Truth and Reconciliation

In 2004, months before she was paralyzed in a car accident in Sierra Leone, Artemis Christodulou ’00 realized that everything she’d worked to collect over the past two years could disappear. All 83 pages of inmates’ essays from a Sierra Leonean prison, where many died without ever ;having been convicted; all 13 faces on a painting bearing a Sierra Leonean flag, looking to a future of good roads and streetlights; all of the stamps, poems, plays, and sculptures from combatants and civilians that had borne witness to the transition of a nation.

In a conversation with Yale English and Comparative Literature Professor Geoffrey Hartman, Christodulou discussed her work with Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. She was about to take a semester off from graduate school to run the TRC’s National Vision Project, an attempt to document the aspirations of Sierra Leone’s citizens for the future of their country, devastated by eleven years of civil war. The two wondered whether any archive of testimonies from truth commissions across the world existed. She ascertained that none did.

As she was about to leave for Sierra Leone for the last time, Christodulou laid the groundwork for establishing such an archive at Yale, contacting transitional justice experts and law school faculty. These efforts, and Christodulou’s respect for the individual stories of national tragedy, are at the root of Yale’s campaign to memorialize the global devastation of genocide, civil war, and internal oppression. Artemis Christodulou would not return to Yale, but her name, like these stories, is immortalized in the Artemis Project.

Etelle Higonnet ’00 LAW ’05 and Alexi Zervos ’99 LAW ‘05, two of the Project’s founding members, believe that the Project began in spirit, at least, in 2003, when they traveled to Sierra Leone with Christodulou to work on issues of transitional justice. Although Christodulou had already done similar work for the International Center for Transitional Justice as well as for truth commissions in South America and Indonesia, this first trip to Sierra Leone cemented her commitment to truth commissions and drew her back just one year later.

The accident happened in May 2004, while Christodulou was heading the National Vision Project in Sierra Leone with Zervos’s sister, Anthea. The two were driving from Makeni to a potential exhibition site in Freetown for the project, and they were soon evacuated to a hospital in Paris. While Anthea Zervos recovered, Christodulou remained in a coma, and when she awoke, she had suffered serious brain damage. It was about a month after the accident, remembers Higonnet, that her friends realized that Christodulou might not be able to make a full recovery, and Alexi Zervos, Higonnet, and Daniel Feldman GRD ’08 began to talk about creating an initiative at Yale to honor Christodulou and her work. When Professor Hartman told the students about his and Christodulou’s conversation about a universal archive, they found a focus for their project.

Since its official launch at a meeting of Yale librarians, faculty, and Christodulou’s former colleagues in June 2005, the Artemis Project has sought to create a central archive for materials collected by the world’s 25 truth commissions, organizations that pursue reconciliation after periods of internal conflict. It aims to publicly preserve both victims’ and perpetrators’ stories as a record of a history that might otherwise be too easily forgotten.

Because they document violent political transitions, the materials the Artemis Project seeks to archive are often at risk. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as someone setting a match to some boxes, and hundreds of testimonials are destroyed,” explains Julie Carney ’08, the Project’s current student director. “One of the central ironies is that these stories are told so that they can be on the historical record, and instead, they often end up in a basement somewhere.” While the National Vision Project was exhibited internationally, many TRC materials are now collecting dust in university storage rooms, and scores of other truth commission documents, which are never removed from their nations of origin, have met an even less certain fate. The Artemis Project seeks to prevent such losses by providing an online repository that will persist long after truth commissions consider their work complete—one that is accessible to everyone, from victims to human rights professionals.

“These documents should be available to the world; they are about crimes against humanity, not against Sierra Leoneans or black South Africans,” says Higonnet,. “Everyone should know and everyone should care about it.”

The challenge the Artemis Project now faces is how to ensure that these documents, which capture some of the most significant moments in global history, can remain permanently available without compromising the confidentiality of the individuals whose testimonials they exhibit. “These people have put their lives on the line, have risked everything, to tell the truth about the past,” says Higonnet. “The Artemis Project is about honoring truth commissions, and about honoring the people who testified, which is what Artemis wanted.”

Those invested in the Project also believe that it is also inexorably linked to the Yale community. “This is something that makes sense to do as a student, and as a student at Yale,” says Jessica Heyman ’07, a former student director. She attributes the importance of operating the Project through Yale to the resources of the Yale University Library and to the potential power of a Yale community made aware of wartime atrocities.  The Project now functions in two capacities: a Yale outreach branch that Heyman describes as “the Artemis Project student initiative” and the Artemis Project archive itself. So far, the organization has focused most of its work on the former. During the 2005-2006 school year, the Project hosted two international conferences, one with truth commission managers and archivists and the second with journalists from nations undergoing political transition. In spring 2006, the Project received a grant to host a speaker series with truth commission scholars and organized an undergraduate political science seminar on truth commissions.

