Appendix 4, Part 1: Memorials and Transitional Justice


Memorials and Transitional Justice
Artemis Christodulou1


1. One of the key elements of transitional justice involves understanding the needs of survivors of mass atrocity and human rights abuses.  Victims and their families often demand action on a number of transitional justice goals, including accountability, truth-seeking, the distribution of reparations, and the prevention of future abuses.  In addition to all these goals there is very often a demand and a need for remembrance.

2. The significance of remembering the past – its control and its potential – is underlined by the fact that the struggle for control over the national or ‘collective’ memory lies at the heart of post-conflict or post-authoritarian accountability policies.  Many survivors, advocates of democracy, and members of the human rights community are offended by efforts by new regimes to create an “official story”, a state-generated narrative about the past. Important questions arise about how victims will be remembered, what will be taught in schools, and whether the many and unique voices of survivors will continue to be heard.  Control, in other words, of mechanisms for remembrance affects not only the ways in which we look at the past, but also the ways in which we encounter the present and the ways in which we approach the future.

3. One unique and versatile mechanism for remembrance is the memorial.  In the context of transitional justice, memorials serve as prisms through which to see past, present and future.  Memorialising is a social and political act that encompasses not just the memorial itself, but also the process of creating the memorial, the creation of the memorial and the continued engagement with the memorial -- the concerns and questions it raises about the past, the examination of whether these concerns continue to exist in the present and the consideration of how the causes for such concerns may be eliminated in the future.  On an individual and national level, the process of memorialising helps the survivor and the nation to work through psychological trauma.  In many cases, the very act of public acknowledgement of suffering contributes significantly to the healing process.  Such forms of acknowledgement play an even more significant role in African societies, where the individual is largely defined by the place (s)he occupies in the community2.  This memory function of a memorial should, however, not be separated from other transitional justice goals.  For a successful memorial, remembrance lies at the centre of a network of transitional justice goals central to survivors of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, such as truth-seeking, prevention of future abuses, reparation and reconciliation.

What is a Memorial?

4. Memorials are representations of people and events that occurred during earlier historical periods.  As representations of the past, they lie at the intersection of the historical, political and aesthetic axes.  Memorialising therefore necessarily involves the subjective interpretation of people and events and the challenge of translating those interpretations into visual narratives, finally also to be subjectively interpreted by each visitor.  Memorials exist in almost every human society and form an integral part of the landscape of collective memory.  They help define and construct a shared notion of the collective experience, imagination and self-definition of a people.

5. Though memorials have traditionally come in the form of statues honouring past war heroes, they need not conform to this prototype; in fact, modern forms of memorialisation are increasingly emphasising that memorials need not be tangible, stationary, infused with one particular meaning and commemorative of the positive aspects of a nation’s history.

6. Built public memorials, unconstructed memorials and commemorative activities comprise the three basic types of memorials.  Built public memorials include statues, grave sites, memorial walls and museums.  Unconstructed or found memorials become infused with memorial content and include street signs, older museums that have become sites of contestation, sites of genocide, or entire cities as in the case of Dresden, Hiroshima and Auschwitz.  Commemorative activities include dates and anniversaries, protests scheduled for certain times, street theatre, and memory tours.

What is the Potential of Memorials?

Truth-Seeking and ‘Never Again’

Cartoon by the South African cartoonist ‘Zapiro’.3

7. Though memorials have traditionally come in the form of statues and plaques commemorating war heroes and great national museums celebrating a nation’s cultural patrimony, memorials are increasingly being conceived as challenges to rather than as bulwarks of dominant discourses of collective memory.  This movement is intimately linked to the moral imperative of ‘Never Again’.  Whether it be remembering the Holocaust in Germany, recalling human rights abuses under dictatorship in democratising societies such as Argentina, memorialising the victims of Apartheid in South Africa, or fighting the memory of wrongs perpetrated by the United States, confronting the past through the creation of memorials is increasingly seen as an essential element to democratising in the present and the future.

8. Memorialisation of sites of mass atrocity is one of the most powerful ways to engage in truth-seeking/telling and never again.  Such memorialisation turns the very same tools employed by oppressive regimes against them:  it turns of the tools of the oppressor into the evidence of the oppressed.  Through the memorial, the regime is exposed and the space violated by the oppressive regime is once again reclaimed.  Examples of such memorialisation include Robben Island in South Africa; The Tuol Sleng Museum in Cambodia and Villa Grimaldi in Argentina.

