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How do memories of past repression and violence get passed on beyond the generation of victims? How is collective memory produced and transmitted? What memory projects have been effective in educating new generations and young people about the horrors of the past? What are the cultural and political conditions that allow for or prevent intergenerational discussions? In most political transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule, compromises are made to accommodate the needs of new governments and the demands of former rulers. How has the idea of “never again” been affected by these negotiations and the political context in which they took place?
On October 10-12, 2002, a group of 40 scholars, activists, museum workers and practitioners from all over the world gathered at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES) in Buenos Aires, Argentina to discuss intergenerational memory in the wake of mass violence. This was the third and final international conference I attended of the Legacies of Authoritarianism Research Circle from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aimed at building international communities of scholars and activists, the legacies project has focused on transitions to democracy in the Southern Cone of Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Africa and Eastern Europe. In May 2000, participants explored the idea of “alternative truth-telling” on Robben Island, South Africa. We addressed experiences such as corruption, sexual violence, and internal struggles within liberation movements that often remain outside the purview of official mechanisms such as truth commissions. In August 2001, we convened at the Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute in Manila, the Philippines to debate issues of reconciliation
“Nunca Mas,” or “Never Again” is more than a political slogan in the Southern Cone of Latin America, where many countries experienced extreme repression and mass violence at the hands of military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s. It is a memory project based on a shared insistence that the atrocities and abuses of the past will not be repeated. It is believed that only by discovering, uncovering and remembering the truth of former periods of mass violence can societies protect and ensure basic human rights for all of their citizens. The conference in Buenos Aires explored the nature of never again projects and their long-term feasibility by examining intergenerational memory in a variety of contexts throughout the world.
Memory by Definition: More than Meets the Mind‘s Eye
The intellectual agenda offered a shared point of departure and basis for our discussions In it, the conveners provided three working definitions of memory: 1) memory is a social process; 2) it is inherently selective and interpretive; 3) memory is the meaning we give to experience. While helpful, these definitions overlooked the underlying political and cultural dynamics that enable and limit the memory process. The selections and interpretations that come to constitute memories are not made on a proverbial even playing field—certain memories have more permanence, visibility, credibility, and consequence than others. This is partially because people have widely varying access to knowledge and information surrounding past events, particularly those that involved violence and oppression. Furthermore, at times it may be in an individual or group‘s best interest to alter or suppress certain memories. As a process, remembering is not merely a matter of choosing and selecting based on needs and interests, but rather a complex of things known, unknown, denied, invented, altered and obliterated by a range of individuals, groups and entities.
Memory can be an elusive site of inquiry because it is so dynamic. The experiences that produce our memories take place within a complex of power relations, and are recalled, remade and forgotten within a set of power relations as well. These relations are not fixed but shifting, and our understandings and interpretations of them change. The often-invoked suitcase imagery of the term “memory baggage” suggests that the contents of memory are both encapsulated and fixed, when in fact the interpretive aspect of meaning-making might lead one to find a transformed set of baggage upon reopening. The very idea of intergenerational memory highlights the importance of understanding not only the past in which consequential events have occurred, but also the intervening periods between these earlier times and the present. Understandings, interests and knowledge transform in time, within a complex nexus of shifting power relations. Thus, the uneven playing field is not a limitlessly open field, but one which is constrained by a range of possibilities
Memory in Apple Boxes: Unconventional Archives
For the past four years, the Robben Island Museum Education Department has hosted a group of South African teachers and students for “Spring School,” a weeklong program on issues of culture and heritage. One of their most successful and widely known projects was created in 1998, when a group of young people decided to record Robben Island‘s earlier history on apple boxes. After lengthy political negotiations, in 1991 the remaining political prisoners were released from the prison on Robben Island. Upon departure, each prisoner was given an apple box that contained his few (and in some cases, his only) material possessions. The image of the apple box has proven a strong one in the memories of the former political prisoners, who shared some of their experiences with the visiting youth and teachers. Students then created a living history museum display, using apple boxes to present and record the memories of older generations. The boxes served as a contemporary metaphor for the richness of the prisoners‘ memories, knowledge and experiences during their illegal detention on the island.
