The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

Grounded Ethics: Afghanistan and the Future of Witnessing
by Anne Cubilié

About the photos: These photos of internally displaced women and children in Afghanistan were taken for personal use, and I was hesitant to include copies of them with this article. I did not want the photos to read as a sort of "travel digest" to accompany an academic project about a place with which most of us are unfamiliar. Thinking on it, I decided to include them so that at least some of the people with whom I interacted to produce this work would not just be 'faceless' subjects, but would be included in the article in a visual medium that embodies their presence in a very different way.

. . . the task is to operationalise cosmopolitan democracy. This is the idea which at the present stage of history is best calculated to produce a politics of true universalism - an inclusive multicommunity "multilogue", aimed as standard-setting in ways that will reduce human wrongs, and balance a tolerance of diversity with a diversity of tolerance.
                           -Ken Booth, "Three Tyrannies," Human
                           Rights in Global Politics
, 5


I spent the academic year of 2000-2001 in Pakistan and Afghanistan doing initial research for a project on Afghan women and the international aid industry, returning to Washington DC two weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. During that time, I also worked on several projects for the United Nations as a consultant specializing in gender, education, and human rights abuse. As part of one project, I conducted 100 detailed interviews with displaced Afghan women and their families in the isolated northern province of Badakhshan on the subjects both of human rights abuses and war crimes they had suffered and witnessed during the recent fighting and of the general human rights deficit from which they suffer as a result of over 20 years of ongoing warfare in their country. In undertaking such projects, I participated in the structure of international aid and engagement - an uneasy and impossible combination of vast sums of money, political maneuvering by self-interested governments, some committed humanitarian and human rights workers and many careerist bureaucrats. The multiple demands of conducting the interviews in Afghanistan, from issues such as translation and cultural difference to the difficulties of collecting factually solid testimony under conditions of extreme duress for the witnesses, are crucial to the human rights and witnessing project of testimonial. What follows is a reading of the complications these various demands on the production of testimonial create for both the practice of ethical witnessing and the terms "human" and "human rights."

From the center to the field, a movement many Americans would associate more with the terms of baseball than the trajectory of an international aid worker, denotes in both cases the basic structure in and through which certain forms of work and play take place. This discourse, and figuration of a center from which players move across and through a field, carrying with it the whiff of anthropology - the scientific study of the other - and of the trained expert increasingly describes the movement of well-educated and trained elites, based out of New York or major European cities, into zones of almost indescribable devastation. This is generally an orderly enterprise, one played by an elaborate set of rules, guarded by massive bureaucracy, and of both crucial and highly questionable value. One of the questions I want to pose, then, has to do with the different arrangements for thinking of these relationships that may have occurred following this extended moment, beginning on September 11, 2001, when the center literally became the field and the two overlapped (for us) for an extended period of weeks.

I would suggest that we have an ethical obligation to the witnessing of violence that directly countermands the easy spectatorial engagements of mass media. When we consider the ethics of witnessing, we must move from the ground of the theoretical to the ground of the material - and marking this movement is the body of the survivor of atrocity. Ground zero, as the September 11, 2001 site of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York has come to be called, was shocking largely for its lack of survivors. But even events of atrocity that leave many survivors are shocking for the way in which the survivors quickly become living ghosts - disenfranchised - the over-determined mark of the traumatic event whose voice and body speak a moment of history that has been left behind and superseded.

The performative act of witnessing is itself an ethical endeavor and requires accountability not just from the witness/survivor but also the witness/spectator. Spectatorship, with its echoes of theatrical metaphors (theater of war, fourth wall realism, actors) may engage our emotions, even our guilt, but as Brecht and many before and after him have illustrated, it does not impel us toward intervention. News broadcasts, for example the video sound bites of CNN, do not encourage spectators to feel implicated in the various acts of violence being presented from around the globe. Instead, they encourage the spectator to feel overwhelmed by the volume of events happening far beyond one's sphere of living and experience and thus impotent to intervene into situations which seem so massive and removed, as though they are happening in another world.[1] While we might feel guilt over our inaction in the face of atrocity, the guilt itself amplifies and re-enforces our inaction. Testimony, however, requires a difficult and more active engagement - witnessing rather than spectatorship - and works to (re)build structures of responsibility and ethics.

