Book review – Maria Berghs’ War and Embodied Memory

War and Embodied Memory: Becoming Disabled in Sierra Leone

Maria Berghs


Ashgate Press, 2012

274pp., £60.00, hardcover


Berghs’ ethnography explores the construction of, and resistance to, the disability identity in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of both a violent civil war and the attempts at social reconciliation and reintegration that followed. In this context, the concept of disability emerges out of the establishment of state and international nongovernmental organization (INGO) programs and policies, while resistance arises from efforts by survivors of violence to organize and advocate on their own behalves. One of Berghs’ most important contributions in this ethnography is the attention she devotes to the struggle to achieve visibility by survivors of violent assault. This struggle for visibility unfolds in the face of both state and INGO efforts to provide assistance in ways that render recipients both compliant and invisible.

Beginning in 1991, the civil war in Sierra Leone lasted over ten years. It drew in local, regional and international forces in a struggle for political power as well as for access and control of national resources, especially diamond mines. In addition, proxy wars were waged by outside powers including neighboring states as well as Libya, Russia and the UK., Various multinational forces, ranging from mercenary armies to UN-supported peacekeeping missions, were recruited into the conflict. One of the signature elements of the war was the widespread use of amputation by rebel forces. While exact figures are debated, there is widespread agreement that thousands of Sierra Leoneans have sustained the loss of a limb or limbs in a long-standing campaign to inflict suffering and terror on a civilian population.

In the aftermath of the war there were a number of reintegration programs that were supported by local NGOs, INGOs and other international forces. These included a Truth and Reconciliation commission as well as efforts to promote community integration for both rebel fighters and those who had suffered amputations. Berghs describes how these efforts tended to be most successful in retraining and integrating former fighters at what seemed like the expense of those with traumatically acquired limb-loss. Those with limb-loss were seemingly marginalized by several factors including pervasive negative ideas about the capacities and abilities of people with impairments. However, Berghs, drawing on work by Das and Kleinman, notes the unfortunate byproducts of the power of institutions that are charged with providing remedies but which cause their own forms of suffering.

One of the key forms of suffering that this archipelago of aid providers produced is the marginalizing and silencing of survivors with limb-loss. Berghs goes into great detail to illustrate how the stories of survivors are appropriated by aid organizations, or how the narratives of only a few key survivor spokespeople shapes aid distribution. The vast majority of survivors are effectively silenced.

Berghs’ work goes into tremendous detail showing how post-civil war identities are shaped and promoted by the government, INGOs and other groups. Her work is a reminder of the continuing importance of exploring the social world of suffering. Berghs also makes a valuable contribution by avoiding the easy categorization of the people she studied. In this way her work is particularly good at representing the struggle for voice and dignity experienced by the participants in her research in Sierra Leone.


Seth Messinger is the Research Director of the Center for Rehabilitation Sciences Research at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His current research looks at social reintegration of US military service-members in the aftermath of traumatic injury sustained in Afghanistan or Iraq.