The Language of Testimony: Two Reconfigurations of Trauma Narrative

Can justice be total when survivors’ testimonials can never narrate the ultimate trauma — the untold horror of Death?

Trauma survivors live not with memories of the past, but with an event that could not and did not proceed through to its completion, has no ending, attained no closure, and therefore, as far as its survivors are concerned, continues into the present and is current in every respect… The absence of an empathetic listener, or more radically, the absence of an addressable other, one who can hear the anguish of the sufferer’s memories and thus affirm and recognise their realness, annihilates the story.1

Martina Kopf

I. Bearing Witness: Silencing ‘Africa’s Pinochet’

On 30 May 2016, the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, the self-pronounced ‘Lion of Africa’, was found guilty of the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, sexual violence, kidnappings and enforced disappearances, and the massive and systematic practice of summary executions. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special tribunal funded by the international community, within the Senegalese court system.2

A military opportunist, Habré had seized power in 1982 with the support of France and the United States who saw him as a vital buffer against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya on Chad’s northern border, and provided money, arms and training to Habré’s troops. Habré operated through a dreaded political police force, the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), assigned to exterminate opposition to his rule. An estimated 40,000 people were killed and buried in mass graves, and another 200,000 imprisoned in appalling conditions and tortured during Habré’s eight-year chokehold on the country. Ousted in a coup by his commander-in-chief, Habré escaped to Senegal in 1990 with $11 million from the national treasury. Despite the circulation of an international warrant for his arrest, he lived comfortably in exile for over two decades. On 30 June 2013 he was arrested by the Senegalese police and charged with crimes against humanity. He was also also sentenced to death in absentia for crimes against humanity by a Chadian court that year.

The trial of ‘Africa’s Pinochet’ Hissène Habré in the Senegalese capital Dakar, 25 years after his overthrow and escape, was unique in that it was made possible only because of the tenacity and passion of those who survived his atrocities. Aided by a transnational advocacy coalition, these victims were determined to bring him to justice. Lawyers for the victims found a trove of regime documents abandoned during the chaos of Habré’s overthrow, including DDS files and documents in Habré’s own handwriting, which became core evidence in his trial. Human rights activists analyzed this data and were able to identify 12,321 victims of abuse, including 1,208 who were killed in jail or died there of starvation and disease. More than 4,500 victims were registered as civil parties in the case against Habré, and survivors were informally consulted by the prosecution about which of them would testify in court. Survivors insisted that the charges against Habré include the ethnic cleansing systematically perpetrated by the DDS on Chad’s minorities.

The trial began on 20 July 2015. Even before the opening address, Habré and his small band of supporters created chaos by shoving his guards as he was brought into court. The three judges, two from Senegal and one from Burkina Faso, cut short the upheaval by ordering Habré to be removed to his holding cell, and the formal proceedings began with him. Habré refused to return to court to face the charges, telling the bailiff sent to fetch him that he considered himself kidnapped and illegally detained; that he would not respond to the activities of a court he considered illegitimate; and nor would he submit to the decisions of people who were not real judges but civil servants carrying out political actions. The next day the judges had a furious, vituperative Habré forcibly dragged into the court by armed guards. As a clerk read out the litany of sadism that constituted the 187-page indictment, Habré shouted, ‘Shut up, shut up! Lies!’ and alleged that the trial was an imperialist plot and a political farce by African traitors and rotten politicians serving America. Further disruption ensued through his legal team walking out of the trial. It was postponed to mid-September of that year while a new set of court-appointed lawyers prepared Habré’s defence.

When the trial recommenced, both the prosecution and the investigating judges relied heavily on the narrative that the victims had compiled and reinforced over two decades. Among those who testified were 69 survivors of detention, torture and multiple other forms of barbaric abuse. The witnesses included a woman raped four times by Habré in the presidential palace, and four women (two were under 15 at the time) he sent to desert camps in northern Chad to be used as sexual slaves by the soldiers there. Habré’s official website (which offered regular commentary on the trial) counter-attacked these testimonies by calling the woman he had raped a ‘nymphomaniac prostitute’; one survivor of sexual slavery was a ‘cabaret dancer’ and a ‘prostitute’; and another abused woman detainee was a ‘crazy whore’. The court also heard testimony from prisoners forced to dig mass graves and bury those who were killed each day; from senior DDS officers who carried out Habré’s direct orders, including executions; and from people Habré had personally sent to prison.

