Story-telling: Justice and recognition in the narratives of those who have suffered, by Kirsty Sangster

Late autumn. I visit the judge. He has spent years sitting on a tribunal listening to refugees’ stories of flight and persecution. He has to assess their stories—true or false—fact or fiction or faction? Are they ‘real’ refugees or fakes? Will we let them in? Or close the door slam! bang! in their faces. He is one of the gatekeepers, and the gate is often closed.

He is a handsome man with a beautiful wife. He drives a black Saab convertible and his house is a Virginia Woolf house if ever I saw one. It is built behind sand dunes near a wild southern ocean. A To the Lighthouse house. I wish I’d worn a long dress to trail, trail, trail through the wet grass and along the wet sand of the beach. All this beauty. All this culture. Before the sand dunes start, between the tea-trees, there is a bench with a plaque and the William Blake fragment infinity … grain … sand.

Whenever I see him he corners me and launches into a stream of justifications as to why he is doing this work. He views me as a representative of the ‘other side’—the side who work with refugees and advocate on their behalf. His struggle has become metaphysical. Fought on some other plane; he wrestles with his angels. Last time his parting words were, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not trying to seek redemption from you’. Yet it’s clearer and clearer as the years progress that he has made some Faustian bargain and has gone beyond even trying to pretend that it is no big deal. He thinks that those who work with refugees ‘hate his guts’. He has become increasingly paranoid.

As soon as he sees me this time he launches into something about the Sri Lankans and those cases he has judged recently. He is jabbering and desperate for some kind of reassurance. He starts on the Afghanis next, ‘They say they are illiterate farmers who cannot tell the time and then, asked why they wear a watch on their wrist, they say that they are “minding it for a friend”. They lie through their teeth’.

I ask him if he finds it hard to maintain professional boundaries, but he says no because tribunal members are given a list of facts—like a checklist—and he just works down it, ‘yes or no’. His executive powers as a judge are being increased as the legislation becomes more and more draconian. Dragon-like, a tightening of coils. He is an arbiter of fates. His word is final: fire.

I find myself, against my better self, going overboard to assure him that it was necessary work, ‘We do have a Refugee Convention, and someone has to do this work’. But as we talk, this picture grows stronger and stronger in my mind’s eye. It is biblical, Old Testament. Building your house on sand. It is of this fine house built on foundations of sand: built on the suffering stories of the people he has judged—day in and day out. Built on the bones of these stories. I felt that he must come home every night with all these stories burnt into his mind and lie there listening to the sound of the sea.

Early winter. I am sitting here on a Friday morning writing to you—my whole desk is crowded with papers and books on international law, crimes against humanity and justice; on torture, Simone Weil, discipline and forgiveness. Interview transcripts are scattered across the top of everything, and the floor too is a mess of books and photocopied journal articles.

Everything is scrawled over with notes that I have made to myself, but after days or weeks or even years they may as well be hieroglyphics. I can make no sense of them.

And justice shall roll down like a river

There is hardly enough room for my elbows. A blue iris stands in a blue glass bottle. Then there are the butterfly stickers on the sides of the computer screen and the painted Salvadoran cross stuck on the wall.

On the cross is a picture of two white houses with their red roofs, and a big tree behind them. The red sun is above the tree. On the right axis of the cross, there is a bird with purple wing-feathers and a white head. Sitting on the left axis is a rabbit with dark-brown ears. At the base of the cross is a rooster. Crowing in the dawn, I guess. A Peruvian human-rights worker gave it to me a long time ago as a good-luck talisman. So I’m sitting here thinking about justice.

The shifting, the tidal nature of justice; and justice shall roll down like a river. Yesterday, as part of my work I had to go and speak to a Sudanese woman. For seven years Flora had lived in Kakuma, the refugee camp in Kenya near the border with the Southern Sudan. The young Sudanese woman sat with me and described the camp, ‘I wish we could take you there, it is like nothing here’. Dust. And then the stories would spill out of her, flow out of her. Thick stories—stories of dust and water—mud and the distance from their tents to the well. Heavy when you are that small to be carrying all that water and all those stories. Eyes open wide. Then the neighbouring tribe that live near the camp. They would come through the camp filling your eyes with dust. Or at night, when everyone was sleeping. And they would know which families had radios and they would kill someone for a radio.

The raids in the middle of the night. With these tall, tall skinny wild men coming into the camps and not knowing when and where they were going to strike. Like a force of nature. Like a storm, a dust storm. An earthen tidal wave. A human tsunami.

