Four of my ‘co-housing’ experiences

A Twitter contact, recently asked the awesome Enspiral network about experiences of co-housing – in particular experiences and issues related to things like: interest-based intentional community; shared infrastructure; social interaction; group design/build/own… I chipped in and foolishly promised to write a blog post about my experiences. So, here it is…

There are four specific experiences that my wife Tarsh and I have had in different versions of what might be considered ‘co-housing’:

  1. a faith-based community in Wellington (1994-1998)
  2. attempts at intentional community in Gisborne (2004-2006)
  3. sharing infrastructure/resources in Gisborne (2007-2014)
  4. living on the marae and building on multiply-owned Maori land at Makarika near Ruatoria (2015-)

I’ll give a brief overview of my upbringing and summarise the contexts and experiences, and at the end share some lessons I think we’ve learned along the way.


I had a fairly typical upbringing in middle-class New Zealand, raised in a two parent, two child family in Tauranga, my parents both came from large working-class Pakeha families and both had been quite independent from an early age. My father considers himself an egalitarian and has a lot of sympathy for Marx and communitarian ideas. My mother worries a lot about money and security is important to her – so she would have been very pleased they were able to build the first house they owned as 20-somethings in the late 1960s for about 1,200 pounds. She was a high school teacher with a commerce degree and he was a postie who dropped out of school at 14 to work in an engineering workshop making glasses. Their co-housing experience included building a self-contained flat in the downstairs of their new house to rent out – and potentially for elderly relatives to eventually utilise, that provided extra income and extra security. And like most Kiwi kids before the internet and console games, we did heaps with the other children and families in the neighbourhood – sharing meals, childcare and gardening tools.

In the early 1980s when I had just turned 10, Mum and Dad bought a small farm with 20 acres on the edge of the city. They joined the NZ Small Farmers Association (Dad eventually becoming President for a while) and were good gardeners and tried their hand at husbandry of various animals. It was 1984-5 and interest rates shot to 24%, so they really struggled to keep the dream alive, but they managed to keep the farm as Dad had a job in the public service (Dept of Social Welfare) and Mum worked in an educational toy shop they owned with another couple. Eventually the city expanded and the farm was acquired by the local authorities in 2001 who wanted to use the flats for stormwater run off from all the new subdivisions being built on what were previously similar small farms and orchards.


1: Urban Vision, Wellington (1994-1998)

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Our wedding reception in 1998 – the old orphanage I was living in is just through the trees – a great meal was provided by our generous UV friends who gave up their day (and the night before) to help us out. All up we spent about $1,000 on the wedding and reception for 200+ guests. So cheap, in more ways than one!

 

After leaving school, I moved to Wellington to study design and got involved with an organisation called Youth For Christ Wellington. YFC had its origins in the conservative North American evangelical movement but the Wellington branch had become quite progressive. In addition to the youth clubs YFC had always run with volunteers, we started more focused conscientisation groups with young people and would regularly organise protests, pickets and support civil disobedience aimed at challenging the abuse of political power, oppression, injustice and violence against the poor and marginalised – whether it was Council housing tenants, young offenders, East Timorese villagers or Iraqi families. We had a number of flats of young people as well as one home for teenage girls that were unable to live with their family because it was too dangerous for the girl or because the girl had burnt her bridges (sometimes the home) with family.

Out of this came an idea to move away from YFC and form an intentional community called ‘Urban Vision‘ to develop more intentional cooperative living arrangements grounded in common interests and a faith doctrine focused on a ‘discipleship journey’ and gospel of helping those from more privileged backgrounds give up some of the opportunities and benefits of their privilege and to create opportunities for those society had marginalised to realise their full potential.

We took over an old Presbyterian orphanage that a local church had previously housed a number of young adults in. The building was ugly, cold and rundown but we turned it into a home for teenage boys supported by a group of young adult men (aged 22-40ish). We had room for 14 of us – seven teenagers and seven ‘men’. The adults paid to live there, sometimes the boys were referred Child Youth & Family Services so they had an care and accomodation allowance that contributed to their costs, other times they were referred by Police, schools or friends and didn’t have any funds to contribute.

