I have long characterised my journey as a journey from victim to survivor to victor, and then I explain what I mean by that, in the sense of being an object of history to becoming a subject of history once more.

I have long felt that people, if they have physically survived, they are survivors, but that is almost passive—“I survived”—and people can still remain trapped in moments of history even though they have physically survived. So that is why I conceptualised the idea of being victorious. At the same time, obviously I am a victim. Something was done to me. It is a question of whether or not that is the totality of the identity.

I often tell a story about a group of quote-unquote victims who met with some international visitors, I think it was from Indonesia, who were thinking about a Truth and Reconciliation commission…. In this encounter, one of the people there turned to a woman who had introduced us all, and said, “but tell them who you really are.” By which she meant one particular horrible event, life-changing, and I was disturbed by that and called them up in the evening and said, “I really have a problem with that because it is reductionist. It is reducing a human being to one terrible event, as if there was no life before that and there was no life after that.”

In communities that have been victimised, I think that…can encourage people to remain prisoners of this particular identity. But of course there are contexts in which that identity has benefits. So then it becomes complicated, so if you are seeking funds for your victimhood but then you say, “Well, I am actually fine now, pretty much,” then you don’t need to apply.

—From South Africa

 

Video above from the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s TRC reports. The story continues here.

“I actually saw myself as a victor, in the whole sense. As a conqueror. With my little efforts, and with what I have done, with my small contribution, we were able to overcome the system of Apartheid.”

From South Africa

“I think once you allow yourself to become a victim,” one person reflected, “that’s when you sort of lose control.” Yet this control did not extend to modern-day problems such as crime and poverty.

From South Africa

 

The term “victimhood” is itself something that needs to be unpacked. So for a long time I have never described myself as a victim, since the time I was in prison. And I will explain that later. I would rather see myself as…well, there is no ideal term to describe oneself, I see people use the term “survivor” and so on…. I haven’t really thought about how to describe myself. Definitely not as a victim though. That’s the first point…to cast myself in a victim frame would then mean that I have been defeated as well.

From South Africa

 

I would call myself a victim of the Apartheid state. My family was moved from pillar to post. We were chucked out of our home. This was even before I became involved politically. Secondly, I was hunted by the police and declared a terrorist, even though I was a qualified social worker and I was not involved in any form of political violence. I organised people; I organised protests but I never ever had a gun in my hand.

From South Africa[/expand]


INTRODUCTION

How people perceive their role in struggle/war/conflict/troubles depends in large part on the political and economic structures of the aftermath. As these change, so too do the labels people use to describe their experiences in war. Often, the forms that political or economic recognition take will also shape these labels.

In South Africa, many respondents expressed an aversion to seeing themselves as victims, which was often couched in terms of a social or collective experience of victimhood. If seen as a hierarchy, then respondents tended to place themselves low on the pecking order, noting how others had suffered more. Some saw the label of “victim” as suggesting failure, preferring “activist,” “survivor,” or “freedom fighter.” “I don’t want to be a victim,” one respondent noted. “I am a soldier.”

In Northern Ireland, complicated politics surround who “counts” as a victim, whether or not a hierarchy of victimhood exists, who gets to define victimhood, and if the term “victim” is itself a form of disempowerment.

In Sri Lanka, experiences of victimhood are much more recent than in Northern Ireland or South Africa. There was no aversion to this label but instead often a recounting of horrendous experiences of loss, some of which is argued to have been the result of war crimes.

“Victim” is not a fixed concept, and those who have suffered may see themselves on a journey from trauma to survival in whatever form that can take. Victims and survivors often organize, particularly to seek some form of restorative response to their suffering. A challenge to healthy integration is that communities of victims/survivors may become pitted against each other either in terms of the original conflict, or as a result of the lack of comprehensive resourcing for victim/survivor support services.


1) Q: What would be a victim for you? Or where is the difference, say, between you and a victim?

A: I suppose maybe you could say somebody innocent. I mean Mammy was innocent. She was in a hospital and she was murdered. But maybe somebody just walking down the street, they would consider themselves.

I mean if people consider themselves victims, I think it is everybody’s own definition.

Now if people say, yes they believe that they are a victim…well, to me that is fine, that is how they define it. Maybe people who never were involved in anything. You know a lot of the one with the Shankill Butchers and things like that. Even just going home at night, even explosions, people that were just in the town. That they would look on themselves as victims because they had no part in this war.

 From Northern Ireland

 

I would say that the men who went out and shot people are not victims. Because they knew what they were doing. To me they are not victims. They done that voluntary.

 From Northern Ireland

 

And we have had various studies that looked at the definition and if you apply it to Northern Ireland we reckon approximately 500,000 could say they are a victim or a survivor. And it is the survivor bit, having lived through the conflict in Northern Ireland and come out the other end, most people here can say they survived it.