During the eight months of his trial, Habré refused to acknowledge the judges. And he did not speak a single word. His eyes masked behind large sunglasses, his head and face wrapped in a flowing white turban, he sat cloaked in absolute silence, impassive, seemingly in a deep trance, just a few feet from the hundreds of victims who testified against him and described their suffering with deep emotion, day after day. He did not ever turn to face them, even when they attempted, as many did, to confront him directly.

Habré’s trial was recorded in its entirety and streamed on the internet. His sentencing was aired live on national television in Chad and Senegal. A judge read an hour-long summary of the court’s decision to convict, and pronounced the verdict. Spectators inside and outside the packed courtroom erupted in cheers of joy. After hearing the verdict, Habré raised his arms into the air, shouting ‘Down with France-afrique!’ (the term for France’s persistent influence on its former colonies) as guards led him away.

Habré’s court-appointed counsel appealed his conviction. The verdict was confirmed by a higher court on 27 April 2017. After taking written submissions from the civil parties registered in the case, the court ordered Habré to pay approximately 123 million euros in victim compensation.

Hissène Habré in court during his trial in Senegal, 2015-16

II. “There Is No ‘Why’ Here”: Testimony Unspeakable and Unspoken

Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window [of the camp hut], within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle, but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. “Warum (Why)?” I asked in my poor German. “Hier ist kein warum (There is no ‘why’ here),” he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.3

“The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs,” remarked author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1919-1987) about his famous memoir Survival in Auschwitz (1947). “The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation.”4

Assertions of the cathartic, therapeutic and emancipatory nature of the act of giving testimony within the schema of genocide are complicated by the philosophical argument that it is in fact not possible to obtain a ‘complete’ account of the atrocity – i.e., the testimony produced through bearing witness is unable to contain the entire truth and scope of this trauma. Analyzing the accounts of those who survived Nazi labour and death camps, Giorgio Agamben claims that such testimony “contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to”, and over which survivors had no authority.5 However, there was a true witness to the “untestifiable”, i.e., the complete experience of genocide; such a prisoner, the “perfect cipher of the camp”, was known in Auschwitz jargon as der Muselmann, literally ‘the Muslim’ – “the most likely explanation” of this term (the paradoxical semantic identity of millions of imprisoned Jews) resting “in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God.”6

All the Muselmänner who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea…Their life is short but their number is endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical… they are the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception… no one ever returned to describe his own death… Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have, will never tell… We speak in their stead, by proxy.7

Countering this intractable fissure in the trauma narrative is the overwhelming testimony of the survivor, the ex-prisoner whose primary, most urgent “vocation is to remember; he cannot not remember.”13 Levi powerfully describes the intra-psychic embedment of camp speech, still intact and coherent in his awareness decades later:

The memories of my imprisonment are much more vivid and detailed than those of anything else that happened to me before and after… I still have a visual and acoustic memory of the experiences there that I cannot explain… sentences in languages I do not know have remained etched in my memory, like on a magnetic tape; I have repeated them to Poles and Hungarians  and have been told that the sentences are meaningful…8

While the camp was a repository of many languages since the prisoners were of many nationalities, most communication was in the closely related languages of Yiddish and German; and it has been suggested that the 24-year-old Levi, whose mother tongue was Italian, was thereby reduced to a state of “quasi-total functional deafness and mutism” in that environment.9 And Levi found his mother tongue “still uncontaminated inside himself, his family and nation” when he later wrote about the world of the camps, because Italian had an “innocent status” vis-à-vis Jewish discourse, in contrast to the narrative both Yiddish and German – it was not directly implicated in the destruction of Italian Jews, or of the huge mass of European Jewry funnelled into the network of Nazi labour and extermination camps.10 Having thus “maintained its integrity”, Italian became an ethical “term of reference, a positive value that works as a reminder of a restorable condition” and enabled Levi to “adopt the full range of its expressive, representational and cognitive powers in relative freedom.”11 He died after falling from a staircase landing in his three-storey apartment building in Turin; there is dispute about whether it was suicide (he left no note) or an accident. The Romanian-born writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, deported with his family to Auschwitz when he was 15, and later to Buchenwald, said at that time, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”12

