I want to re-visit Witness #47, which gets at the core of what, for me, the ICC Witness Project is doing:
The poem begins with the president-elect’s injunction to move on, and when voiced in that voice of authority, “Kenya needs to” becomes an imperative, a command. It’s absurd, of course; moving on seems to literally require moving backwards, like starting a video of an atrocity at the end, and running it backwards to the beginning. [it’s like the joke about listening to country music backwards: you get your dog, your woman, and your job back.]
At the same time, though, let’s look closer at what it means for PEV to un-happen: “needs” become commands.
“Those who were killed need to undie”
“women need to guard their wombs”
“[women need to] erase their memories as they become whole”
“And those IDPs! They need to move”
The poem expresses the hidden violence of “moving on,” in which all the labor of moving on is placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose responsibility it is to erase themselves as victims. As they “crawl from their graves in solidarity,” in fact, we have a patriotic public duty placed on the victims to not be dead; Kenya needs to stop it, get over it. But the flip side of that absurdity is the way it exacerbates the original violations: not only does the injunction to move on rehearse each of the categories of victim—killed, raped, displaced—reliving the instant of the violation, but it refuses to allow the dead to rest in peace, forcing them to rise from the grave like zombies. Despite the substantive content of the statement “Kenya is moving on,” the form of the poem contradicts that sentiment, which it repeats and reiterates without actually demonstrating.
If you give the “About” page no more than a cursory reading, the ICC Witness Project is essentially a project to remember. As such, there is nothing very controversial or dangerous about it. Who, after all, could dispute the necessity to remember? Memory is passive, a noun not a verb, and the verb “to remember” is barely a verb at all. Even presidents who exhort us to “look forward, not back” when it comes to substantive matters (like prosecutions) can also easily pay lip service to the importance of memory and history; it easy to convert the imperative to remember the past into the act of moving forward into the future. We must move on.
In part, this is because we tend to construe “memory” as a relatively passive act, because we are simply recalling to mind things that we already remember, which are already there. The act of remembering them, then, is simply recognizing the trace of past experience as it has already been inscribed in the present, reading the pages of a book that has already been written. If the memory is there, it’s there because we already remember it; if it isn’t, then, by definition, we can’t remember it. In this way of thinking about it, then, “remembering” has no real consequences, because doing so changes nothing: either you remember or you don’t.
This way of thinking about memory, however, is very flawed, has it completely backwards. As neuroscientists tell us, memory is anything but passive: we construct and reconstruct what we think we know about the past on a daily basis, especially while we are apparently doing nothing, sleeping. Memory is active; it’s forgetting that’s passive. You have memories because you remember them, not the other way around.
In this sense, our long term memories are better understood as memories of memory, the act of remembering the copy which we have made of a copy of a copy of a copy of our original—but now long-lost—short-term impressions and experience. Memory, in this sense, is not the nightmare from which we are trying to awake; it’s the reality to which we awake, at the end of the cognitive process which makes our short-term into long-term memory, by processing and digesting a messy aggregation of thoughts and sense-data into a much more simplified and streamlined narrative of what happened. This is where narrative comes in, the net that catches memories and prevents them from falling away. We forget the vast majority of what we once knew, and there’s no way to avoid that, nor would we want to; right now, you can all remember what you ate for breakfast this morning, but unless there’s some reason to remember it, that memory will be neglected, will fade, and eventually will simply drop out of your mind, forgotten and irrelevant. Which is to say, unless it becomes part of a story—“I was eating oatmeal when I saw the flying saucer”—it won’t even become a memory. It will just be data that was left out, forgotten, noise that never became a sound.
This is why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Even when witnesses think they are telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they are in no position to know for certain. At most, they are telling the story that they have told themselves about what happened, and they can have no direct access to the original event. After all, we have forgotten all the things that we have forgotten, including the fact that we forgot it, so memory is not a process that we can have direct knowledge of or control over: it is literally the limit-point of our conscious minds, by definition, what divides consciousness from unconsciousness, intention from immanence.
