On December 15, 2014, the one-year anniversary of South Sudan’s first national conflict since independence, a group of South Sudanese volunteers announced a tribute to the deaths of South Sudanese civilians during the country’s violence. The memorial, digitally displayed in a PDF document titled “Naming the Ones We Lost–South Sudan Conflict: 15 Dec 2013 to the present day,” is a modest object. Its organizers’ two-page introduction precedes a 15-page chart, five columns across, that lists the names lost to mass violence. The names in question, listed in alphabetical order, currently number 572; for each of the dead, where possible, the chart also provides an approximate date of birth, and a location and date of death. The document’s single medium, Calibri text, is the default font of a Microsoft Word document, from which the PDF was likely created; the memorial contains neither photographs nor video, nor archived testimonies of the victims’ experience. The memorial’s organizers acknowledge, with somber resignation, that its list of names “will inevitably grow” as the country’s stubborn violence continues into 2015 and beyond.
South Sudan’s civil society boasts a large following, a decades-old global diaspora of refugees, humanitarian workers, diplomats, and activists. Since mid-December, the country’s memorial document has circulated, mostly online, among this global community. In some posts, those sympathetic to the recent suffering of South Sudan’s civilians simply offer condolences; others, such as the Boston-based World Peace Foundation, present the volunteers’ memorial as a case study in the collective remembrance of mass violence. In her post about the memorial, the Foundation’s research director Bridget Conley-Zilkic approvingly describes the document’s basic ethos: “[Memorialization] offers its most profound contribution when it absolutely refuses generalization, when it issues an exhortation, across the vast terrain of mass atrocities, to return to the loss of one person, whose loss is infinite.” For Conley-Zilkic, the cautionary lessons of remembrance are clear. Only through our quiet witness to past lives can the mass tragedies of others occupy our common present. The names, former occupations, and locations of the dead are the sole objects that grant remembrance meaning. The so-called “living memorial,” like the moral exhibitions of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Kigali Genocide Memorial, “forgets more than it remembers.”
For those that refuse generalization, the moral consequences of South Sudan’s mass violence are confined to the country’s local boundaries, even as the immediacy of the violence recedes, and knowledge of its destruction passes from one place to the next. Nowhere is this clearer than in the memorial’s basic design, a PDF file. Like the moral memory of its subjects, the document’s memorial is fixed to a specific time and stored in a specific place. The content of this PDF file cannot be edited by those who read it, and can only be tweaked by its creators. In its current form, the document recalls no more than the 572 deaths now listed. A single additional name, confirmed and collected by the project’s volunteers, requires a fully new document, a new memorial. The file will be different, as will the memories its names evoke.
The appeal of the local, artificially preserved, is undeniable. In tragedy, we cherish that which is closest to us. Faced with mass violence, even from afar, we desire no less intimacy for its survivors than we offer our own. Even the most universal memorials to human suffering display smaller, more local tokens of devastation. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a three-story tower of family photographs segments the museum’s core exhibition. The collection commemorates the death of the Jewish community of Eisiskes, which along with two other Lithuanian shtetls was fully destroyed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen in June 1941. The photographs recall the multitudes of the villagers’ daily lives: where their children learn, and their parents work; how the villagers feast, and how they fast; how they pray, and how they mourn. On the museum’s top floor, the photographs are followed by a somber glass footbridge. The footbridge walls list the villages that, like Eisiskes, vanished amid the myriad violence of the Holocaust. This is Conley-Zilkic’s “vast terrain” of mass violence, infinite in the singularity of its suffering. All, one village and hundreds alike, refuse generalization.
In late December, I accompanied my grandmother and younger brothers to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in downtown New York. I have always approached the events of September 11, 2001, at an uncomfortable distance. A New Yorker by birth and habit, I was on a class trip in rural Connecticut the morning the towers fell. By contrast, my grandmother was married in New York the following day; for her, as for so many New Yorkers, the memory of September 11 abounds with love, for an injured city, and loss. The Memorial Museum is a remembrance of this loss, of the emptiness and uncertainty that afflicted New Yorkers then, and has afflicted so many other Americans since. The museum sits in the underbelly of the fallen towers, down the street from the cavernous fountains that now take their place. Its core exhibition recalls a concrete catacomb. It is peppered with artifacts of a pre-9/11 era: free-standing New York guide maps, a disassembled fire truck, severed parts of the buildings themselves. In one section, the multi-story slabs that line the central ramp feature images of missing persons. Surrounding the photos are passports and state IDs–bits and scraps of these persons’ lives, easily forgotten.
On the museum’s basement level, a separate section hosts a collection of the dead, like the yahrzeit lists that line the walls of my synagogue further uptown. Some victims, presumably those with generous families, have mementos on display, tokens of the normalcy of their pre-9/11 lives. Others only have a name, accompanied by the grey silhouette of an anonymous human. As the visitor walks through the collection, an audio recording of each victim’s name resounds in the background. Each name is preceded by a singular noun: “my father,” “my son.” The speaker’s possession implies the victim’s singularity amid the 2,751 others. But it also reinforces the common experience behind each name: to each mother, a daughter.