At the same time other co-housing experiments were being established in the wider Urban Vision community with a couple of households focused on the inner-city and homeless populations, another on refugees and migrants, another group was based in the Council housing units, another provided supported accomodation for young men with intellectual disabilities and another specifically for Maori girls run by wahine Maori.

Resources in most of these co-housing arangements were shared through a household budget and those that were able to give more did so. Some had a main couple, often with small children with teenagers, with teenagers and/or single adults living with them. Some were large buildings like an old carpet factory in Cuba Street that housed 15+ people at a time, others were small 1-2 bedroom units in Council housing estates.

The Urban Vision community gathered together weekly for a shared meal, prayer, singing and collective celebrations, though eventually after we had left the ‘teams’ focused on particular communities got too large and the big UV get togethers were less frequent as much larger venues were required and the smaller teams kept meeting daily and/or weekly.

UV has continued to evolve, about ten years ago it became an ‘order’ of the Anglican church and one of the UV founders, Justin Duckworth, is now the Bishop of Wellington.

Around 2000, Justin, his wife Jenny, their family and a couple of friends involved with UV formed another trust and purchased Ngatiawa, an old Presbyterian campsite on the Kapiti Coast. This has provided accommodation and a common life together for hundred of people, young, old, single, couples, families – as well as a retreat from the city for many of the people connected to UV homes in Wellington. A number of UV members and affiliates have trades and have helped construct and renovate a dozen or so buildings including large halls and dining spaces, cabin accommodation, family homes, a chapel and other facilities. Each year Ngatiawa community hosts the Passionfest music/arts/theology/resistance/community festival.


2: Attempts at intentional community, Gisborne (1998-2006)

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Before we bought the units

Moving to Gisborne in 1998 to care for Tarsh’s grandparents who raised her, was a bit of a shock. Coming out of the high commitment, high intensity of Urban Vision, I was both happy and sad – we enjoyed the opportunity to do whatever we wanted from scratch, but I missed the level of support and accountability that the intentional community provided.

We bought a house with help from my parents, and Tarsh’s grandparents and two of their sons lived with us off and on for a couple of years until her grandfather passed away in 2001.

Tarsh and I got involved with Te Ora Hou, a faith-based Maori youth and community development organisation that started as the Maori and Pasifika arm of YFC in the 1970s and became its own national organisation in the mid-90s.

While we were still heavily involved in a wide range of local community projects on both voluntary and paid roles, Tarsh was content to be doing our own thing. I was missing the sense of purpose and direction I enjoyed in the intentional community experience of UV and so we had a go at a co-housing experiment. In 2004 we had the opportunity to purchase four adjacent residences, initially we hoped to do it under the auspices of Te Ora Hou locally, in the end the TOH board were reluctant to invest in residential property so we purchased the four residences (two 3 bedroom houses and two three bedroom units) and immediately sold the units to another Te Ora Hou family and rented out one of the houses to another Te Ora Hou family before selling it to a third family.

Incidentally, we sold our original house after advertising it at three different prices: The lowest price was for first-home buyers, the next price ($10,000 higher), was for purchasers who already owned a home but planned to live in this one, and the top price (another $10,000 higher) was for anyone who just wanted to buy it as a rental ‘investment’. I still think this is how Housing NZ should arrange its sales when it flogs off unwanted properties – give preference to those who need it most and disincentives for speculators and investors.

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A few years after the units had been renovated into one house

So the units sold to one of the TOH families were converted into one house by knocking a hole in the downstairs wall. The three properties were able to share a common backyard, we took turns moving each others lawns with a shared lawnmower and the kids played between them. We had meals together at least once a week. Before domestic WiFi was easily accessible we even strung ethernet cables between the three properties and shared one internet account. Sometimes we’d share a washing machine and dryer between homes, regularly had each others children in our care (to varying degrees of care, my tendency to be too relaxed and distracted probably didn’t build great confidence in my childcare services) and we would often borrow a vehicle from one of the other households.

This arrangement came to end by 2007 – one of the families was highly committed to the intentional community idea, one was not sure they wanted to be there anymore and another was having internal conflicts about the whole nature of the arrangements and the inherent tensions of doing something ‘intentional’ with some neighbours and not others.


