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 6 of 7)


The women I interviewed came from a variety of backgrounds. They were ethnically Tajik, Uzbek, Pashtoon, some came from extremely isolated rural areas and others from the provincial capital of Taloqan. Some could read and write, and a few had held jobs outside of their homes, as teachers, for example, but most were largely uneducated and did not work outside the family. Most had lost immediate family members, children, parents or siblings or spouses, during the years of conflict. Their different identities and backgrounds distinguished them quite clearly from each other. Although there are similarities in the ways they expressed experiencing the events to which they were witnessing, there are also distinct differences. Some women expressed anger at their disenfranchisement by the Taliban. For example, several women complained about being unable to leave the house unaccompanied by a male relative, which made trips to the bazaar for basic provisions difficult, among other things, and therefore disrupted their abilities to care for their families. Other women expressed no anger, just fear and terror at having been in the middle of violent conflict. Many women did not hew to a particular political line (supporting the Northern Alliance, which was currently protecting them, in conversations with a stranger, for example) and instead gave witness to abuses committed not just by the Taliban but by local warlords and Northern Alliance troops. Men were much more likely to publicly support the Northern Alliance.

In a culture that strongly emphasizes distinct gender roles, which were even more polarized in many areas by the Islamist Mujahedeen and the Taliban, the women I spoke with were very self-conscious of themselves as women, and of the limits within which they operated. Given that many of them were primary caretakers for sick and dying children, could not go to the toilet during daylight hours because of the proximity of so many strange men, and were acutely aware of the threat of sexual violence during the conflict, they nonetheless articulated clear positions in favor of reconciliation, an end to the conflict and development, especially education for their daughters as well as their sons. They largely emphasized the injury and disenfranchisement they had witnessed and experienced, rather than articulating a need for retaliation. Repeatedly, women made reference to the Taliban actions as inhumane, claiming that their violence was opposed to the identity of Afghan and proper codes of behavior and was against religious teachings. By doing this, the women were claiming an Afghan identity that is opposed to the kinds of violence they witnessed and experienced, performatively enacting this identity as they cast out the transgressors through their discourse. To enact such a move for an international (non-Afghan) visitor moves it into a wider public realm. Through their witnessing, they were constructing a discourse of what constitutes human and Afghan behavior, and laying claim as witnesses to the right to make this distinction.

This witnessing emphasized seeing ("I have seen with my own eyes. . .") and bodily experience rather than bodily pain. Women and men described bodily pain, but emphasized the actions they took in response to pain, and what they had seen rather than felt. Although they would use phases such as "it hurt very much" when describing beatings, or "I was sad" to describe an experience of imprisonment, they then moved on to locate their testimony in the actions of those around them (what they saw others doing along with themselves) or in the actions they took (fleeing as soon as they were able, etc.) and did not talk about their emotional responses to the situation except in the most cursory way. Many, however, both men and women, cried. One of the ways such witnessing works is to locate "truth" outside of the physical body and within the interplay of consciousness, memory and community. Their truth claim did not rest on what their own body had experienced but on the interaction between the physical experiences they were relating, the things they had seen with their eyes, and the actions they had taken as part of a larger group of people who were also experiencing the same thing. Even people with exceptional stories referred to the other witnesses to the event they were relating, the other participants no matter who they were or the others they had heard of who had experienced the same thing. They resisted the way in which group experiences, such as displacement with a whole village fleeing shelling, detracted from the particularity of their experience by emphasizing their own actions, what they had owned or lost, what they were doing during the event, and so forth. But they also always emphasized the similarities between their own experiences and those of the others people around them suffering similarly.

Stories that could have been told in self-aggrandizing ways were not. Instead witnesses emphasized the ordinariness of their actions, and that fact that they were not alone in committing them. For example, several men told of staying behind in their villages after the Taliban arrived, hiding in the fields during the day in an attempt to retain some control over their belongings. One man, who saw a village girl kidnapped, later went with several other men to search for her, and, finding her body, they carried it back to the village at great risk to themselves. However, this story was not told as an act of courage, but as an act of obligation which the witness undertook as part of his role in staying behind, although he stated that he was very frightened. Others told of going as groups to attempt to discover information about where prisoners had been taken, or of trying to protect family members who were being assaulted. In all of these tellings, the perpetrators were described as men who were persecuting people for no obvious reasons (they were not demonized) and the witnesses described themselves as doing what was necessary within the terms that they understood to be ethical behaviors of responsibility toward others. Such constructions do not partake of communitarian identity formations and frictions, and do not participate in the violence of the discourse that they encountered. Instead, they counter such discourse with a discourse of passivity, respect and responsibility.

The people I interviewed were not armed combatants, and they disassociated themselves from the armed men on both sides of the conflict. Although they were more recently abused by and afraid of the Taliban, they did not hesitate to employ the same formations of discourse toward members of other factions. In addition, quite a few of them asked me why other governments were not sending troops to stop the fighting and keep the peace. Rather than the anti-foreigner hostility that Afghans have been portrayed as exhibiting, following their successful battles against the British, the Russians and other invaders, these people were asking why the global community, of which they clearly envisioned themselves to be a part, had abandoned them to such ongoing conflict. The women as well as the men, despite having only the vaguest sense of world geography beyond the borders of the country, nonetheless envisioned a global community that had a responsibility to come to their aid, not in the form of food and shelter, but in the form of putting an end to the violence that was repeatedly disenfranchising them.

Many of the similarities between the different testimonial accounts are due to the ways in which the testimonial collection itself tended to elide differences. Contributing factors might include the ways I was asking the questions (oriented toward actions not feelings), as well as the layers of translation from Dari into English (with some difficulties) and sometimes first from Uzbek through a second translator from within the IDP community to Dari, then into written form. Once the testimonials were in written English, I then read them through the lens of several different discourses depending on my project: that of war crimes, of human rights, of trauma discourses, of gender studies and of critical work on testimonial theory. In addition, the women's own local storytelling traditions and experiences, their past experiences of displacement and any contact with the international community would have influenced what they chose to tell and how they chose to tell it. Through these myriad translations, many differences could have been elided, as the pressures of creating a communal understandable discourse about these experiences came to bear on the testimony from before it was ever told through my writing about it here.

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