Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Raising the dead: war, reparation, and the politics of memory

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 19 August 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:495
  1. Derek Summerfield, psychiatrista
  1. aMedical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, London NW5 3EJ
  • Accepted 19 August 1995

All societies attach a different range of meanings to war than to natural disasters, and questions of societal recognition, reparation, and justice are generally central. Most modern conflict has been grounded in the use of terror to control and silence whole populations. Those abusing power typically refuse to acknowledge their dead victims, as if they had never existed and were mere wraiths in the memories of those left behind. This denial, and the impunity of those who maintain it, must be challenged if survivors are to make sense of their losses and the social fabric is to mend. For the names and fate of the dead to be properly lodged in the public record of their times also illuminates the coststhat may flow from the philosophies and practices of the Western led world order, ones which health workers should be in a position to influence.

In 1989 I documented the experiences of Nicaraguan rural peasants at the hands of Contra guerrillas sponsored by the United States. All had survived horrific attacks and been driven from their homes as destitute refugees.1 Juana Jiron Romero told me of the night in March 1987 when Contras had attacked her remote hamlet of Quisilali and murdered several members of her family in front of her eyes. One of them was her 2 year old daughter, Liset, and Juana said that even two years later she still seemed to hear Liset's voice pleading with her for water as she slowly died. Standing in her almost bare shack she said, “I now have nothing of hers…. How can I show that she lived?” Then she said that shortly before the attack some foreign travellers passing through by chance had taken a photograph of her family. Somewhere abroad, she said, there was proof that Liset had …

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