The workshop began with an overview of the role of truth forums and commissions and went on to explore modes of bearing witness to exceptional violence; the role of the listener as an active producer of meaning; how to explore and evaluate different kinds of testimonial writing; and reflections from war journalists who are trying to promote peace and reconciliation.
Dr Minoli Salgado is a Co-Director of the Centre of Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, and the author of several books including a novel, A Little Dust on the Eyes (2014), which focuses on the disappearances in southern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s.
NPC Executive Director Dr Jehan Perera said that collecting testimony was a way of developing empathy in a polarised country. “Often we don’t see the other side or understand the suffering of others. This is a process of listening to victims and recording their stories, a way of saying, never again,” he said.
Dr Salgado pointed out that storytellers were the first people to be targeted by authoritarian regimes. However, marginalised stories should be heard so that concepts and terms such as truth and reconciliation could be seen from a story telling point of view.
When there was public story telling by both victims and perpetrators, the truth was opened up to public scrutiny so it removed the possibility of continued denial and mitigated a culture of impunity. The stories are heard and accepted as truth. The listener was also important. Testimony was witness, proof or demonstration of fact and evidence, Dr Salgado said.
She also spoke about how language was often a polarising factor where terms such as war heroes, war criminal, patriots, traitors, genocide and war of liberation were tossed about.
“We need top develop a culture of listening, to protect spaces for safe listening and address local and culture specific readings of grief, mourning and justice,” she pointed out.