Time and Transitional Justice

by Dr Janine Natalya Clark

A clockDuring the last two weeks, the CSRS research team has been piloting the project questionnaire in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). A theme that has emerged very strongly is time and temporality. One section of the questionnaire consists of a Trauma Events Checklist (similar to the Harvard Trauma Scale), whereby respondents are asked whether they have ever, inter alia, seen a family member severely beaten, tortured, shot or killed, been forcibly held against their will, or witnessed the destruction of their home or other people’s homes. While these questions are necessary and important, they constitute the most sensitive section of the questionnaire. They transport respondents back to the past, back to the 1990s and the Bosnian war. The team had the benefit of working with extremely experienced psychologists and seeing how they were able to carefully bring respondents back to the present by doing gentle breathing exercises with them and asking them: ‘Where are you now?’ One respondent initially answered ‘U logoru’ (in a camp). When asked the question again, she said she was at Snaga Žene – one of the NGOs that the CSRS team is working with in BiH.

The team also travelled to a village to meet a male survivor of war-related sexual violence. He explained that as much as he tries to forget the past, and the abuses that he suffered in a camp over several months, he cannot. These are experiences that will always be part of him. He has not worked since the war ended and repeatedly stressed how much it would mean to him to have a job and something to do. Seven months ago, his wife – who also suffered sexual violence during the war – was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is still waiting to have chemotherapy and the cancer has now spread to her bones. Her husband insisted that his wife’s cancer was the result of what she went through during the war. Her illness, and the legacy of trauma, was helping to keep the past alive for this family, while making the future appear chimeric.

Transitional justice is fundamentally about dealing with the past, in order to build a better future. Yet, notwithstanding the importance of various transitional justice efforts in BiH, and in particular criminal trial processes, they have done little to bring people out of the past. For survivors of sexual violence, and indeed for many individuals who suffered during the 1992-1995 war, the dividing line between past and present is extremely thin and porous, a delicate membrane across which there is constant movement. More than twenty years after the war ended, BiH feels like a society that is still stuck in the past. And the myriad of everyday problems that so many people face – from unemployment to access to healthcare and existential insecurity – mean that few have time to think about the future. What the example of BiH powerfully highlights is the critical importance of developing ways of doing transitional justice that resonate with and are meaningful to ordinary people. They need to feel that positive change is occurring, and above all they need to have a sense that time is moving forwards.