Reflections on the Struggle for Justice: Louis Bickford


As we look back on 15 years of ICTJ's work, we recognize that our greatest asset is the people whose knowledge, experience, and dedication made our contribution possible. To celebrate all who have been part of ICTJ’s story over the years, we asked some of our former colleagues to share their reflections and memories of moments that stand out: moments that throw the stakes of our work into sharp relief. In the weeks and months to come we will bring you their stories in Reflections on the Struggle for Justice.

First up: Louis Bickford, former Director of ICTJ’s Memory and Memorials Unit (2001–2009), reflects on testimony given during <a href="" target='blank">Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is 2002 and I am part of the audience listening to the testimonies of victims during the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings in the coastal city of Trujillo. For a day and a half, person after person sits down alongside the commissioners at a long semi-circular table in the front of the room. Each starts to tell his or her tale in a litany of repression, detention, torture, and death. Their manner of speaking in a quiet, steady cadence suffuses the venue with a subdued tone that is completely at odds with the brutal acts that they are describing. They are careful and disciplined in what they say. The air is thick with repressed emotion, contained and channeled by the procedural rules that preclude naming any perpetrators, given that they are not present. Then someone breaks the rules, thereby demonstrating the limitations of the proceedings.     Image removed.

Toward the end of the day, a small, dark-haired man took his seat at the table. He started his story much like the others had done: in a slow monotone, recounting the beginning of his ordeal in painstaking, almost banal detail. He had been detained by the military, but he did not know why. He had suffered awful deprivations and torture.

As he spoke, despite the oppressive atmosphere, he became increasingly agitated and animated. His voice grew louder, cutting through the silence. Inversely, as he became more expressive, he was fidgeting, as if his body was urging him out of his seat.

At last, his dark eyes blazing, he could no longer hold back. “I know who did this to me. I know him!” he thundered, jumping to his feet. “I see him in the streets!” He was anguished, pounding his fists on the table wildly. “I see him on TV!” He paused and took a deep breath, knowing now that he could not restrain himself any longer.

“His name is Colonel M…!”

In a heartbeat, the hush of the past two days was blown apart. Everyone looked at one another, gasping and whispering. The act of naming his abuser changed everything. In an instant what had previously been testimonial had become a demand for justice. The commissioners shifted uncomfortably in their seats, wondering what to do.

“That is my testimony.” The man slumped into his chair, spent.

Not long after the event, I spoke to one of the commissioners. He had been transformed by the hearings, he told me. At the beginning of the process, he strongly believed that giving victims a voice would lead to reconciliation in Peru. What he heard instead was a consistent appeal for perpetrators to be called to account. The commissioner realized that his ideas about reconciliation had been naïve. Testimony alone would never be enough.

*PHOTO: Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (John Riley/CVR)*