9. By serving as a prism through which to examine past and present and to prepare for the future, memorials create a public space for lasting dialogue.  Emphasis on dialogue has led the critic James Young to favour the process of memorialising to the memorial itself:

“It may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution.  In fact, the best German memorial to the Fascist era and its victims may not be a single memorial at all – but simply the never-to-be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name and to what end” (The Texture of Memory, 21).

10. Dialogue need not, however, be confined to the planning stages of a memorial and the creation of a memorial should not, if successful, mark the resolution of an individual’s and a nation’s engagement with memory.  Continued dialogue around the issues raised by the memorial serves both as an assurance against forgetting – what may contribute to the recurrence of past abuses – and as an assurance against the creation of a state-sponsored narrative promoting one particular political agenda.


11. One of the most complex transitional justice goals is reparation.  Referring to memorials as a form of “public, official acknowledgement”, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report argues for the significance of symbolic reparation:

“Recommendations on reparations are also wider in scope or more holistic than those customarily awarded as damages in successful civil claims.  Such broad recommendations include the provision of symbolic reparations to victims, such as the continuing public, official acknowledgement through monuments, living memorials, days of remembrance and so on.  In addition, as part of the Commission’s general commitment to reparations, some interim reparations were provided in the course of its work.  For example, in cases where (through the amnesty process) the bodies of activists killed and secretly buried by the security forces were discovered, the Commission assisted families with official and dignified burials.  These kinds of reparations emphasise the importance of placing individual reparations within a wider social and political context”.

12. The old and new style war memorials in Greece demonstrate how individual reparations may be placed within a ‘wider social and political context’.  There, memorials of the ‘new type’ including the names of the communist fallen in World War II were erected in more recent years near memorial plaques of the ‘old type’, on which the names of the communist fallen had intentionally been omitted.

13. By stimulating an on-going dialogue necessary for building and sustaining a peaceful, democratic society after long periods of violence and repression, memorials may serve as catalysts for social change.  District Six in South Africa was a working class community declared a “whites-only” area under the Group Areas Act of 1966.  The creation of the District Six museum, which aimed to reconstruct the original community bulldozed for the purposes of what was euphemistically called “slum clearance”, inspired a conversation about land rights that eventually lead to the District Six Land Court.


14. Insofar as memorials bring people together, such public spaces may promote reconciliation between enemies.  At Perm-36 in the former Soviet Union, the only Soviet political camp still standing and now developed as a memorial museum, former political prisoners are invited to meet museum volunteers and tell them about their experience in the camp.  Former prison guards are now working on the restoration of the camp, and former guards, prisoners and volunteers participate in discussions and seminars on the history of political repression and human rights issues.

15. By virtue of the past, memorials may effectively address the present.  In an effort to promote dialogue and an exchange of ideas not only between the past and the present but also between different constituents in the present-day garment industry, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City invited people working in all sectors of the garment industry to share their responses and their own experiences as the exhibit was being physically built.  They invited garment workers, inspectors, designers, labour organisers, human rights organisations and others to consider the efficacy of the exhibits focusing on immigrant narratives from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Participants were also asked to compare the problems thematised in the exhibits to those facing the industry today and to jointly discuss possible solutions.

Civic Engagement

16. There is an important citizenship role in memorials that is often lacking from high-level strategies that risk alienating those they seek to help by complex legal or bureaucratic procedures.  There is more public resonance in an accessible and enduring public space than in a lengthy piece of statistical analysis of human rights violations.  Statistical analysis is clearly of great importance (not least in its contribution toward increased understanding of conflict patterns and outcomes) but the objective nature of figures and facts ignores the visceral emotional complexity that is at the heart of transitional justice.  ‘Memory’ in its simplest form should not be overlooked in favour of complex and sophisticated, goal-driven accountability strategies.

17. The success of a memorial should be measured by the reactions it provokes:  by civic debate, dialogic effect, educational value and the response of constituent groups of stakeholders, including victims and their families, perpetrators, civic society (schools, artists, NGOs), government and other tourists.  Whether the memorial promotes a physical interaction on the part of the visitor with the monument – as in the case of Gerz’s Counter-Memorial in Harburg on which visitors were asked to write with a stylus – or an interpersonal interaction on the part of the visitor with other visitors or with his community, memorials have the potential to encourage an engagement with memory and to incite to action.

