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From the great wide open to block P

Greenland 1

08.08.2016 - A couple of hours sailing from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, there is a little island called Qoornoq, decorated with brightly painted houses.  On an early day in spring there is not a soul to be seen. No wonder because decades ago authorities moved the population to Nuuk.

Sailing back we see huge apartment blocks facing the sea like steep cliffs. "That's where some of the population was transferred," the captain of the boat explains.

No less than 1% of the population of Greenland lived at one point in the biggest of these apartment blocks, the notorious “Blok P”, which was demolished in 2012.

One of the issues that the Reconciliation Commission, which was appointed by the Greenlandic self-rule in 2014, has dealt with is the forced abandonment of remote villages deemed "unprofitable, unhealthy and unmodern" as a part of a plan to urbanise the island in the 1960s.

The idea of a reconciliation commission was launched by the then Prime Minister of Greenland Aleqa Hammond in 2014.  "In order to distance us from colonisation, reconciliation and forgiveness is needed,” Ms. Hammond explained.

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The reaction of the Danish government was immediate and unequivocal: "We don´t need reconciliation,” former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, said.

Greenlanders were recognised as a distinct people with the right to self-determination when they got self-rule within the Kingdom of Denmark in 2009.

The debate in the Danish press concentrated on the question whether Denmark's handling of Greenland warranted a commission such as the truth commission in post-apartheid South Africa.

The members of the Commission quickly distanced themselves from the South-African model: “This commission of ours is unique, since it is not a truth commission” says Commission member Ms. Ida Mathiasson.

“It has more to do with understanding within our society in Greenland and we are not demanding excuses or reparations from the Danes.”

The huge apartment blocks of Nuuk were based on Danish models. They would have worked perfectly for the bicycling inhabitants of Copenhagen but it turned out that the apartments did not take into account some important needs of Greenlandic hunters and fisherman. The narrow doorways made it difficult, or sometimes impossible, to enter and exit wearing thick cold weather clothing, and common European style wardrobes were too small to store fishing gear. 

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The bath tubs were not made to cut up a seal, so soon there were big problems with the plumbing.  But the biggest problems were inside the heads of the hunter families, who were used to the great wilderness of snow-covered Greenland, and now had to get used to claustrophobic apartment blocks.

Ms. Ida Matthiasson, says that the feelings of the people who were forced from their homes have been a taboo. ”No one was asked, the settlements were simply closed and people evicted. Some of them have been hurt and their hurt has been transmitted to their children and grandchildren. They don´t talk about it, it is a taboo.”

Greenland was a Danish colony for more than 250 years, but starting in 1979 it has obtained wide-ranging autonomy.

”Danification meant that all things Greenlandic became 2nd class” says Commissioner Jens Heinrich „One can say that the aim is to upgrade Greenlandic pride and self-respect, so there will real equality within the Kingdom of Denmark.”

The notorious giant apartment block, “Blok P” has been demolished, but nothing has yet replaced it. Meanwhile on the island Qoornoq , some of the former inhabitants return to their summer houses, for a spring cleaning.  The lack of electricity after the authorities decided to abandon the village is not a concern any more thanks to solar energy panels, which can be seen on every house, often next to the red and the white Greenlandic flag; a  reminder that this small nation in a huge country is ready for the challenges of the future. 

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Photos by Ásgeir Pétursson.

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