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A cat-and-Maus game: the politics of truth and reconciliation in post-conflict comics

  • Henry Redwood (a1) and Alister Wedderburn (a2)


Several scholars have raised concerns that the institutional mechanisms through which transitional justice is commonly promoted in post-conflict societies can alienate affected populations. Practitioners have looked to bridge this gap by developing ‘outreach’ programmes, in some instances commissioning comic books in order to communicate their findings to the people they seek to serve. In this article, we interrogate the ways in which post-conflict comics produce meaning about truth, reconciliation, and the possibilities of peace, focusing in particular on a comic strip published in 2005 as part of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report into the causes and crimes of the 1991–2002 Civil War. Aimed at Sierra Leonean teenagers, the Report tells the story of ‘Sierrarat’, a peaceful nation of rats whose idyllic lifestyle is disrupted by an invasion of cats. Although the Report displays striking formal similarities with Art Spiegelman's Maus (a text also intimately concerned with reconciliation, in its own way), it does so to very different ends. The article brings these two texts into dialogue in order to explore the aesthetic politics of truth and reconciliation, and to ask what role popular visual media like comics can play in their practice and (re)conceptualisation.


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1 Hazan, Pierre, Judging War, Judging History: Behind Truth and Reconciliation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 8.

2 For a list of current and historical TJ initiatives, see the Transitional Justice Database, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018.

3 Clark, Phil, Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Forges, Alison Des and Longman, Timothy, ‘Legal responses to genocide in Rwanda’, in Stover, Eric and Weinstein, Harvey M. (eds), My Neighbour, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 56; Rachel Kerr and Jessica Lincoln, ‘The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Outreach, Legacy and Impact’ (2008), pp. 3–6, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018; Uvin, Peter and Mironko, C., ‘Western and local approaches to justice in Rwanda’, Global Governance, 9:2 (2003), pp. 219–31; Gready, Paul, ‘Analysis: Reconceptualising transitional justice: Embedded and distanced justice’, Conflict, Security and Development, 5:1 (2005), pp. 321.

4 Peskin, Victor, ‘Courting Rwanda: the promises and pitfalls of the ICTR outreach programme’, Journal of International Criminal Justice, 3:4 (2005), pp. 950–1.

5 Kerr and Lincoln, ‘The Special Court for Sierra Leone’, p. 6; Clara Ramírez-Barat, ‘Making an Impact: Guidelines on Designing and Implementing Outreach Programs for Transitional Justice’, Working Paper, International Center for Transitional Justice (2011), p. 6, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018).

6 Peskin, ‘Courting Rwanda’, pp. 950–61; Ramírez-Barat, ‘Making an Impact’; Kelsall, Tim and Sawyer, Edward, ‘Truth vs. justice? Popular views on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone’, The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, 7:1 (2007), pp. 3668. One exception is Kerr and Lincoln, ‘The Special Court for Sierra Leone’, esp. pp. 9–14.

7 Nussbaum, Martha C., ‘Form and content, philosophy and literature’, in Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 5, emphasis in original.

8 Cf. Shapiro, Michael, ‘Textualising global politics’, in Shapiro, Michael and Derian, James Der (eds), International/Intertextual Relations (Lexington: Lexington Press, 1989), pp. 1122; Moore, Cerwyn and Shepherd, Laura J., ‘Aesthetics and international relations: Towards a global politics’, Global Society, 24:3 (2010), pp. 299309.

9 Mohamed Sheriff and Elvira Bobson-Kamara, TRC Report: A Senior Secondary School Version (hereafter SSSV), illustrated by Simeon Sesay (2005), available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018. See also the ICTR's 100 Days in the Land of a Thousand Hills, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018.

10 Hansen, Lene, ‘Reading comics for the field of International Relations: Theory, method and the Bosnian War’, European Journal of International Relations, 23:3 (2017), p. 582.

11 Grayson, Kyle, Davies, Matt, and Philpott, Simon, ‘Pop goes IR? Researching the popular culture-world politics continuum’, Politics, 29:3 (2009), pp. 155–63; cf. Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 5.

