Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822343882
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Series: Cultures and Practice of Violence Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alexander Laban Hinton is Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide and editor of Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide.

Kevin Lewis O’Neill is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4388-2

Chapter One


Reflections on Field Research with Maya Survivors in Guatemala

Genocide is a problem not only of war but also of peace. -Raphaël Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress

This essay draws on the work of Dominick LaCapra (2001) and Primo Levi (1989) to consider the limits of memory and the challenges of anthropological research on genocide. In particular, I borrow Levi's concept of the "grey zone" to consider the lived experiences of Maya youth who were both victims and victimizers in the Guatemalan genocide. Based on more than a decade of field research on the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries of Maya massacre victims,1 I consider the excavation of individual and collective memory as a cultural and political act of community reconstruction. I suggest that both the accretion of truth and political space in the exhumation of clandestine cemeteries are central to the processes of reclaiming cultural memory and of contesting dominant metanarratives that negate subaltern subjectivity and buttress official histories of denial. I trace political agency and the development of new subjectivities in Maya communities over time. I ask, "What is an anthropology of genocide?" to provide a framework for my reflections on field research with Maya survivors of genocide. It is my hope that this framework is useful for reflecting on field research on genocide and violence in other contexts (see also Strathern, Stewart, and Whitehead 2006; Riches 1991). This essay is my modest attempt to share both the survivor memories and the challenge they present to the researcher in the field who, while overwhelmed by the sensation of their immediacy and sorrow, seeks to understand the lived experiences of survivors in such a way that they might make sense to survivors, researchers, and readers.


The Auschwitz survivor Levi wrote: "It is natural and obvious that the most substantial material for the reconstruction of truth about the camps is the memories of the survivors" (1989:16). Holding this same belief in the value of testimony a half century later and on a different continent, the Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla lived with survivors of Guatemalan army massacres who were still in flight from army attacks in the northern Ixcán region of the country. While he accompanied Maya survivors in their hardship, he took their testimonies of survival. In 1992 Falla published Masacres de la selva based on some 700 testimonies. That same year I completed a yearlong project of taping the life history of Mateo, a Mam Maya child survivor of the Ixcán massacres, who had been recruited by the guerrillas, the civil patrols, and the army before reaching the age of 15. At the time of our project, Mateo was a 19-year-old refugee attending high school in San Francisco. Falla documented two survival stories that are of interest for our consideration of the limits of memory and of the challenge of research on genocide. Mateo had never met Falla, nor had he read his work, yet he gave similar testimony regarding these two survivor stories.

Falla's witness remembers:

An 8-year-old girl survived because they tied a rope around her neck and tightened it, "they saw the tongue coming out of the girl and thought she was dead." An old man of 75 was cut in the neck by the soldiers, and he also lived because "the knife got stuck on a button in his shirt, and the soldiers thought they had hit the bone and there was blood, so they kicked him and left him for dead." A couple and their baby girl also survived. They threw themselves into the river from a bridge. She was carrying the baby of 1 1/2 years and the woman was hit by a bullet from the bridge, but she did not die, neither did her baby. "God is great," says the witness, because these five survived. (1992:57)

Mateo remembers what was recounted to his family by the survivors:

The army arrived to another center very close to our village. The people were at church praying. The soldiers surrounded the church, doused it with gas, and burned it with the people inside. Other families were burned too because the church was built with carton and palms and close to some other little, palm houses. So they caught fire and burned as well. There were about 10 families and the army captured them and put them into a line. My father's compadre and comadre were in this line. One-by-one, the army would grab each person in line, beat them and ask them questions. The soldiers beat the campesinos and they killed them. But my father's compadre was old. They tied him up and they stabbed him three times in the neck and they cut him in other places, too. But because he was so old, his skin didn't break enough. First the soldiers were mad because he didn't die. Then when he looked bad off, they said, "Now, he is dead." Then, they threw him in a hole. He stayed there. Next, the soldiers took his daughter and they tortured her with a rope. They put a rope around her neck and pulled the ends of the rope until they thought she was dead, too. Then, they threw her in the same hole. They told us later that the army left them there for dead. Behind them, were some other friends waiting their turn. He was very religious and was with his wife and baby girl, maybe she was one year old. The baby was crying. The father said, "Why don't we pray? Let's give ourselves to God because our time has arrived. Only a few more people and it will be our turn and they will kill us." The soldiers were shouting, "This is what we are going to do to everyone!" They were killing people and chopping them up. They cut them up with machetes and they tortured them and raped the women. So the man and woman gave themselves to God and as they were praying an idea occurred to them. They were very close to the river which was running very high because it was winter. The man said to the woman in their language, "Let's leave. We will try to escape and if they kill us, it is worth it because we will die from bullets. Because if they kill us like they are killing the other people, we are going to suffer a lot. We have seen how they are dying. They are going to kill us just like them." They decided to escape and cross the river. Even if they drowned in the river, they would still suffer less. So they gave themselves to God because they had great faith. They had faith. He grabbed his wife's hand and they ran. When they reached the river, the army was firing at them. But as the family reached the water's edge, the river lowered its water and the family passed to freedom. When they reached the other side of the river, the water rose again. The soldiers were chasing them, trying to catch them, and firing bullets. When the water rose again, it drowned some soldiers. But the family was safe on the other side. It was a miracle of God because they had faith in God and because no one else can lower the river. They came to our house at six in the morning because they were like family for us. The old man came with his daughter because he was my father's compadre. (Sanford 1993)

