Q: And is it important to move on, or is there a role also for remembering?

A: I think you must do both. You know, there is a good example. There is this mythical bird in Ghana, in the Akan culture, which is called Sankofa. It is a bird that flies with its head backward. It is a good metaphor: we need to know where we come from in order to know where we are going. So you have to combine these things constantly.

—From South Africa


INTRODUCTION

 Memory can be a political commodity, a dangerous weapon, a source of pain, and a tool for justice. It can play all of these roles at once. There is often a tension between individual needs to survive and the societal imperative to learn from violent pasts. In post-conflict societies, people constantly try to find the correct balance between remembering and forgetting that allows them to live in the present. This delicate balancing act is unique to every person, making the political use of memory a difficult space in which to find consensus.

There is no one right answer. There is no way to deal with painful memories that will satisfy the needs and desires of all communities. But we can discern a spectrum of harmful and helpful mechanisms for dealing with the past. “I see it is not remembering or forgetting, but how engrossed we are in that,” said one Sri Lankan respondent. “In those memories, there are experiences, there are lessons; with those memories, we can make our present and future better. That is the biggest thing that we can do. Not forgetting or remembering.”

Several respondents vividly described the compartmentalization of (and by) memory, with one explaining how he locked painful memories away while another recounted feeling like memory’s prisoner. Some occasions (like anniversaries or holidays) and some places (like family homes) are too thick with memory for it to be contained. In these times and places, protective barriers are breached and painful memories flood over people. While this may help some people come to terms with the past, for others it is an unwelcome intrusion upon carefully constructed psychological defense mechanisms.

It is important to make the distinction between forgetting and not constantly remembering. Several Sri Lankan respondents noted the need for social interaction with others in order to not feel consumed with past memories. For them, forgetting does not seem to be an option. Instead, they are searching for ways to survive a present in which the recent legacy of the painful past is overwhelming.

When it comes to public memory, Northern Ireland respondents are divided on what should be remembered and how. Private memories of suffering are less contentious. Some people who identify as victims or survivors tend to empathise with the suffering of others, even if those others are politically distant from or even threatening to them.

In South Africa, where the conflict (at least in the sense of removing the apartheid system) is the most historically distant, public recognition of the past in the form of memorialization or political affirmation is often desired and noted in its absence. The memorialization of certain people and places is, unsurprisingly, privileged due to their political importance. Yet “each and every place has a history,” one South African activist said, noting the lack of rural memorialization of past participation in freedom struggles. For some South African respondents, the passage of time and meaning of struggle make memories of conflict a source of pleasant (if sometimes bittersweet) nostalgia.


1) I think you have to remember to forget. You can’t just forget what happened. You can’t just go and do that. It did happen. To me if you remember that it took place, you’re never going to forget that it happened. But the point being it is always going to be there for you. You are not going to forget it, but it is going to have to be a thing that it happened but we move on. It shouldn’t have happened, but it is now the time that we are looking for a fresh start for everybody: man, woman, and child.

—From Northern Ireland

 


2) I think we need to tell our children what happened because they will forget, you know. But I don’t think you will go into details of those particular things that maybe you did or maybe were done to you. I think those kinds of sad things you lock them away. And throw away the key. And maybe talk about general things. But those kinds of things, I don’t talk about them at all.

—From South Africa

 


3) It will never let you go. You are a prisoner of your own memories. And it will never let you go. And that is for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you don’t think of it for a while and then it is personal circumstances and it is waves over the top of your head and you go—whoa, what’s this?

 —From Northern Ireland

 


4) Even if I think of forgetting, when you look at the village, our close relative’s house is closed. They are dead. When I pass by the house, I feel sad. My heart aches when I look at that side. Sometimes I think that society is not what it was. Going along the road, I think of the dead lady and how, if I met her on the road, I used to speak to her. At times like that I experience a sadness of heart. I feel that it would be good if they were alive. It is a little difficult to forget…. In our house, it is difficult to forget.

I always see my husband. He has shrapnel in his chest and hands. It is difficult for him to take a drink of water even. He can’t even hold a mamoty. He even eats with his left hand; you can see that yourself. He can’t eat in a plate. Must put it in a deep bowl and keep on the ground and eat like a small child. When he eats like that, I am sad.

