An English translation of the article I published in the Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság on Saturday, 24th April 2010. Népszabadság is the biggest paid broadsheet in Hungary, with a circulation of 85-90,000. The original article on Népszabadság Online.

When will there be a sorry day at us?

„There is a country, it's called
(Sándor Petőfi)1

In a distant country, how to put this, there are issues with an ethnic minority. According to the Bureau of Statistics, two and a half percent of the population belong to this minority, which is relatively young: the median age is 21 years, compared with 37 years for the majority population. The difference is assumed to be a consequence of both higher rates of fertility and deaths occurring at younger ages. Almost half of the minority population is aged under twenty years, and only three percent are aged 65 years or over. The life expectancy at birth for men is 11.5, for women 9.7 years less than that of those belonging to the majority.

Members of the minority are at a disadvantage at both education and on the labour market. Among the working age population just over two in ten completed Year 12 of school, whereas for the majority population this number is more than five in ten. Unemployment rate for the minority is more than three times the unemployment rate of the entire population.

The dwellings of 28 percent of the adult minority population suffer from structural problems (for example there are cracks in walls, in floors, or from wood rot).

Among the minority youth petrol sniffing is a major problem; it accounted for at least a hundred deaths over the past twenty years, and many more became permanently disabled. Thus ever more places convert to selling petrol whose inhalation does not cause a high. The government subsidises the cost of the transition.

Over the more than two hundred years of coexistence the minority has been subject to many disadvantages. There have even been instances of their violent decimation. Thousands of children were taken away from their families by force and put under guardianship, citing the interest of the children, to educate them in state or church boarding schools. The real objective was their forced assimilation. The communication between parents and children was made difficult or even impossible, sometimes children were even told lies about the death or rejection of their parents.

Many removed children were educated to reject their cultural heritage. This practice ran until around 1970, and of those alive today more than twenty-five thousand are estimated to have been affected. Twenty-five thousand childhoods were spent without the presence of parents, twenty-five thousand times was the prospect of upbringing a child taken away from their mothers. It will never be possible to give back the experience of growing up in a loving family to the stolen generations, or the certain knowledge of belonging.

The rejection by the majority persists. Up to this day it happens that when a minority family moves into a well-off neighbourhood, the neighbours complain that the value of their property drops.

Many were nursing the recognition that it is morally unacceptable that in a developed country of the Western world a minority lives in conditions that border on Third-World standards. The falling behind of the minority is to a great extent due to things beyond their control. The responsibility rests partly with the majority, and with misguided policies of the past decades. To move on, this needs acknowledging. Without that no dialogue can start between the minority and the majority to seek consensus about the steps to be taken.

When in the late 1990s an official report about the stolen generations was tabled in the Parliament after two years of investigation, the government wanted to ignore the topic, the public, however, did not let this happen.

For weeks the press was full of shocked reactions of ordinary citizens. The withheld stories of the past dawned upon the nation, the attention of the majority turned to the minority. The truth spilled out once and for all.

The government was probably not aware of the changes that had occurred in people's perception. In the previous six years, hundreds of learning circles had been formed, where many thousands sat down to talk to members of the minority; many for the first time in their lives. This proved pivotal in bridging the emotional distance. The most deeply affected by the stories was probably the chairman of the inquiry, an elderly, seasoned judge. After his term had ended, he travelled the country and convinced many of the representatives of power, churches, police to apologise to the stolen generations for their role in tearing families apart. The heart-rending ceremonies held nationwide had a healing effect.

The report also called for a national Sorry Day, which, again, was not supported by the government. The chair of the inquiry gathered about thirty people around himself who together decided that they would organise the Sorry Day even without the government, in just four months' time. Establishment figures joined the cause, which gave schools, universities, and town councils the confidence to organise events. The media jumped on the story, and thousands of people got involved.

A well-known actor launched Sorry Books: empty books into which almost a million people wrote their apologies. Many wrote about cases when they had acted wrongly towards members of the minority, and now apologised for these. On the day theatrical and cultural events were held; at university, council and church events members of the stolen generations spoke and the Sorry Books were ceremonially handed over to them. Over half of the half-hour-long night news programme comprised of reports from the events of the day and of the emotional responses from minority leaders.

The government was surprised by the excitement of the day. Particularly because so many of their supporters were involved. They didn't know how to react; they kept almost silent. This provoked sarcastic cartoons in the press.

