What does “confronting the past” mean? What do we want people to do when we say societies should “face their pasts?” How do we do that, exactly?
“Confronting the past” can mean many different things and can come about in many different ways. Ideally, what we want societies coming out of brutal conflicts to do is – to acknowledge the suffering of victims by, for a start, acknowledging that the atrocities really happened, and were not imagined. Then, we then want victims to get some kind of redress or compensation. This can come in the form of a trial of the perpetrator of the atrocity, in the form of material compensation, or in the form of a respectful memorial to the victims of the past crimes.
This is what we mean when we talk about “confronting the past.” But how do we accomplish that in a society where there were multiple victims, and multiple stories about what happened, all of which are mutually contradictory and exclusive of one another?
The problem with determining the “truth” about an atrocity is that, over time, groups develop multiple truths. Victims and survivors have their own, immediate, direct truths about what was done to them, and by whom. But this may be a very different kind of “truth” than the one presented, for example, at a trial. In the legal setting, the “truth” being uncovered is based on very specific kind of evidence. The purpose of trials is to determine the individual accountability of a particular person, not to answer the greater questions about what happened, and how and why. But to individual victims or survivors, the particular person in front of the court may be much less relevant than some other particular person – a direct perpetrator whom they saw commit the crime but the court never indicted, or a high-ranking official who they think ordered the crime but for whom the court could not find evidence of involvement. The problem, therefore, is that a trial can provide one version of the past that may conflict with or not include the memories and experiences of victims or witnesses. Whose “truth,” then, should take precedence?
The “truth”, it would seem, will always be partial and inadequate. This inadequacy is particularly true for retributive justice, or criminal justice trials. It is hard to see how a legal mechanism designed to pursue justice in the case of one particular individual, using specific and limited evidence about that particular individual, could be the site of any larger “truth-making.” Trials are important, they are indeed necessary, but they provide only a very narrow segment of the larger story of the past.
This environment of contested memory has been the biggest challenge for confronting the past in the former Yugoslavia. The fact that different groups remember events and individuals responsible for those events differently has translated into official state policy. Governments across the region have shied away from addressing the true legacies of violence, and have been satisfied with simply following the main narrative of the story about the past, without questioning the main actors, or plotlines, or endings of that story.
The RECOM Initiative has had to operate in an incredibly inhospitable political environment since its very beginning. It has faced obstacles every step of the way, and has had to work hard to even justify its very existence to hostile publics and governments.
But a project like RECOM is, indeed, necessary. It is especially necessary because it has been designed in a way that does manage to allow for the multiplicity of truths – if only because it allows for the voices of victims to tell their stories, which could be different from the ones told at trials or through official channels. RECOM insists on naming all thevictims – according them their dignity and telling the stories of their lives and untimely deaths. Such a project is, indeed, necessary.
The importance of RECOM lies in its telling the story about the victims in their own words, or the words of their surviving loved ones. These stories are so powerful, and so painful, that they can be a bridge between the different communities in ways much more direct than trial proceedings, or official declarations, or politicians’ speeches. By connecting the victims through their shared history of pain and loss, RECOM has the potential to slowly, very slowly, change the dominant narratives of the past and open up paths toward exploring events that have remained, until now, hidden from view.
Associate Professor of Political Science, Georgia State University, and author of “Hijacked Justice:Dealing with the Past in the Balkans