18. The AIDS quilt is an excellent example of a memorial that drew civic engagement on a large scale.  An idea that germinated among a small group of strangers in San Francisco in 1987, the AIDS quilt is made up today of 44,000 individual memorial panels, each one commemorating the life of someone who has died of AIDS, sown together by friends, lovers and family members.  This quilt, whose creation cost each individual panel sewer less than a dollar, has raised over $3 million for direct services for people with AIDS and has become the largest community art project in the world.  Perhaps most effectively, its nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 underlines the impact that a memorial infused with meaning may have in the area of human rights and justice.

Memorials and Sierra Leone


19. A Monuments and Relics Commission was founded in Sierra Leone in 1947 to “identify, preserve and manage the Historical and Cultural heritage of the country”4.   To date, eighteen monuments have been declared by the Commission.  The mandate of this body has, however, not been able to save many of these monuments from neglect, decay and destruction, much of which results from the decade-long civil war.  Memorials were also created during this conflict.  After the NPRC coup in 1992, working class youths in Freetown created patriotic art in the form of wall paintings, cement sculptures, public monuments, and road-side decorations in support of the revolution5.  Towards the end of the conflict, Peace Pals Education Network Sierra Leone sponsored the creation of a ‘peace pole’ in Freetown on which Sierra Leonean youth painted messages of peace.  Most recently, the so-called ‘Slaughter House’ in Kailahun District is apparently being considered as a national memorial to the war6.  The National War Memorial Committee, launched two years ago largely as a result of support from President Kabbah, has recently finalised plans for a national memorial to the war to be erected in Freetown.

20. There is great interest in the creation of memorials in Sierra Leone both on an individual and on an organised and national level as is evident from the response to the presentations made by the TRC to local and international human rights activists, members of government and the diplomatic corps, the National War Memorial Committee, religious representatives, leaders of youth groups, victims, perpetrators and academics between May and July 20037.

     Establishing Successful Memorials in Sierra Leone

21. Establishing a successful memorial in Sierra Leone requires the integration of traditional and cultural methods of memorialisation into the more generalised scheme presented above.  From discussions with Sierra Leoneans, the Commission raises the several observations for consideration.

22. Sierra Leoneans emphasised that they are a hopeful people who like to remember the positive and not dwindle on the negative.  Emblematic of this fact is that in many districts the dead are buried outside the town and that the area where they are buried provokes general fear.  A stone is usually brought back to town from the area of burial to signify that the spirit of the dead person will not be forgotten.  That stone is then placed in a small shrine that houses the spirit tokens of other deceased.  In other words, the positive aspect of an event generally perceived as negative, is preserved.  In creating new memorials, ideas should be discussed that would honour this scheme:  perhaps through the reclamation of space once violated through the conversion of a site of mass atrocity into a school, a museum or a law court.8

23. While memorialising should honour traditional and cultural methods, the magnitude of atrocities and human rights violations committed during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war makes this conflict a unique event that requires unique treatment.  The raw violence and trauma of an event such as this that affects every stratum of society over an extended period of time cannot and should not be forgotten.  Rwandans faced a similar dilemma after the genocide of the 1990s; despite their strict traditions demanding that the deceased be buried, they chose to create sites of genocide where the bodies of the dead are on display as evidence to the world of the reality and devastation of their civil war.

24. Many Sierra Leoneans underlined the high levels of illiteracy in the country.  They emphasised that a public work around which to gather and discuss would serve as an excellent vehicle of sensitisation upcountry, where literacy levels are significantly lower than in Freetown.  Another innovative method of circumventing the problem of illiteracy is a combination of memorialisation and theatre.  Theatre is one of Sierra Leone’s most popular art forms and it is another effective vehicle through which to address the past and examine how past issues fare in the present.  Commemorative activities, centred on theatre productions, could take place on an appointed day on a site of particular importance (a massacre site, etc.).  The theatre could then be interpreted in light of the site on which the production takes place.  Public forums could follow the production in order to remember and inspire conversation about the past, the present and the future.

25. Many Sierra Leoneans mentioned that trust was imperative in the reconciliation process, but that, in the absence of direct trust between two people, a third party, whom both persons trusted, could mediate that trust.  The third party ideally represents something in which both parties have a stake and to which both parties are loyal, such as a common tradition in the form of a paramount chief.  Memorials may serve as such a mediating force in so far as they represent something that will be made up of the community’s past, that will, once created, be part of the collective landscape of the community, and that will reflect on the community in the present and in the future.  Examples of memorials serving as mediating forces are the Museum at Tuol Sleng in Cambodia and Robben Island in South Africa where former guards and prisoners now serve as tour guides and hold seminars together.