In practice, then, we have no choice but to trust the narratives which we have produced of our past; they’re all we have, and we use them because we have to. Knowing their limitations doesn’t change that fact; all we know is what we know, even if we know we don’t really know it. This is why ideology is a good word for acting as if we know and believe something we know we don’t know or believe; we lack an alternative. There’s no other candidate to vote for.
The more we engage with this limitation, however, the more thoroughly we must revise our understanding of memory’s passivity, and therefore, of its consequences: to remember is to create new stories, a process which, in turn, makes it possible to create new memories. If forgetting is the default, the baseline, then the exceptional case is our active work of remembering, the manner in which we convert “what happened” into a narrative memory. Forgetting, then, is not an act of erasure; it is the passivity of not remembering, an inaction connected to a lack of desire. By contrast, a desire to remember produces the act of narrativizing, and that production of a narrative makes the past becomes present.
The ICC Witness Project is animated by a desire to remember, and it does so actively and with a clear purpose: to tell a story of Kenya in which all Kenyans are human.
Here, I turn to Judith Butler’s observation that obituaries are about building the nation, or to use Benedict Anderson’s term of art, “imagined communities”: we imagine the life that is not life by failing to grieve it, and we imagine community by telling the story of our regret for a life that is no longer alive:
If we do not make memory through our grief, then life is not grievable; if we forget that someone was alive, then they never were.
While the ICC Witness Project begins from a presumption of active repression–the notion that witnesses are being intimidated and bullied into silence and complicity, something most observers pretty much accept–I want to suggest that what is being cultivated, here, is not memory, per se, but the desire to remember. After all, the ICC Witness Project is not, itself, connected to or part of the actual ICC trial, nor are the “witnesses” who speak in each poem “witnesses” in a literal sense. And yet–and here might be an apparent contradiction–one of the things the poems most tenaciously “witness” is the desire to do something other than remember the dead. To have peace and stability for business, for example:
Or to move on, to live in the futurity of development, and to construe “need” by reference to the desire that victims not exist:
On one level, ICC Witness #135 might be an effort to speak for the dead, which is a slightly different thing than speaking for the survivors. Survivors, after all, can speak for themselves, and do. The dead do not. They can be forgotten; they cannot remember themselves, in the ways that survivors do and must. Indeed, we might find a certain tension creeping into this poem between the voices of the survivors and non-survivors, a tension between the different kinds of pain and loss that get remembered: if the dead are mourned by the survivors, for the survivors, the fact of being dead means that precisely nothing can be done for them. Hamlet’s father is not a ghost; he’s a piece of Hamlet, crying out in pain.
The dead are not asking for redress of their grievances, because they have no grievances. The dead do not ask you to light a candle in their memory, nor want you to picket in the streets or write letters. They do not want you to do these things, because they do not want. They do not. They are not. Not.
The “we” of the poem cannot want these things–because it cannot want–so the poem doesn’t function as an expression of an actual desire (“we want”), and such a thing can’t actually obtain. Rather, it functions as the performative outline of that impossible constative. This present-tense “we” is fictional, because it does not exist in the present tense, nor does or could its desired articulation of a desire: we want them to desire, because we want them not to not. This desire is narcissistic, of course, though there’s nothing wrong with that; we want “them” to want, because we want them, but we are the ones doing the wanting, the only ones who can. So there is a certain defensive structure of denial in the pretense that the dead could want: if we let it be their desire, not ours, then our desire that they be is no longer motivated by the fact that they aren’t. The wound disappears if they can want, themselves.
There is something horrible, then, in the voice of the dead–who, we know have no voice, being dead–instructing us on what they don’t want, because they don’t want; as the performative statement pushes the impossible constatative off-stage, we must face the reality that candles, letters, and pickets are for the living, however much they are voiced in the name of the dead. There is no rebuke in saying so, of course, and the poem is gentle: it is enough, speaks the voice of the dead, not to be. And this is not the voice of the dead, anyway. This is the voice of the living, allowing the dead not to be (allowing themselves to allow the dead not to be). This is a horrible thing, a thingness that evokes horror, and psychological complexes. But it also is, and simply.
