When I visited Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, two years ago, I met a parliamentarian to talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the governmental way of dealing with the brutal civil war that had shaken the country in the 1990s. It was quite early on a Tuesday morning in December; my driver had to wait in front of the bungalow in which the parliament was situated. After we were allowed to enter the grounds, we had to wait again in the parking lot, until finally I was guided by an employee to an office with thick leather sofas and a couch-table with bottled water on it. 

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My’ parliamentarian, let’s call him ‘A.’, entered the room, a well-dressed and very polite man in his mid-thirties. He was a member of the CNDD-FDD, the leading party in Burundi. The CNDD-FDD dominates the parliament, the country, and it controls most of the little money that circulates in the seventh poorest country in the world. A. told me how glad he was that I was willing to talk to him. Others, I learned, refused to talk to his party, preferring to make up their mind about the country by talking only to the NGOs, the ‘other side.’

Sitting in his office with the leather sofas and bottled water, A., referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told me that people in his country had finally plucked up the courage to reappraise the events of the civil war. But due to bureaucratic procedures the commission had still not been finally approved, yet. The greatest shortcoming, which A. of course didn’t mention, was that it was all in the hands of the authoritarian CNDD-FDD party which ruled the country without a whisper of parliamentarian opposition.

The commission had a famous predecessor: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela in South Africa after the apartheid regime. This model for a commission that deals with the grave mistakes made by the government during its dictatorship and/or civil wars had been tried and tested successfully in other post-conflict countries. Now the time had come for Burundi to establish such a commission. The kind of amnesty for war crimes which was still within the scope of the law in South Africa in the nineties, however, is no longer possible in accordance with international law. The Burundi government (of which many members were actively involved in the civil war) is trying to replace amnesty with temporary immunity and strategies of delay. Plans for a penal tribunal a fundamental element of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi (2000) were also put on hold.

Most people I talked to didn’t really believe in the project, although some said that it would be necessary nevertheless. After such mass murder there is a need for truth and for justice; or at least for an attempt at justice. My cousin, who had lived in Burundi for three years when I came to visit him, explained to me how he saw (or read) the country: across the country, mourning was suppressed. The people, the economy, social processes could not be lost to lethargy and despondency. Conciliation was as difficult as it was indispensable.

For how long should one mourn in view of murder, which cannot be called genocide only because of a legal technicality despite the numerous victims. How should one mourn when there is not a single adult who has not witnessed a murder or lost a relative; when some, and not just a few, have themselves murdered?

The country would be depopulated for a second time if all those who were in one way or another involved were to be sent to prison. Our sense of civil justice cannot be applied to a situation like this. It is a moment that calls for the seemingly impossible search for truth in the incomprehensible, the unutterable, and the indigestible.

The attempt to find an official truth is per se questionable. And although concern for reconciliation is necessary, it should not be enforced. Because, if forgiveness is enforced by an elitist party characterized by corruption and nepotism, it remains dubious and unreasonable, perhaps even dangerous.

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When a small group holds sway, dictating what is considered to be ‘the truth’, counternarratives become the only possible way to prevent the disappearance of alternative versions of the truth. It is important for the civil society to oppose the official narrative by telling their own stories and thereby undermine the dominant power.

The question then is how to tell these stories and who may do so? The victims? The offenders? The mediators? The witnesses? All of us? Speaking out for the silenced is a common poetic ethos in 20th-century literature: the stories of the Holocaust victims had to be told by the survivors, which is the most shattering, but not the only example. The living must lend their voice to the dead, but who is entitled to do so? Must it be the survivors who, to some degree, shared their unspeakable fate? If the offenders spoke out for the victims, this would clearly contradict our instinctive sense of justice; it would seem shameless or even perverse.

But how far do we go with the genealogy of the offenders? Looking to the civil war in Burundi, would we describe every person who physically killed someone as an offender? Or any person who could have, but did not prevent a murder? Or would we go so far in searching for the source of the conflict as to take into account the colonial imbalances of power structures to seek out who is to blame?

This conflict has captivated me ever I since came in contact with it. Why? Certainly because it exhibits dramatic, even epic human conflicts in its most devouring and insolvable form. But for me, as a visiting European, this conflict has also raised the question of the limits of European intervention and the questions of how global our thinking and forms of narration have become or can become. To speak for someone else and to tell his or her story is a form of arrogance and, seen from a European perspective, possibly also an attempt to perpetuate dominance.

Ronald’s short story about a young European woman sitting in a café in Kampala seems to me to be an appropriate response. I feel comfortable or perhaps justified in writing an inverted Madame Bovary, in taking on the role of a European male. For centuries, men have imagined women’s ways of thinking and used it as material for their novels; Flaubert basically entered into Emma’s way of thinking.

It seems to me to be only fair to turn the tables an important reversal of previous power relations between the sexes. Would it not be narrow-minded to only look for literary subjects that are similar to us, instead of looking for topics that may be foreign but that we are interested in? Must authors not simply accept the fact that they will always speak for those who have not asked to be spoken for?

Antonio Gramsci wrote that “everyone is an intellectual” but that “not everyone takes on the role of an intellectual in society.” Let’s call them professional intellectuals – those whom society permits to spend their time critically reflecting on social issues in public, in newspapers, TV interviews, as members of an expert committee, or as professors in front of a hundred students. This group also includes economists and philosophers,, maybe especially employees of rating agencies, profilers and consultants, as well as authors. In Germany authors’ voices are seldom heard and the attention they receive declines with the rising level of complexity and idiosyncrasy they employ to mediate their contents.

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It is a double quandary: we are being ignored while at the same time running risk of supporting injustices and power imbalances as part of the establishment, rather than causing (the possibly intended) irritation and questioning of these kind of circumstances.

We think we are infiltrating the powers, but we are serving them instead. Often we cover up painful topics instead of laying them bare. I sometimes ask myself if we are not in many ways, and without noticing it, similar to ‘my’ parliamentarian A. Are we not, maybe in a more subtle and indirect way, also part of a dominating power elite that (despite sincere intentions) claims authority and righteousness of beliefs in a way that we are not entitled to? Whether these misgivings are well-founded or not, I think that we should always be aware of the fact that without asking we impose our truth on those for whom and about whom we write.