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Bearing witness

  • 08 May 2006

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