There is a unique restorative justice journey, worth sharing with our international community, especially to encourage others who have experienced similar “radical” and “extreme” life events to join the movement. “Radical” and “extreme” are the acts of political violence and terrorism, as much as the courage and openness to enter into a restorative dialogue with the “difficult other” (as some of them call each other). 

On 28 September – 2 October 2022, the 5th international meeting of the Encounter of the Encounters took place in Milan, including two restorative dialogues open to the wider public interested in meeting with witnesses of restorative justice encounters in the aftermath of political violence and acts of terrorism. 

Let’s first go back to the Summer 2018…

“The Encounter of the Encounters is not the sum of the [regional] encounters, all with their own story. It is a superlative, it is the incontrissimo, the super-meeting. We are here because we are convinced that this encounter has changed us.”
Guido Bertagna, 2022

Born out of an intuition

During the Criminal Justice Summer Course in July 2018, organised by the Criminal Justice Platform Europe (CJPE), dedicated to radicalisation and violent extremism, the EFRJ Secretariat had the (great!) intuition to invite as trainers Claudia Mazzucato, Guido Bertagna and Gemma Varona. This was love at first sight. The three of them delivered a deep and life-changing course on the potentials of restorative justice practices in cases of political violence and acts of violent extremism, following the experiences they facilitated and studied respectively in Italy and in the Basque Country. During one of the lunch breaks, they timidly thought about the possibility to organise a cross-borders restorative dialogue, bringing together witnesses (i.e. victims and former combatants) with lived experience of the violence and acts of terrorism in 1970s-1980s Italy and 1950s-2010s Basque Country. 

As has happened on other occasions, the EFRJ served merely as a platform for ideas to be shared, cooperation to be initiated and actions to be developed. Indeed, from this moment on, the three of them stayed in touch and enlarged the group: they contacted Tim Chapman, who has facilitated restorative dialogues between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Robi Damelin, one of the activists of the Parents Circle – Family Forum (PCFF), an organisation that brings together bereaved families who have lost a family member in the Palestinian – Israeli ongoing conflict. 

In September 2019, thanks to the support of the Basque Institute of Criminology, the first Encounter of the Encounters took place in San Sebastian. Based on the methodology adopted in Italy (see “Il libro dell’incontro” by Bertagna, Ceretti and Mazzucato, 2015), the group included different participants, often with overlapping roles: 

  • the actual witnesses (victims, survivors and ex-combatants, sometimes with their family members such as partners and children), coming from the Basque Country, Italy, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine;
  • young people (at least one student per each country, representing the future generations) and other interested citizens (part of the national groups);
  • the restorative justice facilitators (active in the different national groups), and 
  • the guarantors (professionals with different experiences in restorative justice, criminal justice and other relevant areas, coming also from other countries such as Germany and Belgium).
“Here I found some friends, they did something for me that no one else has ever done. They put themselves under the stress of reopening things which were closed, after they had served their sentence”
(victim, Italy)
The Encounter of the Encounters - Artwork Clair Aldington

Arts as restorative facilitator

This first Encounter of the Encounters included also artist and restorative facilitator Clair Aldington (UK). Clair facilitated one of the dialogue sessions making use of artistic and restorative methodologies to encourage participants to meet, reflect, talk, and even laugh together. Clair also took notes of the dialogues and those notes formed the artwork that is now the symbol of this initiative (see photo). Once home, Clair shredded her notes and added water to form a paper pulp from which she created new sheets of paper. With this new paper, she shaped 24 tiny sheets (to fit in the palm of a hand), one for each person present in the Encounter. Onto these, Clair hand-printed two images that had emerged through the artistic workshops: a spiral (symbolising the years within personal timelines and that things can go up as well as down), and sunrays (colours of the sun and light, from darkness into light). An elastic thread was also trapped within the paper to represent that life goes on in the aftermath of political violence, but something always pulls one back to the moment of the crime.

When the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for the group to meet again, these 24 artworks became the occasion to continue the conversation. Participants received the original 24 artworks by post together with a postcard. On the back of the postcards, some open questions (translated in 3 different languages) invited them to take a photo of the place where they had put the artwork, to describe this place in words, and also to share their feelings when they received the artwork. With the postcards, participants could send a message to another person, using the facilitators as “messengers”. A small exhibition of (some of) the artworks was displayed in Milan during the two public events.

In the past few years, the EFRJ has been committed to finding synergies between the arts and restorative justice, especially when the art becomes a mediator in itself, creating a safe space for dialogue to happen (see booklet and REstART festival). Clair’s work, perfectly mixing her experience as a restorative justice facilitator, artist and designer, is one of the best ones showing the integration between these two worlds. For this reason, Clair was also appointed by the EFRJ to design the upcoming European Restorative Justice Awards.

“Punitive justice has never offered me to speak with them. At least, they asked me how I am doing!”
(victim, Basque Country)
The Encounter of the Encounters - Artworks Clair Aldington

Young interpreters as facilitators

The group had the chance to share their reflections about the 24 artworks and engage in a new dialogue in October 2021, this time online. At this point, four new young members joined the group. These are the interpreters (from Italy) Fabio, Laura, Letizia and Paolo. They are the voice of participants whenever language is a barrier, translating between English, Italian, and Spanish. Their simultaneous interpretation is not a mere translation of the words said by participants, but it is also transferring the emotions and deepness of the reflections shared. Because of the confidentiality of restorative dialogues, the four of them have been presented to and integrated into the group, as young participants with a special role in facilitating the conversations. Fabio and Laura participated also in the 11th international EFRJ Conference in Sassari, where some members of the Encounter of the Encounters finally met in person again, opening the restorative circle to all participants attending the Conference. The four of them were engaged again during the 4-day meetings in Milan. 