3: Sharing resources, Gisborne (2007-2014)

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So by 2008 the other two families had moved out of the neighbourhood and new families moved in. We bought the house that had been the units back off that family and shifted in, we sold the house we had been in to another young couple involved with Te Ora Hou who shared our interest in doing voluntary youth work and community activities in the neighbourhood – but without the same level of intensity we had experienced with the previous neighbours. We had another single man (an old school friend of mine who has become an uncle to our kids and our closest friend) and Tarsh’s grandmother – move into our house with us and our two children.

This arrangement worked quite well for everyone – we had childcare and a wonderful cook on tap, he got to live with and contribute to a family he loves deeply. Tarsh’s grandmother had a self-contained part of the house and company looking out for her everyday, and our kids got to experience living with their great grandmother for the last years of her life.

Over this time we continued sharing meals, backyards, lawnmowers, washing machines, surfboards, vehicles, etc. and a community garden over the back fence – but without any explicit commitment to each other beyond neighbourly sharing and caring.

Our single friend living with spent a lot of his own money helping renovate parts of the house and outside areas, he had a real investment in the family and the property – but eventually we all agreed that the season was coming to an end and he won a post-doctoral scholarship to Cambridge University so left us for the UK. After he left Tarsh’s grandmother got too frail with dementia and Tarsh made the difficult decision to let her go first to the home of an aunty and then into a nursing home just before she passed away. We had another couple of relations live with us after our friend moved out and then a year or two of just us and the kids before we sold up at the end of 2014.


4: Living at the marae and building on multiply-owned Maori land, Makarika/Ruatoria (2015-)

In March 1997 when Tarsh turned 24, as her new boyfriend (as of that day) I gave her an antique builders level. We were living in Wellington, part of the newly formed Urban Vision community, and she had told me her dream was to return to the East Coast one day and build on whānau whenua (traditional family land).

Like many other Ngati Porou, Tarsh’s mum and most of her siblings, moved from the Coast to big cities for education and employment opportunities in the 1960s and 70s. Tarsh was raised by her grandparents but in her last year of high school went to live with her mother in Christchurch – which felt a long way from the East Coast – both geographically and culturally.

We had our first child, Miria, in 2002, and from an early age decided we wanted our children to have experience living in the heart of Ngati Porou on the Coast.

Gisborne is great, but it’s still very urban and Pakeha dominated. Tarsh says “We want our kids to live in a community where Ngati Poroutanga is the culture, immersed everyday in the reo, tikanga and landmarks of my tipuna. Those taonga are the birth-right of every Ngati Porou child and you can’t get them anywhere except within your own turangawaewae.”
For the last ten years we have been actively involved with Penu (Rongo-i-te-Kai) Pa, at Makarika just south of Ruatoria. I have been the marae Treasurer since 2005 and Tarsh has been stepping up to help at tangi, wananga and other activities that happen around the pa.

While we talked about planning to ‘move home’ for Miria to attend high school, it wasn’t until that time was just about upon us that the work really started.

We looked at a range of options – renting or buying a house in Ruatorea, relocating an existing building, starting with a shed, using a kitset and even building from local and recycled materials.

Penu Pa sits on the original Totaranui block that runs from Makarika to Hiruharama. Totaranui A1D2B2B is 130 hectares between State Highway 35 and the summit of Tutae-a-Whata and Tarsh’s grandmother owned ten percent of the shares in the block through her grandmother who was the original owner. The block is administered by Te Tumu Paeroa, the Maori Trustee, and leased by Tarsh’s cousin who farms most of it.

The first step was to seek support from the other 300 landowners. Te Tumu Paeroa and the Maori Land Court only have addresses for about 150 of the listed owners, so a letter from us went out to these owners asking for permission to use a small section of the block to put a house on. The overwhelming response was full support for the request.

There were a number of shareholders very happy to hear that a whanau wanted to live on the land. We don’t know most of them, but of course Tarsh is related to all of them. Many of the older ones lived here in their younger years and would like to live here again but their circumstances make that difficult.

