Human dignity in post-conflict spaces: oral history as a tool for peace

Caught in the violence of war in the mid 1990s, Bosnian Muslims became the victims of a brutal and bloodthirsty purge at the hands of Serbian forces. Murder, rape, plundering, and forced relocation on a massive scale ravaged the region, and the small town of Srebrenica became the site of the first genocide in Europe since World War II. During her visit to the Center, Selma Leydesdorff, professor of oral history and culture at the University of Amsterdam, gave voice to the women of Srebrenica in her lecture, “Surviving Genocide: The Women of Srebrenica Speak.”  

In a February 2019 interview, Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair of Peace Studies, spoke about why Leydesdorff was chosen to deliver the annual Hardt-Nickachos Peace Studies Lecture, and what is so important about her work.

Q: To start us off, what is oral history and what is its value?

A: Oral history is more than just a method that historians use to do research. Oral history allows us to open up new sites of investigation, giving voice to memories that more traditional, or state histories may not record. For one example, this approach creates avenues for unearthing mass atrocities that gives way to more efficient reconciliation processes. People’s voices educate us on systemic injustice, including underlying causes and show us how to rebuild healthy relationships.

Oral history also serves to include perspectives that may have been marginalized over time, shaking our historical consciousness and reinforcing the dignity of the human voice. This is important to peace studies because through human stories, people are able to connect and engage, advocate, contribute, and support the betterment of human communities.

Q: You selected Selma Leydesdorff, an oral historian, as this year’s Hardt-Nickachos Speaker in Peace Studies. What do you think is important about her work in shaping the future of peace?

A: Selma Leydesdorff’s work transformed her field and has made oral history an important tool for understanding trauma and post-war memories. Her work on the Holocaust and her more recent book on Srebrenica—which tells the survival stories of Bosnia women who were victimized in the war—allow people to come to terms with a violent history and have created pathways for living in peace between survivor communities. Her book on Bosnian women also provides an important critique of the silence and complacency about war’s violence and the politics surrounding it by governments and international agenices such as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.

History reminds us of the forgotten and in doing so, dignifies everyday people. This is necessary to continue building peace in our times. Leydesdorff inspires us to use history as a tool towards peace rather than using it as a medium that simply glorifies war.

Q: How does her work fit into Peace Studies as a whole?

A: Traditional history has glorified and narrated war as a pivotal tool for change, but Leydesdorff’s work focuses on the memory of people—the survivors’ memory—which celebrates life beyond violence. This approach reorients us as we think about peace: by capturing the lived history of ordinary people, we see that peace is a process in history, not merely an arrival. It provides an inspiring reminder that violence is never total; that underneath the debris of war, the human survives and can tell the story of resilience.