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Survivors tell their stories

Montrealers who survived horrific human rights abuses lend their voices to an unusual oral history project led by researchers from four Montreal universities.


Elizabeth Philibert was pregnant when she was shoved and beaten by a lackey of the Duvalier regime in Haiti in the 1970s. She is one of the survivors who has given her voice to an unusual oral history project, called Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations. The digital video project, centred at Concordia University, aims to revolutionize oral history by harnessing this ancient art to modern technology.

“Often, in oral history, there has been an emphasis on collection,” says Concordia history professor Steven High, the project’s co-director. “You interview people, you are moved by the experience, then you put the interviews on a shelf, and no one ever listens to them again.” In this case, the project leaders want to build an oral history archive that can be shared with the world.

Life Stories involves 40 researchers in 15 disciplines, from four Montreal universities – McGill University, Université de Montréal and Universitié du Québec à Montréal, as well as Concordia – along with 18 community groups. Researchers were assigned to a number of working groups, each with a mandate to interview survivors from a different human rights atrocity. One working group is identified as The Holocaust and Other Persecutions Against Jews. Others focus on the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.

The Concordia Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling took this on as one of its first projects. Both the centre and the project were launched in 2006 with a $1-million grant from the Community University Research Alliances program, or CURA, through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Dr. High says Life Stories fits perfectly into the centre’s mission: to provide cutting-edge, collaborative historical research using digital and computer technology.

Digital video transforms the reach and scope of oral history. The medium is far more permanent and more flexible than tape: it will be possible to disseminate the archive to scholars and survivors everywhere, over the Internet. “Now we are able to do things that were unimaginable when I started as an oral historian in 1988,” says Dr. High.

An open-source software called Stories Matter allows users to interact with the videotaped interviews, creating their own clips. A search tool lets readers find common themes and threads across all the interviews. The versatile tool also means historians can build their own oral history database.

Besides the technology it uses, Life Stories differs in its approach and methodology from many other oral history projects: it consistently focuses on the survivors, rather than the atrocity.
“A lot of testimony projects are premised on the idea that you interview people about what happened,” says Dr. High. “With the Life Stories approach, people are placed front and centre, and we’re interested in what the violence means in the context of their lives … and how this violence rippled through people’s lives, families and communities.”

In many cases, survivors are still struggling with the meaning of their experiences. “When I interview someone about the Holocaust, it is not something that they are explaining to me. Through the interview process, we are both trying to understand what happened,” says Dr. High. “These are unthinkable acts, unthinkable events.”

Interviews are conducted in the survivor’s mother tongue, then transcribed and translated into French. Interviews conducted in French or English are not translated. The interviews range from one hour to 25 hours, broken into multiple sessions. The archive, once completed, will comprise well over 500 interviews.

Displacement is the most common experience in all the interviews. For example, Montreal has the world’s third largest population of Holocaust survivors, behind New York and Israel. While most of the survivors fled events that have become part of history, others were forced to leave because of human rights abuses that aren’t as well documented.

Yolande Cohen, a history professor at Université du Québec à Montreal, is part of the Jewish working group. Her team at UQAM is interviewing members of Montreal’s Sephardic community, primarily French-speaking Jews who settled in Montreal from 1950 to 1980 after fleeing persecution in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Many were attacked, some by rock-throwing mobs, while others lived in an atmosphere of menace and intimidation. Dr. Cohen says that few of these people have had a chance to come to terms with their past.

“What struck me the most about the interviews is a common thread of denial and fear,” says Dr. Cohen. “Many of the people wanted to remain anonymous and were still afraid to speak out.

“This fear is very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder – often unspoken but expressed, for example, when people start to cry during an interview. It is a trauma which still haunts them 30 or 40 years later, but which they suppressed when they resettled in Montreal, and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened.”

In many cases, members of the working groups belong to the community they are investigating, blurring the line between researchers and their subjects. Annita Muhimpundu, a Tutsi who survived the Rwandan genocide, agreed to share her own experiences and she also is interviewing other people.

Ms. Muhimpundu says her parents sent her and her sister to Burundi in 1990. Her father had received threats, and, while the rest of the family fled to Kenya in 1994, her grandparents stayed behind. “My father went back to Rwanda, to find out what had happened to his father,” she recalls on the video.

“He found our home ransacked and destroyed, bodies everywhere. He found my grandfather[’s body] in his house. He collected bones and other things that he could find, and he was able to bury his father. My father really lost his whole family.”

Emmanuel Habimana, a Rwandan Montrealer and a psychology professor at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, says a common thread in the interviews is the issue of “what to tell your children,” especially about their grandparents. “In many cases, the grandparents were killed during the genocide, in terrible ways. Parents have a hard time knowing what to tell them, and at what age.”

Lisa Ndjeru, a Concordia graduate student and Rwandan working group member, never expected to interview relatives, including her own parents. “For people of my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, the violence [between the Hutus and Tutsis] started in 1959, and continued for decades. The year 1994 was when those conflicts came to a head.”

That is a universal theme of the project: placing genocide within a larger context, through the personal stories of people who were there. Ms. Ndjeru recalls one chilling anecdote recounted by an elderly Rwandan survivor.

“He was in church, and the priest was talking about Tutsis and warning that they are communists. He heard his name on the priest’s lips, and people were turning around to look at him. Suddenly, he realized that he was a target. That’s an experience in which the story of the individual clicks into the larger history.”

Excerpts from the interviews – being called Digital Stories – are available at the project website, as are radio documentaries, podcasts, member blogs and other resources.

This July, the interview phase will end, and scholars, community group members and others will be able to apply for a password to gain fuller access to the online database and its thousands of hours of videotaped interviews. (Information on how to apply will be posted on the website.)

Last March, the Life Stories team received another SSHRC grant to support these initiatives in several ways, including developing a curriculum for Quebec high schools. Team members plan to hold workshops across Canada for teachers, professors and community groups on the subject of teaching about genocide.

“July 2012 is not the end of our project. It’s a beginning.” says Dr. High. “We want to take what we’ve learned and share it all over the country and beyond.”

Sylvain Comeau
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