Flora is the firstborn of twins (but the second one died). Flora had been a teacher in Kakuma. She had looked after the little kids. She had been in a drama group at the church. She was always busy looking after her family; her mum, her sisters, her brothers and her uncles. She feels that she was useful in the camps. But that she is useless here. She wants to burn all her photographs, because it is just too painful to remember. She tells me how the other day she had to go to Dandenong. She had not eaten for two days because she had no money to eat and she was going to get on a train without a ticket. She passed a man sitting on the ground near the station gates and he asked her if she could give him enough money for a ticket, ‘I felt very ashamed that I could not give him any money for a train ticket. I wanted to explain to him that I was about to get on the train without a ticket also. I felt so bad that I couldn’t help him. That I wanted to help him but I couldn’t. I was crying as I passed him’.

Flora was an official refugee—she had already been ‘let in’ as part of a certain quota. She would not have had to go through the judge. But my meeting with her had got me thinking again about my judge. Justice and storytelling are intimately connected. If justice rolls down like a river; stories too can roll out of us. Flowing. Strange tidal things. Stories, like justice, can be stoppered up. The dike corked. Or they can dry up. Or they can pool in fetid corners. Or they can roll and roll and roll down like a river.

The justice process itself is tied to stories and to truth. To telling stories and to telling the truth. My judge judged people on their stories. Similarly, all around the world, victims of human-rights abuse are judged on their stories. Since 1956, and the passing of the Refugee Convention, people fleeing their country have had to ‘prove’ that their stories of persecution are real in order that they be called bona fide refugees. But stories of persecution are not only told for entrance into a new country. Stories are also used in war-crimes tribunals, at the International Criminal Court, at human-rights forums and truth commissions as part of a state’s formal reckoning with past human-rights abuse. Places such as Rwanda, Australia, Bosnia, Chile, East Timor, South Africa, and the list goes on.

One of the most famous examples of stories and justice and the way they are bound together is the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann after the Second World War. Held by the newly established Israeli State, the Eichmann trial was the first trial that directly related to the Holocaust. The Nuremberg trials that had preceded the Eichmann trial had been more concerned with war crimes over the Second World War period. The philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on this trial, and it is here that she coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’—to describe the seeming ‘ordinariness’ of a man who participated in genocide.

Hannah Arendt was very critical of the trial precisely because of the stories. She argued that the trial had been turned into some vast spectacle or piece of theatre where the victims and their stories were given centre stage and where Eichmann was cast in the role of Iago or Macbeth. For days and days, witness after witness was asked to the stand to tell their personal stories of what had happened to them during the Holocaust. These terrible stories had very little, if anything, to do with the direct indictment of Eichmann. Instead, Arendt felt that they were told to create a ‘huge panorama of Jewish suffering’. She also felt that the cross-examination was both ‘cruel and silly’, with the prosecution asking witnesses why they had boarded the trains going to the concentration camps without protest, ‘Why did you not protest? Why did you board the train?’ Arendt argued that the trial should have been about the trial of the man Eichmann, and not a ‘history lesson’. At the time, she herself was severely criticised for her negative stance. Where else were these stories to be told if not at the trial of one of the worst war criminals the world had ever seen?

Yet Hannah Arendt raises an important point. These stories were too large and too awful to be contained within the courtroom and locked up within dry legal procedure. They needed another place. So soon after the events had occurred, the victims had not had time to tell their stories and it seemed like there was no audience to tell. There was a strange silence and a turning away of heads. The files of skeletons that had been liberated from under those Arbeit Macht Frei gates had been too much. Enough already. Let’s pretend this didn’t happen and move on. Or at least have the decency not to talk about it. This response is understandable. Language and meaning seem all to fall away at the edges of these burning pits. After the war, and when confronted with the gas chambers, artists, writers and philosophers all themselves felt that nothing within their artistic powers could express what had happened. Poetry was confirmed dead, and the literary critic George Steiner declared, ‘the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason’.

But what of the urge to bear witness? Where could survivors go to tell their stories and who would listen to them? My heart always breaks when I read the passage in Primo Levi’s book if this is a man about a recurring nightmare that he had. A Holocaust survivor, Levi spent more than a year in Auschwitz. Every night in the camp, he wrote, he would have the most terrible dream and would wake up in a cold sweat. This was the dream:

This is my sister here, with some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: the whistle of three notes, the hard bed, my neighbour whom I would like to move … I also speak of our hunger and of the lice control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding … but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent … my sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word. A desolating grief is now born in me …

Levi goes on to write that this nightmare was common amongst the other inmates and questions, ‘Why does it happen? Why is the pain of every day translated so constantly into our dreams, in the ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to story?’ Most terribly, when Primo Levi is released from Auschwitz he finds that his nightmare has turned into reality. No one wanted to hear his story.