Wiesel too provides unforgettable testimony in his famous memoir Night, originally a 900-page work written in Yiddish with the title Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), which he abridged, translated into French, re-titled La Nuit, saw published in 1958 and translated into English in 1960.For ten years after the war Wiesel refused to discuss or write about his camp experience. Eventually he was driven to bear witness by his outrage that the world knew about the concentration camps, yet neither denounced them nor took action while the Nazis continued their grisly ‘Final Solution’ with scientific accuracy and technical rigour. Wiesel, whose family died in the camps, swore “never to be silent” when confronted with human suffering and humiliation, insisting, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow”:

For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time…  because of his telling, many who did not      believe have come to believe, and some who did not care have come to care.13

Like many survivors, Wiesel was initially unable to find the words to describe the horror:

For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences…  I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly and language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language… I would pause at every sentence and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs,  their images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was ‘it’? ‘It’ was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless.14

For Wiesel, when survivors undertake to bear witness they also commit to enduring a repeat of their suffering through the act of testifying, as part of their commitment to truth. Excruciating as this often is, they are willing to speak from a space of “infinite pain, partly to honor the dead but also to warn the living that it could happen again and that it must never happen again. Better that one heart be broken a thousand times in the retelling, if it means that a thousand other hearts need not be broken at all.”15

For Agamben, this evidentiary ‘retelling’ of the unconscionable, incomprehensible, monstrous trauma of genocide is in fact thoroughly equivocal – such enunciation is a perennial reminder that the most vital facts cannot be presented; it is a reminder of those who cannot come forward to narrate the full truth of the ‘untestifiable’. The narrative of atrocity is incompletely documented, hence ever incomplete. Survivor discourses accrete around this aporia, an unbridgeable emotional and discursive gap between muteness and interlocution – between the ‘drowned’ and the ‘saved’, as Levi puts it – an ‘unspeakable’ space that survivors themselves cannot enter, the space constituting the authentic perimeter of their own trauma, of which the actual conclusion is ever foreclosed, the actual resolution ever denied. The true, absolute witnesses are those who did not return and so could not and did not bear witness. Understanding this, survivors bear witness to a missing testimony, and assume this responsibility with the knowledge that they must bear witness in the name of the impossibility of bearing complete witness. And this means that “language, in order to bear witness, must give way to a non-language in order to show the impossibility of bearing witness. The true language of testimony is a language that no longer signifies and that, in not signifying, advances into what is without language…”16

Agamben notes that this profound, permanent silence of the annihilated true witness is beyond testimony, outside the archive; and without being reductive, it does in a sense render all survivor accounts into a fragment, a remnant, a shard, a residue, of this unspoken total experience. The unvoiced utterance of that impenetrable lacuna – the ‘untestifiable’ that haunts survivors with its eternal proximity and its eternal inaccessibility – can be intuited only as a “trace”, a “dark shadow”, “background noise”; as “maimed language”; it “enthralls us as whirlpools enthrall us but at the same time it robs us of what was supposed to be said but was not said, thus frustrating and distancing us.”17 The spectral ‘non-language’ of the complete testimonial survives both the absolute witnesses, who could not return from death to narrate the full dimension and depth of their trauma, and the survivors, who remain short of that total experience and can only offer partial, ‘third-party’ testimony, bear witness ‘by proxy’:

Just as… the stars shine surrounded by a total darkness that, according to cosmologists, is nothing other than the testimony of a time in which the stars did not yet shine… just as in the expanding universe, the furthest galaxies move away from us at a speed greater than that of their light, which cannot reach us, such that the darkness we see in the sky is nothing but the invisibility of the light of unknown stars, so the complete witness… is the one we cannot see…18

Last stop: Entrance of Auschwitz railway station

1. Martina Kopf, “Trauma, Narrative and the Art of Witnessing”.
2. All text for Section I compiled from:éé-dictator-trial-161030093148939.htmlé-a-trial-by-refusal.htmlé-offers-test-case-for-african-justice/article26249739/ _Habre_Case.pdf
3. Primo Levi (1947), Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man) / Survival in Auschwitz. Translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1993), p. 29.
4. Fabio Girelli-Carasi, “The Anti-linguistic Nature of the Lager in the Language of Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo.”
5. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002), pp. 41, 44, 45.
6. Ibid., pp. 45, 48.
7. Ibid., pp. 13, 26-27, 33, 34, 41, 44.
8. Ibid., pp. 26, 27.
9. Girelli-Carasi, op. cit.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Agamben, op. cit., pp. 37, 38, 39.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., p. 162.

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