Strangers are not simply those who are not known in this dwelling, but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognized as not belonging, as being out of place.
–Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters
Daily Nation: “Police have arrested 657 suspects in Eastleigh, Nairobi following Monday night terror attack that left six people dead.”
Somalianewsroom: In one shockingly tweeted photo, a group was shown en masse in a cage, prompting a commentator to ask “Gorme xoloo noqoney?” - When did we become livestock?
Kenya is Sliding Down a Slippery Path: “Kenya is rapidly becoming a rogue state, and it seems there is nothing that the country’s leadership can do about it. County officials and Cabinet secretaries are issuing orders that violate the Constitution and the laws of the land, yet they are not reprimanded or brought to book.”
“The government has sent security agencies in Eastleigh and they are killing and robbing residents,” said former deputy speaker of the National Assembly Farah Maalim…The Somali community occupies the largest area in the country and yet it is treated the worst. The innocent are being arrested and their identity cards mutilated,” Mr Shidiye said.”
Almanar: “Kenyan police on Saturday arrested some 500 suspects in Nairobi’s mainly Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh.”
Global Post: “Six people died in this neighborhood last Monday, when three explosions tore through two restaurants and a clinic at rush hour. More than 600 people were arrested the following day. But that’s business as usual in Eastleigh, a Somali-dominated suburb of the Kenyan capital.”
samira sawlani, “Kasarani-venue for presidential inauguration,celebration of 50yrs independence, this?”:
AllAfrica: “Police on Tuesday, declared the Safaricom Kasarani Stadium a no-go zone for humanitarian organizations”
Alertnet: “The United Nations has yet to access more than 1,000 Somalis who have been arrested in an anti-terrorist operation in Nairobi, the majority held in a stadium that some have dubbed a ‘concentration camp.’”
when I see Kenyans cheering the police crackdown in Eastleigh I cringe in pain. Any sane person would support an operation to rid criminals from our midst. But I can bet with my life that the operation in Eastliegh will not rid us of any criminal. It is just a means for the police to extort money from both the criminals and many innocent. Have you ever asked yourself why the police are always “trigger happy” to conduct swoops in Eastleigh and Northern Kenya? It is all about the money and the perceived status of Somalis as lesser citizens. In Baragoi, 40 police officers were massacred in a single day. Nothing was done. In northern Kenya, one officer is killed and that justifies the massacre of locals and collective punishment.
Most of those who were arrested paid for their freedom. The criminals would be the first ones to pay up because they have financiers. Many people were not arrested because they knew what they were expected to do. They paid up before”tufike mbele”. I know a guy who paid kshs 20,000 despite having all the requisite documents to show his citizenship. Most of those in the concentration camps in Kasarani are the poor who could not afford to bribe their way out.
What happens when we make people illegal? What is it to determine a certain space of humanity exists outside the law and, thus, must be dealt with outside the law? I keep thinking about the term “illegal immmigrants” and the dehumanization that it brings about. As if somehow there is a space where we can move people and do to them as we will.
“While there is an overwhelming belief on both a governmental and societal level that Kenyan Muslims are mobilizing attacks in large numbers against their own country, history simply does not support the assertion.”
Consider, for instance, the ongoing “crackdown,” “lockdown,” “security operation” being carried out in Eastleigh. Mainstream reporting has claimed that Eastleigh is being reclaimed “by Kenya,” identifying Somali residents as “suspects,” “foreigners,” and “terror threats.” Xenophobia is one way to frame these accusations, but it fails to capture the ideological and affective labor of war on terror frames that deny suspects any recognition as right-bearing subjects. War on terror frames augment and intensify the Kenyan state’s ongoing war against Somalis, helping, as well, to legitimate this war within a global sphere dedicated to “fighting terror.” Note, for instance, that “foreign envoys” are cited as affirming their support “in eliminating terror threats in the country.” (The statement is so vague as to be meaningless, even as its very vagueness can be marshaled to support the government’s actions.)