The archive itself is still in the process of materializing; its structure will be finalized this December. “It has been a very slow process,” Carney explains. The Artemis Project’s student participants have met with members of the Human Rights Project to discuss the Project’s archival practicalities—how materials should be digitized, how they should be solicited. This fall, the Artemis Project used grant funding to hire a consulting archivist from the Yale University Library, who conducted a research trip to Peru and Sierra Leone in November. The information she gathered about truth commission documents in these countries will soon be synthesized into a report that will be shared with the Artemis Project committee, as well as with archivists working on similar projects at other institutions. “Examinations of the kinds of records that were generated by both commissions, and how they have been preserved and made available since the work of the commission was completed, will provide us the information we need to deliver them digitally to the research community,” explains Christine Weideman, the deputy director of Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library.

The Project’s website is similarly in flux, with most of the links still under construction. Students are still debating the benefits of several different models for the digital archive. Among them is one that Heyman refers to as a “YouTube for human rights,” where contributing countries can simply upload digitized documents to a central database. Another is known as the “S.W.A.T. team approach,” which would be operated by emissaries sent by the Artemis Project to work alongside locals to help digitize documents on site.  Both models respect the autonomy of the contributing truth commissions, a priority of the Project’s founding members that has persisted over the last three years.

In 1999, Human Rights Watch had already recorded tens of thousands of deaths, over 3 million displacements, and untold numbers of rapes and abductions during Sierra Leone’s eleven- year civil war. These numbers would swell over the next three years, but amidst this strife and turmoil, the nation took its first step toward healing by establishing a peace treaty between the government and the rebel forces. The peace treaty created the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear witness to the slaughter and wrongdoings of the previous decade. Even as the country moved forward, it was determined to remember its past.

In December 2003, the TRC asked Christodulou, who had worked as a researcher for the Commission for several months, to launch its National Vision Project with her friend Anthea Zervos, By the time Christodulou discussed the lack of a universal archive for truth commission documents with Professor Hartman, she had already accepted the job. As a student of comparative literature, Christodulou was focused on literature as it related to communal memory, and it was this interest that compelled her to continue her work for the TRC. Christodulou and Zervos began by fundraising together in New York City, and then traveled to Sierra Leone to start their field work in earnest. The idea was simple, says Zervos: “You cannot change anything until you can first imagine it, until you can imagine a better future.”

The TRC ultimately published three volumes of findings in 2007, comprising not only documents from the National Vision Project’s collection, but also recommendations, timelines, stories, and a list of victims. Christodulou’s 2003 research for the TRC and the images she collected for the National Vision Project in 2004 feature prominently.

As Christodulou’s friends strive to bring the Artemis Project to life, the Project’s namesake retains a palpable influence. “Her work, her emphasis on culturally sensitive responses to atrocity, and her unbridled enthusiasm for helping people she had never met before directly motivated the Project,” Feldman says.  “I’ve often said that if the accident hadn’t occurred, Artemis herself would have led this project and would have undoubtedly achieved far more than we have in three years.”

Still, says her father, “Now, we have a different Artemis. We can’t pretend it never happened.”

After returning to America, Christodulou stayed in a care center in Massachusetts for almost three years. Although she remains paralyzed and unable to speak, she was finally able to move home this September. Her family has specially outfitted a room with a lift, seating frame, and other equipment now necessary for her daily life. Some days she is well enough to spend up to an hour reading friends’ e-mails and updates, often about Sierra Leone. “She likes reading about this part of her life; she really enjoys that she did something that did good for humans. That part of her hasn’t changed,” her father says. “I feel that she understands this, that she remembers. I know she does.”

The Christodulous now devote their lives to Christodulou’s comfort. Because she requires constant supervision, they stay awake with her on nights when the full-time caretakers they’ve hired fail to show up, help her exercise under the direction of a physical therapist, and drive her to the mall sometimes for a change of scenery. Most recently, she returned to Massachusetts General Hospital for an operation to lengthen a tendon in her left elbow that her father hopes will allow her to rest her hand rather than keeping it clenched to her chest; now, she is grappling with both the pain of the surgery and a constant nausea left by the anti-inflammatory she was prescribed. The doctor suggested that Christodulou take Motrin with milk instead, to ease the pain, but her father doesn’t think it will solve anything. “Every day she keeps crying, and every day we get some new medicine to help her,” he says.