In Buenos Aires, I confronted another set of apple boxes that were just as powerful and even more painful. Since 1974, 23 truth commissions have been established by countries undergoing political transition. Several of them have used forensic science in their attempts to uncover the truth of the past. With other interested conference participants, I visited the offices of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in Buenos Aires to learn about the complex process of investigating and identifying the remains of people who were “disappeared.” Their work has taken them all over the globe. Looking around the office, I was struck by the wide range of materials and areas of expertise utilized by the researchers Medical charts of the human skeleton hung next to books about military tanks and armed vehicles, the methods of dentistry, varieties of woven cloth, how to match fingerprints, and the history of Rwanda.
In their attempts to identify found remains and determine where to look for them, the forensic anthropologists begin with oral and written sources. They also investigate the country‘s military history in order to understand their tactics. Then they do the archaeological and lab work. They must also negotiate the complex and risky terrain of political differences and conflicts of interest Since most truth commissions are based on compromises between the old and new governments, rarely is any individual or party completely happy with the current state of affairs. The organization‘s work is also complicated by the fact that communities often use political violence to solve some local problems. Sometimes they have problems with other NGOs who are trying to record all available information, and the governments who may still be interested in suppressing their findings. The anthropologists‘ first priority is being sensitive to the needs and desires of the families of the deceased. However, they try to work with the NGOs when they can.
After learning about the impressive and varied techniques utilized by the investigators, we were taken to the lab where two severely damaged skeletons were laid out on examination tables. Luis Fondebríder showed us examples of the types of clues they were looking for: bullet holes, cracks, and chips in bones; broken teeth; and missing body parts. Then we were taken into the storage room, where hundreds of apple boxes lined each wall from floor to ceiling. The bright reds and greens of the advertising slogans, alternated with pictures of apples creating a pattern that resembled the kind of commercial wallpaper often used in township dwellings in South Africa. But that wasn‘t the only connection to South Africa I observed. In each box, we were told, were the remains of one human body, victims believed to have been murdered in extra-judicial killings by agents of the dictatorial Argentine state. Many of the boxes had been stored there since the team first began their work in 1984. They were awaiting funds or sufficient evidence to proceed with the long and painstaking process of identification and lab tests.
Living Memorials and Intergenerational Transmission
From 1976-1983, Argentina was under military rule that was characterized by extreme repression and mass violence. Operating outside of any constitutional or democratic controls, the state‘s use of terrorism was extensive It is estimated that 30,000 people were “disappeared” during the dictatorship. More than 600 “clandestine detention centers” were established as sites of torture for the tens of thousands of illegally detained people. Many of these sites were places of everyday activity such as bus terminals, athletic clubs and schools. During my stay in Buenos Aires, I visited a few of these sites of horrific suffering to educate myself about Argentina‘s past and to pay to respect to the victims.
The Plaza de Mayo is one of the most important public spaces in Argentina. Every Thursday at 3:30 pm, the Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo gather in a protest march that has been taking place for decades. Wearing white handkerchiefs on their heads with the names of the disappeared embroidered in blue thread, these women and their supporters want to know what happened to their children and loved ones. Many of them bear small placards and photographs of the “desaparecidos.” They march around the statue of liberty, a monument commemorating important dates in Argentina‘s history of nation building. It sits in front of the bright pink Presidential Palace.
