Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Ethics in the Field?
·"Human" as Ethical Category
·In the Field
·Collecting Testimony
·Conclusion: How Well Do We Act?
·Works Cited

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Anne Cubilié, "Grounded Ethics: Afghanistan and the Future of Witnessing" (page 5 of 7)

Collecting Testimony

When I arrived in Faizabad I had several immediate difficulties. My most immediate problem was the lack of a fluent, English-speaking female translator with whom I could work. Finding a woman as a translator was a necessity, since otherwise, in this culture, I would only be able to interview men. There are not many English-speaking translators in Badakhshan, and only a few of them are women. I worked with a woman named Maria, who spoke passable English and fluent Arabic - of which I speak a little - and who was herself a teacher at the local pedagogy institute. She had almost no experience as a translator, and no experience of translation at the level at which I needed it.

Additional complications for me included the coercive aspect of collecting testimony from displaced people in a war zone, the development of empathic relationships with people which could not be continued, and the multiple goals of the testimonial collection itself. Collecting testimony in a war zone, from people who have been badly disenfranchised and often traumatized, has a coercive aspect that needs to be mitigated as much as possible. People feel they have no choice but to speak to you, because you represent the UN, upon whom they are largely dependent. Also, because I was collecting testimony for the human rights advisor, rather than for an aid agency, such as the World Food Programme, I was unable to offer any possible material exchange for my request that people speak to me at length and in irritating and often repetitive detail about very horrifying and traumatic experiences. I could not, for example, offer that in exchange for speaking with me, they might receive additional shelter, or rice and pulses (beans, lentils). In addition to representing the UN, we were also speaking to the IDPs with the permission of the local commanders, and therefore our request for testimony carried with it the demand by the Authorities to speak with us.

The procedure we followed was to begin with an introduction, explaining who we were, what we were doing, and what we were asking of people, then individually collect testimony beginning with name, age, village, size of family and method of travel to their current location, and end by asking if there was anything they would like to ask of us. During the interview, we would first ask them to narrate their experience of displacement and of the conflict, and then return for as much detail as we needed or could gain about specific issues.

Although I was concerned with the coercive possibilities of this demand for testimony, the people I interviewed, and especially the women, were quite receptive to speaking with us. While I was concerned with issues such as triggering traumatic memories, the rhetorical violence of my demand, the unequal distribution of power in the interview situation, and the interviewees' fear for their safety through possible lapses of confidentiality, the interviewees were eager to speak with us and to have some contact with a person from outside the conflict. Many of the men, used to public space and to stating their opinions, understood the ways in which such testimony might help to publicize their circumstances (possibly resulting in more aid) and were willing if not happy to tell the stories of what had happened to them. Some of the men, who understood some of the international dimensions of the conflict, and who knew something of politics, also understood that such interviews were an aspect of international humanitarian engagement in conflict situations. Most of the women stated that it was the first time that they had been approached by anybody and asked to speak about their experiences. Even within their own families, they had not, in most cases, narrativized their experiences to each other in this way.

These women were telling their stories not just to us, but to the other women (and children and occasionally men) listening, and our questions gave them a "sanctioned" space, recognized by the international community, within which to talk about what they had seen, felt and experienced. As we emphasized certain details, asked repetitive questions about things that the women glossed over, and tried to arrange timelines for events, the women engaged us in a dynamic process of testifying. They did not accede to our demands weakly. Instead, they engaged us as equals, with respect but skepticism. They both tried to give us what we asked for and laughed at or chided us for the seeming irrelevance, simplicity and/or naiveté of some of our questioning. These women, uneducated, displaced and often suffering from trauma and loss were, through our presence, strongly claiming the place of witness and refusing to inhabit the site of the victim. They also often thanked us for providing them the opportunity for some version of a "normative" social visit in their current framework.

In gathering the testimony, we had to struggle with the communal setting, where there were anywhere from four to twenty-five people listening to the story being told. This is not the ideal setting for collecting testimony, since invariably there are interruptions, concerns about audience, and distractions, among other things, that interrupt the dialogue. This communal setting put ethical pressures on Maria and myself, as we negotiated the need for detailed testimonial collection with the needs of the women. In a situation where there has been ongoing warfare for over 20 years, and where most of the people we interviewed had been displaced multiple times - each time losing all of their belongings - the levels of trauma among the population were quite high. Although I was not dealing directly with the trauma, other than to note it when I found evidence of it, I found many indicators of traumatization, especially among the children.

While the gathering of testimonial, from our perspective, might have benefited from private interviews, the women themselves seemed to benefit from the communal participation in a form of storytelling. Although Afghan families and communities are very closely knit and supportive, which is the major reason for their relatively intact survival over the past decades of atrocity, it was clear that the women appreciated the ritualized way they were able to tell their stories. Rather than just being a story of personal pain, told to friends in conversations during daily life, they were being asked for their story by outsiders, one of whom had traveled vast distances to reach them, and the stories were being recorded. They thanked us, and often told us it was the first time anybody had ever been interested in what had happened to them. The women themselves were using us to build new forms of historical memory in the dynamic setting of interviewer, translator, witness, and audience/participants.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.