So you qualify for the definition.

My belief is that if someone is in need and they have suffered as a means of the conflict here in Northern Ireland, then we should do everything to try and address their needs. So we would be putting a lot of emphasis on trying to identify those needs and addressing those needs. Therefore, personally, if anyone defines themselves as a victim, that is good enough for me.

From Northern Ireland

 

Q: Can you tell me who is a victim?

A: Thorny question that one. To be perfectly honest, the way that we look at it here, if someone defines themself as a victim, they are a victim. I don’t think that it is up to the likes of the [victim support organization I work for] to say, if someone walks through the door and says, “I need your help; this is what happened to me.” It is not up to us to make a judgment call on that.

From Northern Ireland

 

I know that their families are maybe classing the likes of dead Provisional IRA men or dead UVF men, whatever the case may be, as victims. I don’t class that way. To me they were going out to kill someone and that is wrong. You can call it a cause, you can call it whatever you like. It is wrong. But the person that maybe they were going out to kill, yes. What those people would have been going through. They are of a different sort of victim thing as what I would call myself. It must have been horrendous for anybody. We have met people through [victim support work]. There was one particular woman, she was standing in the kitchen along with her policeman husband when they walked in and shot him dead right in front of her. How do you cope? That is a true victim of what took place.

From Northern Ireland[/expand]

 


2) Q: Are you a victim or a survivor?

A: I am a victim.

Q: Why do you say so?

A: I lost all my children, three children, due to a bus bomb.

Q: How old were they?

A: Elder daughter was nine, next (boy) was six, and the youngest (boy) three.

Q: Your experience?

A: I was on my way with children to Kachchakudi to attend a funeral. The nephew of my husband died; we were going to that funeral. I was on the bus with the three children.

 From Sri Lanka

 

I, my five brothers, my sister, mother, and father. All of us were there. It was my father who died. Because the boat did not start, my father went behind the boat to push it backwards. Then the shot struck him in the chest. The bullet did not exit but lodged inside…. God saved us from the war. Even though we were standing, he saved us. But we became victims through the loss of my father. That is the primary victimhood.

 From Sri Lanka[/expand]

 


3) First he was a victim because his sister got shot dead; this all happened in the space of about two hours. His sister was shot dead at about five in the afternoon, which rendered him a victim in the sort of TRC sense. A crowd of locals then went to the house…of the policeman, stoning it, and they got hold of the uncle of the policeman, who shot. And this guy was part of dragging this out, and they set him on fire and burnt him alive. So now he is a perpetrator, one hour later.

Within an hour the police had swept through the township, had gathered up lots of people, including him, and they were all severely tortured at the police station—back to being a victim. So when he tells the story, the burning of the uncle of the policeman doesn’t form part of the story; it’s like, my sister was shot and we were then taken and tortured. I don’t know for an absolute forensic fact that he was involved in the burning, but since it was his sister I am pretty sure that he was on the scene. But it is just written out.

From South Africa

 


4) After 2006, there was a situation where at least one family member had to join the [Tamil Tigers] due to war in Vanni. I have a brother and four sisters in my family and I completed my education and was working. As the situation demanded, one of us in the family had to join them. Finally, I had to make that choice and joined them—or, rather, I was sent by my parents.

It was a very pathetic moment of life then. When I was in the training camp I lost my leg due to shelling, and even in that situation I was not allowed to leave the movement because one member from each and every family had to contribute to the war. If I were to come home then somebody from my family had to replace me. So I decided to stay back since I was wounded and lost my leg. It was better for me to remain there than going home and sending somebody else also from home.

From Sri Lanka

 


5) I would have just identified myself as a freedom fighter, rather than a victim…. This thing started from 1657, during the early wars of resistance. So you know that it has always been a war: there have been some losses, there have been some gains.

From South Africa

 

Combatant, terrorist, paramilitary—I believe that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. And that is just the nature of the beast. The people didn’t set about becoming a terrorist or a freedom fighter. They just felt that there was a need and that is where they had to step up to the mark. And that was the mark that they seen that they needed to step to.

It is the easiest thing in the world for other people to turn round and say, yes, that is just because they wanted to be big men or whatever else. I have spoke before and I will speak again: I have worked with lots of combatants, ex-combatants, and a nicer bunch of people you would never ever meet. Your ordinary working class, family-oriented people who decided—rightly or wrongly—that their community, their family, and everything else was under threat. And it did like the First World War and the Second World War and possibly the wars is still going on now. That sort of generation says, no, I am going to stand up and be counted and hopefully I will make a difference.