To “support . . . eliminating terror threats” in this context requires unseeing, unhearing, and uncaring about those framed as creating or, in this case, bearing terror in their very identities, histories, cultures, and relationships. To be Somali in Kenya now is to be a terrorist, to be suspected of being a terrorist, or to be suspected of having ties to terrorism. Twitter chatter accuses Somalis in Eastleigh of “harboring” terrorists. Those speaking against the state’s actions—its violations of constitutionally-guaranteed rights and multiple human rights—are framed as “terrorist sympathizers.”
BBC: “About 2,000 people have been arrested over the past week in the capital, Nairobi, a Somali diplomat said.”
VOANews: “Somalis in Kenya say police are systematically soliciting bribes during an ongoing crackdown on suspected illegal immigrants.”
“The other communities, they cannot differentiate us. For example, during the night time the police just come and take the people to the police station”
International Business Times: “More than 3,000 suspects have been arrested in Kenya in four days of counter-terrorism operations following Islamist terror attacks across the capital of Nairobi.The majority of those arrested are of Somali origin or thought to be linked to radical Islam in some form.”
“The same govt. arresting somalis for not having identification has a history of denying them identification documents.” -@kweligee
Wall Street Journal: “Some 3,000 People Rounded Up Since Saturday in Crackdown of Somali Residents”
Because I come to Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through bio-medicine, through my father’s emergency calls in the middle of the night, his joy when life thrived, his anxieties when life faltered, his sorrow when life ended; because I understand Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through bio-medical struggles to “make live,” to prolong health, to “make generations”; because I come to Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—through the culture-bridging practices demonstrated by my father’s practice, practices that made palpable the ethics of care, emphasizing collectivity-making as a desire for others to thrive, I am struggling to understand how Eastleigh—and Somalis via Eastleigh—has become available for genocidal imaginations.
“The police chief has dubbed this “operation sanitize” and the media as usual in Kenya has a penchant for rather crude and unconscionable fascist statements towards Somali, Somalia and everything Somali, Kenyan ethnicity notwithstanding. Chime in the police who have dubbed Somalis ATM machines. The Kenyan Defense Force is in Somalia exerting its right to military voyeurism; the current vogue in Africa as usual at the behest of America’s Africa Command. Ask anyone in Eastleigh, the densely Somali populated area, if they can remember any year before or after the collapse of Somalia where there has not been a Musako (mass arrest).”
In the past, despite suffering multiple high profile terrorist attacks, Kenya avoided the Western-funded “War on Terror” despite receiving military funding from the US. That policy dramatically shifted in October 2011 when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia to fight the al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliated group, following the group’s alleged cross-border kidnapping of Western tourists and aid workers. By sending its troops to Somalia, Kenya lost its distinctive regional profile as the only country whose military never went to war with any of its neighbours.
This had two consequences. The first was that al-Shabab explicitly targeted Kenya for retribution. Since Kenya intervened in Somalia, there have been a total of 30 attacks involving grenades or improvised explosive devices. This succession of relatively minor incidents preluded the attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall on September 21, 2013.
The second consequence was to reinforce Kenya’s explicitly prominent role in the War on Terror in the region. Domestically, the face of the aggressive counter-terrorism posture was the enhanced role of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) and the passage of an anti-terrorism bill in 2002.
This legislation was passed one year after Kenya’s intervention in Somalia started in 2011. The passage of the law saw an uptick in the collective profiling of Muslims, and specifically Somalis. While the demonisation of the Somalis has a long history, under the counter-terrorism rubric the community has become the security forces’ focal point. For example, after the recent blast in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, the police arrested over 600 Somalis.
In Strange Encounters, Sara Ahmed describes how a body is recognized as a stranger. How a society is conditioned to accept a certain body as one that belongs, and any other body as strange. The strange, she argues, has been put in our minds to mean the dangerous. All the way from those horrible movies where the aliens would always come to take over the world to the idea that somehow a different person in the neighbourhood would be a robber. This creates an “us” and, invariably, a “them.”
