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“We Are Not Like We Used to Be”:  Syrian Responses to Documentation, Truth, and Reconciliation

“We Are Not Like We Used to Be”: Syrian Responses to Documentation, Truth, and Reconciliation

The process of post-conflict reconciliation is understood to go hand-in-hand with truth-seeking and remembrance of human rights abuses, in the hope that they will not be repeated. In Syria, however, the process the government calls “reconciliation” is actually one of forgetting: returning refugees are required to fill out a form disavowing any past oppositional political participation in exchange for citizenship rights, while former opposition fighters are compelled to parade their loyalty to government forces. Concerted media disinformation campaigns have also distorted the factual record of the conflict and contributed to the polarized narratives that we see today. And, while the universal jurisdiction trials ongoing outside of Syria offer strategic and symbolic gains in shedding light on violations in Syria, they are no substitute for robust and inclusive truth mechanisms.

Under these conditions, how will Syrians ever be able to grapple with the events of the past decade and come to a shared understanding of the conflict? And how necessary is this kind of shared narrative for establishing the mutual respect and empathy needed to support a holistic justice program inclusive of Syrian victims across the political spectrum? As SJAC explains in its new report, “Truth Beyond Prosecution: Reassessing Documentation and Truth-Seeking in the Syrian Conflict,” the documentation of human rights violations still holds tremendous power to challenge preconceived narratives about the conflict. Furthermore, if collected and staged creatively, it can help facilitate a kind of reconciliation—one based as much on shared experiences as on a single, shared interpretation of the facts of the Syrian conflict.

These conclusions are based on field surveys and a review of the scholarship on and practice of documentation, truth-seeking, and memorialization by organizations within and beyond the Syrian context. While some research suggests that mutual social contact (and the pragmatic negotiation of everyday problems) may be more important for facilitating reconciliation than the ultimate shared acceptance of a single truth, there is still little knowledge about how documentation functions to change individual beliefs. Are certain modes of documentation (photos, testimonies, reports, etc.) more likely to lead people to change their minds? And are there other particular qualities of a piece of documentation that can make it more or less likely to sway an individual who would likely disagree with the implications presented?

SJAC sought to answer some of these questions through 40 qualitative surveys that it conducted with field support from Syrians for Truth and Justice. These surveys presented Syrians from a range of political backgrounds with different pieces of documentation of violations that occurred in the regions of Bayda and Hiffa in mid-2013; these were committed by forces aligned with the Syrian government and opposition, respectively. Field interviewers asked respondents a series of questions on whether and why they found the content and claims to be accurate, as well as questions relating to their media consumption.

The survey responses revealed that documentation can still lead to people radically revising their beliefs about both particular abuses and the broader nature of the conflict. This was exemplified by the response of a 30-year-old man who also self-identified as strongly pro-opposition and was unaware of the events in al-Hiffa, despite feeling well-informed about the conflict. “Having followed events since the beginning of the revolution I thought that there were only a few of these massacres,” the respondent said, “but now I know that what happened was in fact even more monstrous and cruel. The regime and the opposition both bear responsibility for what happened in Syria.” However, other respondents attempted to situate documentation relative to their own prior narratives, rather than shifting their narratives to match the documentation. A 26-year-old, pro-opposition respondent, for example, maintained that the groups accused of the Hiffa attacks were actually government-aligned. He speculated that the survivor may have been pressured by the government to narrate things as he did, and while “I trust the COI, I don’t think it had access to all the facts.” Finally, there were those who reacted to documentation in a hostile manner and rejected documentation when it contradicted their previously held beliefs. They often said that they did not trust the documenting organization, rather than provide any empirical assessment of the material itself. In the words of one 55-year-old, strongly pro-government respondent, “it was probably forces aligned with the opposition [that fabricated a video from Bayda] … [to] distort the facts and add to the chaos in Syria.”

With regard to the different types of documentation, some respondents were drawn to the details and perceived impartiality of reports while others valued testimonies, videos, and photos because they were captured at the scene of a crime or directly by survivors.  Respondents also had strong reactions to the documenters’ apparent credibility or perceived political associations. COI reports were most likely to be deemed “objective” because of the rich detail they provided. A 24-year-old, strongly pro-opposition respondent, for example, said that it was important that the UN Commission of Inquiry reports on both Bayda and Hiffa, provided the names of specific groups involved in the attacks, and were transparent about their process of documentation. On the other hand, a 40-year-old politically neutral respondent said that although “[the COI reports] gave many facts and figures, these aren’t necessarily totally correct as [the COI] ultimately relies on people’s estimating.” Relatedly, as one 46-year-old, politically neutral respondent put it, international actors like the COI were “useless in Syria. They did not lift a finger to stop what was happening, and for this reason, I can’t be convinced [by their documentation] … The international organizations helped inflame the situation in Syria.”

A significant and unexpected pattern of the survey responses was how frequently respondents described the documentation not as a way to understand the details of specific events, but rather as representative of the larger devastation of the Syrian conflict and the traumatic personal experiences of the conflict that were shared by Syrians across the political spectrum. Photos from Hiffa demonstrated for some respondents “how trivial this kind of slaughter became in Syria,” while testimony from Bayda provoked grief for how the survivor would “be able to live the rest of her life having seen things like this. How will she be able to sleep and even look toward the future?” A 35-year-old, politically neutral respondent felt that the most important aspect of the documentation was that it “made you understand better the destruction that we have gone through. It was not just the country physically that was destroyed, but also ourselves as people. We are not like we used to be.” Even some respondents who otherwise rejected documentation as a conspiracy or went so far as to rationalize the violations as a necessary political cost still expressed sympathy for the victims. A 49-year-old, strongly pro-government supporter who thought the Bayda massacre was a testament to positive political sacrifices nevertheless sympathized with the victim’s experience coping with loss (“may her husband rest in peace”).

Such reactions suggest that Syrian documentation organizations need to be equipped to engage with individuals who may not be prepared to reject their personal narrative of the conflict, but who are still willing to develop empathy for those with whom they disagree. In deeply divided societies, a shared language of loss is sometimes the first step to healing, even if the identity of specific perpetrators remains disputed. This can in turn create willingness for other justice processes, such as reparations programs for those most affected. As SJAC recommends in its report, while Syrian documentation organizations should continue to bolster existing documentation efforts for traditional truth-telling and accountability purposes, they should also pursue the new kinds of participatory research methods that have been developed outside the Syrian context. The latter could range from inter-generational conversation workshops and interactive exhibitions of individual memories of the Syrian conflict, to place-based community recollections of the personal and long-term impact of particular violations. By doing so, documentation organizations could better address the complex nature of Syrian responses to documentation and the problem of truth and reconciliation: on the one hand, they could develop more robust records of the conflict for more comprehensive justice programs; and the other, facilitate contact between Syrians of diverse backgrounds around the multiple experiences of the conflict, without necessarily producing the immediate acceptance of a single shared truth.


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