My roles, as I collected the testimony under consideration in this article, moved between those of spectator/"objective" collector and witness, depending on the fluctuating circumstances of my context. In the context of meetings with both local authorities and the internally displaced people I was interviewing, I was aware that my position shifted between spectator and witness in a complex dynamic based not only on my own reactions to the situation, but also on theirs to me. One probably can't, and shouldn't, always claim to or try to witness. But the majority of us happily live our lives as largely disenfranchised spectators who are very rarely mobilized as witnesses. For those of us living in the U.S., this spectatorial position is aided and encouraged by the local social and political ideologies within which we live, as well as by our participation in consumer media culture. We will not occupy an ethical position in relationship to others until we are able to recognize others and engage with them even when they most terrify us - as reminders of the atrocity, mass death, and violence with which we are surrounded, within which many of us live, for which we are all partially responsible, and from which many of us will die. Witnessing the witness to atrocity is one avenue through which we can begin to build the ethical communities, which are likely necessary to our global survival.

Ethics in the Field?

In trying to puzzle out some of the problems and connections raised by my previous distinction between center, field, and ground, I want to move from thinking about our role as spectators and participants at the "center" to thinking about the "field" by considering conditions in Afghanistan during the time in which the testimony I gathered was collected. Written testimony, published for an international audience as a literary form to be read or a dramatic form to be produced, is surely the elite strata of testimonial practice. The vast majority of survivors of human rights abuses, war crimes, or other forms of massive violence never have an opportunity to testify - beyond perhaps the confines of their family, social group, or local rehabilitation programs through storytelling. In particular, women and men who have suffered the sexual violence that is endemic in situations of mass violence are often unable to speak of the experience for fear of social or community ostracization or even death. The oral testimonies collected by human rights workers, therapists, oral historians, and others, then, occupy an important intermediary position in this hierarchy. Unpublished, often confidential, and sometimes given in transcribed written form to the survivor, such testimony makes small but important inroads into communities that have survived mass violence. Written testimony often gives an important voice to some of these communities, but it is usually a single voice standing in for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. As an example, during the fall of 2000 when I was collecting the testimony under consideration here, there were an estimated 80,000 internally displaced people in the province of Badakhshan, at least 80 percent of whom were illiterate. I was the only person in the province collecting testimonies at this time, and I spoke to just over 100 people. There were no trauma recovery programs being run.

Witnessing carries within the act itself an ethical imperative. It is a performative act that requires care and self-consciousness on the part of the interviewer/listener/audience - an awareness of his/her own role in the testimonial process - and a humane engagement with the act of testimony itself. Testimony and witnessing are foundationally communal acts, taking place within and an integral aspect of communal situations. They are also potentially juridical acts, requiring the assumption of a distinct individual subject who can swear, under oath perhaps, that the witnessing story he/she tells is a true and authentic history. As I have argued elsewhere, many written testimonial texts by survivors of mass atrocities (such as the Holocaust, State torture in Latin America, and the genocide in former Yugoslavia) employ a fractured testimonial voice that insists both on the distinct individuality of the witnessing voice and at the same time on the always already fragmented identity of the survivor, thus complicating the notion of the universal subject of human rights upon which juridical categories depend (Cubilié 2002). Oral testimony such as I collected in Badakhshan, however, carries with it an even higher burden of "authenticity." Such testimony is both the rawest material from which human rights abuse allegations are formulated and the least regarded aspect of the process. The various pathways though which the story of the experience is told - from the possible trauma of the experience itself and the meandering ways of memory to the interaction between the translator, interviewer, and other community members present - result in a wholly fragmented text that is then reassembled in narrative form for the transcription. This produces both a stable and "authentic" record of testimony and a text which is always considered tainted, unstable, and incomplete from the juridical, and sometimes the historical, standpoint. The witnesses, both to the acts themselves and to the testimony, thus become crucial links in the re-formulation of the universalized subject of human rights. All subjects engaged in the act of witnessing are altered through its dynamic. However, to what extent can and should our understanding of categories such as "human" and "rights" be understood to be altered by the accretion of acts of testimonial upon the authentic historical structures of knowing foundational to our cultures?

