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Plenary Panel

In September 2019 over 50 scholars and activists from around the world gathered at the University of Sydney for a symposium on gender, temporality and violence organised by Laura Shepherd and Megan MacKenzie. The events included an early career and post-graduate student workshop, plenary panel, and two days of workshop panels and discussions. It was, as Megan MacKenzie said on the opening evening, an event brought together by love. This video captures the events of the opening evening, including the welcome to country and plenary panel.

Meet the panel speakers

Of Bodies, Violence, and Time

Of Bodies, Violence, and Time

Yolande Bouka, PhD

Political Studies Department, Queen’s University

In December 2019, I visited the small coastal town of Bagamoyo, which lies less than 100 kilometers north of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. This cultural heritage site was once one of the most important trading ports in the region, and during the colonial era, it was the capital of German East Africa. For hundreds of years, Bagamoyo was a major intersection for the trade of ivory and enslaved Africans captured in the hinterlands. The journey from their place of abduction to the coastal town was long and perilous as slaves, chained to one another, suffered all manners of ill-treatments and indignities. While reaching Bagamoyo offered a temporary stay from their difficult journey, it also marked the beginning of their final crossing towards a life of servitude. No sooner than they were able to rest their feet and lay down their suffering from the forced marches, than these enslaved men, women, and children were violently ripped from their native continent. In doing so, they left permanently behind them their hopes, dreams, and hearts to be shipped to Zanzibari slave-markets. It is no wonder that the city holds its name from “Bwaga Moyo,” which, in Swahili, means “lay down your heart.”

That day, as I have done while visiting other slave-trading ports, I walked the streets, carrying sadness. It was as if I could feel the anguish, pain, and terror of all those who were once brought here against their will. As if, for a brief moment, I could see the trajectory of thousands of lives forever altered. As if the ancestors were whispering to me the names of loved ones they had left behind and of the children they would never have (castration was often used on East African male slaves sent to Arabian trade markets). Today in Bagamoyo, among tourists, newcomers, and people from surrounding areas, descendent of slaves, slave traders, and slave owners live together. While its violence is not the only thread that connects them, slavery has left an imprint that can be felt over a hundred years after it was abolished in East Africa.

Like other types of extraordinary violence, slavery requires that we reckon with and understand it through analyzing lived experiences. In the footsteps of Fanon and DuBois, I too appreciate lived experiences as productive of knowledge claims about oppression. Yet, I am reminded to create an ethical distance (thank you Katherine McKittrick) between the subject of inquiry and me, lest I would fool myself and others into thinking that I fully grasp these experiences.

As someone originally from Togo, I feel a strange connection with and rupture from Bagamoyo’s history. Togo was once part the West African “Slave Coast” from which so many black bodies were taken during the transatlantic slave trade. What is today known as the coastal town of Aného, Little Popo was once one of the Slave Coast’s main slave trading centers. Additionally, between 1884 and 1914, Togo was also under German control. And yet, despite these connections through space and time, my relationship to Bagamoyo, Little Popo, and slavery, remains that of a distant relative, a time traveler, re-membering  through complex geographies and temporalities.

During my walk through the streets of Bagamoyo, I reflected on how the town’s landscape was altered for violent purposes. One of Bagamoyo’s most prominent and impressive features is the Old Boma. Originally built by the Germans in 1895, it served as colonial administrative headquarters. After the treaty of Versailles in 1919, the British took over the building. As I visited the imposing white u-shaped building and took in the mid-day light through dozens of naked windows, I wondered how many colonial administrative meetings were held within these walls. In which rooms did colonial officers design strategies to suppress the Wahehe and Maji Maji rebellions? Was there a corner of this building where the violent domination of African bodies was a favorite topic of conversation? As the clacking of German and later British boots resounded through the Old Boma, how many African men and women serving in the house shivered in fear? Today, the decaying building is empty. But, the scar remains. Where it stands, no trees were allowed to grow. Where it stands, no schools were built. Where it stands, no fields were nurtured to feed families.

The Old Boma of Bagamoyo is but one example of how violence and its byproducts alter landscapes, soil composition, and the path of water streams around the world. In places where the ground was rocked by shelling and bombs, people move through and navigate conflict-affected geographies. Indeed, in Cambodia, decades after the end of the war, land mines continue to maim people. Favorite shortcuts, young lovers’ secret places, and large patches of land where children could have played carelessly remain tainted by the echoes of war.

