of colonialism and the crimes perpetrated against the original inhabitants of this continent. What I’m waking up to after discovering hundreds of dead and buried children, and knowing that there are thousands more waiting to be unearthed, is the erasure attempt that has occurred since those crimes were committed.

For me, this is the terrifying truth: As a kid in elementary school in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, I was taught all the wonderful ways the “Indians” cooperated with European fur traders to help create what which is our glorious Canada. Of course, they were mostly lies, but what’s even worse is that, at the same time, First Nations children were still subjected to the cruelties of residential schools. While I was being told that Canada is unique in this world due to its multiculturalism, indigenous culture and identity were systematically erased.

All this happened in my life, in my country. They very well could have dug nameless graves while I was a kid in Toronto, happily living the multicultural dream. And they taught me to forget.


The first time I saw a mass grave was in the spring of 2003. I was in Baghdad, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The city was still burning from the devastation of America’s Shock and Awe campaign and the convulsion of retributive violence that followed. True, there was something poetic about the looting and rioting: the people of Iraq looted Saddam’s palaces and the countless villas belonging to his high officials, bought with the country’s stolen oil wealth, in a burst of celebratory anarchism. The streets of Baghdad were filled with joy and cathartic outbursts of destruction. Statues of the dictator were demolished; the murals of his murderous sons were being painted or marked by automatic shots.

Meanwhile, a calmer but more heartbreaking ritual unfolded beyond the din of the dancing streets of Baghdad. About 35 kilometers east of the Iraqi capital, the mothers met daily on a dusty ground in Abu Ghraib prison. Fathers and brothers carefully dug in the dirt, sometimes with their bare hands, uncovering the rotting remains of young men who had been executed in the last hours of the Baathist rule. These were the final executions the Baathists would carry out in their long and bloody history of executions, their victims hastily thrown into a shallow grave literally on the threshold of the prison’s execution chamber, even as American bombers began their raids. above.

Trending on Canadian News  Which countries in Europe are registering an increase in covid cases?

I met a distraught mother who told me that her son had disappeared five years earlier. He went to work one morning, he said, and never came home. Since then, she has had recurring dreams in which her son would appear to assure her that he was in a better place. It had comforted her during the years he was missing, and while Saddam was still in power: searching for his remains at that time could have endangered the rest of his family. So instead, she wrapped herself in the belief that her son had made it to heaven, even though his body never received the proper Islamic funeral rites.

Watching this woman grapple with her grief as her husband plunged deeper into the ground reminded me of a passage from Michael Ondaaje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost, about a forensic pathologist investigating war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war:

“There was always a double-edged fear that it was his son in the well, or that it was not his son, which meant there would be more searching. If it was clear that the body was a stranger, then after weeks of waiting, the family would get up and leave. They would travel to other excavations in the western highlands. The possibility of her missing son was everywhere. “

In Iraq, in the spring of 2003, mothers from around the world were scouring the earth in search of the remains of their children. The Abu Ghraib woman admitted that she was only at the beginning of her journey towards some measure of peace after the horror of the Baathist regime. Her son was lost to her, but she knew her journey would not end until they found him. “If we don’t find it here,” he told me, “we will excavate all of Iraq until we do.”


I once knew a carpet seller in Afghanistan, from a family of Sufi intellectuals, who lost his brother and father to the convulsions of political violence that preceded the Soviet invasion in 1979. Like thousands of other disappeared, their bodies they were never returned and probably buried in a mass grave somewhere in one of the valleys surrounding Kabul. Noorali, in his carpet shop on Chicken Street downtown, sipped sweet green tea and got poetic about those days. “Cemeteries are memories,” he once told me, “mass graves are erased.”

That line has stuck with me as I walked around other mass graves since then, in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. What is surprising is not its inherent truth, but its implicit failure. The mass graves are an attempted erasure. As she told me the story of her father and brother decades later, Noorali still resisted. Abu Ghraib’s mother, who had just begun her search to find her son’s remains, was also resisting. In trying to erase their crimes, the mass grave diggers had created a kind of permanent absence, a black hole that pushed the living permanently into orbit.

In her 2008 book, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing, anthropologist Sarah E. Wagner describes how the survivors of the Bosnian genocide returned home and how the empty spaces left by the missing became permanent elements in the lives of the living.

Trending on Canadian News  Opinion | The Saturday Debate: Should the provincial Liberals and NDP form an alliance?

“His absence has seeped into the vernacular of the city,” writes Wagner. “I repeatedly heard the phrase ‘he did not come‘(He didn’t come) as an explanation of where the children, husbands, friends and former neighbors were. Didn’t you come home? Didn’t you come back? Didn’t you survive? I couldn’t quite grasp the indirect place reference implicit in this simple sentence. “

Later, he realizes that he was not alluding to a physical place but to a journey, a passage from darkness to light, from the horrors of war to peace. The disappeared were not only lost to the world, they were lost in the process of return, on the journey to healing. “They did not come,” and in their absence that trip would be incomplete.


Death has its own logic, and the rituals associated with it reflect how intimately death is woven into the fabric of our lives. My wife is fascinated by the relationship between the living and the dead. Our home office bookshelf is dotted with some pretty kinky titles, like Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. As a cultural anthropologist specializing in Afghanistan, she recently became interested in the transfer of human remains and how Afghans deal with their missing loved ones: those killed in war, refugees who have died in a distant land. From his point of view, the phrase “He did not come” is an expression of a disconnection, of a separation from the living world and the spiritual world. In the absence of the body there can be no funeral rites; and in the absence of funeral rites, the dead are lost to the living.

As a German and successor to the national shame of the Holocaust, my wife has a visceral relationship with the missing bodies and what it means to the survivors of the mass erasure. The German Holocaust experience remains a kind of living memory; there is no escape, not even three generations later. Germans are taught from a young age what their ancestors tried. Facts cannot be ignored, and the horror of that shared history is reinforced year after year during a person’s upbringing.

As a result, the Germans have internalized the national shame of the Holocaust. Some, of course, resist, arguing that it is better for society to “move on.” My wife disagrees. Repeated exposure to the Holocaust has helped her develop a nuanced understanding of what the Germans did. “We have to understand these atrocities not as strange accidents in history, but as potentialities that can happen again,” he says. “Only then can we take responsibility for the past to work against trends in our society that ostracize others and make such atrocities possible.”

The crimes we are willing to commit in the name of national destiny engender our national shame. We need to learn from the Germans and turn our face to the horrors committed by our ancestors. We must do what the Germans do: relentlessly teach our own children about that history, to teach them that national shame is not something to bury and forget. It is the only way to our redemption.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.