The Thursday I visited the Mothers‘ and Grandmothers‘ weekly vigil, there was another much larger protest occurring about a block away from the Plaza in front of a government building. Several organizations and protest movements were present to demonstrate against the economic crisis and to criticize the government with leaflets, chants, slogans, songs and the occasional can of spray paint. This was one of many protests I witnessed during my ten days in Buenos Aires. It is striking how strong civil society is in the city today, especially considering the extent of the dictatorship‘s past repression. “Cazerolazos,” or pot-banging protests, are advertised in the major newspapers, and seem to enjoy large turnouts of growing numbers of the disaffected. A profusion of spray-painted political commentary covers many of the walls in public spaces with the most frequent phrase, “trabajo suicio,” or dirty work, adorning government spaces in particular
A few minutes after 3:30, the much larger and louder group of protesters began streaming into the Plaza de Mayo. There were hundreds of people, most of them much younger than the aging women they joined, but similarly adorned with placards, signs, banners, and buttons declaring their opposition to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exploitation and economic imperialism. Several of the protesters had wrapped their faces in t-shirts in the same manner made famous by the Zapatistas in Mexico. They deferentially fell into ranks with the older women, integrating the front lines to help hold the Mothers‘ blue and white banner. In addition to the excitement of witnessing firsthand intergenerational dialogue through protest in the highly politicized and culturally important space of the Plaza de Mayo, it was also interesting to note the strains of critique that ran across the two groups around issues of economic justice and US imperialism.
Retrospection: International Responsibility
Despite our international makeup, during the conference we failed to address the international dimensions of repression. In a wide variety of contexts, truth commissions and other formal state-sponsored mechanisms for transformation have worked to uncover hidden or suppressed truths through the collection of individual narratives. Rarely, however, have they touched on the role of larger entities, such as foreign governments and multi-national corporations, in sustaining, funding and participating in authoritarian regimes. This is true especially in regard to questions of accountability. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been severely criticized for its narrow focus on gross violations of human rights. The everyday racial and structural violence of the apartheid system that was enabled and bolstered by international contributors remained largely outside the purview of the commission‘s investigation. Speaking from their history at the hands of former presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada, in the 2001 conference several of the Filipino participants suggested that plunder should be considered a crime against humanity. Since then, support has continued to grow around the idea of an International Criminal Court despite the considerable efforts of President Bush and the US government, offering some hope for future accountability.
But many grass roots organizations are not waiting on international bureaucracies to act on the issues of accountability. The Khulumani Support Group (KSG) was established in South Africa in 1995 for victims and survivors of human rights violations. Recently in New York, KSG and 85 of its 33,000 members filed a lawsuit against more than 20 multinational corporations and international banks for their roles in supporting the apartheid state. According to the plaintiffs, companies amassed huge profits from their illegal activities which included selling oil to South Africa in violation of trade embargoes, providing armored vehicles that were used by police to harass and kill people living in townships, and providing computers that enabled the Department of the Interior to maintain apartheid‘s race-based national identity system.
Khulumani is demanding reparations for years of state-sanctioned torture, murder, rape, arbitrary detention, and inhumane treatment; all recognized violations of international law. Members want the accused to invest in disadvantaged communities still suffering from the legacies of apartheid abuse. This lawsuit was filed after four years of failed attempts to engage the accused banks and corporations in discussions about their roles in the apartheid system, and the possibilities for compensation. Similar cases led by US attorney Ed Fagan have successfully sued companies and banks on behalf of victims and descendants of the Nazi Holocaust. In July, Jubilee South Africa and Khulumani filed a separate court case against the South African government over the delay in reparations for victims of apartheid that were recommended by the TRC in its final report.
Groups like Khulumani underscore the importance of thinking materially about what should constitute never again projects. For true change to occur, intergenerational interaction—rather than just transmission—must be accompanied by concrete changes in national and international policy, the pursuit of justice through accountability, and socioeconomic reform. It is never enough just to know about the horrors of the past We must be continuously engaged in breaking from it.
Monica Patterson has participated in all of the Legacies of Authoritarianism conferences sponsored by the Ford Foundation through the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has compiled official reports for each of the three conference proceedings (available on the web at http://wiscinfo.doit.wisc.edu/globalstudies/LOA ).
Monica Patterson is a graduate student in the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, and has conducted research in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Her research interests are rooted in her concern with memory, the production of history, and meaning making. She is currently working as a research intern at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Cape Town,South Africa with funding from the Program in Anthropology and History and the Africa Initiative.