"Human" as Ethical Category

The Afghan women and men I interviewed clearly understand themselves to be humans with rights - the "universal" concept - yet also very particularized subjects with a specific localized cultural embeddedness. But such particularized understandings of human rights might allow us to consider the ways that human rights, as a universal discourse, might be applicable to all humans while retaining the flexibility to encompass difference. As Ken Booth has argued, universality of rights does not necessarily entail sameness and can encompass global ethical communities of individuals who share particular affiliational bonds. Noting that "[u]niversal human rights are supposed to be invalid because there is no universal ethical community," Booth argues that there is "the ethical community of oppressed women, the ethical community of under-classes; the ethical community of those suffering from racial prejudice; the ethical community of prisoners of conscience; the universal ethical community of the hungry . . . and on and on. Universal human rights are solidly embedded in multiple networks of cross-cutting universal ethical communities" (61). The Afghans I interviewed consistently articulated themselves to be members of a human community that entitled protection. Their appeal seemed to be largely in the context of an "ethics of care," although they themselves did not articulate this concept in this way. Because of their limited contact (if only apocryphal) with the international community in the form of aid workers, tourists (in the past), merchants, journalists, and even soldiers, they had a perspective of the world as a global community whose members had responsibilities toward each other. The people I interviewed were almost entirely rural, and most were women. They did not live with electricity (no television), most were illiterate, and they did not have access to elite circles of politics or business, yet they knew and understood that there were nations and world bodies (the United Nations) whose responsibility was to protect them as much as possible when they became disenfranchised by war or other disasters.

I am not claiming that the people I interviewed were idealistic (they were the opposite), but they were clearly articulating themselves as humans in the sense that I am deploying the term here. They defined themselves as part of a global community of members who maintained an ethical responsibility toward each other, while respecting the rights of the other's cultural and other differences. For the most destitute of people, in one of the world's most isolated areas, to understand themselves in this fashion is surely of tremendous importance to the emerging understanding and struggle over the definition and role of human rights in global culture. Rather than human rights as a discourse of elites (and even "western" elites as the charge is sometimes leveled), these people deployed a definition of human defined partly by their experiences of violence and atrocity. In a certain basic way, they were articulating that to be human is to care for others, to be inhuman is to violate them. As Booth notes, "[w]hat finally binds all this together and gives a firm anchorage for universal human rights is the universality of human wrongs" (62). I am absolutely not suggesting that there is a universality of human response to suffering or that such suffering results in an amorphous "ethics" born from desperation. However, there is a commonality of articulation, among certain survivors, of an ethical relationship to others that is understood partially in response to their own experiences of violent disenfranchisement, as well as to their own cultural and social circumstances. Booth states that "development of a human rights culture is crucial, because it is one of the ways by which physical humans can try and invent social humans in ways appropriate for our dislocated, statist, industrialized and globalising age" (65). While Booth's theory places concern for victims as central to the development of workable human rights discourse, giving them voice by assuming that they all want to better their current situation, the survivors I interviewed articulate this voice themselves in a clear, uncompromising fashion. By giving witness to their experiences of atrocity, they move from victim to survivor, while also shifting our relations to the dead. And their demand, for an ethical witness to their witness, articulating and performing a universal but not undifferentiated human who has both rights and responsibilities, and who recognizes them as human and thereby reinforces the witness/spectator's own humanity, is core to the development of a working, globalized discourse that can resist atrocity.

In the Field

Badakhshan, at the time I was there, was the last full province held by the Northern Alliance, a coalition of former Mujahedeen commanders, led by Ahmed Shah Masood and representing the government of former President Rabbani, who were engaged in a civil war with the Taliban. During late July 2000, Taliban forces began an attack on the province of Takhar, which borders Badakhshan to the west. During this offensive, and especially during the extended battle over the provincial capital of Taloqan, over 80,000 people fled their homes for Badakhshan to escape the fighting.

I was in Badakhshan to conduct a study, at the request of the Human Rights Advisor, Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, assessing vulnerable Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who had newly arrived in Badakhshan. The information for this study was gathered through interviews with IDPs in Faizabad, the provincial capital, and the districts of Argo and Baharak, as well as with local and international NGOs and concerned UN agencies in Faizabad dealing with the IDP population of northern Afghanistan. I also arranged meetings with NGO and UN personnel to collect further information on the IDP situation, as well as to verify information obtained during IDP interviews.

I conducted extensive, structured interviews with 101 IDPs, representing a cross section of the IDP population. As a woman with a female translator, I had access both to the men of the community and to the women. The interviews almost always took place inside the living quarters of IDP families, usually a tent or a small area of a room shared with one or two other families in an abandoned building, and included several members of a family group and sometimes neighboring groups as well. In this way, I was able to see exactly what material resources the family had been able to bring with them. Although I interviewed both women and men for this report, the majority of IDPs interviewed were women, leading to valuable insights about women's experience of displacement.