The stolen generations people were deeply moved by the events. They launched the Journey of Healing movement, inviting the entire population to take part in healing the wounds. It is evidence for the stirring effect of the day that they reached out to the majority who themselves had inflicted the wounds. In their call they asked people to get to know the members of the minority in their neighbourhood; give them a chance to tell their stories in local papers or radios; find out what help they needed; and work on implementing the recommendations of the report. Tens of thousands responded to the call. Over the next decade hundreds of Journey of Healing events were arranged annually. Memorials were erected.

At one point, however, the government made a claim about the report that sounded arrogant. According to this, as only 10% of minority children were removed from their families, it is misleading to talk about a stolen generation. This caused much anger, threatened the unity between the minority and the majority participants of the Journey of Healing movement and endangered the entire movement. But a creative idea was born: all of those who supported the reconciliation process were invited to a march. The minority leaders could not convince the prime minister to join, but still a quarter of a million marchers came.

This was the biggest ever demonstration in the country by that time, which the leading newspaper called the people's apology. Later three hundred thousand people marched in another city; altogether around a million participated in such demonstrations nationwide. The government could not ignore the opinion of a million people. The prime minister announced that a reconciliation memorial would be built in the centre of the capital. But it was found out that the government had not consulted with members of the stolen generations. Their insipid and disingenuous plan would have even played the happy laughter of children. The preparations grounded to a halt because of the protests.

It was again members of the civil society who stepped forward. They won the government's approval to organise nationwide consultations with representatives of both the stolen generations and of institutions which had brought them up. By the end of this process, a consensus among all those involved was reached on the message of the memorial and the activists took a powerful proposal to the government. The government originally tried to convince them to tone the message down. As all sides had agreed to it, and influential personalities stood by it, the government backed off and the memorial was built.

The secret of the success of the campaign possibly lay in offering an opportunity and a challenge to both sides. To the majority it said: if you confront the past, you can be part of the healing process. To the minority it said, there is a way out of despair, there is a cure for the wounds of the soul. Both sides found hope from the other. To the members of the stolen generations facing their personal past is often a traumatic experience: going back to places where they were hurt; searching for relatives who may not be happy to meet them. For many of them the empathy they felt on the Sorry Day or at one of the big marches gave the impetus to take on this challenge.

Members of the government also drifted slowly towards conciliation. Hence when the elections brought a change of government, the new government was able to win the former ruling party over, which was now in opposition, for the cause of the apology.

On 13th February 2008 the whole country was listening to the new prime minister delivering his speech in the Parliament. Many members of the minority pilgrimaged to the Parliament, all around the country people were gathering in front of outdoor screens, in schools and community centres the broadcast was being watched on television. Many were holding hands as they listened to the prime minister who, on behalf of the government and on behalf of the Parliament, apologised. It was a cathartic experience: many shed tears as he apologised for the past laws and policies which had inflicted grief and suffering; he apologised for the removal of children; he apologised for the humiliation of the minority and its culture. With this they took the first step towards a nation that embraces the whole country. The apology was passed by the Parliament unanimously.

The prime minister also announced an ambitious programme to improve the life circumstances of the minority: he promised to radically improve housing in five years' time, to provide early childhood education for every child; in a decade to halve the disadvantage of minority children in education and employability, as well as to halve the difference in infant mortality between the minority and the majority; within a generation to eradicate the gap in life expectancy. Over the last two years already billions have been spent on these projects. The spending (together with the delivery of the promised results) is monitored by the parliamentary opposition.

Grassroots movements had succeeded to win the majority's emotional backing over the years, and with hard work they achieved substantial success in politics. Members of the previously always denigrated minority could feel for the first time that they were treated equally, which led the minority to start to flourish: many started creative artistic work, others took into their hands the representation of their communities. There is momentum now, on which one can build, but this momentum needs to be kept up. The majority society is required to make continuing financial efforts and needs to fight against the persisting racism. Members of the minority need to fulfil their everyday duties, and keep their communities away from self-inflicted harm such as substance abuse. The latest community campaign works on improving minority health. In this campaign more than forty health, charitable and not-for-profit organisations, and many thousands of minority and majority citizens take part.

The example of the Australian Aborigines may be instructive for Hungary too.

The article was written with the help of John Bond, former secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee.

The author is a doctoral candidate at Keble College, Oxford.

1 Sándor Petőfi (1823-49) is Hungary's national poet, who played a key role in the revolution and freedom fight against the Habsburg Empire in 1848-49. The poem `Okatootáia' is about an imaginary, backward country, which is an allegory of Hungary.