26. Sierra Leoneans referred to the deliberate destruction of old memorials representing ideologies not reflective of current views.  Destruction is the default option for dealing with a memorial with which people no longer agree.  While it may be an easy option, it distorts the visual landscape of collective memory and forecloses dialogue that could raise awareness around the issues represented by a memorial – all this in favour of a monolithic view.

27. An interesting example of an innovative way of engaging with now out-dated memorials is the Park of Arts in Moscow.  Beaten-up statues of former Soviet leaders were collected together in this park, which now also includes a café.  Younger artist have begun to respond to these old statues with their own memorials that also claim their space in this garden.  Though the old memorials no longer fulfil their original function, they continue to raise the issues around the ideologies for which they stood – they inspire conversation and raise awareness around totalitarian regimes of the past and of their legacies in the present.

28. One of the most astounding ideas for a memorial came from some of the key stakeholders in the conflict in Sierra Leone: the perpetrators. A group of perpetrators spoke of a memorial in which perpetrators would leave imprints of their hands on a cement wall erected in a public space (maybe around the Cotton Tree) signifying a tacit agreement with themselves, with other perpetrators and with the nation and the world that they will never use these hands again to pick up a weapon and strike a fellow human being.  Such a memorial brings together many of the most powerful aspects of memorialisation. It incorporates civic engagement among key stakeholders (perpetrators and, through the agreement, victims, future generations and other humans) and links the past (their history in the conflict) to the present and to the future (their agreement to not pick up arms again).  Problematic in this idea is possibly the fact that amputation was one of the key war-time violations of the conflict.  Interestingly, some amputees to whom the Commission spoke were nonetheless excited by the idea.  Before any plans go forward, a forum would ideally be created in which perpetrators may speak with victims, and specifically with amputees, about the efficacy of such a memorial.  The forum itself would serve as a powerful space for healing and reconciliation.

Concerns about establishing memorials in Sierra Leone

29. A number of concerns surfaced during the meetings held by the Commission.

30. Many emphasised that Sierra Leone does not have the financial means to create memorials.  A memorial is not created with money.  As the final cartoon above (“I am a monument!”) indicates, a memorial cannot declare its existence, neither through the individual declaration of a group nor through an investment of large amounts of money can a memorial become successful.  As one activist put it, “It’s not just how the sites speak to our understanding but how we help people speak to each other about what the places mean to their lives.  That’s what’s transformative”.  One of the most successful memorials, if we can judge the success of a memorial by its healing powers, by the amount of international attention it receives, by the amount it sensitises about the issue it presents, and by the amount of international funds it raises for its purposes, is the AIDS quilt.  The quilt consists of over 44,000 panels – that means, over 44,000 people were involved (and probably at least double that number since one person sews the panel but many more discuss it). Over $3 million in funds raised and a nomination for the Nobel Peace prize are the results of a quilt that cost each individual sewer a small amount to purchase enough yarn for a panel – and maybe some needles.

31. In connection to the above concern about expending money, and in this case also energy, some Sierra Leoneans asked about the prudence of creating a memorial instead of focusing on more tangible reparations.  While tangible reparations may alleviate some quotidian struggles of an individual, the trauma of an extended and especially violent war cannot automatically be removed through financial support.  Furthermore, even if it could be enough, the amount of money necessary for the full alleviation of quotidian struggles will most probably not be available to Sierra Leoneans.  Memorialisation helps an individual to come to terms with the event through a working through that may result from the process of memorialising and through discussions that may be held around the memorial.  As mentioned above, the very act of public acknowledgement of an individual’s suffering contributes significantly to the healing process, especially in African societies, where the individual is largely defined by his/her place in the community.

32. Memorial reparations should, however, not be isolated from tangible reparations, as the example of the District Six Museum indicates. The creation of the District Six museum inspired a conversation about land rights that eventually lead to the District Six Land Court, through which original residents of District Six were granted land claims.

33. Some Sierra Leoneans were under the impression that only a limited number of memorials should be created (perhaps even just one).  Memorialisation does not focus on the memorial itself but rather on what can be derived from the memorial and what purposes a memorial can serve for a community.  Even if a memorial is not built, this does not mean that the effort was not worthwhile – and, even, successful9.  Insofar as a memorial can inspire dialogue, effect change (especially as concerns democratisation and the promotion of human rights) and promote healing and reconciliation, there should be no limit on the number of memorials that can or should be built.