It is not only the extremity of the Holocaust that sees us gasping for breath and for air when asked to listen to stories. I have sat with old Aboriginal elders as they have told me stories of their ancestors dragged from their country on a line of chains like wild dogs. I have been asked to sit and listen and have felt my blood freeze. Nothing terrified me more than being told, ‘just sit and listen to me; I will tell you a story’. Too scary, and the chasm of blood history between them and me felt way, way, way too deep. I have seen brothers and sisters together who had been stolen away at birth from each other. I have felt my mind close over at the naked fact of their dispossession, ‘this happened, but not really’.

Then also, where is justice in all this, if not in the trial of the war criminal? Where is the justice to be had for the bearers of these stories? Justice and stories should be bound together, but how best to do this?

The late twentieth century saw the invention of a new type of justice mechanism based on conciliation. Rather than a strict and formal judicial justice, truth and reconciliation commissions are said to offer the perhaps more powerful alternatives of truth and reconciliation. These things are held up as being akin to justice. Internationally, there have now been more than twenty truth commissions, the most recent of which was held in East Timor. Truth commissions are a radical departure from earlier justice mechanisms such as war-crimes tribunals. Within an increasingly global economy of justice, truth commissions are often positioned as alternatives to trials. It is important, however, to emphasise that in the majority of political contexts in which truth commissions occur, the possibility of future (or even contemporaneous) trials is not excluded.

Unlike war-crimes tribunals, the commissions are not vehicles of procedural justice or prosecution. Instead their key orientation is the public articulation and exposure of ‘the truth’. Advocates of truth commissions argue that truth telling is valuable in itself, separate from its function within a legal justice program.

I became fascinated by truth commissions more than ten years ago when I was studying human rights law overseas. The South African commission was just starting up, and the scenes and stories that emerged from it were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but be drawn into looking more carefully at this strange thing and seeing its possibilities. The novelist Toni Morrison wrote of the commission, ‘there is something happening in South Africa that’s so powerful and original and that is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I have never seen anything like it; neither has anyone else’. Images of women weeping, men with their head in their hands, victims meeting their torturers face to face. The noise of shouting, wailing and the stories—all these stories. The stories of victims and victimisers all told to the commissioners.

After the aridity of legal language, the commission struck me as something mythical and all the language around it seemed mythical. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed the commission and would talk about, ‘looking the beast in the eye’, ‘revealing is healing’ and, perhaps most powerfully for me, ‘trying to speak the truth with love’. At about the same time in Australia, the Bringing them Home report on the stolen generation came out and the whole reconciliation movement really began to grow.

It seemed to me that the two commissions grew from the same tree. They also seemed more indigenous, more real, more flesh and blood than the staid courtroom. They seemed to take the victim and her story seriously. The story was not just part of a very controlled legal process. There was something unruly, almost wild, about this sort of justice. It was more in keeping with the sort of experiences I had had of people in refugee camps or rooming houses sitting me down and telling me their story. What anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes termed the late-twentieth-century ‘romance with reparation, memory and healing’ carried me away.

Beneath the political and social realities that truth commissions inhabit there are deep impulses at play. Human rights law has been named the ‘thoughts of hope for those without hope’. There is the longing for truth and justice, the hope that truth will bring closure, the belief in forgiveness and the conviction that stories can heal and ‘set us free’. There is the hope that truth is in itself a powerful form of justice for victims. That telling the truth is enough. Love and justice, catharsis and cleansing, confession and renewal, closure and wound binding, truth and freedom, death and eternity. We know these things in our own lives. Intimately. The secrets of our hearts. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas—who spent three years in Auschwitz—spoke of love and justice as kindred to one another. The connecting force between them being the attention to, and recognition of, the ‘face of the other’ and the suffering held in this face. We hunger and long for recognition. The recognition another person shows to us when we are suffering—their acknowledgement of our suffering—is a kind of justice. For you to see the truth of what has happened. Turn your face towards me, see me and let your hand trace the contours of my pain.

I had seen these things in other people’s faces. Like my Burmese refugee philosopher Seeblu coming towards me along the bright and dusty path of the refugee camp. He and I spent night after night discussing the finer points of what it might mean to be alive. He had already lived for fifteen years in the camps and is probably still there. Down near the river that day he came towards me, smiling his beautiful smile, and all black covered in soot after spending the day burning wood for charcoal. ‘We are dead bodies walking. One night, the Burmese Army will come across that river and slit our throats, as we lie sleeping. I am dead but above the earth’. A life in exile can do this to you.