Also in this case, it is interesting how the restorative justice facilitators and group coordinators decided not to allow “observers” to the confidential restorative dialogues. Not only the interpreters, but also other professionals (from the technicians to the caterers) were introduced to the principles of restorative justice and they were invited, if they wished to do so, to intervene and engage. From a methodological point of view, such a decision sets the basis to ensure the safety of the encounter and gives responsibility to anyone witnessing the exchanges happening in the room.

“You don’t ask a child from which side was the person that killed her father… So every time someone was killed, I cried.”
(victim, Northern Ireland)
The Encounter of the Encounters - Artworks by Clair Aldington

From closed-doors to public restorative dialogues

This 3-year journey (plus the national ongoing restorative initiatives) set the basis for what happened in 2022. Some group members presented their experience during the International Symposium of the World Society of Victimology (Donostia/San Sebastián, 5-9 June 2022), thanks to the coordination of Prof. Gemma Varona and the support of the Basque Institute of Criminology and the Basque Government. Others participated in a plenary and workshop session of the 11th International Conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (Sassari, 23-25 June 2022), thanks to the organisational and financial support of the Alta Scuola "Federico Stella" of the Catholic University of Milan and the coordination of Prof. Claudia Mazzucato.

The last event of the Encounter of the Encounters brought together almost 70 people and included closed intimate meetings and two restorative dialogues open to the wider public (Milan, 28 September - 2 October 2022), also sponsored by the Alta Scuola “Federico Stella”. The two public events were an occasion to widen the restorative circle, listen to other voices and raise awareness about this initiative.

The first public event, on Friday evening, brought together more than 200 young people (and others) who listened to the testimonies of the youngest ones in the group (19-34 years old): 

  • two of them shared their experiences about being the children of those who belonged to (opposing) political groups, growing up with the label of being the “kids of the terrorists”; 
  • one shared the loss of his 16-year old brother in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and his life-changing experience with the Parents Circle – Family Forum (PCFF); 
  • one shared her experience escaping the Ukrainian war with her family and the hospitality she received once in Italy; 
  • a student told of her life-changing experience when she entered the Basque group in her role as a criminologist and young citizen.

The second public event, on Saturday evening, was attended by almost 300 citizens. Also in this case, after some testimonials were presented, participants could ask questions and engage into a dialogue. The testimonies included two participants per each region: 

  • two bereaved mothers, from Palestine and Israel, set next to each other to share their stories of loss and resilience; 
  • a mediator from Northern Ireland introduced a former IRA activist who shared his personal journey from justifying his actions to meeting the daughter of a man killed in the Brighton Bombings he was responsible for; 
  • two men with opposing life journeys sat next to each other, one who lost his father during the kidnapping of prime minister Aldo Moro, and one who participated in this kidnapping as part of the Red Brigades;
  • a mediator from the Basque Country introduced a woman whose husband was killed by ETA and that, later on, met with the two men responsible for his murder;

The group went public also on another occasion, for an intimate restorative walk in Brescia, the city that suffered the bombings in 1974 that killed 8 people in the main square, Piazza della Loggia. While citizens were enjoying the lively Saturday morning market, I remember thinking “If only other citizens would know who they are walking next to… if only they would realise the magic and wisdom of this group…”.  Indeed, the constellation of this group is a powerful testimony of humanity, crossing different generations, histories, borders and ideologies. Clearly, as in all types of relationships, it was not all “roses and flowers”: some truths are difficult to hear and they may even hurt, giving life to new tensions and polarisation, and still these truths seem to be at the basis of coexistence, the convivenza, the act of “living with” (con-vivere), and in this case is surprisingly the act of living with the “difficult other”.

Emanuela Biffi is a Programme Coordinator at the European Forum for Restorative Justice. This article has been written in October 2022 in cooperation with Professor Claudia Mazzucato (Italy), Professor Gemma Varona (Basque Country) and Dr Clair Aldington (United Kingdom). 

Published in March 2023.

Reading corner

The meetings of the Encounter of the Encounters in Sassari and Milan have received public attention. You can read a couple of personal and intimate reports in Italian here:

Materials in Spanish:


Until now, the meetings of the Encounter of the Encounters were financially supported by:

- the Alta Scuola "Federico Stella" of the Catholic University of Milan, that funded all the costs of travels, accommodation, interpretation, meals and local transport for the meetings in Sassari and Milan (2022) and the interpretation of the online meeting (2021);

- the Basque Institute of Criminology, that funded all the costs of travels, accommodation, interpretation, meals and local transport for the meeting in San Sebastian (2019) and covered some travels to Sassari (2022) and local travels for Milan (2022);

- the Basque Ombudsman and the European Forum for Restorative Justice covering travel and accommodation for one participant each in Sassari and Milan (2022).

We wish to acknowledge these efforts and large investments in projects that go beyond research, teaching and policy work, and that aim at promoting restorative cultural changes in societies.