Looking back on it now, was it the right thing? Was it the wrong thing? Who are we to judge? Who are we to judge? It happened. And it is back to that whole time machine. I think there is too much put onto the past. There is too much put on the past; what has been has been. It has happened. And for me it is about how we go about not letting it happen again and making the best of a bad lot.

From Northern Ireland[/expand]

 


6) Society here broke down because of the failure of politics. That is the responsibility of the politicians at that time. Right back to the 1920s when this state was created. After the state was created, people from the Nationalist background were treated like second-class citizens in their own land. In housing, education, and jobs.

This state did not want people from the Irish Nationalist background involved in it. So what happens? People become alienated from the state. They are no part of the state. When violence comes to be seen as the only option, what are people going to do? They act violently. Young people respond violently. That of course leads to counter-violence.

So you can’t really say that anybody here had any other type of a future ahead of them, under the circumstances they lived. A violent confrontation was inevitable. Which is why my hopes for the future are better, I think, for the first time in this little place, although personally speaking I would like to see Ireland united as one, but this little place at the minute, at least everybody has a say in how it is run. There is no alienation anymore. You can’t say that anymore.

The hierarchy of victims thing to me doesn’t wash. I blame the big picture. It is easy to go microscopic on some things: he did kill him or he did shoot him or they blew up this. Yes. But it was predestined, the way society was formed. They were always going to end up in a confrontation. It was like a boil waiting to explode at any minute. So I can’t even blame the young men that shot me. They thought that they were doing their best for Ulster and God and all the rest of it.

From Northern Ireland

 


7) Oftentimes victims are deemed to be those who have bullet wounds or scars due to dreadful explosions that took place in this country. Sometimes it is possible to overlook someone who bears other scars that may not seem to be visible. Particularly a clergyman who always has to give the impression that he is on top of things. That he is full of kindness. But I can assure you that being a victim, there are other scars that develop. For me, it was two coronaries. I was very close to death. And when you suffer two coronaries in a week—I am not a smoker or a drinker, and the senior consultant at Addenbrookes Hospital was very puzzled because I was forty years of age. It was deemed—how on this earth could you take ill?

From Northern Ireland

 

When you automatically say “victim,” you automatically think of a person who might be shot or injured or something that way. That is some people’s interpretation. But the thing about it, in a certain way I would say, yes, I am a victim. Because the path on which I had decided to go when I was young, my career, that was changed. But it wasn’t changed because of…my doings. It was the political situation. Wrongdoing was being done in this country…. You had a section of the community running the country and letting the other part of the community be scrubbed off.

From Northern Ireland

 


8) We are victimized due to deprivation of fathers, mothers, and spouses. Many such people have taken to drugs because of problems on the home front.

In certain cases—“the wife is dead”—there is no way of cooking because the husband does not know how to cook. Children have problems. Their education gets disrupted. In such families, the father drinks alcohol in the evening. Earlier, the people did not drink so much.

Young boys who have lost parents do not know how to cook. They have no one to wash their clothes. The father marries someone else, creating a lot of problems at home…. Some of the children in such families complain of neglect.

Earlier, our villagers did not use narcotics. But during the time when we were in the refugee camp, people got used to them. In each family there were one or two such victims. This is how they tried to escape sorrow.

From Sri Lanka

 

I have lost everything in the war and I am forced to rebuild my entire life and livelihood from the beginning because my legs do not function. There was a severe damage to my spine and due to that both my legs don’t function. So rebuilding my life is a serious challenge for me. How do I do it? Day to day life is different from permanent life and permanent life is at stake right now. We need to start from scratch and we have to rebuild our lives from zero but this seems to be impossible right now because of my condition.

From Sri Lanka

 


9) I think that victims are sometimes their own worst enemy. And that is something that has to be faced up to. Particularly in Northern Ireland. The victims wanted to fight each other. Because they wanted to fight around justice. Some of them wanted truth and some of them wanted justice. But none of them wanted to necessarily give other things to the opposite camp.

From Northern Ireland

 


10) Now I think life is just a waste and of no use. You cannot calculate and say someone was more affected and another less affected. Loss is loss and the particular person’s death is a loss to his/her family that cannot be measured. Even if it is loss of property or mental suffering, everything has its own repercussion. So, loss is loss and death is death and thereby it is an individual decision and you cannot say anything is less.

From Sri Lanka

 

I have four sons. But two went to war. So I have only two left. I feel insecure after I lost the two sons. On the other hand, it was by thinking about his sons that my husband, their father, also died. Therefore, I always think that I am a victim…. I need now to face my victimhood alone…. The pain I felt is the same for others. So, losing that aspect of life is what is called victimhood. Not only for us—it is a loss for everyone, Sinhala or Tamil.

From Sri Lanka