My work with asylum seekers, refugees and others ‘in exile’, which in the case of the homeless or Aboriginal communities is an exile from that thing called Australian society, has led always to the story. The story and its link to questions of justice, truth, to forgiveness and the apology. I have been present despite my terrors. My misgivings. And all those voices in me that have said, ‘turn away’.

One of the most important people I have met through all this is a man called Claudio. Claudio had been tortured. I met him more almost fifteen years ago at a vigil when Pinochet was arrested in London.

The vigil was small; it was cold and quiet. There was a very old Chilean man stumbling around with a picture of his son on a big sandwich board around his neck. As he walked around in circles, he whispered the same words over and over: the date of his son’s disappearance was his mantra. A woman explained to me that this man, ‘has lost his mind, he repeats himself, he says the same thing’. She then goes on to describe how her own father ‘is a little bit like this’ and how every night he sleep-walks – banging into the walls or the furniture because of the torture that he endured, ‘he is eighty-seven, but during the day he cannot stop working because if he does stop he thinks of his son—of his son being tortured, then shot. We still have the shirt with the bullet holes in it’. A beautiful couple was standing next to me. When he learned what I was interested in, the young man asked me: ‘is it okay to want these guys punished? Some people say we shouldn’t want this. That if we want them punished it means we are bad people.’ And the woman said: ‘It’s time to at least have one instance of justice after all this terror of the twentieth century’.

At the first interview with Claudio I see how his pain is held in; it is in the lines of his face, in the tense muscles of his shoulders. It is like an unreleased, unrealised scream. It is almost tactile—like the coffee mug that he holds out in front of him so tightly. His first words are, ‘I can teach you stuff you won’t learn in law books’.

The story has a life of its own and Claudio is helpless and under compulsion to tell it. Nothing can stop this story. It is a story desperate to be told. And it is told through the body. It is in the way he holds his shoulders. He clasps his hands. He holds his face tight closed so that everything does not just dissolve or collapse under the weight of this dead story.

The gravitas of the story threatens to pull him down. It is an ongoing thing. It is a story that does not have an end. I see that this is a labour of love. An act of love for the dead. Claudio labours hard to birth this story. He asks that I write exactly where and when these events occurred. These things happened at Borgono Fort, Chile, in 1973:

After frequent buckets of water, my time came up again. They took me into a wide office. A desk, two chairs and something as little as a pocket radio on top of a small timber table. I was told to wait; my hands were linked behind my head, my forehead leaning on the wall. Then a blindfolded man was thrown into the room; a second one came in the same way. Both of them were handcuffed. Following that, two young lieutenants helped those two prisoners to sit on the chairs. These two beasts then began to beat the shit out of these naked, blindfolded and handcuffed men. They ended up on the floor unconscious and bleeding from their noses and ears …

The sessions of torture never ended … we were also forced to watch them. One of them was tortured in the open, as a Machiavellian way to push us to the edge. His name, we called him Jesuschristo. He had to stand on the grass naked. Then the commando came; he was smiling and holding a long piece of timber. He got closer to Jesuschristo and began to hit him. He was just standing there being bashed. He was being crucified, and even if we turned away we could hear the timber lacerating his body and his screams. The commando was just laughing. It broke our hearts. He ended as just a smashed piece of flesh and bone; we couldn’t do much for him to fight for his life, so we just tried to encourage him.

The story of the abuse holds an awful and grasping power on the asylum seekers and refugees that I have worked with. None of them speak in the abstract about concepts such as ‘truth’, ‘justice’, or ‘reconciliation’. They are the bearers or the carriers of a heavy object. They have had no recognition for this story. They must tell it to a legal audience who are trained in ‘truth’ and for whom any slippage or discrepancy indicates a lack of legitimacy.

For Claudio describes the feeling that he has about his own experience:

To be tortured is like they have placed a cancer—a tumour—on your memory, on your system—on your nervous system—so it will be there forever. It has been planted and it doesn’t go out of you. Not like my two kids—they are okay; they are free and clear, they have nothing planted inside their memory. But inside me is planted something that I didn’t want.

Very quickly, the unspeakable horror of these stories and the visceral impact that they have on the tellers leads me to question the supposed cathartic or healing quality that telling the story has for the survivor. The weight of the story and the urgency with which people tell me the story seem more like a necessary chore to be got through. Like the poet Rilke’s exclamation: how much suffering there is to get through! the storytelling of suffering is hard work. Its telling does not hold any magical power. In some instances, asylum seekers have struggled all their lives not to remember the story, and its retelling only brings the subterranean trauma back to the surface. As Claudio tells me: ‘I have to carry it forever. Which I am coping with very well, I have no problem with that. I am being mature enough. I have been trying to commit myself to keeping it in the past’.

