Worlding the Nation in Humanitarian Witness Testimony



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Worlding the Nation in Humanitarian Witness Testimony

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Didier Fassin, in his book Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times, raises a very important question about the writing of history in and through humanitarian testimonies. Referring mainly to psychologists and psychiatrists, he shows through some striking examples of the Palestinian intifada, how the historicization in the testimonies depoliticizes and centralizes “specific historical trajectories, situations, processes” (221). . . . “In the testimony of humanitarian psychiatrists, after a conflict that had just claimed 102 lives under eighteen, the medical condition of enuresis comes up in a prominent way. In lay terms wetting the bed. The teenage fighters have no other way of showing their fear, the psychologist explains. In front of the soldiers, in front of their friends, and even within their family, they have to present themselves as strong, almost adults. Wetting the bed is their way of showing that they are still children. Bed wetting has become a commonplace of the discourse on the consequence of violence. The juxtaposition of the figure of the stone thrower with the enuresis sufferer reveals the fragility of the combatants: tragic heroes during the day and vulnerable patients at night. The medical discourse makes the condition of the adolescents more accessible to a western audience: a vulnerable teenager generates a more consensual empathy than a provocative or violent youth. At the same tome it replaces the martyr subject with a neurotic subject, substituting the politics of justice proclaimed by the martyr with a politics of compassion. Violence requalified as trauma” (211). “What is lost in this translation is precisely history” (221).



Important points to note:


  1. Problematization of the use of history in testimony :

Humanitarian witnesses, although not in the business of writing history, do often extend their moral and intellectual authority, their credibility, and their internationalism to presenting political histories of sorts—of the nation, international relations, aid agencies. However, different kinds of testimonies construct the history and its objectives differently. When we look at testimonies of political resistance, the very act of recounting the life of the revolutionary becomes synechdochic of history of the oppressed. Rigoberta Menchu’s case is an example of the questions that can arise from that kind of autobiography; on the other hand when we look at trauma, apparently inexplicable conditions of suffering and trauma, the humanitarian’s vision and artistry tells the story of his bildungsromanesque awakening to a crisis in humanity.

Examples from Orbinski, Nutt, and Dallaire


This kind of history is a critical part of the non-historical discourse, the humanitarian engagement. It is the sturdiest bridge to the audience who already knows the facts, have heard them before, not in the specific dates, names, figures, but in the “nature of Africa,” in the media, in their local community organizations.
The history-bites are not where the truth-effect lies. The truth effect is in the testimony of horror. That one has seen, responded to, and remembers what it means to come face to face with “inhuman” brutality and suffering.
But when a nation’s history of violence is projected against the culture of healing intervention, then the humanitarian work becomes a work of history, facilitating the emergence of a new nation.



  1. Raises the question of how the figures they present see themselves. What do we know about what the people facing these violent situations think and feel? In relation to the particular kind of relationship of aid that seems an integral part of noticing (Dunant)the suffering subject, it has to be a specific kind of aid—that is disengaged from the political situation.




  1. Cosmopolitanism: The relationship in humanitarian testimonies is neither between nations or peoples, but between humanitarian witness and his/her audience. The humanitarian work itself in which the humanitarian is physically, emotionally, psychologically invested is, the connection between victims of violence are subject to if not constituted by the relations of power that has created the situation to which the humanitarian is responding. In the state of war into which the humanitarians enter, populations are devoid of protection, or belonging, and as Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak describe in their conversation Who Sings the Nation State “have become effectively stateless, [but] are still under the control of state power. In this way they are without legal protection but in no way relegated to a ‘bare life’:This is a life steeped in power” (8-9). . . . No one is ever returned to bare life, no matter how destitute the situation becomes, because there are a set of powers that produce and maintain this situation of destitution, dispossession, and displacement” (10)

Brief digression on Mondialization


How is the meeting point of humanitarian witness and subject in crisis conceptualized in the testimonies? The humanitarian witness becomes abject in the face of abject suffering that he witnesses but cannot really intervene being helpless in the recognition that his efforts cannot change the conditions in any way (Here difference between Lewis and Orbinski, the former quite vocal in persuading audience of the possibility of intervention),. Orbinski attends to a patient who becomes perhaps the most frightening, the most devastating face of violence in the book. He seems to crumble in this encounter with unspeakable violence: “I felt a wave of nausea as I looked again at the pattern someone had cut in her face. I turned from her and vomited for the first and only time during the genocide. She waited as I spit out what was left of the bile in my mouth. Then she touced my forearm again. I looked into her brown eyes. “Ummera . . . ummera-sha . . . Courage, courage, my friend. It was the clearest voice I have ever heard” (227). A kind of co-suffering image thus comes up in addition to making palpable for the readers the magnitude of the horror through a very vivid singular focus (eyes, gesture, tone), a sense of co-sufferer, that desperately needs emotional and physical sustenance to endure and carry on. That this strength comes from the victims who endure establishes a link that those who are not witnesses can never experience.



Canada was a world away, blissfully ignorant of what I had witnessed in Rwanda” (257). Here witness could be substituted for “what I had suffered—the extent of human indignity.”



Comparative passages in Dallaire


  1. Imagination in history:

Tracing the “emergence of memory in historical discourse,” Kerwin Lee Klein notes that “memory is replacing old favorites—nature, culture, language—as the word most commonly paired with history, and that that shift is remaking historical imagination” (128) Its fragmentariness, orality, immediacy, and movement between individual and collective subjectivities would seem to make memory a significant ally in the rewriting of history for “people without history” and so its “emergence is a salutary feature of decolonization” (143). Does memory emerge with a capital M?Is there a kind of forgetting involved in remembering, in instituting a new humanitarian history, a new global (homogeneous) beginning under western eyes?


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