The Common Good
April 2005

If Stones Could Speak

by Linda Clum | April 2005

As Joshua crosses the Jordan River into the promised land,

As Joshua crosses the Jordan River into the promised land, he instructs representatives from each tribe to pick up a stone, saying, "When your children ask you in the time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be a memorial to the people of Israel" (Joshua 4:6-7). The redactors of the book of Joshua anticipated a time when testimony and memory would be all that stood between a people and the extinction of their history. In a similar way, the authors of two recent books argue for the role of memory and testimony in recovering histories that genocide would extinguish.

Victoria Sanford and Courtney Angela Brkic are contemporary witnesses - albeit in different ways - to the necessity of recovering histories of genocide. Both authors describe their work at the exhumations of mass graves for men, women, and children, civilians killed in cold blood by armed forces. Sanford’s Buried Secrets is an exhaustive account of the Guatemalan army’s planned genocide of the indigenous Mayan peoples in Guatemala during the 1980s. Her work comes out of her research as an anthropologist and is informed by her involvement in a truth commission called the Commission for Historical Clarification. In an interesting contrast, The Stone Fields is a memoir-like account of Brkic’s experiences as a researcher and young volunteer on U.N. exhumations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her book contains personal narratives of her family’s history in the same region.

Buried Secrets is the culmination of Sanford’s years with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation exhuming clandestine graves. These graves are "clandestine," she notes, only from the perspective of the silence the state imposes on communities that experienced the violence. The results of the Guatemalan army’s scorched earth campaign against indigenous Maya in the highlands included 440 massacres and as many villages burned to the ground, 1.5 million people displaced, and up to 150,000 dead or disappeared. The background of Brkic’s book - the massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the exhumations of those mass graves - is no less staggering. In 1994, more than 7,000 townspeople and refugees "disappeared" after the Bosnian Serb army overran the town - which had been declared a U.N. safe haven.

BUT SANFORD cautions us early on against letting such numbers, no matter how horrifying, speak for their victims. "[W]hen people become numbers, their stories can be lost," she warns. "Human agency is silenced through death, but it is also silenced in other subtle and not so subtle ways." According to Sanford, well-meaning outsiders may understand massacres as something to be counted to prove violation of law, but if it is knowledge and facts we want we must hear the stories of those who survived. "Such testimonies," she writes, "are not the stor[ies] of dead people." They "are stories of the living - those who survived...."

Brkic implicitly affirms this claim when she recounts her Muslim family’s history in her account of working in the morgues and gravesites of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While Sanford’s survivors speak for themselves, Brkic is removed in time from the familial memories she tells. By creating a narrative history, she gives voice to her family’s survival of ethnic cleansing.

For Sanford the telling of such stories is not a telling for its own sake. Survivors’ testimony counters state terror by breaking terror’s silence. An exhumation is initiated when communities organize and petition for a site to be exhumed; this means survivors take the initiative in a process that returns agency to them as well as their memories. Furthermore, exhumations and the testimonies that accompany them provide knowledge for the new political regimes emerging in the wake of militarization. "There can be no rule of law or democracy without attending to issues of truth and memory," Sanford warns. She suggests that redress can take many forms, including public testimony, mourning, and reburial - all of which begin to constitute a new public space in which other survivors can testify, find courage, and begin to reconstruct communities and lives.

Exhumations are not only a process for gathering evidence by forensic anthropologists and archaeologists. They are also a process of "excavation of memory and the re-taking of public space," by which Sanford refers to the creation of new agency. This insight makes Sanford’s longer, detailed account the more hopeful of the two books. Brkic reports that early in her experience with the exhumations a pathologist said to her, "Do you think that if you see what became of them, it will help you to understand? It won’t." If Brkic’s own experience contradicts this, she is not able to tell us yet, though her historical characters speak eloquently of their struggles.

What do these mass graves mean? If we have any hope of understanding, we must risk listening to the testimony of survivors through works such as these. Without such testimonies - and the willingness to read them - we lose access to those memories that constitute us as living communities of caring and justice.

Linda Clum is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she is director of admissions for the graduate humanities division.

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