Dragging the story forth is difficult. Charlotte Delbo, a concentration camp survivor, writes of her experience as containing layers of memory, external, intellectual memory, which restrained the experience, and then deep memory that preserved sensations and physical imprints. In this sense, the telling of the story may become a battle to restrain deep memory; the narrative selective, the horror sifted out.

Asylum seekers tell their story as a justice story; to gain legal status, to be recognised as refugees— ‘those who fled persecution’ in their country of origin and who fear to be returned. They have faith in the ‘liberating’ nature of the truth only in a legal sense. They hope that the truth will set their physical and social selves free from terror, but there are no illusions as to any psychological healing that may come through the story. Their experiences have been too horrific for this. Once lived through, always lived through; there is no escape from memory. The wounds continue to bleed dank flowers through the binding. For them, the storytelling process is hard and bitter.

Yet the hard work of telling these stories should be distinguished from the need to bear witness to the experience. The people that I speak to feel that they have the responsibility to tell the story, particularly to their children. Often, discussion of the story centres on when and where to tell it to the children. Sitting in her quiet, dark and messy lounge room, exhausted by her night shift as a nurse, one middle-aged woman tells me:

I don’t talk about these things, when should you tell, and how should you tell your children? My son knows. It’s beyond comprehension for them. I never have toy guns or toy machine guns or knives near them in the house. Or playing that sort of game. Or playing shooting. It always puts me off, because of what happened.

Telling their young adult children is a painful duty. Here is my experience; this too is part of the fabric of the world. The woman goes on to say, ‘I mean even if you don’t tell the children, the history is still with you forever. That’s why I tell them not to forget. We have to know’. The knowledge of the story and the truth do have a primacy, as does the need to bear witness. Yet, where and in what conditions this story is heard is also critical.

The significance of bearing witness is a constant throughout refugee testimonies. In her book The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes that the crucial need of human experience is for a stage, and that this need is both a beginning and an end for us, or in her philosophical turn of phrase, ‘this need is both ontological and epistemological’. She believes that only through this recognition are our own reality and the reality of the world confirmed. We need another to respond to us and to see us for who we are. We need to be recognised! For who and what we are!

The story—although it shifts from the present, back to the past, and then into the future—remains fixed in time at the point of the torture. The timeless quality of the memory ensures that the telling of the story hauls the survivor right back into the dire middle of the event. This is the immense difficulty of the storytelling task; it is more about story living.

Walter Benjamin in his essay Theses on the Philosophy of History proposes that history is not made in ‘homogenous, empty time’ but is rather ‘shot through with chips of Messianic time’. Benjamin rejects history as being a straight, linear movement from cause to effect. ‘Messianic time’ is present time filled both with the past and the future. He writes of some periods of history as characterised by a ‘Messianic cessation of happening’: the stillness where you can almost hear the angels’ wings. Such a conception of time is more akin to a medieval almanac based on sacred or kairos time; the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. In such a cosmology, ‘people tend to think of themselves as living in end times’.

Benjamin links ‘Messianic time’ to the ‘tradition of the oppressed’, where poverty, persecution and illness replicate apocalyptic conditions. When I read this, a light goes on in my head. I have had long talks with Aboriginal elders and old Burmese sages who are convinced the Messiah is about to come. They would point to heavily underlined passages in their tatty bibles. I used to call these ‘Messiah talks’ and found them very strange to get around in my secular head. You mean people actually believe this stuff?

But in the refugee camps and rooming houses of this world it is easy to imagine that the Messiah is about to walk through the door. Once when I was working in a shelter for homeless men, I see the suffering Christ: arms and hands outstretched towards me in the bearded figure of Patrick who had just slit his wrists, blood everywhere, and is begging me to help him, ‘I’ve made a mistake’, he screams out.

The stories of the asylum seekers that I hear are situated within such a time. Apocalyptic time. The trauma endures through time and stretches out into the future. Claudio speaks of justice as being ‘temporal’; at the right moment. He needed the jurists and the lawyers at the time when he was being tortured. Or indeed, before he was tortured, because once the offence has been committed it is too late.

There is nothing chronological or logical about these stories of persecution and torture. They are repeated and repeated and repeated. They are confused. They are impossible to escape from. Yet they are needed now, precarious truths that may or may not be believed by the official behind that desk. The judge has a hard job:

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.


About the author

Kirsty Sangster

No biography available.

More articles by Kirsty Sangster

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