Memories Were Made of This

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If we can explain and understand the past, we will then be able to shape the future.

In the last few weeks the Spanish government has begun to excavate graves where civilian prisoners were buried during, or immediately after, the Spanish Civil War. It might seem an odd thing to do, so long after the event, when even the relatives will barely remember their lost husbands or wives, or cousins, or parents. Yet the families of those murdered by paramilitary gangs or off-duty soldiers in country after country have fought relentlessly for the right to know where and when their dead were buried, and by whom. Sometimes the hardest part of all is to understand why--why they were killed, and why their discovery is so important and meaningful. Wouldn't it be better just to let them lie?

During and after the military dictatorship in Argentina, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, demonstrated every Thursday morning for the return of their children, their grandchildren, their partners. They walked in a circle in front of the presidential palace, wearing their white scarves, and for years they defied the attacks and the derision of the thugs in the street. In Guatemala, where so many men and women were murdered and buried by one military regime after another, the Widows' Organisation (Conavigua) has never lost the resolution to find their own, whatever it takes. In Chile, where Pinochet's regime peppered the country with the unmarked graves of the opposition, the relatives' organisations will not allow them to be forgotten.

For some bizarre reason, these extraordinary people came to my mind when I watched the tearful museum curator in Baghdad mourning the loss of the precious historical artefacts looted and stolen under the watchful eye of the liberating US forces. The link isn't obvious perhaps. But it seemed to me that, in both very different cases, the issue was the right to our history, the duty to remember.

The psychological explanation for the need to identify the anonymous victims of terror is very clear. To find closure, rest, an ending; to give the dead their burial and to be able to move beyond the doubts. But beyond the individual stories, there must also be a collective need. As long as the past is unresolved, as long as memory is suspended, there is no way of moving forward. At the personal level, knowing is what matters most; at the collective, it is more, I think, about responsibility.

In South Africa the process was called truth and reconciliation. There were extraordinary moments of confrontation and forgiveness, but it always seemed to assume that a moral victory was greater than a political one. And that would surely be true if, and only if, we had moved beyond a world of violence, of exploitation, and of a struggle for power. Until that happens, there has to be justice too, a settling of accounts. Not for revenge, but to answer the question why. It isn't enough to know who was responsible; it is as important to know what drove that person, why people inflict these things on other human beings, what forces and interests, what ruthless pursuit of power shape the torturer. Because they are not the victims, whether they gave the orders or not, they became the instruments of those who did. How did that happen?

History, of course, has the answer. A bomb dropped on Baghdad has a history, a bullet has a past. One of the ways in which war and oppression are dealt with by the spin doctors and the ideologues of the new imperialism (and the old) is to pluck them out of time, to make everything immediate, autonomous, history-less. The suicide bomber and the US marine are equivalent at that moment in time; bomb meets bomb in that instant. But they are profoundly different when their story is told. Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, that's why the reporting from war zones is unidentifiable in time and place--and not just because of some tactical consideration or fear of giving away the coordinates of some obscure bit of desert.

For me, that's the connection with the museum. It is strongly rumoured that several US museums have already put in their bids for the columns of Nineveh and the Assyrian statues; maybe the looters were working for middlemen in this highly profitable international trade in cultural objects. But if they do ever turn up in some US museum, they will have lost their meaning; they'll become trivia, new objects for some international 'Antiques Road Show', emptied and uprooted from their history and their direct and intimate connection with the present.

In both cases, memory--and the meaning of the present that it throws up--is stolen, hidden, or emptied. It's the same with the graves of the victims. Until they're dug up, named, replaced in their world, they can't be part of the history that comes out of the past and points towards the future.