Stories to Tell: Navigating Public and Private Memory in Oral Histories of Bangladesh’s Liberation War

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:30 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Samantha M. R. Christiansen, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
The legacy of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War includes a death toll ranging in the millions, countless more displaced into India, and claims of systemic rape and torture. Yet many of the details of the war are still contested and the events remain a site of continued renegotiation in the public memory for both nationalist and partisan purposes. While virtually everyone in Bangladesh has a story to tell about the war, the record is still sporadic, particularly in the rural areas. In 2004, as part of the effort to record the events of the war across the country, the Liberation War Museum of Dhaka, Bangladesh launched a program in which museum workers and researchers travelled to rural communities, presented an educational program on human rights and collected oral histories of the impact of the war on local communities. Based on extensive participant observation with the program in the field, this paper considers the project as a case study for the complications of collecting these histories. It reflects on the role of monuments and popular narratives in the accounts collected, the process of collecting oral histories within a pre-determined framework (in this case of trauma and human rights violations), motivations for claims on the historical record, the ethical implications of how such accounts are used, and ultimately, unsettling questions about the veracity of some of the accounts, along with consideration of whether the project itself is ethically obligated or prohibited from making such judgments.