The Reappeared: Argentine Former Political Prisoners

 

The Reappeared presents a short but insightful study of the experiences of those who survived political imprisonment and torture during the years of Argentina’s dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. The author has conducted ethnographic research among a small but organized group of such survivors in one town – Córdoba – and provides valuable insights into both the experiences of individuals and of the group as a political organization marginalized within the human rights community. This in-depth study provides, therefore, both a unique perspective on the social, psychological, and economic repercussions of surviving such atrocities, and on the contested and political nature of transitional justice and human rights organizations in “post-transitional” Argentina (Park 2013: 6).

This study is packed with insights and details that illuminate current debates in transitional justice literature. The survivor’s group studied, for example, provides a new perspective on existing debates regarding whether and why individuals identify as victims or survivors and how they operationalize these identities for recovery and for making claims on transitional society, speaking to work by authors such as Christopher Colvin who has written about the Khulumani group in South Africa. How people identify is a central concern for the individual members of the survivor’s group in Córdoba who identify themselves not as victims of torture and imprisonment, but as those who were left standing; the victors in a violent political struggle. Park’s work, therefore, can contribute significantly to scholarly understanding of such dynamics.

At the same time, the study also sheds light on the intricate association between the victim and perpetrator labels and the socio-political impact of those labels both for individuals and organizations within transitional societies. Park’s unique contribution here is found in the ages, identities, and geographical location of the individuals studied.  They differ so much from those discussed in the literature focusing on the complicated relationship between victim and perpetrator identities and labels; most commonly discussed in relation to forcefully indoctrinated child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa.  Her data is valuable in that  it allows her to describe the negative social, economic, political, and personal impact of the collaborator label, and to address the awkward position of each individual vacillating in their instrumental appropriation of one label or the other given shifting needs and contradictory contexts.

Further, Park expands her analysis of social labels more than many other studies, describing not only its evident importance for the individual survivors, but also its political implications for the survivor’s organization in Córdoba. As she describes, survivors of imprisonment and torture were labelled initially as having given up their comrades who did not reappear. As a result, those who did reappear were initially stigmatized.  Groups of such survivors were marginalized within the broader community of Human Rights Organizations and excluded from funding and other government support. One of Park’s most significant contributions is, therefore, her analysis and description of the political struggle to overcome this marginalization and to gain access to the same rights and privileges as other human rights organizations.

However, Park’s study is most impressive, particularly in her use of her data within her prose, in her discussion of the longer-term social, psychological, relational, personal, and even physical repercussions of imprisonment, torture, and “internal exile” (Park 2014: 110).  Her fieldwork and close personal connections to her subjects has provided detail rarely seen in the transitional justice literature.  Her ethnography points towards this multi-dimensional nature of victimhood and the need for holistic justice. As such, her work adds real substance to transitional justice debates and can very helpfully complement ongoing discussions that have only started to illuminate the complex nature of victimhood and, thus, of everyone’s needs for justice or of concepts of justice among the diverse affected communities on the ground in transitional states.

Indeed, this brings me to the last substantive contribution of Park’s work that I will address; her very helpful articulation of what she calls “post-transitional justice” (Park 2014: 6). This is also the title of the final chapter of the book, and the study as a whole builds quite organically to her conclusion. Transitional justice must itself be reconceived if the negative repercussions of imprisonment and torture expand across domains (social, psychological, relational, personal and physical), and these repercussions are often not fully felt until much time has passed.  Perhaps transitional justice should be detached from simplistic notions of temporally bounded transition from conflict to peace or from authoritarianism to democracy. This argument is clearly related to arguments within the literature regarding delayed and intergenerational justice, but the way Park’s nuanced ethnographic data builds and supports her conclusion is unique and very powerful.

There is much, therefore, to recommend this book to anyone interested in transitional justice. It is a concise and compact presentation of extremely interesting data described very clearly and in a manner which should be easily followed by undergraduate students while also providing some distinctive contributions that should be valuable for scholars. The one area where I would criticize the author is in failing to fully make the case for her own contribution to the larger literature. The book neither provides the ethnographic heft of other recent work of a similar vein such as Kimberly Theidon’s Intimate Enemies or Veena Das’s Life and Words, or connects firmly enough to the various substantive debates I have tried to connect it to above.

In failing to more deeply and reflexively describe the relationship between her findings and those of Colvin, of Theidon, of Das, or of recent work regarding the contextual, temporal, and constructed nature of justice in post-conflict societies such as in Shaw and Waldorf’s Localizing Transitional Justice or Quinn’s Reconciliation(s), Park fails to draw out the theoretical and practical implications of her findings and in some ways, does a disservice to her subject and her own scholarly efforts. But this is quite a flattering critique, in that I would have liked to see Park build further on her already engaging and powerful work and connect more actively to ongoing debates.

Gearoid Millar, University of Aberdeen

Park, Rebekah. The Reappeared: Argentine Former Political Prisoners. Rutgers University Press, 2014. Read more at Rutgers University Press. 

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