Near the end of my walk through Bagamoyo, I stopped by the port, which was buzzing with activity. Young men were busy hauling merchandise back to the shore. The backbreaking physical labor, so essential to the local economy, brought to mind the body as a site of violence. The physical impact of deep trauma is often felt decades and generations after the occurrence of the violent act. In Bagamoyo, how many backs were caned? How many iron shackles cut through flesh? How many slaves were tortured? How long did such scars take to heal, if at all? We often forget how long physical wounds take to heal and re-heal amidst setbacks and reinjury. For the bodies and the landscapes still in Bagamoyo, I wonder how slavery and colonial wounds have healed over time.

In some cases, the injury never heals and the body never recovers. For example, a recent exposé documenting the lives of mass shooting survivors revealed the long-term physical ramifications of gun violence in America. While media reports focus on perpetrators, the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, and politicians’ failure to enact policies to prevent such tragedies, we pay little attention to perpetual colostomy bags, years of surgery, chronic pain, and permanent disabilities often caused by a single bullet fired in a millisecond. Even under the best conditions, the body cannot be put back together. These open wounds stay as a testament of the deliberate infliction of what Elaine Scarry calls “inexpressible pain.” And while many pains are inexpressible and unknowable, they still connect us.

James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

As a researcher, it is only through reading and listening to experiences of war that I learned that even when the body heals, we do not always comprehend the devastation of the visible and invisible scars left by war and political violence. When I studied the violence that gripped Rwanda during the 1990s, from the civil war, the genocide, and the insurgency, I saw firsthand the physical marks of violence. Men and women bore the scars of unimaginable and intimate violence. In Rwanda, beyond the injuries of the flesh, the pain that also took root in the soul was foreign but palpable to me. Even people who were not pierced by bullets or cut by machete struggled to take stock of the aftermath of the war and the genocide. When Dr. Jennie Burnet inquired about women’s roles and experiences in post-genocide Rwanda, one of her research participants said one of the most illuminating, and yet devasting truths of surviving such violence. She said: “The genocide lives in us.” The reality of such horrors lives in them through every minute of every day.

The saddest part of the long-term emotional and physical consequences of violence and war is that trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. If you ask many people who were raised by Vietnam war veterans, many will tell you of physically and emotionally violent childhood, as traumatized soldiers returned home, inadequately equipped to cope with the aftermath of a gruesome war. Children who never saw combat still bore the burden of the violence inflicted by and on their fathers. It is difficult to say what passes through and what is passed down, but we know that childhood trauma and toxic stress have harmful effects on health later on in life. We also know that extraordinary violence in cases as historically and geographically different as the Holocaust, slavery, and the American Civil War, cause trauma that can alter the DNA of survivors and shorten the life expectancy of their descendants. This forces us to ponder on the impacts of extraordinary violence on children in war zones and dangerous contexts  as distinct as Aleppo, the US border with Mexico, Rakhine, and Beni. The corollaries will surely reverberate long after the silencing of the guns and the removal of cages. I cannot help but wonder what passed through and what was passed down in Bagamoyo.

We are making a mistake by continuing to explore war in terms of formal periods of peace, war, and post-war periods. War stays with us long after the cessation of hostilities, even when we consider ourselves at peace. Maybe if we spent more time studying war as experience,we would measure the cost of war beyond battle deaths and military equipment and expenditures. Maybe if we studied war as a continuum and took the long-term consequences of war and political violence seriously, we would be able to consider the United States, like Congo, as a conflict-affected society. Maybe we would truly understand the meaning of violence begets violence.

The politics of noticing

The politics of noticing

On April 9th, 2018, in the center of Bogotá’s Plaza Bolívar, human rights defenders had arranged coffins in concentric circles. It was the National Day of Memory and Solidarity with Victims of the Armed Conflict in Colombia—an annual occasion designated by law to recognize the harms that over 8.9 million individuals have suffered as a result of war. I was there to observe these commemorative events as part of my ongoing research on the politics and hierarchies of victimhood during transitions from violence.

Each black coffin had a white cross painted onto it. People left carnations in the middle of the crosses and scribbled messages in chalk around them. “We are not numbers. We are people. Fathers, mothers, sons, brothers,” one message read. On the next coffin: “Enough with the corruption. It is killing us. Peace is a right. Do not kill us.” And next to that: “Mother Earth is a victim too. Who will repair her?”