12 Chute, Hillary L., Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 4.

13 The literature on the so-called ‘visual’ and ‘pop cultural’ turns is large and varied. A range of approaches and examples can be found, however, in Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics (London: Routledge, 2018); and in the ongoing Popular Culture and World Politics book series from Routledge.

14 Danchev, Alex and Lisle, Debbie, ‘Introduction: Art, politics, purpose’, Review of International Studies, 35:4 (2009), p. 775.

15 ‘Cultural governance involves support for diverse genres of expression to constitute and legitimise practices of sovereignty, while restricting or preventing those representations that challenge sovereignty.’ Campbell, David, ‘Cultural governance and pictorial resistance: Reflections on the imaging of war’, Review of International Studies, 29:1 (2003), p. 57; cf. Shapiro, Michael J., Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject (New York: Routledge, 2004).

16 Möller, Frank, Visual Peace: Images, Spectatorship and the Politics of Violence (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), pp. 1920.

17 SSSV.

18 The comic has no official title because it is incorporated within the SSSV. We call it Sierrarat here for the sake of convenience.

19 SSSV, pp. 5–11.

20 On the relationship between narrative and temporality, see Ricoeur, Paul, ‘Narrative time’, Critical Inquiry, 7:1 (1980), pp. 169–90. For an analysis focused specifically on the ways in which narrative and time manifest themselves in comics, see Groensteen, Thierry, Comics and Narration (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013).

21 In seeking to interpret the visual production of meaning, we draw on discourse-analytical techniques. These are applicable beyond the study of language because, as Linda Åhäll points out, ‘the way we interpret the world is not limited to spoken or written words’. Åhäll, Linda, ‘Affect as methodology: Feminism and the politics of emotion’, International Political Sociology, 12:1 (2018), p. 43; cf. Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (London: SAGE, 2001), pp. 135–86.

22 Cf. Groensteen, Thierry, The System of Comics (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007), p. 10.

23 This section largely draws on the history of the conflict provided in Ainley, Kirsten, Friedman, Rebekka, and Mahony, Chris, ‘Transitional justice in Sierra Leone: Theory, history and evaluation’, in Ainley, Kirsten, Friedman, Rebekka, and Mahony, Chris (eds), Evaluating Transitional Justice: Accountability and Peacebuilding in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 2015), pp. 118.

24 Ainley, Friedman, and Mahony, ‘Transitional justice in Sierra Leone’, pp. 9–10.

25 Ibid., pp. 9–13; Kelsall, Tim, Culture Under Cross–Examination: International Justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 2530.

26 Millar, Gearoid, ‘“Our brothers who went to the bush”: Post-identity conflict and the experience of reconciliation in Sierra Leone’, Journal of Peace Research, 49:5 (2012), pp. 722–4.

27 Ibid.; Kelsall, Culture Under Cross-Examination, p. 30.

28 Millar, ‘“Our brothers who went to the bush”’, p. 725. See also Denov, Myriam, ‘Wartime sexual violence: Assessing a human security response to war-affected girls in Sierra Leone’, Security Dialogue, 37:3 (2006), pp. 319–42.

29 Dougherty, Beth, ‘Searching for answers: Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, African Studies Quarterly, 8:1 (2004), p. 41.

30 Ibid., p. 42.

31 Kelsall, Culture Under Cross-Examination, p. 31.

33 Ainley, Friedman, and Mahony, ‘Transitional justice in Sierra Leone’, p. 11.

34 Ibid.; Chris Mahony and Yasmin Sooka, ‘The truth about the truth: Insider reflections on the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, in Ainley, Friedman, and Mahony (eds), Evaluating Transitional Justice, p. 39.

35 Mahony and Sooka, ‘The truth about the truth’, p. 39.

36 Dougherty, ‘Searching for answers’, pp. 39–44.

37 Mahony and Sooka, ‘The truth about the truth’, pp. 38–9.

38 Rosalind Shaw, ‘Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Lessons from Sierra Leone’, United States Institute of Peace Special Report (2005), pp. 7–8, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018; Dougherty, ‘Searching for answers’, p. 46.