—From Sri Lanka

 


5) Anniversaries. Set times like Christmas and Easter. Holiday times. Then you hear the news on the TV about somebody that has been shot and you just go through the whole thing again. Even those soldiers who are abroad in Afghanistan and all those places. That brings it all back to you. No matter where it is. You know what that family is going through. And you are going through it with them.

—From Northern Ireland

 


6) From the compensation money paid to the thirty-four victims from my village who were assassinated, we built a shrine room in the school. On the anniversary of that event, the villagers gather there, light thirty-four lamps, and transfer merits to the dead. People offer flowers and lamps and worship the Bodhi tree and wish the dead may never again be subjected to such a fate. Even if they are already born among us, our plea is that they may receive the merits we transfer rather than take revenge from their assassins. We have planned that celebration in a way that it does not evoke hostility and hatred.

 —From Sri Lanka

 

I think there are too many remembrances…. You have to accept that history has happened, and that is part of history and that will always be there. But even taking [remembrances] that are coming up in the next two or two years: you have the establishment of Northern Ireland. You have 1916. And it is all wee things for certain people to needle somebody else about. I wear my Easter Lily and you have to wear your poppy…. We don’t need it.

 —From Northern Ireland

 

We all know what happened. We don’t need every five years or the tenth anniversary of this. I think it is the same with the 11 November. The remembrance of wars. It is nearly to the point now where it is like a celebration of wars. Celebration of millions of people being killed. To me? Forget about it. It is in the history books if you want to read about it. It is there. But every year you don’t have to be told of what has happened.

To me it is pointless. 

—From Northern Ireland

 


7) We have a very good intention that we have to forget all the past experiences and live our present life happily. People are searching us now and asking, “When did you join the movement? And what happened there?” The above questions bring back the past memories. So we tell those people that we are reminded of our past lives when they ask those same questions over and over and we don’t get a chance to forget them. We told them that you don’t talk like this and bring back all the past memories when you meet us in our house; it delays our process of getting back to normalcy. Now, we feel that we are recovered a bit.

 —From Sri Lanka

 

 

When we were in the camp, different institutions came and tried to rehabilitate us mentally by preaching and making us meditate. Those things helped us to find our mental balance. Many people like my mother-in-law were like mad people. Even my aunt could not control her mind. She was also like a real madwoman. We brought her out of the camp with great difficulty. At home as long as she kept herself busy, like making bricks or being engaged in household works, she is okay, but if she idles then she remembers the past all the time. She is reminded of the things her child did. If she is alone, she keeps remembering the past.

 —From Sri Lanka

 

Q: What do they do to forget the bad memories?

A: Humans cannot live in isolation. Humans are social beings…so those with bad memories should not live in isolation. If they are lonely, a lot of things happen. Therefore to say that they should not be isolated, that they should be made to socialize, is important. They must be allowed to speak, should not be made to be isolated. 

—From Sri Lanka

 


8) One googles through, one tries to search for what happened in Nyanga. You will only find a small part of what happened. But now, if one can revive that memory, just for people to remember where they are coming from, maybe…they will begin to take responsibility for their own area. Maybe, maybe they will take the pride.

nyanga_google_dangerous

—From South Africa

 

I think we should say that if there is an area where activists have been active, there should be a memorial museum. Even if your name is just written down to say that in the ‘80s this person has been active…. It doesn’t mean that there must be material gain. But just a long-lasting memory for you and your generation. For your children to see the role you have played. And to say that your name is captured in the history of this country, even if not on a large scale, but where you have been an activist.

—From South Africa

 

Places like Oudtshoorn, it has a history, but there is nothing there physically that people can identify with that history. And in each and every town there should be something like that, even if it is in the museum or a monument or something. Because each and every place has a history.

—From South Africa

 


9) In such a small community…when you walk around in the community, people tell their kids, “Look, you see that guy here, he is one of the struggle heroes; he is one of the people that assisted us in becoming free.” Even in your social circles with friends and family members, people will always remind you of the past…. From my side personally, when I am with my friends and activists of the past and we are socialising, we discuss what happened in the past. And that is actually nice now.

 —From South Africa