A body part that no longer functions in the way that it should, that ‘ne sluša’ (‘does not listen’) as my friends in BiH say.

A limb that is stiff, wooden looking. A part of me that is no longer part of me. An impostor limb that I do not recognize as my own. A leg that I can no longer trust, that I despise. An altered body that I refuse to reconcile with. Where is my own body? Where did it go? It disappeared almost overnight. Waking up each morning, hoping that the impostor leg has gone away and that my own leg has returned, that I can once again do all of the things that until recently I was able to do. Things that I took for granted.

Coloured straws scattered on a table, overlapping each other

The women and men who have participated in the CSRS project have frequently talked about their bodies; about health problems, about the physical alteration of their bodies due to injuries sustained, about how their bodies hold on to the pain of what they experienced. A Colombian interviewee struck a particular chord. She eloquently spoke about the importance of reconnecting with one’s body, drawing on her own experiences and the experiences of other women whom she knows who also suffered conflict-related sexual violence. In her words,

So, we’re trying to get back in touch with our own bodies; to be able to feel again, to remember how to touch our heads, our breasts, which are sometimes overlooked, remember how it feels to have a vagina; that we have legs, fingers. We’re remembering how to feel this body that has always been ours and that we started to lose because of things that happened to us and we couldn’t process. That’s what we’re doing – it’s a beautiful thing.[1] 

Reconnecting with one’s body, understanding it, appreciating it, loving it, feeds into and facilitates other aspects of connectivity – reconnecting with others, reconnecting with one’s environment in the sense of utilizing and harnessing the resources that it offers, reconnecting with a world that no longer offers the certainty and feeling of security that it once did. The concept of (re)connectivity is useful for thinking about resilience itself. Resilience is not an end state but a process, and this process is quintessentially about the interactions between individuals and their environments. Conflict-related sexual violence and other traumatic experiences often have a significant severance dynamic. They break, they cut, they rupture; relationships, communication channels, sense of self, dreams, anchoring beliefs. Resilience is partly about the ways that individuals find to repair these severances, and the extent to which their broader ecologies are facilitative and reparative in this regard. Fundamentally, resilience can be theorized as a complex of (re)connectivity across and between intersecting social layers. From this perspective, unaddressed/unrepaired severance undermines the possibilities for building resilience. 

The concept of (re)connectivity, in turn, is critical to the new ecological theorization of transitional justice that CSRS is developing. Transitional justice is about dealing with the legacy of past human rights abuses, with the aim of helping societies to move forward. Yet, what does it mean to move forward when multiple severances and ruptures exist? If parts of a track are broken, a train will never reach its final destination. Similarly, transitional justice that neglects severance – across multiple layers of the broader ecological whole – will have limited effectiveness in facilitating past-future movement. Part of an ecological reconceptualization of transitional justice, thus, is about drawing attention to areas of rupture and breakage – and exploring how transitional justice processes can help to restore connectivity and, by extension, foster resilience.

Bodies remain significantly neglected within transitional justice, except in the sense of what has been done to them. Yet, as I discussed in a recent article, bodies critically matter as important sites of connectivity.[2] I end with Culbertson’s words. Reflecting on her own experience of sexual violence, she writes: ‘I am the one in the mirror now, without and within the same, returned from a literal experience of looking at a stranger, of feeling at best as if there were a double image there…’.[3] The disappearance of the stranger is a crucial first step in reconnecting with one’s own body – and hence in reconnecting with one’s wider social environment.

[1] Researcher interview, Colombia, 6 March 2019.

[2] Janine Natalya Clark (2019), ‘Leaky Bodies, Connectivity and Embodied Transitional Justice’. International Journal of Transitional Justice 13(2): 268-289. 

[3] Roberta Culbertson (1995), ‘Embodied Memory, Transcendence, and Telling: Recounting Trauma, Re-Establishing the Self’. New Literary History 26(1): 169–195, at 190.