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From victim to victor

By Gary Kenny

Have you heard the news about Michael Lapsley?" a friend asked.

"What news?" I asked, alarmed at the urgency in my friend's voice.

"He's been terribly injured by a parcel bomb," he said.

Parcel bomb. I was numbed by the words. Only a week before I had put Lapsley on a plane back to his home in Harare, Zimbabwe.

He'd been so pleased with the two weeks he'd spent in Canada, hosted by the former Inter-Church Coalition on Africa. He had travelled across the country speaking to members of the United Church and other denominations about the injustice of South Africa's apartheid system.

The response had been electric.

Now this Anglican priest and outspoken anti-apartheid campaigner was lying in a hospital bed missing both hands and an eye and covered with lacerations.

The story unfolded over the next few days. Lapsley had just returned from a welcome-home party at the nearby house of former Observer editor Hugh McCullum. While sifting through accumulated mail, he opened a parcel containing "religious books from South Africa." The package looked innocent enough.

The blast blew a hole in the floor and roof. Shortly afterwards, Lapsley was pulled from his house by McCullum, who put him, covered with blood and in agony, in the back seat of his car. He recalls saying the Lord's Prayer out loud as they frantically drove around Harare searching for a hospital that would agree to treat Lapsley's horrendous injuries.

We always knew that Lapsley was a target. He and other courageous activists like him had helped to make the anti-apartheid movement a formidable global force. His ability to attract media attention made him feared by his apartheid foes, so much so, he said, that his name had been added to a South African government hit list. The pressure forced him into exile in Zimbabwe. For a time he enjoyed the protection of armed police courtesy of the Zimbabwean government.

Perhaps ironically, the guards were taken away in early 1990, just before Lapsley came to Canada. After all, things in South Africa were looking up. The government was showing a willingness to free Nelson Mandela, legalize opposition political parties and negotiate an end to the country's oppressive racial laws.

Hope was in the air, and it made the attack on Lapsley seem even more senseless.

The road to recovery would be long and hard. Many painful operations; months of physical healing; the rigours of adjusting to prosthetic devices.

And Lapsley's emotional state? Well, you'd wonder. How is it possible for anyone assaulted so viciously, so anonymously, to make peace with himself and the world again?

Indeed, with hooks for hands and a glass eye, Lapsley had every reason to be bitter. But there isn't now, and wasn't then either, a trace of anger or any thirst for revenge.

He had no interest in staying a victim, he told staff at United Church House during a visit to Toronto in May. "I realized that, if I was full of hatred, self-pity and a desire for revenge - that I'd be a victim forever.

"They would have failed to kill the body but they would have killed the soul."

Those who experience horrible acts of violence are faced with two journeys, Lapsley added. They can either pass from being a victim to a survivor to a victor, or they can be caught in a cycle of being a victim, and in turn, victimize others.

As a nation, South Africa would also have to make the journey to becoming a victor, Lapsley realized. The internationally acclaimed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-97), chaired by Desmond Tutu, was a great start, he said. Nearly 24,000 South Africans appeared before the commission. They talked about their experiences of torture and severe maltreatment and the murder of their loved ones.

But millions more had been forced from their homes and made to endure years of indignity and hardship. They too, Lapsley says, "were carrying the pain of the nation" and "had stories that needed telling and acknowledging." He turned his attention to them.

Father Mike, as some call him, became a driving force in developing "healing of memories" workshops. He describes them as a form of alternative support for victims and survivors of apartheid violence. The workshops enable people from all backgrounds, races, cultures and religions to heal psychological wounds. They learn how to lead normal lives and to help rebuild their broken country.

The workshops are the mainstay of the Cape Town-based Institute for Healing of Memories, a United Church partner. Lapsley has been director since the Institute was founded in 2002. Typically, a workshop can involve 25 people representing all of the country's racial groups.

The workshops emphasize emotional and spiritual, rather than intellectual, understanding and interpretation of the past.

Participants find emotional release through exploration of their personal histories. As a group they gain insight into and empathy for the experiences of others.

There are many memories to be healed, Lapsley says. The roots of apartheid are more than three centuries deep. "Dealing with that past will continue to be part of [South Africa's] national agenda for the next 100 years."


Gary Kenny is the United Church's Program Co-ordinator for Southern Africa and Emergency Response.
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