With support from Te Tumu Paeroa, the shareholders and current leasee, we then had to find a bank willing to lend on Maori land. A government programme called Kainga Whenua is designed to help Maori build on multiply-owned land – the interest rates and deposit required are the same as any other bank but Housing New Zealand underwrites the loan for Kiwibank, so there is less risk for the lender.

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Our whare designed by Shane Kingsbeer & Greg Saunders

The Kainga Whenua scheme is far from perfect and very frustrating at times. Because the bank can’t use the land as collateral they will only lend what the building is worth. Registered valuations ($800 each) must be done at each step of the build to allow the next amount of funds to be drawn down to pay for the builder, materials and sub-contractors. This adds significant costs and delays to the building process.

This probably would have had less impact if we had started the build before moving! We have been living in caravans at Penu Pa all this year waiting for the house to be built.

In many ways it’s been the perfect transition from the city to the Coast. Living in caravans at the pa has its challenges, but it’s also been like one long camping holiday for the kids and we been able to pay rent to the pa instead of someone else.

I work for clients around the country from our caravan utilising the free Nati Waiwhai internet provided to the pa by Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou.

We helped establish Hikurangi Takiwa Trust, a hapu (tribal) collective for the six pa in the local area, and both have volunteered in a range of roles for the trust. There are two existing papakainga of 4-6 houses each in the hapu and a third is currently in the early stages of development. Like us they are built on multiply-owned Maori land but the buildings all belong to a trust or marae, whereas in our situation we own the building and just lease the land it sits on.

The new house is almost completed and we have built it just over the fence from the marae. This has allowed us to save some significant costs as we got marae committee and Council consent to utilise the marae septic tanks system, electricity is also close already as is vehicle access – and family visitors can use the marae communal sleeping, eating and bathroom facilities and still be close to us.

This marae has always had someone living at it, there is Nanny Lucky who still lives here she spends her days doing gardening and sleeps in the dining hall or with her son in the cottage next door. Before her we had Papa, he drank too much and caused a few issues but was always happy to see any visitors and kept the place warm for everyone else. Back in the 70s another old man lived here – that was before the new dining hall was built so he cooked his meals in the meeting house, spelt in there and had it set up like a lounge with a TV.

I think there is heaps of potential for marae to provide housing for older people who are still independent but who need somewhere to feel at home and appreciate both the history and the communal living opportunities that marae provide.

We’re living the dream and have found it’s not as hard as we thought, wish we’d done it ages ago.

While packing up our house in Gisborne last year I found the builders level I gave Tarsh when we first got together 18 years ago, we plan to display it in our new house built on whanau whenua before her next birthday.

 


Conclusion: Some lessons learned

  • Intentionality should be allowed to grow organically. As the great Jean Vanier has suggested, those who go looking for community probably won’t find it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – it’s just saying that those who earnestly attempt to build community sometimes try too hard and instead we should focus on nurturing caring relationships wherever we are and let the communal live emerge naturally where it will.
  • Issues around money tend to bring out the worst in people. We often think we’re entitled to more than we are, or we think someone else is taking too much, or we leave arrangements too ill-defined for fear of tackling the money matters, we conveniently ‘forget’ the details of some agreements, etc.
  • We can always share more. My parents generation were sold the Kiwi Dream – a couple, 2.4 kids, a mortgage and one or two incomes. That ‘dream’ of consumerism is a nightmare in a finite world and no good for mental health and community. Whether it is starting with the bare basics like sharing a lawnmower, creating a community garden, adding a spare room  or taking it all the way to the ‘common purse’ between a group of families and singles – there is always more to share.
  • We can always make space for others. We have a number of single friends now in their 40s who have chosen not to relentlessly pursue the societal expectations of couplehood and who challenge the dominant paradigm of what it means to be a family. Some of them enjoy living by themselves but appreciate the opportunity to participate in family life during significant times of the year like birthdays and Christmas; others can’t stand to be by themselves so have found ways to bring others into their home and/or helped create home with other single people and families. These are the people who often provide care and support for both the young and old who are too often overlooked by those of us with tight-knit nuclear families.
  • Indigenous and cooperative models are better for us and the environment. We like the idea of living on multiply-owned land – it makes decisions, plans and actions a lot harder and often adds more financial costs but can in the long run mean costs are saved to the household, community and environment. Ultimately it means we have to take others views into account and the wider implications for the community and the environment get factored in more than if we control the resources and most of the decision-making process.