In Kenya it is extremely easy to identify a person who does not “belong” in a certain space. We have a created a very rigid definition of who a Kenyan is that anyone who does not directly fit that description can be spotted a mile away. And, even within the people that are Kenyan in the strict societal definition, the class divide is very easy to spot. There is a hunching, a hiding that the people who do not belong in a certain space have been taught to carry out. To try and go back into themselves, stay out of the way of others. As if somehow granting these individuals the ‘privilege’ to be in ‘our’ space should be enough.
Shailja Patel: “Kenyan wars on Somali bodies: Westgate to Wagalla to Garissa to Isiolo”
Violence has become normalized, acceptable, desirable even. It has become a way to build the nation by constantly defining ourselves in terms of opposition to one another. Kenyanness is constantly recreated by acts of violence. Thus it becomes the height of patriotism to call for a war with Uganda over a tiny piece of rock in Lake Victoria. And unpatriotic to question the actions of the government in Somalia or in a shopping mall in Nairobi.
The Kenyan government has very much suspended, through the rule of exception, the rights of Kenyan Muslims. There have been running battles between the historically disenfranchised Muslim citizens who inhabit the coastal region, and the state security apparatus, such as the extrajudicial killings by mysterious death squads, violent forays into mosques in Mombasa, and the ransacking of Eastleigh. The marquee terrorist lurking within an otherwise pristine Kenyan landscape are all of Kenya’s Muslim inhabitants. The reactionary islamphobia targeting Muslims by the government, with either tacit silence or vociferous approval similar to post-9/11 America’s unrelenting patriotic jingoism and xenophobia, became the unquestionable position for everyone, especially the fourth estate.
The hold over image of the pirate from the War on Terror is the media’s very own mythology, this latter day anachronistic African figure in the form of a Somali. Add to this the frequent usage of the terms terrorist and warlord, all serving to make it difficult to even extricate the human from the Somali refugee, in a land that is fraught with overly deterministic mythologies about ethnicities in general. The media is aware of its part in the reportage of these very same ethnic mythologies and the part this played in the violent post-2008 election mayhem in Kenya, and all agreed to be extremely cautious when it came to the very same mythologies. However, in the case of their fellow citizens who are Somali, it seems this does not apply. The unfortunate and often dehumanizing myths predicated on grouping an entire people as one of these three things are entirely opportune to render the Somali without any form of humanity.
Hiiran: “They arrest even those of us who have national identification cards only because we are Kenyan Somalis. They only listen to you when you start bargaining on how much money you have to be released,” said Kaltumo Ahmed, a mother of 5 children…The Kenya authorities have ordered all Somali refugees living in towns to move into designated camps. However, human rights group condemned the decision calling it unlawful and undignified..Mama Kaltumo Ahmed complained that their citizenship is disregarded and said that the police call them “Somali ni Somali tu!” literally meaning “A Somali is always Somali” regardless of which country he belongs to ; be it Kenya or Somalia. This phrase has been popular with other ethnic Kenyans when dealing with their fellow Kenyan Somalis…Throughout the week, there has been heavy police presence thoroughly engaged in full-scale operation in Eastliegh. All the usually booming business has drastically slowed down. A number of police trucks were seen driving the streets fully loaded with people arrested including breastfeeding children with their mothers…Wajir south MP Diriye Abdullahi described the attitude of the police towards the Kenyan Somalis, as “Kenyan Somalis are guilty until proven innocent!”
AllAfrica: “The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) voiced concern on Monday (April 7th) over Kenya’s arrest of nearly 4,000 people, mainly Somalis, in a large-scale security operation in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood.”
CapitalFM: “The government says 4,000 suspects have been arrested so far since the crackdown on terrorism started”
When it comes to Somalis in Kenya, what remains now is “muscle memory”: state-sanctioned physical movements and affective dispositions devoted to maintaining Somali disposability. It is an interpellative memory that trains non-Somali Kenyans how they should (un)feel about and act toward Somalis. This “muscle memory” is activated and sustained by the ongoing consolidation of identity politics—the belief and practice that one’s identity dictates and constrains one’s politics—that, again, understands Somalis as terror-bearing bodies and communities. It’s worth noting that in marking Somalis as terror-bearing, the state displaces its own violence while retroactively justifying historical violence against Somalis. In a future anterior sense, Somalis will always have been those with terror-bearing bodies, an ideological construction that sustains the “muscle memory” at work now.