He wonders if she might be grieving her mental limitations as well as her physical pain. “Sometimes she can remember the past. When I talk to her, she closes her eyes and I can tell that she’s following the conversation, but a few minutes later, it’s gone,” he explains. “Such a mind like she had, how can so much be lost? It’s so unbelievable. It’s so painful.” Christodulou had a 3.87 GPA at Yale, he says. She was a candidate for the Marshall and Rhodes scholarships. She spoke English, French, Greek, and German fluently, and during her time in Sierra Leone, she was able to pick up Krio.

Most importantly, while she worked for the TRC, Christodulou made genuine contributions toward national reconciliation. Her father recalls the stories she told him of enemies who had been brought together by her work, who’d once hated one another and were now communicating. Part of what drew Christodulou to truth commission work was her determination to preserve a full spectrum of perspectives. Unlike courts, which are more focused on reparations, truth commissions catalogue perpetrators’ perspectives as well as victims’, and while court testimonies are often closed to the community, truth commissions intend to immortalize the stories they uncover in the public record.

The loss of such materials is irrevocable. In a nation such as Sierra Leone, with an estimated adult literacy rate of just 35 percent, the pieces collected by the TRC represent the only voice many citizens had in the healing process. “People who had nothing gave everything—their time, their resources, their energy, to this restoration of Sierra Leone,” says Zervos, who believes it is impossible to overestimate the testimonies’ significance to the country’s future. “People could not look forward without looking back. The conflict has entirely shaped people’s ability to think about the future.”

At Yale, these stories have permanently shaped the students who have worked to preserve them. Unlike many student causes, the Artemis Project remains integral to many of its members’ lives. Alexi Zervos describes himself as an “unofficial advisor” to the Project, while Higonnet says that she is in constant e-mail contact with current particpants and library staff. Feldman still contributes to reports and grant statements produced by project members. “It’s almost addictive,” says Heyman who is continuing her work for the Artemis Project in Sierra Leone. The founders, many of whom have also had the opportunity to work for truth commissions abroad, are motivated by the significance of the individual stories they’ve encountered, those pieces of history catalogued and sometimes lost in the process of making amends. “They are the history, these untold stories that haven’t been written in textbooks,” says Carney. “They are a way for a society as a whole to move forward.”

According to Heyman, everyone who participates in truth commission work has heard at least one story that sticks. She encountered hers in 2005, when she was working for the post-genocide National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda. The man whose story touched Heyman the most deeply, she says, had come home from his job at a Muslim radio station to find his village slaughtered. “It seemed almost theatrical, the way you’d ask someone a question and get such a horror story in response,” she says. “Someone works late for a day and comes home to find their entire family dead behind a latrine, or that they are the only one left alive in their village.” After the reconciliation, the man, a member of the Tutsi ethnic group victimized during the genocide, became engaged to a Hutu woman. “His priest asked him, ‘Do you really trust this woman? She’ll kill you in your sleep,’” Heyman remembers. The two married regardless, and he now works as a journalist for the BBC. “He faced a lot of opposition in practicing his own reconciliation,” she says.

Higonnet’s story comes from the time she spent in Sierra Leone in 2003, working for a special court with Alexi Zervos and sleeping beside Christodulou under a single spotty mosquito net. Although many of Higonnet’s experiences in the court are bound by confidentiality, she is plagued by the memory of what she calls the “signature atrocity” of the Sierra Leone civil war: the legendary “amputations” performed by the Rebel United Front, one of the warring parties.

The rebels cut off their hostages’ hands, arms, noses, lips, ears—tactics that typified the sheer brutality and lasting impact of the war. Higonnet describes arriving in Sierra Leone for the first time and being driven past an amputee camp where she saw even the smallest children victimized by the war. “It was heart-wrenching,” she says. When she and Christodulou walked past, they were unsure where to look—they worried that staring would make the residents self-conscious, but wondered whether ignoring them would be worse.

When Christodulou focused her TRC research on these amputations, Higonnet asked her how she managed to grapple with such devastating tragedy, day in and day out. “Tears welled up in her eyes, but she didn’t cry,” Higonnet remembers. “She just said, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”

All of the Artemis Project’s founding members tell similar stories chronicling Christodulou’s incredible dedication. Although her father used to ask himself whether he and his wife should have stopped their daughter from returning to Sierra Leone, whether he could have prevented the accident, he now realizes that nothing they could have done would have stopped her from doing the work she thought was important—she was too touched by the tragedies she’d encountered to do anything but help.

“It’s hard to describe how enormously vibrant she was,” Alexi Zervos muses. “She had this enormous passion for the truth commissions, and for the victims. She was simply inspirational.”

Like the truth commissions she was committed to, Christodulou tried to heal nations with stories. Ironically, her own story has become just one of the countless individual tragedies the Artemis Project is determined to remember.

For everyone involved, says Zervos, “This project is important because it bears her name.”