In this context, the Spanish verb reparar (repair) has a dual meaning. One meaning refers to mending, healing, fixing what is broken. The other meaning, reflected in the vocabulary of transitional justice after war, refers to reparation as recognition of and remedy for harms. This duality of meanings aptly captures what we must reckon with when it comes to land and nature, not only in the case of armed conflict but also in the broader context of climate catastrophe. It invites us to examine and respond to harms in ways that not only supply technical fixes, but also address the injustices and inequalities that underpin ongoing losses.

This holistic understanding of the work of repair is not always reflected in peace-building and justice initiatives after war. “Peace-builders think too narrowly about land,” an environmental justice advocate told me in an interview in Colombia. What does narrowness look like in this context? To begin with, many scholarly and policy conversations on land focus overwhelmingly on humans and on individual relations of ownership. We speak of displacement and dispossession—and these are important conversations that aim to recognize significant harms. Yet, as scholars and activists have advocated in Colombia and beyond, when relationships to land are always mediated through the human, other losses and harms become less legible and less grievable.

These are the losses of herbs contaminated by campaigns of aerial fumigation, of rituals that can no longer be carried out in poisoned or dried up rivers, the losses of kinship between humans and the non-human elements that surround them. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “in the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kin-folk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.”

Paying attention to land, therefore, enables us to see a different register of losses. It reorients our sense of both mourning and violence. Significantly, in June 2019, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia recognized the environment as a “silenced victim of the armed conflict.” This interpretation of victimhood allows for recognizing the kinds of harms that are not necessarily embodied in humanity or commemorated through a coffin. Many of my interlocutors who identify as victims and as advocates for an array of interlinked justice causes welcome this step. They are cautiously hopeful that it will lead to a more holistic reckoning with how, where, and with what effects violence manifests. Yet, they simultaneously call for another kind of recognition.

“People don’t see the butterflies,” Manuel told me. We were sitting under blooming guayacán trees in the Antioquia region. I admitted to Manuel, with some shame, that I did not see the butterflies either. “They didn’t return this year. Not as many of them anyway,” Manuel told me. “There used to be butterflies here, but they didn’t make it this year.”

Manuel was not merely grieving the ecosystem-wide effects of dwindling butterfly numbers. His mourning was not confined to habitat loss. Nor, in turn, were his resistance and activism limited to mourning. Rather, what Manuel noticed, and invited me to pay attention to, was beauty. “There is still so much beauty on this land,” he said.

Social justice struggles are not only fueled by an opposition to violence and injustice; they are also sustained by beauty. To mourn an absence, one must notice presence first. What Manuel and my other research interlocutors have modeled is a politics of resistance to inequality and injustice that allows for noticing beauty and finding joy—and that permits us to be fueled by these forces. This politics is founded on acts of noticing, on paying attention to blossoms on trees, on writing those into our narratives of violence and peace-building alike. It is also a politics of acknowledgment, recognizing that research—just like violence—is not produced with nature or land in its backdrop, but always in conversation with it.

It is difficult to speak of noticing beauty when there is so much pain in the world. And, as Julian Hoffman writes in Irreplaceable, “we don’t speak nearly enough of joy, as though its levity were somehow a burden.” There are good reasons to fear that beauty is a distraction, that joy is a diversion from politics. Yet, in the lives of my interlocutors who advocate about land and who narrate experiences of violence and meaning alike, vocabularies of beauty and joy co-exist alongside those of loss. Perhaps, then, we can slowly learn to develop a different fluency. Perhaps we can make room for a multi-lingual politics of noticing that allows for and encourages this co-existence.

Roxani Krystalli recently completed her PhD at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In September 2020, she will begin her appointment as a Lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where her research and teaching will focus on feminist peace and conflict studies. Roxani writes about feminism, violence, place, moss, and loss at Stories of Conflict and Love. She can be found on Twitter at @rkrystalli.

Hear more from Roxani Krystalli from her interview at the SSHARC Global Symposium in Sydney, 2019

Collateral Damage: Visible and Invisible Violence

Collateral Damage:

Visible and Invisible Violence

By Thomas Gregory

The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon tells the story of an eccentric Iraqi bookseller called Wadood Abdulkarim who is trying to catalogue everything that was destroyed in the first minute of the war. His goal is not only to document the people who died during the first 60 seconds of conflict but to document every single object that was damaged or destroyed – from family photo albums, clay ovens and tattered stamp collections to an elderly ziziphus tree, an orphaned bird and the stones from an old sandy-coloured wall. As Wadood explain, ‘this is project of a lifetime, an archive of the losses from war and destruction… the losses that are never mentioned or seen’.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly strange and an almost impossible endeavour. It recalls the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled On Exactitude in Science, where cartographers had attained such perfection that they had ‘struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it’. A catalogue index of everything that was destroyed during this first minute – not just every human but every butterfly that was dismembered, every book that was torn asunder, every brick that was cracked or charred – would surely run forever. Even a simple index that merely listed these items would fill an entire library, assuming that it is possible to identify every victim and count every casualty. As we know from experience, even counting civilian casualties can be a complex and contentious task. Nevertheless, his project raises some interesting questions about how we conceptualise the temporalities of war, the kinds of violence that are made visible and invisible within these conceptualisations and the kinds of losses that register as losses.