39 See also Clara Ramírez-Barat, ‘Engaging children and youth in transitional justice processes: Guidance for outreach programmes’, International Centre for Transitional Justice (2012), available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018); SSSV, p. 4.

40 SSSV, p. 4.

43 As Hillary Chute points out, ‘graphic novel is often a misnomer. Many fascinating works grouped under this umbrella – including … Maus, which helped rocket the term into public consciousness – aren't novels at all: they are rich works of nonfiction’ (emphasis in original). Chute herself suggests the term ‘graphic narrative’. We use the term ‘graphic novel’ here for clarity and familiarity's sake. Chute, Hillary, ‘Comics as literature? Reading graphic narrative’, PMLA, 123:2 (2008), pp. 452–65; cf. Gordon, Ian, ‘Making comics respectable: How Maus defined a medium’, in Williams, Paul and Lyons, James (eds), The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), pp. 179–93.

44 Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus (London: Viking, 2011), pp. 22–3, 293. Spiegelman began taping his conversations with his father Vladek in 1972, in which year he published a short comic about the Holocaust (also called ‘Maus’) in an Apex Novelties ‘one-shot’ called Funny Aminals [sic]. Art Spiegelman, ‘Maus’, in Crumb, Robert et al. (eds), Funny Aminals (San Francisco: Apex Novelties, 1972), pp. 911.

45 For the sake of clarity, we use ‘Spiegelman’ to refer to Art Spiegelman the author, and ‘Art’ to refer to Art Spiegelman the character within the text.

46 Hirsch, Marianne, ‘Family pictures: Maus, mourning, and post-memory’, Discourse, 15:2 (1992), pp. 329; see also Young, James, At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

47 Young, James, ‘The Holocaust as vicarious past: Art Spiegelman's “Maus” and the afterimages of history’, Critical Inquiry, 24:3 (1998), pp. 666–99.

48 Ibid., pp. 672–5. For a discussion of ‘closure’ – the interpretive work required to extract meaning from a series of static, usually demarcated panels, see McCloud, Scott, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 6093. As Hillary Chute similarly argues, ‘Maus demonstrates how the vocabulary of comics – the narrative shapes its grammar offers – along with its visual surface, the extrasemantic layer of its drawn lines, conveys information while at the same time accounting for the excess (or absence) of signification and reference.’ Chute, Disaster Drawn, p. 178.

49 Stassen, Jean-Phillipe, Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2000); Sacco, Joe, Safe Area Gorazade: the War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992–1995 (Seattle: Fantagraphic Books, 2001); cf. Boge, Chris, ‘Crimes against (super)humanity: Graphic forms of justice and governance’, in Giddens, Thomas (ed.), Graphic Justice: Intersections of Comics and Law (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 219–35; Jérémie Gilbert and David Keane, ‘Graphic reporting: Human rights violations through the lens of graphic novels’, in Giddens (ed.), Graphic Justice, pp. 236–54; Jorenby, Marnie K., ‘Comics and war: Transforming perceptions of the other through a constructive learning experience’, Journal of Peace Education, 4:2 (2007), pp. 149–62.

50 SSSV, p. 5.

51 The circumstances surrounding Maus’s publication can be found in Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 76–9.

52 Spiegelman, Art, The Complete Maus (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 201.

53 For example, as outlined and discussed by Möller, who explores the visual politics of ‘entertainment’ media – including comics – to debates about spectatorship and the witnessing of war and atrocity. Möller, Visual Peace, pp. 163–77.

54 SSSV, p. 119.

55 Dillon, Michael, ‘The sovereign and the stranger’, in Edkins, Jenny, Persram, Nalini, and Pin-Fat, Véronique (eds), Sovereignty and Subjectivity (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1999), p. 117.

56 Richmond, Oliver P., ‘Introduction’, in Richmond, Oliver P. (ed.), Palgrave Advances in Peacebuilding: Critical Developments and Approaches (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), p. 2.

57 Millar, ‘“Our brothers who went to the bush”’, p. 724.

58 Ibid., pp. 724–5.

59 SSSV, pp. 42, 110–12.

60 Honwana, Alcinda, Child Soldiers in Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 69; Brits, Pieter and Nel, Michelle, ‘The criminal liability of child soldiers: In search of a standard’, Journal of Psychology in Africa, 22:3 (2012), pp. 467–72.

