The second week of the enquiry has just ended, somewhat abruptly (because a witness did not appear), and will take a break until February. The last few days have seen some witnesses clearly overcome by emotion as they recalled and retold harrowing stories. The most telling instances involved women retelling their seeing close relatives whom they thought had been killed brutally by soldiers or police. It sounded painful and when the women broke down into tears and the enquiry had to be halted, it was clear that a limit had been reached. I noted the Commission chair and some of the professionals exhale and felt they had had enough too. But, as we move back into the difficult area of the real trauma that was Tivoli in May 2010, it’s clear that deep feelings are having to be resurfaced.

Psychiatrists and linguists have spoken this week about the need to offer a therapeutic service to witnesses and to consider interpreters to help improve communication (a point I made in my blog post on December 3, Which minority is articulating and what are they saying?).

The issue of how people deal with trauma is complex, but over the past century, we have seen more clearly the impact that those who have been involved in physical combat (as participants and bystanders) have suffered. But, it’s not just combat, but altercations or tragic events that can lead to similar reactions. (I remember vividly my fears from living in areas of London where riots had been nearby, or areas where bombs had exploded, or places where awful crashes had occurred.) Soldiers, police, and civilians are all capable of suffering from their roles in such combative events. It’s not trivial and doesn’t get fixed by the passage of time. People need help and care. So far, little if any such help has been offered to civilians involved. I hope that the security forces have such support in place, but if not, we may get an idea of the psychological chaos that is building up.

One important observation to note is that such victims often do not like the idea that they are being accused of lying. One lawyer uttered the words this week and was hauled back. But, many are giving the strong implication that they think the witnesses are not being truthful, and this tends to bring forward defensive reactions and hostility. It’s been in evidence. Of course, it could be a tactic.

The break may give an opportunity to consider getting such therapy in place.

On the language matter, it brings forth again a conversation that is constant in Jamaica about the use and understanding of standard English. It’s a common assumption that speech indicates educational level and socioeconomic status, and a good command of standard English represents higher learning and status, in a simple sense. In professional areas, command of standard language can be used to distinguish people. For instance, the ‘common’ person has a worse command of it. That can be used for many types of positioning, and to highlight differences, sometimes to the detriment of those who are non-standard.

One thing we’ve seen in the enquiry is that the lawyers have begun to move their speech patterns. In part, that may be to deal with criticism that their language was hampering understanding. Funnily, the Commissioner has been good at bridging the language difference. Funny, because he’s a Bajan married to a Jamaican, so might have lived language confusion, not least between Bajan and Jamaican phrases, but also between the sometimes contrived and complex phrasing of lawyers and the simpler language of most people.

In some of the exchanges, we’ve seen the Commissioner lead and lawyers follow in trying to simplify. ‘Convoluted’ was one word that caused confusion. We had the near hysterical exchange between a witness who was talking about ‘rubbles’ and the lawyer who heard ‘rebels’ (as if a resident would characterize people that way?). What was disturbing was how the witness agreed to propositions that didn’t really make sense, if he meant rubble. That goes to an evident ‘power-distance’ relation, where people agree with those they see as in authority. The tendency to say “I put it to you…” tends to bring forward a yes. Watch out for this.

One young witness, also showed that seemingly simple stories can be confusing. She was asked how she knew certain people were soldiers. She answered that they came through a (secret) tunnel. She was asked (and the lawyer tried not to lead her) “What distinguished them as soldiers?” She looked blank. ‘Distinguished? What does that mean?’ was written on her face. Mention was made of clothes they wore, and she came up with uniforms, and then something about the colours. But, one has to ask how images that are clear to a person get translated to another. That’s the essence of language–sharing those images. Presumably, her view of what told her that they were soldiers was from where they came and maybe what they were doing, relative to residents in the area. Acceptable difference, though not the usual slant we expect.

Another language problem is the misuse of words. In many instances, say when people don’t know the correct word and have used another word, that doesn’t matter much. But, when in a some formal settings that matters, then the errors can be glaring. Similarly, with not paying attention to details. This morning a witness spoke about “10am”, then mentioned “10pm”, but looked puzzled when asked what happened at 10pm. It could be a simple slip, but could be a horrible mistake, and one has to wonder about the signed statements, some of which have been met with “That’s not what I said…”

All of that is enough to deal with. When you recall that people are still living with bullet-riddled homes, damaged furnitures, injuries that have either not been treated or not well-treated, missing friends and relatives. They also still live with the stigma that comes as part of the Tivoli area.

An unhappy episode that was and is yet to be otherwise.

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