Meanwhile, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta shakes hands, smiles, with Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir. Both have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Both seem happy, relaxed.
Human Rights Watch: “Kenyan police and other security agencies should stop arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion, and other abuses against Somalis during security operations, Human Rights Watch said today.”
I find it disturbing, and I think this is the best thing you can say about it: if these photographs provoke and unsettle you, then Pieter Hugo is doing something interesting with his camera, and he is not simply telling the wish-fulfillment story that victims of great violence can just get over it and move on. The New York Times, by contrast, seems to want to tell the latter story, a story of resilience and human strength, and especially the story of women forgiving the men who assaulted them:
Last month, the photographer Pieter Hugo went to southern Rwanda, two decades after nearly a million people were killed during the country’s genocide, and captured a series of unlikely, almost unthinkable tableaus. In one, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs, and yet there they are, together. In each, the perpetrator is a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.
The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization. In AMI’s program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.
I want to take a minute to be thoroughly creeped out by this project. This is not uplifting, heartwarming stuff. This is not release, or catharsis. At best, “Portraits of Reconciliation” is terrifyingly willing to place the burden of reconciliation on the bodies of the victims, and then to call it progress when they show, by gestures of intimacy with the perpetrators, that they have gotten over it, moved on. But, for me, everything disturbing about this story gets crystallized in the overwhelmingly gendered narrative these photos tell—all the “perpetrators” are men, and seven of the eight “survivors” are women—while the word “rape” is screamingly absent from the article and the framing.
This omission is glaring, absurd, and obscene. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped in the course of the genocide—though who really knows? It could be much higher—and sexual violence against women was as central to the genocidal project as lethal violence against men. “Rape was the rule, and its absence the exception,” as U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rwanda Rene Degni-Segui put it, and it is important to come to terms with that fact: leaving women alive to rape them was as much a part of the genocide as killing them. From the HRW report, “Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath”:
Although the exact number of women raped will never be known, testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was extremely widespread and that thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced “marriage”) or sexually mutilated. These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. According to witnesses, many women were killed immediately after being raped.
Other women managed to survive, only to be told that they were being allowed to live so that they would “die of sadness.” Often women were subjected to sexual slavery and held collectively by a militia group or were singled out by one militia man, at checkpoints or other sites where people were being maimed or slaughtered, and held for personal sexual service. The militiamen would force women to submit sexually with threats that they would be killed if they refused. These forced “marriages,” as this form of sexual slavery is often called in Rwanda, lasted for anywhere from a few days to the duration of the genocide, and in some cases longer. Rapes were sometimes followed by sexual mutilation, including mutilation of the vagina and pelvic area with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water, and in one case, acid.
If the word “rape” occurred in the New York Times article—if we remembered all the women who were left alive so that they could be sexually violated—then these photographs would look different than they do, I think. We might find ourselves looking at women being photographed next the men they are forgiving—demonstrating with gestures of bodily intimacy that they had been forgiven—and we might be repulsed at the idea that a rape-victim would have to hug her rapist and forgive him, for national progress. We might find the entire exercise horrifying, and not be awed by their resilience, or inspired by their courage.
In the United States, the “victims’ rights movement” has been quite successful in establishing that victims not only have the right to be included in the criminal justice system, but have a right to restitution, either in the form of actual financial compensation or in the ability to take part in punishing the perpetrator. A “victim-centric” approach to criminal enforcement is now an important part of how the criminal justice system “thinks,” albeit only for particular kinds of victims:
once adopted by the Reagan Administration’s Justice Department, the mantle of VR was never extended to victims of police brutality or to those whose clothes, demeanor, or skin color earned them harassment or arrest from a habitual police practice of racial profiling. The profile of a victim promoted by this campaign became a White woman or man, victimized by a person of color who was associated with drugs- a highly selective slice of the wide range of victims of crime.
