Walking through a street in torrential rain. No umbrella. No jacket. Walking through huge puddles, unable to see clearly, rain and tears mingled together. Wondering why, asking questions that will never be answered. Wondering whether passers-by feel the sadness, sense of loss, hurt. Everything looks somewhat different; grey, bleak, empty. The cars rush by, drivers tooting impatiently. There are distant rumbles of thunder. Yet, there is somehow a sense of silence, a hole that wasn’t previously there. Will it mend? When? 

A view of a mountain behind a town under a cloudy sky

Do transitional justice processes mend emotions? The feelings of fear, emotional pain, anger and sadness that some interviewees have expressed? What does the world look like when a person loses faith in it, in the people around her? How do emotions shape the way that individuals engage with their environments, what they bring to them? War crimes and human rights abuses leave emotional legacies. These are part of their broader ecological effects across social systems, from families and communities to systems of education and justice. These emotional legacies have potentially significant implications for healing and reconciliation – two important transitional justice goals. However, transitional justice processes do not sufficiently address these emotional legacies. Will reparations aid a woman who feels ashamed, who blames herself for not running away from her rapist or fighting back? Will criminal trials help a man who told me: ‘I sometimes feel disgusted with myself. I cannot shave, look at myself…in the mirror. I don’t know how to describe it with words. It is sorrow, misery…’. Can institutional reforms help those who feel that surviving is a form of punishment?

Alongside the powerful presence of emotions, what have also emerged from the interview data are a number of recurrent process codes, namely words that ‘connote action in the data’.[1] Interviewees have talked, inter alia, about ‘forgetting’, ‘living’, ‘helping others’, ‘fighting’, ‘flying’, ‘moving forward’. Some have found their own ways of dealing with their emotions and have developed a ‘change-oriented’ outlook on the world. They see the possibilities for change and see themselves as capable of making change. Others have a more ‘change-passive’ outlook, focusing on the lack of change and their own powerlessness in this regard. Perhaps these two outlooks, reflecting how people see the world around them and their ability to meaningfully contribute to it, are a crucial part of explaining why some survivors of conflict-related sexual violence display high levels of resilience while others do not.

Transitional justice processes should give more attention to emotions as intangible legacies of mass violence and human rights violations. A key question in this regard might be: ‘What are the vulnerabilities we share, and what do we owe to each other in terms of fundamental questions about solidarity and our moral being?’[2] And how can the ‘mutual capacity to feel hurt’[3] be used to foster what Lawson has called a ‘social ontology of connection?’[4] By addressing emotional legacies, transitional justice processes can potentially contribute to fostering ‘change-oriented’ outlooks in post-conflict societies. Fundamentally, if transitional justice is about dealing with the past in order to build a better future, those affected by heinous crimes and atrocities need to believe in the possibilities for a better future – and their own value and significance in building that future. 

A view of a mountain behind a town under a sunny sky

The clouds will part; the rain will stop; the sun will come out. The world will seem bright and alive again. ‘Život ide dalje’, life goes on. 

[1] Johnny Saldaña, The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers, second edition (London: SAGE, 2013), p. 96.

[2] Alan Norrie, ‘Critical Realism and the Metaphysics of Justice’ (2016) Journal of Critical Realism 15(4): 391408, at 406.

[3] Louise Waite, Gill Valentine and Hannah Lewis, ‘Multiply Vulnerable Populations: Mobilising a Politics of Compassion from the “Capacity to Hurt”’ (2014) Social and Cultural Geography 15(3): 313–331, at 327. 

[4] Victoria Lawson, ‘Geographies of Care and Responsibility’ (2007) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91(1): 111, at 3.