While Falla's witness corroborates Mateo's testimony, together Falla's witness and Mateo raise a number of issues about the limits of memory and of research on genocide. First, only the five survivors and the soldiers who committed the atrocities know exactly what happened because they are the only witnesses to this particular massacre. Second, everyone tries to make sense of terror in his or her own way. Falla's witness believes the man survived because a button protected him, while Mateo believes it was the old man's leathery skin that stopped the knife from getting down to the bone. Massacres are not neat enterprises. Perhaps it was a button or thick skin, but maybe it was just plain sloppiness in an assembly-line massacre.

Both Falla's witness and Mateo attribute the survival of these five people to the grace of God. The literary beauty and possible doubt raised by the river parting in Mateo's account is almost insignificant in the face of a horror so great that mere survival becomes a miraculous feat. To not die in the unbridled terror of a village massacre in Guatemala was so incomprehensible to both Mateo and Falla's witness that both had to use divine intervention as an explanation for the extraordinary phenomenon of surviving genocide.

In his work on the trauma and history of the Holocaust, LaCapra points out how testimonies "provide something other than purely documentary knowledge. Testimonies are significant in the attempt to understand experience and its aftermath, including the role of memory and its lapses, in coming to terms with-or denying or repressing-the past" (2001:86-87). As an example LaCapra cites the work of Dori Laub for the Yale Fortunoff collection of Holocaust survivor videos. LaCapra recounts Laub's story of a woman narrating her survival and her memories of witnessing the Auschwitz uprising: "All of a sudden, we saw four chimneys going up in flames, exploding. The flames shot in the sky, people were running. It was unbelievable" (LaCapra 2001:87). Laub recounts how this woman's testimony was screened "to better understand the era" several months later at a conference on education and the Holocaust. A heated discussion ensued because historians disputed the testimony, claiming that it was inaccurate because one chimney had blown up at Auschwitz, not four. This "error" in her testimony led many to conclude that all events recounted in her testimony were therefore inaccurate (LaCapra 2001:88).

Laub is a psychoanalyst and actually participated in the interview of this woman. He came to a different conclusion about the veracity of the testimony: "The woman was testifying," he says, "not to the number of chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence. One chimney blown up at Auschwitz was as incredible as four. The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence. The event itself was almost inconceivable. The woman testified to an event that broke the all compelling frame of Auschwitz, where Jewish armed revolts just did not happen, and had no place. She testified to the breakage of a framework. That was historical truth" (LaCapra 2001:88).

Laub's story, as LaCapra suggests, "prompts one to raise the questions of traumatic memory and its relation to memory both in the ordinary sense of the word and in its more critical sense insofar as it is tested and, within limits, controlled by historical research" (2001:89). When presenting ethnographic material and sharing the testimonies of massacre survivors in academic and policy venues, I have often been asked, "How do you know they are telling you the truth? How do you decide what is true?" While one might believe that these questions themselves reflect the disbelief of the person asking the question, I have come to believe that these questions more reflect a desire for an orderly and tangible world-a world that, if it ever existed, is turned upside down and made surreal by the obscenity of war and genocide. In her work on trauma and recovery, Judith Herman war and genocide. In her work on trauma and recovery, Judith Herman has observed: "Traumatic events destroy the victim's fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world, the positive value of self, and the meaningful order of creation" (1992:51). Thus memories of survival seem both obscene and surreal to those who have not experienced it or have not come close to it through its recounting by survivors. Conversely, those who have experienced and survived extreme state violence, regardless of place and time, often comment that the testimonies resonate with their own experiences of survival. Indeed, Indonesians, South Africans, Rwandans, Salvadorans, Argentines, and Chileans, among others, have often shared their own stories in public venues to contest those who have asked about the truth of the testimonies I have presented.

