This is the third article in a series by Matthew Toyama, a law student at Santa Clara University who is currently conducting research on Siad Barre’s war crimes in northern Somalia.
The best way to go about ascertaining that something is real is to verify it yourself. Still, most people I’ve talked to seem to accept without question, for example, the reality of a group called ISIS beheading people somewhere faraway, because it has been reported and they have read about it, or the continent called Antarctica, even though they have never been there.
We resign ourselves to axioms like, “history is written by the victors”; we laugh when we hear that a football player named Manti Te’o once had a cyber girlfriend who didn’t exist; we join religions because there are holy books which were written a long time ago; we have to enforce that states like Texas don’t teach their children that the universe is six thousand years old or that states like Germany and Japan don’t skip over a part of history called World War II, which almost everyone alive today, but born after 1945, can assure you to a one hundred percent certainty, absolutely did occur.
To my mind, there will always be a disconnect between any form of knowledge and our human minds. I think Plato talked about it when he wrote “The Allegory of the Cave” to represent that the human experience of things encountered is more akin to viewing the shadows of things thrown by firelight upon a wall, where the things themselves exist somewhere outside of the human reach in a world of Abstracts. John Mayer once drew upon this idea when he sang, with less sophistication I’ll add, “When they own the information, they can bend it all they want.” Of course, he was more directly lamenting the birth of a man named Edward Bernays who wrote such books as “Crystallizing Public Opinion” and who gave the world the gift of “propaganda” because perhaps he thought that the power wielded by multinational corporations and government intelligence agencies over the common man wasn’t complete enough.
When I was in law school, I was fortunate to work with a human rights litigation non-profit called the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) (look them up, they do great work http://www.cja.org). To me, the legal work was the most fascinating because the cases they litigate in U.S. federal court center around clients from all over the world who have emigrated to the U.S. seeking judgments for human rights violations which have occurred in as equally numerous and far flung places of origin around the globe. For example, I assisted in work on cases involving events in Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Liberia and Somalia, to name a few. When I learned about a Peruvian forensic anthropology team undertaking excavations in Somaliland, in part to supply evidence for one of these cases, I jumped to go.
Six months later, I am writing this on a hotel patio in Hargeisa, Somaliland. A few days ago, on our first trip out to the small town of Gebilay to break ground on their mass grave sites, our team was greeted by a lineup of village elders, one of whom proceeded down the line to shake each of our hands. When he reached me, it was a brief contact, a grasp of our right hands and his left on my forearm, yet his handshake remains with me. I can feel it again now if I think about the moment. I know certainly that the touch transcended his years of life and mine and the space where he has led his life and where I have been in mine. Perhaps the contact conveyed that he had lived at a time when I hadn’t, when things happened in his lifetime known to him but not to me, and provided part of the missing link remedying somewhat the disconnect between my human mind and the square of concrete before us upon which was inscribed a line in Arabic, “These men were killed without mercy, so Allah will have mercy on them.”
Earlier today, we got caught in an early wet season downpour while on site and had to shutdown for a half day. Then, our bus got stuck in the mud and while our squad SUV of soldiers towed it backwards, half of us along with our Somalilander workers got drenched to the bone and caked with mud pushing it out. Being as we were in a tiny rural village a stone’s throw from the Ethiopian border, this scene was unusual and probably made for great entertainment for the small crowd of kids who gathered to watch the spectacle. We took pictures with some of them afterwards and as we were departing, I solicited a high five from one of the little girls. She understood my body language and while our form was poor, we pulled it off. Even though for the past week and a half we have moved tons of earth to be working inches from the skulls of young men from Gebilay, whose gaping, earth-packed mouths seem to be yelling out of the rock facade that their summary execution by a dictatorship did in fact take place here almost three decades ago–getting in touch with this young child, alive today as I am, again feels like it has brought me just as close to a reality now past as those bones that lie under our tarps in the rain. That fleeting moment of contact feels like it has stitched together thirty hours and half a planet of travel by airplane, train, car and bus putting my life once in Berkeley, California side by side with this small town in the Horn of Africa which silently keeps guard over two mass graves in a waste-strewn, nomad-crossed backyard–as if to say, “I am alive and you are alive. This place exists. The skulls in the ground in this place exist and they once belonged to young men who were alive, too.”
(Title image via).