As the organisers of this symposium point out, conventional accounts of war suggest often proceeded on the assumption that it is bracketed by a clear beginning and end, the notion that wartime is analytically distinction from peacetime despite the fact that people’s experiences of violence and insecurity often cut across these neat and tidy delineations. When it comes to thinking about the ethics of war, moral philosophers introduce their own temporal imaginaries by neatly dividing the violence into distinct moments that can judged to be necessary or unnecessary, proportionate or disproportionate, legitimate or illegitimate. In this respect, Wadood’s attempt to catalogue everything that was destroyed in the first minute of war makes a mockery of this temporal imaginary, drawing attention to the steady accumulation of dead and injured bodies – both human and nonhuman – that is excluded from this framework. Compartmentalising the violence of war into discrete moments of time enables us to assess individual incidents as just or unjust but it also causes us to lose sight of the death and destruction that is amassed overall. If an archive of everything destroyed in a single minute has already become a lifetime’s work, then another lifetime would be needed to catalogue everything destroyed in the second minute of war, and the third… We have already used up three lifetimes and we have barely scratched the surface of the violence inflicted in just one day of a conflict that continues rumble away.

The Book of Collateral Damage also asks us to consider what is counted as collateral damage and what is excluded from these counts, what kinds of violence are made visible within the prevailing frames of war and what remains invisible. Reflecting on this point in her book Frames of War, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler suggests that,

One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.

Butler has in mind the racialized violence that rendered certain populations – including the population of Iraq – profoundly killable from the 11 September, 2001, attacks as the United States sought to shore-up its own sense of security. But even her more critical reflections leave aside a whole heap of death and destruction that is normally mourned or grieved within our anthropocentric frames. After all, if the victims of war are counted – and this is by no means guaranteed – it is normally the human victims that are counted, not the harm inflicted upon buildings, beasts and books. As Wadood puts it, ‘humans say goodbye only to those they know and those they love, whereas things say goodbye to each other and to humans too. But we rarely hear their voices, their whispers, because we don’t try’.

Although there are rules designed to protect culturally significant buildings, such as temples, monuments and libraries, our accounts of war often proceed on the basis that the only thing worth counting are the human costs of war. The environmental damage that is done is rarely included in our assessments of whether particular incidents or attacks are considered proportionate when compared against the anticipated military gains and the houses that are flattened by bombs or left riddled with bullets are not mourned in the same way or to the same extent as human losses. Yet these buildings and environments – not to mention the animals and objects that inhabit them – are essential to our existence and a fundamental to our political communities, even if we don’t always recognise it. As Martin Coward notes in his work on urban destruction, ‘we cannot have a full understanding of the violence done to human existence without understanding the role played by buildings in constituting that existence’. Wadood’s attempts to document every object that was damaged or destroyed in a single minute of violence might seem absurd but how much more difficult would it be to wage war if we have to account for every item was killed, every single life that was lost?

Hear more from Thomas Gregory on gender, insecurity, and temporalities of violence from his interview at the SSHARC Global Symposium in Sydney, 2019.

Annick Wibben – Anna Lindh Professor of Gender, Peace and Security

Annick Wibben

Annick Wibben is Anna Lindh Professor of Gender, Peace and Security, at the Swedish Defence University

Claire Duncanson – Senior Lecturer in International Relations

Claire Duncanson

Dr Claire Duncanson is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. 

Michelle Brown – Recipient of the Charles Eastman Fellowship, University of Hawaii

Michelle Brown is a PhD candidate in the College of Social Sciences. She is a recipient of the Charles Eastman Fellowship at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Roxani Krystalli – The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Roxani Krystalli

In this video we hear from Roxani Krystalli from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

Shweta Singh – Assistant Professor of International Relations

Dr Shweta Singh

In this video we hear from Shweta Singh, Assistant Professor of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi.

Thomas Gregory – Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations

Dr Thomas Gregory

In this video we hear from Thomas Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland.