Creative Storytelling

Current Conflict Collections: How and Why USC Shoah Foundation is Collecting Testimony from Ongoing Conflicts

The young woman stares at me as I wait to press play on the video. Her eyes are dark and her lips are pursed. You can see a bit of her thick black hair which is matted beneath an off-white, or perhaps a light-pink scarf. It is hard to tell the exact color in the shadowed room.

I press the spacebar on my keyboard and begin to listen. She continues to stare at me, never breaking eye contact with the camera. She barely blinks. She speaks in a language I don’t know and describes a place I’ve never heard of.

Her story horrifies me and yet it feels familiar. She talks about conflict today, a conflict where she is the victim solely because of her ethnicity and her identity. It’s a conflict that leaves her in mourning, a conflict that has created unfathomable fear, a conflict that has forced her to hide and to flee her home.

Her testimony is unique and contemporary—she is Rohingya, victimized because she is part of the Muslim-minority in Myanmar—but it shares themes with wars past; collectively they are stories about being separated from family and watching loved ones die; they are stories of women losing their husbands and husbands losing their wives. The stories reveal unbelievable accounts, or accounts you don’t want to believe, about orphaned children, about torture, rape, murder and the dehumanization that comes before any of that begins. “My husband was killed first by a bullet,” another young Rohingyan woman says while wrapped in a yellow shawl. “My father-in-law saw that his son was shot [and] as the father held his son, he was also shot…”

The stories are narratives that are too many centuries-old, repeated from one generation to the next, about what it means to be hunted because of who you are. They are stories of ethnic-based killing, of mass atrocity, of possible genocide. “We came, we walked by foot. We walked and walked until the border,” said a Kurdish refugee about his escape from Syria into Northern Iraq. “My father is too old. He couldn’t come. He stayed there.”

“Early in the morning their leader came,” recounted a 19-year-old Yazidi woman about her memories of when ISIS attacked her village in Iraq. “They took the beautiful and young women and they left the old ones for later. The ones who left were also then distributed.”

Some people are stoic as they speak into the camera. Some are emotional. Some are sitting in refugee camps, others in abandoned schools. Most say that their kids don’t deserve this and that they left their homes to save the next generation. “The children are barefoot and have no clothes,” said one Syrian mother displaced within her own country after running from the bombs being dropped on her home. “We just saved their lives, nothing else.”

Portraits of Rohingya refugees who were victimized because they are part of the Muslim-minority in Myanmar and fled their homes for refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. They provided testimony to USC Shoah Foundation.

 

A Repeated Question

What can we learn from history? It is an often asked question and one that has many answers. But, it certainly has been proven that telling one’s own story gives agency, a kind-of power over experience, and an opportunity to be a voice for the future.

Stephen Smith, the executive director of USC Shoah Foundation, has a theory about this; a theory that has resonance as early November of 1940, a year after World War II began when a secret archive was founded in the Warsaw Ghetto by a man named Emanuel Ringleblum, a Polish Jewish historian. The archive, named the Oyneg Shabbas, was an effort to collect artifacts and stories of ghetto life under the Nazi regime. Victims in the ghetto, of all ages and artistic abilities, from different political parties, of different religiosity and ideology, clandestinely recorded their story. They risked their lives to write essays and diary entries, to draw pictures, and collect relics of their persecuted life because they understood what they were experiencing; they knew they were victimized because they were Jewish. They watched their story of persecution as they lived it, knowing they were history themselves.

“These primary sources, the written accounts in real time left from past generations, encourage an important question,” Smith says. “If all of what we know now about the Holocaust was available then, would we have done anything about it? If Emmanuel Ringleblum, rather than documenting with pen and paper, had a cell phone that could get information outside of the ghetto walls, would it have changed the fate of the Jews of Europe? If the world could have seen, in real time, the inhumanity of the Holocaust, would policies and public opinions been different? It’s a consequential question. Wars and conflict still rage, genocide still exists, and the technology is here.”

“If you look at the what happened during the Holocaust and how you might apply that learning today, we could act much more quickly and much more definitively,” believes Smith. “We could make decisions that put us on the right side of history.”

Wars have long narrative arcs and they are in many cases cloaked in clever rhetoric. Oftentimes, the surrounding violence makes it hard to know whether violence towards a group are civilian deaths or genocidal deaths. “Genocide generally speaking is usually guised as war or takes place in the theater of war,” explains Smith. “It could be a substrate of it, or it could be the main objective and the war is actually the substrate. It depends how you look at it.”

By interviewing victims of mass atrocities, and by looking at the lessons learned from the more than 55,000 testimonies of survivors and witnesses of past genocides already in its archive — USC Shoah Foundation is hoping to understand if collecting such testimonies can help decrease the chance of genocide.

“We know that when situations occur where mass atrocity is a possibility and as the stakes become higher between the belligerence, the likelihood for civilians to be heard goes down dramatically,” says Smith. “Because it becomes about news cycles. It becomes about diplomatic intervention. It becomes about military intervention. It becomes about warlords and leaders and ideology, but the fate of the individual completely disappears. And what happens is individuals then only appear as statistics.”

The Institute’s current conflict collections are relatively new and include testimonies from survivors of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, The Civil War in South Sudan, the crisis in the Central African Republic, the Yazidi women and refugees from Northern Syria, and the most recently added, Kurds fleeing Syria into Northern Iraq.

During conflict, victims and refugees become statistics, counted either in the number of alive and displaced or in the number of dead. The Institute is working to disrupt that reality. The idea is that if a system can learn to identify the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing, then that information can help policy makers to make better decisions. “Why shouldn’t policy makers actually speak with and hear from someone who is right in the middle of the situation, right from the middle of the conflict zone,” says Smith. “Beamed straight into their security council meeting the next day or even the same day.”

