Bearing witness

I know the truth 
I know the truth—give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look—it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
—Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem speaks to us from the hidden and persecuted world of the Russian Revolution. Imagine her sitting in a cold room by a dead hearth and writing this poem. Imagine her woollen fingerless gloves. She knows the truth and asks us, finally, to abandon all other truths. Our clamour of truths, half-truths and lies. From her quiet place she can speak to us: we who are still above the earth.

The world of the cloistered, the persecuted and the starving remains much the same today. It seems that we do spend this brief and restless time above the earth tormenting each other.

For the past few years, I have been reading and listening to the testimonies of victims and survivors of human rights abuses as part of my writing on truth commissions. Truth commissions are extra-judicial bodies designed as an alternative to international criminal courts and war crimes tribunals. There have been more than 20 commissions, or commission-like tribunals, across the world, most recently in East Timor. Unlike tribunals, truth commissions do not usually have the capacity to prosecute the perpetrators of human rights abuses. Rather, the focus is on discovering the truth of the abuse.

One of the main premises of truth commissions is that survivors, in telling their story before a commission, may experience some form of healing through the public acknowledgment of their suffering. The phrase ‘Revealing is Healing’ was the catch-cry of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The ‘truth’ here is invested with an almost messianic quality. Truth-telling can free us from our past: ‘the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8.32). Truth-telling becomes an aspect of justice. Yet as the testimony of survivors indicates, it is not that simple. Ultimately, justice is an embodied concept which truth alone cannot furnish.

Certainly, many survivors feel a desire to bear witness to what they have seen. Survivors speak of their need to tell the story as a way of bearing witness to previously unspeakable terror. Primo Levi structured his poem ‘If this is man’ around the Jewish prayer v’haftah and commanded us to: Consider if this is a woman/Without hair and without name/with no more strength to remember/her eyes empty and her womb cold/Like a frog in winter. Telling the story is a way of honouring the dead; a form of prayer. In this respect, the ‘listening space’ made available by truth commissions may be valuable to survivors, many of whom seek recognition and public acknowledgment of the abuse they have endured. In explaining how important some form of recognition is to him, one man tells me: ‘I would really like to meet with the Red Cross workers who came and took photographs of us, we were in chains and starving—a chain gang—going up a muddy hill and they came and photographed us. I would like to speak with them and ask them what they saw. I would really like to see that footage’.

However, this listening space is fragile. Who listens to the story and in what context is critical. Crucially, it depends on the acknowledgment by the perpetrators of the wounds that they have made on the victim’s body. Such acknowledgment is rare.

Apart from bearing witness, the other element that appears as essential for survivors is the uncovering and recording of the facts: the names of the dead, the bodies of the disappeared, the history of the abuse, and the names and faces of the perpetrators. These facts, though, are not of themselves liberating for the survivor. The fact of a child’s death by burning, for example, is not a liberating truth.

Importantly, the testimony of survivors indicates that truth-telling is not necessarily a healing or cathartic experience for individuals. The story has gravitas. As a woman survivor tells her tale of torture and disappearance, she is pulled back down into a diachronic space where the actual events are always taking place. There is no outside and there is not time separate from the narrative, which twists itself, snake-like, and is coiled in her body. Thus, the actual experience of telling the story is not necessarily redeeming. Instead it tends to haul the storyteller back into the trauma that lies waiting: ‘to be tortured is like they have placed a cancer—a tumour—on your memory, on your system—on your nervous system—so it will be there forever. Like a tumour in my brain’. Thus survivors often express a reluctance to tell their story; memory appears as a dangerous thing.

It is the nature of these truths that leads to a questioning of the link between truth and justice. Truth-telling alone, is not a form of justice. It fails as a form of justice. This failure is due to the nature of the human rights abuses that have been committed under such regimes. These abuses take the body as central: the abuse revolves around the wounding and marking of bodies. The bodies of the tortured, imprisoned, starved, disappeared and detained all bear the physical inscription, are written upon by the regime: ‘I will put my law in their inward parts’ (Jer 31.33).

 The attempt by truth commissions to erase the writing—to ‘heal the wounds’—might in this sense be seen as delusory. Some wounds cannot be healed. As Lawrence Langer writes ‘massive social suffering does not lend itself to metaphors of rescue or remedy’. Or as Ernst Bloch (in Moltmann) writes about the incinerators of Maidanek: ‘There is undoubtedly a grain of wheat that dies without bringing any fruit, a grain of wheat that is trampled into the ground, without there being truly—let alone necessarily—any positive negation of this negation afterwards’.

In truth commissions, the idea or image of a justice based on response, attention and intersubjectivity through the telling of the story and the discovery of the truth is a justice that has already been claimed by the former regime. Human rights abuse concentrates on all those things that make us human—our physical connection to others, our voice, our sense of hearing, our sight, our touch—and attempts to destroy these.

At the discovery of a mass grave in Chile, one of the mothers of the disappeared tells us: ‘they may be dust but they are loved dust’. Perhaps this fragment highlights the dilemma faced by truth commissions as alternative justice responses to human rights abuses. This is loved dust, the ashes and bones of those who have been ‘made disappeared’ by the former regime. This dust has been a loved person. Although he is now dust, he was once walking, he once was breathing and could sit outside in the evening. He could roll a cigarette or take a bath. Then this person, someone’s child, was abducted and murdered. How can such a truth as this dust be recovered from? How can this dust be made whole again? This stands in contrast to the Old Testament story in which the prophet Ezekiel spoke life back into the bones of the dead: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live’ (Ezk 37.5). The dead will not return. Survivors continue to ask for legal justice. The truth—the dust—is not enough.     

Kirsty Sangster has just completed a doctoral thesis on truth commissions.

Langer, L 1996, ‘The alarmed vision: Social suffering and holocaust atrocity’, Daedalus, vol. 125, no. 1, pp. 47-65.
Moltmann, J 1993, God in creation: A new theology of creation and the spirit of God, Minneapolis, Fortress Press.



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