Badakhshan, currently and at the time of these interviews, is one of the poorest and most inaccessible provinces in Afghanistan. It has tremendous food scarcity, high levels of tuberculosis and debilitating childhood diseases, a mountainous landscape with very poor roads that make much of the province virtually inaccessible, and at best access to only the most rudimentary forms of health care and education for most of the population. Lack of adequate health care and education for women, poverty, and the seclusion of women greatly contribute to the high TB infection rates in Badakhshan. The influx of 80,000 displaced people, with virtually no resources, was a disaster for a province without enough resources for its own population, and with an international aid presence that was already overstretched and resource-poor.

A wide variety of NGOs and United Nations agencies were attempting to help this current group of IDPs. Due to the onset of winter, the extreme difficulty of the terrain and the on-going war, as well as the general shortage of aid, however, many of the IDPs were in an extremely vulnerable state. Many had traveled to their destinations on foot, and therefore were able to bring at best a change of clothes and a couple of blankets or other small items. In addition, since most of the IDPs left their homes in August or early September, they did not have any warm winter clothing with them. A majority of the IDPs I interviewed had been repeatedly displaced, many of them up to four or five times. Each time these IDPs are displaced they lose all of their belongings.

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.


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.

Conclusion: How Well Do We Act?

Witnessing, as a performative act that requires an ethical engagement different from that of spectatorship and other forms of viewing, entails as one of the ethical considerations necessary for such witnessing to occur, the recognition of the survivor as more than just the over-determined trace of a traumatic event. The witness must recognize the survivor as both bearing the trace of the atrocity event and as a human with a particularity and historical location in the present moment they both occupy. Paradox, in testimonial, is perhaps the articulated manifestation of the traumatic event, a balancing of impossibilities that mirrors the interstitial existence of the atrocity in memory. Thus, for these women, to tell their stories in the context of my detail-oriented and repetitive questions brought to the fore both their lack of "knowledge" of the very events they were relating - for example, the specifics of date and time, or the lapses of memory that blanked out certain elements of events they had witnessed - and their authority to speak as witnesses to crimes and events that had affected them.

Such testifying results in the doubled role of testimony as the political and ethical act of witnessing an event that has been radically denied - through silence, inattention and the practices of the authorities - and the individual necessity to rebuild one's historical link to the experience by recounting one's memories of it in front of a witness - language and representation serve to give substance and "reality" to an experience that no longer materially exists or seems real.[2] Or, as Peter Van Der Veer has formulated it, "There is no true story of violence. Violence is a total phenomenon, but it comes to us totally as a fragment. . . . the fragment shows the limits of historical knowledge" (199). These women, because of their cultural positions, the extreme exigencies of survival, and lack of interest by outsiders, seemed not to have parsed out, previously, the extremity of the violence they had witnessed from the possibilities for different ways of remembering and living. The fragmentary nature of the total phenomenon, in Van Der Veer's words. I am not suggesting that they did not understand their rights to live in a conflict-free environment - despite their rural isolation and lack of education, they clearly articulated themselves to be humans with a solid understanding of their basic rights, including education. But in contrast to some of the men I interviewed, who clearly at the time of violent events had a sense that they might later be called upon to witness them, these women had never thought of themselves as witnesses in the way it is articulated as a public dynamic - whether in a local level gathering of elders, a juridical setting, or a therapeutic setting.

Just as extreme violence blurs the boundaries of the public and the private for the people who experience it, so survivors of extreme violence blur the boundaries of culturally sanctioned historical narrative and the narratives of extreme atrocity that the present moment "forgets." From the most private of acts that a person is forced to perform for others during torture, to the extreme lack of privacy experienced by the inmate of the concentration camp, to the total violation of bodies by war crimes, the body of the person who experiences atrocity becomes "public" in a way that violates their deepest cultural norms. Likewise, the body and person of the survivor of such atrocity becomes the over-determined marker of cultural trauma, visually indistinguishable at first glance from non-survivors, perhaps, they nonetheless become the trace or ghost of the event itself. While cultures in various ways memorialize and mark moments of massive atrocity, these actions also serve to seal the events in a historical past. Thus, the survivor's very bodily existence is a mark of the event that the cultural "suture" forgets. Even the act of valorizing the survivors is an act of setting them apart as survivors; one does not need to hear their stories over and over again, as one already "knows" the story. In the situation of Afghanistan, where the crimes and atrocities are on-going and have been for decades, these people are still within the frame of the atrocity event. They do not yet have a "normative" culture to which to attempt to return, and their stories of atrocity and violence are part of an ongoing process of trauma that is largely invisible - both to those inside the event, because of their proximity, and to those outside the event, us the potential witnesses that do not care to know.