Using testimony to impact policy is a significant goal. Storytelling gives one the power to shape their own narrative, to tell their perspective, to preserve their culture, and to help protect the next generation.

A Rwandan Genocide Survivor, a Holocaust survivor and a refugee from Northern Syria give their testimonies to USC Shoah Foundation.

 

This past fall, Smith, together with Drew Kabbe, a filmmaker and ex-military videographer with experience producing in war zones, traveled to Northern Iraq to collect testimonies from Syrian refugees who fled to the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq after American troops withdrew from Northern Syria in October 2019; the withdrawal made way for a Turkish military operation and an increasingly threatened situation for the Kurdish people of the region.

“We arrived two weeks after the phone called between Trump and Erdoğan,” said Smith. “That was a political and diplomatic moment in history where whatever the conversation was between those individuals, the state of play on the ground changed as a result of that phone call, as a defining moment.”

Wasy Mustafa Moshe

Wasy Mustafa Moshe speaks to USC Shoah Foundation from the Gawilan Refugee Camp in Iraq. Wasy, his wife and daughters all fled from their home in Syria and lived in a makeshift camp at a school, before arriving at Gawilan.

Smith and Kabbe flew into Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-October. “The day that we were driving from the airport, towards the border where we knew that this refugee camp was, we passed the American troop carriers coming out,” Smith remembered. “There are layers of bureaucracy to get into a refugee camp and there is good reason for it. These refugees have just turned up from the middle of nowhere and no one knows if they are ISIS. They could be infiltrators pretending to be a refugee. So, everybody has to get screened. Everything has to be secure. Nobody trusts anybody. These people are hungry, they’re tired, they’ve got kids. They don't have a roof over their head. They haven’t got a mattress. They haven’t got water. And then a bunch of people are turning up with cameras and saying oh, can I listen to your story.”

Kabbe arranged for Smith to conduct the interviews and speak with authorities in the region. He also arranged for security, not only for themselves, but for the individuals sharing their stories. For everyone involved in the testimony collection process, danger was a recognized, and very present reality. They all believed however, the importance of sharing the stories and getting them out to the wider world was worth the risks.

Both history and current conflicts teach us that there is a risk in telling one’s story in real time during war; this is true for the victim’s emotional state of mind as well as their physical existence. We know that Jewish victims documented their life with urgency during the Holocaust. They collected what they could touch. They drew pictures of each other and authored books in their head. They risked their lives to take photographs. They buried things for the future and put their present in the context of their past. They knew that the slightest policy change would completely destroy their lives and understood that documenting it could in many cases be a death sentence.

Shirin Mustafa

Shirin Mustafa speaks to USC Shoah Foundation after escaping from her home in Syria. Shirin and her family of seven are now internally displaced, living in a makeshift shelter in a school.

Storytelling during current conflict is a different version of the same threat, and that risk is increasingly out of one’s control with the advent of social media. “The people that are in war zones and in areas where atrocity might be occurring are highly endangered and you might put them in further danger with your presence,” said Smith. “They could be highly reluctant to share their story with you because their home was bombed three days ago or they ran for their life two days ago, or their husband was killed five weeks ago or they were raped six weeks ago. When the stakes are literally life and death, the camera can actually tip it in the balance of death. So, one’s image is a very dangerous thing. And one’s word is even more dangerous.”

The testimonies collected by the Institute are not advocacy and are not commercial journalism; they are stories recorded in a pursuit of understanding the circumstances of a group of people. They serve the purpose of preserving history and expanding our understanding of the realities of genocide and mass violence. “I would like to see a research methodology that compares rhetoric, regardless of language, to build up knowledge about the language of victimization so we can know when a situation is genocidal by what the victim says,” says Smith. “So, if victims of a certain conflict start using words like rape, mass killing, sexual assault, fear, anxiety, whatever it might be, in response to specific questions developed for their interview, then you can see instantly that you are dealing with crimes against humanity.”

Shafika Begum

Shafika Begum describes a massacre at her Rohingya village. On Aug. 30 of 2017, as part of a coordinated attack across the Rakhine State that had begun a few days prior, the Myanmar Army and local collaborators burned down dwellings and began gunning down inhabitants of her village, Tula Toli.

My grandmother gave her testimony to USC Shoah Foundation back in 1998; she was part of the Institute’s first collection: Holocaust survivors. Her memories were coated in decades of reflection and the stories of the generations that came before her were now in context of the ones that came after. Like so many of the survivors in the Institute’s Visual History Archive, she is filmed while sitting in her living room, surrounded by a life that resembles nothing reminiscent of a war or being a refugee. Everything around her is a vibrant part of her present — the shelves full of books, her paperweight collection, purchased art, and photographs of her grandchildren (like myself).

This environment is perhaps the biggest difference I see when watching the video testimonies from the survivors of genocides from the past and those facing victimhood today. The stories recorded of the past take place in a safe present — in warm homes, coated with certainty and security. The stories recorded in the present take place amidst a dangerous past — recorded in refugee camps and on desert floors during a crisis that is far from over. The stories recorded in real time, during a war, are ones where surviving is the goal, not the guarantee.

Rachael Cerrotti

Rachael Cerrotti is an award-winning photographer, writer, and educator. She is the creator and host of the We Share The Same Sky Podcast and has a forthcoming memoir by the same name set to be published in Fall 2021. You can reach her at: rachaelcerrotti@gmail.com.