34. Many Sierra Leoneans asked who should decide when, where, for what purpose and what kind of memorial should be built.  Incorporation of stakeholders into the creation of a memorial is essential; in the context of transitional justice, it is exactly the amount and quality of civic engagement produced around a memorial that will be the measure of its success.  Stakeholders include all those members of society that have a stake in the memorial being considered.  In the case of memorials to the conflict in Sierra Leone, stakeholders include victims, perpetrators, their families, residents of the area where the site will be built, members of government, members of NGOs, businessmen, tourists and younger generations.  The incorporation of these stakeholders in the process of memorialisation creates a forum for the exchange of views around the issues for which the memorial will stand; it also ensures against alienation from the memorial that might occur, as in the case of the Trojan Horse Monument in South Africa, when stakeholders were not consulted10.


1 Artemis Christodulou, a PhD student from Yale University, was an intern at the TRC during 2003.  In May 2004 she returned to Sierra Leone to promote the National Vision for Sierra Leone.  While returning to Freetown from Makeni she was seriously hurt in a car accident.  At the time of writing Ms Christodulou remains in a coma with severe brain damage.  The Commission pays tribute to the selfless dedication that Ms Christodulou gave to the people of Sierra Leone.  Her work on amputations, memorials and the National Vision for Sierra Leone has advanced the cause of peace and reconciliation in Sierra Leone.
2 Handicap International psychologist, Emilie Medeiros, has underlined this defining factor of Sierra Leonean society in her analysis of the impact of amputations in Sierra Leone.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chairperson of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, refers to this aspect as part of the African Weltanschauung:  “In the African Weltanschauung a person is not basically an independent, solitary entity.  A person is human precisely in being enveloped in the community of other human beings, in being caught up in the bundle of life.  To be…is to participate”.  Country of My Skull, Antje Krog (London 1998): at page 110.
3 Jonathan Shapiro
4 Vistas of the Heritage of Sierra Leone.  Principal of FBC and Curator, Sierra Leone National Museum (Freetown 2003).
5 See “Ecstatic Renovation!”:  Street Art Celebrating Sierra Leone’s 1992 Revolution.  Joseph A. Opala (Freetown 1994).
6 As the name indicates, the Slaughter House is allegedly the site of one or more massacres.  There is still, however, some question about whether the red stains on the walls of this building are indeed human blood.
7 Official presentation venues included:  the Sierra Leone State House, the Conference on Recommendations of the SLTRC (National Forum for Human Rights, Law Reform Group, ICTJ), the Conference for Youth Serving Organisations (UNICEF), the National War Memorial Committee and the TRC.  Artemis Christodulou made the presentations.
8 Constitution Hill in South Africa is a new mixed-use project at the centre of which lies South Africa’s new Constitutional Court.  The Court is housed on the site of Johannesburg’s Old Fort Prison, a prison that became notorious for its harsh treatment of detainees during Apartheid.
9 Since 1987, when the German TV hostess, Lea Rosh began campaigning to build a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany has been caught up in a huge debate about the appropriate memorial.  Some 15 years after the original proposal, Eisenmann’s memorial is still not built.  In its stead, however, lies the Topography of Terror– an exhibit originally thought of as temporary.  Despite – or perhaps because of – this intense controversy, this memorial has become a huge success.  Because of the great public debate produced in Germany and, to some degree, around the world, most Germans have been consistently confronted with the historical issues and their implications along with the question of appropriate commemoration for the past decade and a half.  Competitions are sponsored intermittently; most notably, the summer of 2003, the students of Communication Design in the Art High School of Weissensee in Berlin organised the exhibition “Assaults”, displayed on the Topography of Terror Exhibit.  The theme of this exhibit, facing the Topography of Terror, but now on ground level, is right extremism, racism and marginalisation in Germany today. 
10 Athlone, a coloured township outside Cape Town, had been a site of community resistance to apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.  In August 1985, 8,000 people marched to nearby Pollsmoor Prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Police clashed with demonstrators. Over the next two months, police violence resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Countless others were injured and there were more than 300 arrests. A State of Emergency was declared in early October, 1985.  Eleven days later, in what has become known as the Trojan Horse incident, police fired directly into a crowd of about 100 people on Thornton Road in Athlone.  Three people were killed including an 11-year old boy.  The Trojan Horse memorial is an example of the default option when building a memorial since the major stakeholders were not consulted.  The closed process of building the memorial has lead not only to ill-feeling about it, but has also disillusioned many for whom the memorial should have been of great importance:  the victims and their families.