The most important possibility that testimonial suggests is that the performative enactment of the witnessing produces an effect that exceeds that of the individuals involved in the witnessing itself. Although testimony might be a project deeply rooted in the internal faith act of testifying, it is exactly the acknowledgement of the impossibility of this act, while at the same time performing it, that marks testimonial as the expressive genre inextricably bound with the totalitarian violences of the current and past century. The recognition of the scar, the trace of the sutured wound, marks the site of instability where the performative act of testimony occurs, where the witnessing to the trauma is acknowledged as an always impossible act, yet still insists on action. It denies both the universal identification of the modernist "I" of the narrator and the particularity of "authentic" individualism, rejecting the compassion of the liberal subject for the victim. Instead, among other things, it demands a traumatic identification - an identification that occurs partially outside the discursive realm - with the delusional ideology of the event that, as Laub notes, prevents one from witnessing from within the event itself. Although, as Derrida states, "the act of faith demanded in bearing witness exceeds, through its structure, all intuition and all proof, all knowledge," the witnessing engaged in through the testimonial of survivors thoroughly destabilizes this very act of faith upon which bearing witness depends (16).

But the failed ability to witness from within the event has been made powerfully apparent recently by the very public genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Despite the fact of extensive news coverage of atrocities being committed, which in Bosnia was often almost simultaneous, no greater intervention was apparent on the part of the world community that watched. The axiom of "never again" took on a hypocritical and hollow resonance as publics across the globe watched the failure of the world community to intervene into ongoing events of mass death. Witnessing occurred through the iconic journalistic representations of atrocity and was unable to call forth an active, ethical engagement either with past atrocities or the current atrocities being represented (as has been nicely elaborated by Zelizer). While well-known survivors such as Elie Wiesel spoke out strongly of the need for active response, their arguments were met with a blank and uncomprehending inaction.

As the various testimonial texts and performances suggest, testimony is itself a performative process necessitating witnessing as opposed to spectatorship. Witnessing necessarily happens in a performative dynamic, and it is in this performative dynamic that a space for justice, as Derrida terms it, might be created. This is just as crucial for the wartime gathering of testimony in conflict zones as it is for more academic considerations of literary testimony. To conduct testimonial interviews in conflict zones is a politically as well as ethically weighted act: as a form of intervention with possible juridical consequences, as a form of "capacity building" within the local community as women speak their stories in narrativized ways, and as a form of academic analysis. Spectatorship is not enough; it is in active witnessing that the ethical demand occurs. The survivor who is marked as a survivor does not by her/his very existence compel an ethical engagement with atrocity. But there might be an ethical position to witnessing, as a performative act between the historical dead, the survivor and the witness to the survivor, which resists both the cultural forgetting implied by iconic journalistic representations (the men behind barbed wire, the woman holding a baby) and the depletion of the self effected by the pervasive possibility of extinction within which we all now exist - by nuclear explosion, biological warfare, genocide, terrorism.

But perhaps what we must build is what we most resist; an ethical relationship that engages the survivor through all the facets of her human-ness so that witnessing can take place within a mutually constructed frame. Ethical witnessing can only take place through such an engagement, rather than one disciplined by the demands of the spectator, the representative of the "normative" culture that fears the contamination of atrocity through its survivor. We must resist the siren call of nationalisms, instead seeking out the difficult engagements with difference that mark both the ethical relationship between individuals and the ground on which dynamic and humane civil societies are built.


1. Barbara Zelizer, in Remembering to Forget, has an excellent analysis of this mechanism in her final chapter. [Return to text]

2. I am particularly indebted to Dori Laub's work on testimony for this formulation. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Booth, Ken. "Three Tyrannies" Human Rights in Global Politics, ed. Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cubili&eactue;, Anne. Unpublished manuscript. Limits of Culture: Testimonial Witnessing and the Constraints of Human Rights Discourse. 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. "Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority,'" Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, Eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Van Der Veer, Peter. "The Victim's Tale: Memory and Forgetting in the Story of Violence," Violence, Identity and Self-Determination, ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Zelizer, Barbara. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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