 

Note: #4 section is a rewrite of an article we wrote for a recent edition of Nati Link magazine about our experience moving to the marae and building a new house on the land. 

Gigtopia

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Gisborne/Tairāwhiti is fighting hard to win the Chorus Gigatown competition that ends this month. Like many around the country, I’ve been a bit cynical about the way Chorus decided to start Gigabit Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout and the competition hasn’t helped my feelings much.

Having said that – while some of the social media and news stories almost seem to suggest that with the gig that no one will ever cry, no one will ever die in our special community should we win – I can see some real benefits if Gisborne is successful in securing the gig speed connection first.

So as Project Manager for the Tairāwhiti Technology Trust, I’ve been keeping track of #gigatowngis social media progress and helping with the top secret ‘Plan for Gig Success’ that each of the final five ‘towns’ have to prepare and will be judged on by the country and an expert panel of judges.

As you do in such situations, I’ve been doing a little online research on the topic and found a few articles of interest related to gigabit internet services, particularly the US experience to date – and more broadly, which I am most interested in, efforts to close the Digital Divide that seems to be increasing as fast as technology develops:

Rebels Against The Future

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As a regular promoter of new technology (renewable energy generation and use as a replacement for fossil fuels), it’s a little ironic to be called a Luddite.

I would however wear the label proudly, but compare myself to my Dad who has never owned a car, computer or cellphone.

I do try to avoid the self-service checkouts at supermarkets, I know it’s a futile effort but trying to keep local people in a job just a little longer seems worth the extra few seconds waiting in line.

The Luddites were passionate about keeping people in meaningful employment and sustainable communities. If they were around today I guess they might be protesting about our obsession with speed and digital technology at the expense of traditional jobs and a more human pace of life.

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A few years back I bought Dad a book about the Luddites called ‘Rebels Against the Future‘. The author Kirkpatrick Sale suggests that the Luddites did not want to turn the clock back. They said, “We want to cling to this way of life; we don’t want a life in which we’re forced into factories, forced onto machines we can’t control, and forced from village self-sufficiency into urban dependency and servitude.”

A modern Luddite is also trying to hold to certain elements of the past to resurrect the community. Neo-Luddites wish to resurrect some values of the past such as communitarianism, non-materialism, an understanding of nature, and a meshing with nature. These things have been largely taken from us in the last 200 years and we must fight to preserve them.

Sale believes “sustainable” is essentially the opposite of “industrial.” Sustainability implies a non-exploitive relationship with nature and a basic self-sufficiency in life. Industrialism can’t allow that to exist because that kind of living would not create, manufacture, use or consume. Sustainability, community and self-sufficiency are antithetical to industrialism.

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Reflections on Tuol Sleng (S-21)

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Miria outside ‘Building B’

I’m sure millions of important words have been written about Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison of the Khmer Rouge that is now a museum commemorating the horrors that took place there and across Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. I think it’s important for me to record some of my reflections, if only for my own sake, but others may care to add their own comments.

The night before we visited Tuol Sleng, our family shared a meal with a couple from New Zealand who live and work in the slums of Phnom Penh. Craig and Nay both grew up in Auckland but Nay was born in Cambodia during the civil war, her father was killed after the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and Nay’s mother fled with her children first to a refugee camp on the border with Thailand and eventually they were supported by a Presbyterian church in Manurewa to come to New Zealand.

I remember my mother being involved with our Methodist church in Tauranga that was supporting refugees fleeing conflict in South East Asia in the late 70s and it was impressive to meet someone like Nay who has chosen to leave the comforts of life in New Zealand to come back with her own children to live and work with poor children in Cambodia.

I asked Craig if there had been a national or local reconciliation process to help heal the country – it seems not much has happened in that space. School textbooks only recently started including any reference to the conflict of the 1970s and it seems most of the younger generation born after the conflict has little knowledge about what happened in the communities of their parents and grandparents during that time.

