Blog - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 0:02 - 0 Comments

Victimization in Peace Work with Histories and Memories


“Humans are not just the object of history, but the subject.”

Paulo Freire

Living in a country involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and having unsolved issues with its neighbor Turkey, I am working on the direction of studying the interconnections of memories and constructions of the identity of individuals and societies of countries and regions involved in conflicts. Nowadays, looking to the past and understanding the roots of conflicts is becoming more and more popular as an approach in conflict transformation. Due to different historical perceptions of conflicting parties towards their pasts, parties are often unable to engage in meaningful dialogue; this is likely the reason why the work on histories and memories was not considered relevant to peace work for a long time. Lately, the vision of the peace community toward this methodology has changed and they think, “Why not use this methodology as a basis for dialogue? Why can’t telling each other their different perceptions be a topic of dialogue? Why don’t we support people in understanding how these perceptions among their own sides came to be?” The work with histories and memories is an advance that is very closely linked with peace activities and is the most useful method for forming a historical consciousness.

In general, I perceive memory as a construction of the past that depends on identity construction – identity construction “decides” what is remembered and how the past is remembered. In our work we use several key definitions:

  • Historical policy: The way to interpret historical events and processes according to the political and social aims of the society.
  • Individual memories and narratives: The remembering about past events consisting of always subjective and therefore selective reconstructions of the past based on a person’s own experiences and feelings.
  • Collective memories: Memories of a group or collective (such as families, villages, nations, etc). Collective remembering also occurs in a very selective way. Some content and topics associated with the past might be considered taboo in a certain social context, while others could be particularly highlighted.
  • Communicative memories: Memories linking members of different generations (such as stories told by grandparents about their past experiences and their emotions) — these can become a part of individual memories or collective memories. As a result of being limited to the time of co-existing generations, communicative memory represents the short-term memory of a society.
  • Cultural Memory: The collective recollections that can no longer be passed on directly to following generations on account of the fixed time limitations of the recollections that can be communicated in person. This occurs via cultural codifications such as written texts, photographs, films, monuments, rituals, commemoration days, symbols, and so forth.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend an event in Berlin organized by the Henrich Boell Foundation and Memorial entitled “Experience of Memorial on Oral Histories,” delivered by Alyona Kozlova and Irina Ostrovskaya. The event featured a documentary revealing the historical truth of Stalin-era crimes; the documentary was based on work done by the Memorial. Participation in the follow-up discussion brought me to the idea for this article to reflect and share my thoughts with our readers on work with memories and history from the perspective of peace-building. By analyzing events from the perspective of the previously mentioned definitions, we will have the following image.

During the Soviet period it was politically, and partly socially, necessary to interpret the historical facts of repression as something vital to protect the power of the Soviet empire. It was so important for the political elite that they did everything possible to suppress individual memories of people who were affected by the crimes of the regime. For example, they even took measures to ensure the guilt was passed on to future generations of those people whose parents were killed for what they supposedly did. As a result of this guilt and atmosphere of fear, facts and stories of those who were killed by or suffered from the Stalinist regime never became part of the collective memory of society. At the same time, these memories rarely become a source of communicative memories because this guilt stops people from passing on memories of those who have suffered.

According to the documentary, the Memorial interviewers tried to create an entire image of the regime from small gaps in memories of people from the former Soviet Union and help them to analyze and reconstruct their own memories. But what I saw afterward was that people started to perceive themselves as victims, which is, of course, to be expected; even people from among the participants of the event started to share their own memories and conclude that they, too, were victims. For me, it was an example of how the communicative memory generates the remembering of those who are listening to the stories and how powerful the construction of memory is.

Although I have great respect for the activities done by the Memorial and their significant experience in this area, what was missed was a space for future-oriented discussion and what to do with this burden of victimization. While this is likely caused by a difference in the goals of peace-building activities and approaches, and those of the Memorial, from my perspective all the results of the investigation provided a very good space for discussion and dialogue on how to move forward and what we can learn from our past. In general, the looking-forward part was missed.

Trying to analyze all the things described, I have tried once again to understand the applicability of this experience to our own context of societies involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I have come to the conclusion that it is very risky in our context to stop this process at the level of victimization.

Comparing with my own context, when the image of victim is actively cultivated by historical policy and all of the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict act this way, we can see that Armenians believe that they are victims because of the Soviet regime, and Azerbaijanis have the same perception about their past. At the same time, their collective, communicative, and cultural memories remind both parties that they are always the victims of the opposite side. We see self-victimization at all levels of memory mentioned above. In this context, most of the memories of societies are about their suffering. The victim image becomes the strongest part of the individual and collective identities of societies. At the same time, people are starting to think that they are not responsible for the situation they have — they are just victims — and fall into a trap of their memories.

Creation of a space for analyzing and understanding the real roots of the victimization; having the ability to compare this with the analysis of representatives of the opposing society; when people understand that they are deciding what, why, and how to remember and realize that they are the actors of history of their own memories; putting the focus not on the political interests of the state, but instead on human interests; and creating a joint history of the conflicting parties —all of these directions could be a good start for joint reconstruction of memories.

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