61 Leaning, Jennifer, Bartels, Susan A., and Mowafi, Hani, ‘Sexual violence during war and forced migration’, in Martin, Susan Forbes and Tirman, John (eds), Women, Migration, and Conflict: Breaking a Deadly Cycle (London: Springer, 2009), pp. 173–99; MacKenzie, Megan, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp. 110–11; Ben-Ari, Nirit and Harsch, Ernest, ‘Sexual violence, an “invisible war crime”’, Africa Renewal, 18:4 (2005), p. 1.

62 SSSV, pp. 93–5.

63 Cf. Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 113–14.

64 Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, pp. 171, 201–05.

65 Spiegelman, MetaMaus, pp. 119–20.

66 Chute, Disaster Drawn, pp. 117, 156.

67 Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, p. 111.

68 Ibid., p. 296.

69 SSSV, p. 9.

70 SSSV, pp. 9–11.

71 SSSV, p. 4

72 This was acknowledged by the SLTRC report itself, which commented on ‘the … mutual failure of the [two] institutions to harmonise their objectives’. Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Witness to Truth: Report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Vol. 3B, p. 430, available at: {} accessed 16 July 2018.

73 Kelsall and Sawyer, ‘Truth vs justice?’, p. 38. While the relationship between the SLTRC and the SCSL remained murky in this respect, what is key is that much of the population (and especially perpetrators) feared that testifying at the SLTRC could lead to prosecutions at the SCSL. Kelsall, Tim, ‘Truth, lies, ritual: Preliminary reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone’, Human Rights Quarterly, 2:2 (2005), p. 381.

74 Shaw, ‘Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’, p. 8; and Shaw, Rosalind, ‘Memory frictions: Localizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, International Journal of Transitional Justice, 1:2 (2007), pp. 193–5.

75 Anderson, Rachel, ‘Compromise without virtue: Male child soldier reintegration in Sierra Leone’, in Brewer, John D. (ed.), The Sociology of Compromise After Conflict (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), p. 181.

76 Kelsall, Culture Under Cross-Examination, p. 383.

77 Shaw, ‘Memory frictions’, p. 195.

78 Millar, Gearoid, ‘Local evaluations of justice through truth telling in Sierra Leone: Postwar needs of transitional justice’, Human Rights Review, 12:4 (2011), pp. 524–30.

79 Although the comic portrays Ratabu's reconciliation with his daughter, who has been a ‘bush wife’ to multiple soldiers during the conflict (a role that has also involved bearing their children), it is notable that the process by which this reconciliation occurs is a confessional public hearing (‘I must know the truth … you have to tell me the truth. I need to know.’) that in many ways mirrors the TRC itself. SSSV, pp. 94–5.

80 McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 30.

81 Ibid., p. 36, emphasis in original.

82 Spiegelman, MetaMaus, p. 149.

83 Cf. Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, pp. 112, 211, 220, 228, 230.

84 Ibid., pp. 102–05, 160–1.

85 Ibid., p. 149.

86 Ibid., p. 176.

87 Spiegelman, MetaMaus, p. 154.

88 Cf. Chute, Hillary, ‘“The shadow of a past time”: History and graphic representation in Maus’, Twentieth Century Literature, 52:2 (2006), p. 213.

89 SSSV, p. 10.

90 Edkins, Jenny, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 40.

91 Hutchison, Emma, Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions After Trauma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 41.

92 McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 67.

93 Foucault, Michel, This Is Not A Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p. 28. We would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing this passage to our attention.

94 Möller, Visual Peace, pp. 170–1; cf. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 63.

95 SSSV, p. 81.

96 Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, p. 296.

97 Ibid., pp. 102–05.

98 Ibid., p. 201.

99 Clark, Distant Justice.

100 Chute, Disaster Drawn, p. 34. The text quoted within her quotation is from Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 5.

101 Groensteen, The System of Comics, p. 10.

102 SSSV, p. 4.

103 PositiveNegatives, available at: {} accessed 24 January 2019.



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