The disappearing act

I came across a thought provoking article in the New Yorker magazine a few days ago by Nicholas Schmidle on the attempts at and problems of proving the Kosovo Liberation Army’s alleged organ theft scheme.

This story encapsulates much of the problems of historical research on bodies in Central and Eastern Europe, calling attention to a broader set of challenges. The last 20, 60, 100 years (take your pick according to the history of the country of your choice) have been tempestuous, to put it mildly, and the political stakes of basically everything we touch in our research is, without exception, high today. So how do you find out about the past of bodies in a region where borders have been moving with a rate that is difficult to keep up with, where neighbors waged battles to the last blood over issues hundreds of years old, and where the ways in which bodies are controlled, abused and destroyed have been so central to every regime that emerged and fell throughout the decades (including current ones)? How and when can memory be used as evidence? Who’s memory to begin with? And more importantly, how much can and should we take into account contemporary political agendas that might influence or even significantly shape how and what kind of memory is accessible to us? Not to mention the problem of physical evidence. Bodies disappear, get dismembered, turn to dust. How to prove undocumented physical violence, torture, medical mistreatment and murder that were committed decades ago? Contemporary examples remind us all too often how problematic bodies are as evidence, from legal procedures of medical malpractice through excessive police brutality to military prison tortures.

With all the unanswerable questions, though, the story of the possible organ harvesting in Kosovo and Albania is a reminder of how important the history of bodies in the region is. These are histories that do matter, without a question.

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