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Miria looking over the climbing frame converted to gallows and dunking pots to ‘Building A’.

We took our 11 year old daughter to Tuol Sleng, I wanted her to know a bit about what happened, even if she didn’t really understand why it happened. Growing up in New Zealand, most children are thankfully protected from the worst excesses of human violence – of course we benefit in many ways from the violence done against the poor in places like Cambodia, but it’s not something we are exposed to other than through television news, documentaries, books and works of fiction (of course Jean Baudrillard would say its all fiction for us).

Her grandparents were a bit reticent about us taking Miria to a place where such horrific acts were committed and commemorated by stark photographs and displays of torture tools and testimonies. I told myself that Miria is mature enough to visit such places – after all, the sites are often not as immediately confronting, but we have plenty of places of mass execution and brutality around Aotearoa that children are encouraged to visit and learn from. It was a calculated risk but I think it was the right decision to take her.

One of the real tragedies of Tuol Sleng is its original purpose as a high school built in the 1950s – seeing how classrooms and children’s play equipment were perversely converted into places of imprisonment and tools of torture must break the heart of most visitors. The heaviness of the place overtook me before I even entered a building – the place has been left largely as the Vietnamese soldiers found it in January 1979 and first thing you see are the fourteen graves of the final victims found bolted to torture racks inside Building A.

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In ‘Building B’ haunting photos taken by the captors of thousands of victims stare back at visitors from display boards. I felt obligated to look each one of them in the eye as we passed through room after room – many looked like they were in their early teens, children were also brought to S-21 but most were not photographed in the formal portraits imposed on older victims. Some faces were battered and bruised, many looked petrified while others were expressionless – either they didn’t know what was going to happen to them, or seem to have a resignation and calm about their fate that must have come from a place most of us will not know.

Paintings by an inmate of the torture and killing techniques line the walls of classrooms and present a graphic depiction of how the senseless violence was inflicted on people who usually had no idea what the crime was they were accused of. Inmates at prisons similar to Tuol Sleng all over the country were tortured until they confessed whatever the Khmer Rouge wanted them to say, which inevitably led to a conclusion of guilt as an enemy of the revolution and execution at one of the many ‘killing fields’ that became mass graves across Cambodia.

Miria asked the inevitable questions about the motivations of the Khmer Rouge, the failure of their version of radical Communism and establishment of Capitalism and inequality since the demise of the regime from 1979. She didn’t seem traumatised by the experience and was certainly engaged by the gravity of the place, the unforgettable images of victims and particularly by the written narratives of both survivors and those who perished.

The perennial question of how could otherwise ‘good’ people do such terrible things to others has been asked and answered for many similar contexts.

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It is important that these memorials to 20th Century genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and Europe exist. Such memorials to atrocities often provide important opportunities for the families of victims to get information on what happened to their loved ones – the Khmer Rouge left all the documentation on their victims. The faces of many Khmer Rouge leaders have been scratched out on the displays but the families and decedents of victims come from across the country and around the world to S-21 as part of their healing.

Most of the visitors to Tuol Sleng are foreign tourists and the $2 entry fee for foreigners seems a wasted opportunity to raise desperately needed funds to develop the facilities as the custodians have a stated goal of returning the former high school to a proper place of learning that can develop more educative resources about what happened there and during the 1970s in Cambodia. I think most foreigners would pay at least $50 for the opportunity to visit Tuol Sleng.

The ethics of genocide tourism are interesting, I’m sure plenty has been written about this popular practice that could be considered a privileged kind of voyeurism that revictimises the Cambodian men, women and children who suffered under the Khmer Rouge. On the other side of the argument, the descendants of survivors and victims want more people to know what happened in the hope that there will be some justice for those who have suffered and an perhaps opportunity for reconciliation when the truth however painful is acknowledged rather than ignored.

There were a range of other personal experiences and reflections for each of us – that won’t be shared in this format – needless to say the visit will inform our lifelong learning about the problems and power of evil, ideology, propaganda, ignorance, apathy, memory and forgetting.