In his writing on the Vietnam war, Tim O'Brien offers, "You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is it true?' and if the answer matters, you've got your answer" (1990:89). This is not the glib response it may appear to be. He further explains: "In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.... It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.... a true war story is never about war.... It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow.... You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (1990:83-91).

Indeed, it is from the seemingly never-ending testimonies of survivors that researchers seek to reconstruct genocide. The deluge of painful memories is shared by survivors who seek to reconstruct their personal and community histories and, at the same time, to communicate the experience and memory of these events to outsiders. It is from this deluge that can envelop the researcher, as well as those giving testimonies, that we seek to disentangle "facts" and, at the same time, to understand and respect the raw memories shared with us.


Further complicating testimony-based research with genocide survivors is the significant probability that one will take testimonies from "compromised" survivors or even out-and-out collaborators. Levi problematized this space as the "grey zone" constituted by "the hybrid class of prisoner-functionary" in which "the two camps of masters and servants diverge and converge" (1989:42). In the Guatemalan genocide Maya youth were forcibly recruited into the Guatemalan army and boys and men forced into army-controlled civil patrols. Sometimes the extreme marginalization and poverty experienced by Maya youth was enough to convince them to allow themselves to be recruited. Gaspar, a Tz'utijil-Maya who grew up in conditions of enslavement on a finca and in the streets of Guatemala City, recalls:

The army was always recruiting in the park, at the cinema, and anywhere else where young men congregated. I always got away. I was good at slipping away because I had lived on the streets. I saw that the world was made up of abusers and abused and I didn't want to be abused anymore. So, one day when I was sixteen, I let the army catch me. But they didn't really catch me, because I decided I wanted to be a soldier. I didn't want to be abused anymore. I wanted a chance to get ahead. I saw what the soldiers did. I knew they killed people. But I wanted to see if in reality it could really be an option for me. If there would be an opportunity to get ahead, to learn to read and write. I always thought that it would be very beautiful to learn to read and write. I was always looking for a way to get ahead, to improve myself, but sometimes the doors just close and there is nowhere else to go. The army says we will learn to read and write, but when you go into the army, they teach you very little. They give you a weapon and they teach you to kill. They give you shoes because you don't have any. Many times, you join the army for a pair of shoes. When they grab you to recruit you, they say, "You don't have any shoes." In the army, I was full of hate. I used the weapons with the hatred I had carried inside of me for a long time. Even though the hatred can be strong, you are still a human being with the spirit of your ancestors, with the spirit of peace and respect. So, inside you have great conflict. It was very difficult for me to find an internal emotional stability.

When I was recruited, there were a lot of indigenas recruited. They were beaten hard and called "stupid Indians" for not knowing how to speak Spanish. The soldiers who beat them were indigenous. The problem in the army is that no one trusts anyone else, even though most of the soldiers are indigenous.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Genocide, Truth, Memory, and Representation: An Introduction / Kevin Lewis O'Neill and Alexander Laban Hinton 1

Part 1. Truth/Memory/Representation

1. What Is an Anthropology of Genocide? Reflections on Field Research with Maya Survivors in Guatemala / Victoria Sanford 29

2. Perverse Outcomes: International Monitoring and the Perpetuation of Violence in Sudan / Sharon E. Hutchinson 54

3. Whose Genocide? Whose Truth? Representations of Victim and Perpetrator in Rwanda / Jennie E. Burnet 80

Part 2. Truth/Memory/Representation

4. A Politics of Silences: Violence, Memory, and Treacherous Speech in Post-1965 Bali / Leslie Dwyer 113

5. The Limits of Empathy: Emotional Anesthesia and the Museum of Corpses in Post-Holocaust Germany / Uli Linke 147

6. Forgotten Guatemala: Genocide, Truth, and Denial in Guatemala's Oriente / Debra Rodman 193

Part 3. Truth/Memory/Representation

7. Addressing the Legacies of Mass Violence and Genocide in Indonesia and East Timor: Truth, Memory, and Corruption / Elizabeth Drexler 219

8. Mediated Hostility: Media, Affective Citizenship, and Genocide in Northern Nigeria / Conerly Casey 247

9. Cleansed of Experience? Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and the Challenges of Anthropological Representation / Pamela Ballinger 279

Epilogue: The Imagination of Genocide / Antonius C. G. M. Robben 317

Contributors 333

Index 339

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