The surviving victims that Pieter Hugo photographed are not called “victims,” however; they are called “survivors.” There are many different ways to think about this choice, and the question is not a simply one. In the United States, for example, one finds a strong moral argument against calling a person who has been raped a victim at all; for many, the preferred term is “survivor”:
We believe that if you have ever been assaulted and you have lived to tell the tale, you are a survivor. You have made it past the assault, and you have earned the title of ‘survivor’ rather than the depressing identifier ‘victim’. It takes courage, bravery, and strength to tell your story, and the Center’s mission is to support that journey every step of the way. We start by calling every man, woman, and child who walks through our doors seeking support a survivor, no matter what their story is.
There is a logic to this, but I don’t think it’s the reason why the seven women that Pieter Hugo photographed are called “survivors”; I think they are called “survivors” because if we called them victims, we might notice that they don’t seem to have many rights as such. Behind such language is a pervasive double standard in how we often think about crime: some victims require terrible justice to be wreaked upon the bodies of the victimizers, while others are declared to be survivors, praised for their ability to forgive, forget, and reconcile. This difference maps onto gender. It maps onto race. It maps onto class. Some victims deserve justice. Some, apparently, do not.
I am not a fan of the actually-existing criminal justice system, because it functions as a form of social control over black and brown bodies, because it serves to protect the interests of only a certain, very selectively defined class of victim, and because it is brutal, stupid, and evil. Which is to say, it is wrong because it is not justice, not really. This is why the injustices of our particular prison-industrial complex are not actually an argument against “justice” as such, precisely because of all the double standards and sadistic repression by which some kinds of bodies are protected while other kinds are punished.
I don’t know what “justice” would look like for Rwandans, but I do know that this is not it:
In the years following the genocide, widows found themselves isolated in remote villages, often the sole survivors living among those who had killed their families. Haunted by memory, too weak and traumatized to earn a living, they were unwelcome envoys from a time that others want to forget, deny or exploit.
Lindsey Hilsum’s devastating “The Rainy Season” is able to include, for example, the fact that “forgiveness” is not necessarily something given freely out of an awe-inspiring reservoir of grace and humann courage; sometimes “forgiveness” is extracted from the bodies of the victimized, who have no choice in the matter, by those for whom the past is better off dead.
I don’t know that the women Hugo photographed were in any way coerced into taking part in this project, but there’s no question that “forgiveness” is being framed, there, as the result of at least passive pressure. After all, when “the subjects spoke of the pardoning process as an important step toward improving their lives,” it’s worth noting how it is the survivors who must improve their lives by figuring out how to live where they must live:
“These people can’t go anywhere else — they have to make peace,” Hugo explained. “Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” Yet the practical necessity of reconciliation does not detract from the emotional strength required of these Rwandans to forge it — or to be photographed, for that matter, side by side. (my bold)
The fact that the “have to make peace”—that they cannot go anywhere else, so must do what they must to survive—is not regarded, however, as a continuation of violence, but is framed as its transcendence. Yet this is a dark, dark image of the aftermath of the genocide, and to see it as anything in the broadest vicinity of uplifting (as most of the commentors do) is, frankly, crazy. The NYT writer wants to emphasize the “emotional strength” of these Rwandan women, but the fact that they “can’t go anywhere else,” that bare survival is framed as making reconciliation a necessity, not a choice, is also a form of violence: they are survivors because, having survived the genocide, they must now survive its aftermath, forgiving the perpetrators, trading physical intimacy for peace. Who is being re-integrated into society here, the perpetrators or their victims? Who is being forgiven?
If the imperative to forgive—and to do so through the uplifting spectacles of the bodies of the victims—ends up producing “survivors” it also erases victims. In place of women who were raped, we get women who survived their families being killed. In place of women being targeted, we get women who were overlooked or let go, who were somehow personally spared. Such people are victims too, certainly, and they might forgive. But we—the uplifted readers of New York Times magazine—seem only to want to forget, to be uplifted, amazed, awestruck, stunned, left with no words. Silence is a woman.
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