TERRE HAUTE —
The National Mall: A grassy corridor in Washington, D.C., lined with America’s greatest museums and monuments. Ending at the U.S. Capitol building, it is a symbol of our belief in the power and greatness of America. Last weekend, we turned it into a mass grave.
Along with my colleagues Eva Kor, Beth Nairn, and Alex Kor from CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center and Samantha and Indira Ivaturi of Terre Haute, I participated in a project called One Million Bones. OMB is a five-year project combining art and activism which culminated June 8-9 with the installation of one million handmade bones on the National Mall.
OMB is a vision of Naomi Natale, a young woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, whom I worked with in a program called the Carl Wilkens Fellowship (more about Carl later).
To raise awareness and inspire action to end genocide, Naomi and her small but tireless team organized more than 100,000 participants in 30 countries and all 50 states to make bones in honor and memory of genocide victims and survivors. Those bones were transported to the mall (heroically by UPS) and ceremonially laid on the doorstep of Congress with an unmistakable message: A crime against humanity anywhere is a crime against humanity everywhere. We have a duty in preventing genocide. And this: We belong to each other. By working with our hands to create an element most basic to the constitution of every human being, we realize this truth in a new way.
So with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers, we set out more than one million bones in a sight never before seen in Washington, D.C. None of the bones were real human bones, but they stopped traffic just the same. And when looking at them, one couldn’t tell whether they were Christian bones, or Jewish bones, or Muslim, or African-American or Caucasian or Asian or Latino or African or homosexual or liberal or conservative or anything. They were just human.
In addition to the installation, the event brought together a powerful array of genocide survivors, scholars and activists who shared their insight through speeches and educational workshops. Go to www.onemillionbones.org or check out the One Million Bones Facebook page for info, photos, and videos from this weekend.
In addition to Eva Kor, one of the speakers was Mukesh Kapila, the UN official working in Sudan who first recognized that genocide was being carried out in the Darfur region. He blew the whistle, and lost his job because of it. Dr. Kapila made the point that genocide isn’t perpetrated by psychopaths, but rather by sane, organized, ordinary, educated men. And I do mean men: No genocide in history has been waged by women. So what happens in our hearts and minds that turns ordinary men into extraordinary killers? Fellas, we gotta get on this.
Dr. Kapila’s statement is actually good news, because it’s a problem we can study and solve. And we are making leaps and bounds in our understanding of genocide. Less than 100 years ago, the term genocide did not exist. It was illegal to kill one person, but not illegal to kill millions. Now we have entire university departments devoted to its study. We have a Genocide Prevention Task Force convened by non-governmental organizations and chaired by former Secretaries of State that has made many recommendations for how to recognize and short-circuit genocide in its early stages. We have a new Atrocities Prevention Board in the U.S. government. We’re making progress.
The naysayers will tell you otherwise, of course. Here’s the rundown: Just like the poor, genocide will always be with us. Don’t you know evil is a part of the human condition? In any case, individual action is too small and meaningless to change an international crisis. And it’s pointless to work with politicians anyway. Don’t you know the whole system is rife with corruption? Plus, why are these people in Africa or Asia our responsibility? Don’t you know charity begins at home? I’ll argue with all of these assertions (hit me up on Facebook or Twitter), but in this space let me ask the naysayers one question: Which of these excuses would you accept if it was your village being bombed, your mother or sister or wife being raped, your family being forced into a cattle car, your child being murdered?
Some of us accept the notion that we are powerless, doomed to be led around on a chain by our bosses, our government, our parents, our wounds, our DNA, whatever. I don’t accept that, and neither do my friends who participated in One Million Bones. The world is exactly how we have made it to be, and the moment we accept the premise that other people and forces control our lives and there’s nothing we can do about it, we cede our power. We cede it to people who will re-create the world through anger, fear and greed. We rationalize this concession by making the excuses I listed above, then we insulate ourselves from the pain of that choice by keeping up with the Kardashians.
I’m friends with a guy named Carl Wilkens. When the genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994, Carl and his family were working in Rwanda for an Adventist relief agency. Though every other American in the country at the time was evacuated by the Embassy, Carl and his wife Teresa made a joint decision: Carl would stay in Rwanda. Maybe he could help. And he did. Through his gutsiness and steadfast belief in the goodness of people, Carl helped keep alive hundreds of orphans and many others by bringing food, water and supplies. One of those he helped is now a peacekeeper in the Darfur region of Sudan. Tell Carl he is powerless and should just give up.
In D.C. I met a woman named Neema Namadamu. Neema was born in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where dreadful sexual violence is used as a weapon of war against women and girls. Though Neema contracted polio as a little girl and now uses crutches and a wheelchair, nothing can slow her down. She has worked to empower people with disabilities and has started her own broadcasting network in DRC to give voice to the strong women who have survived sexual violence. Tell Neema she is powerless and should just give up.
I work with a woman named Eva Kor. Eva was born in the middle of nowhere and as a 10-year-old child outsmarted the Nazis and survived Auschwitz. Though everyone in her family but her and her twin sister were murdered, she rebuilt her life, forgave the Nazis, founded a museum (and rebuilt it after it was firebombed), and serves as a source of inspiration for countless people. Tell Eva she is powerless and should just give up.
Neither Carl, Neema, nor Eva are superhuman, and none of them are perfect. Rather, all of them are perfectly human. If they have that power, we all have that power. The difference is they realized their power, and so they never give up because they know there’s always something we can do. It’s a choice, and we can make it, too.
I’m not promising you quick success. After all, this is about articulating an alternate vision for life on Planet Earth. Working to prevent genocide is a daily grind that can take a toll on our well-being and the well-being of our loved ones. I’m surprised more people haven’t unfriended me on Facebook from the constant stream of news about the Holocaust, Sudan, Burma, Congo, and other crises. As Naomi Natale said in her speech on the National Mall: “These bones are inconvenient. They are uncomfortable, and it’s so much easier to look away.”
That’s why I’m so thankful for my Facebook friends. You don’t look away. Many of you kept up with our One Million Bones activities throughout the weekend via my Facebook posts. Your interest is a testament to our shared belief that we can make a difference. Your likes, comments, and shares encourage all of us working on this issue, and your visible activity on Facebook and Twitter brings us closer to a world without genocide.
See, there are no easy answers. That’s why we need to crowd-source the problem. The more people who are thinking about genocide and mass atrocities, the more likely we are to come up with creative and powerful responses. And that’s one of the major accomplishments of One Million Bones: Thousands upon thousands of new people are now engaged in the conversation. Now that you’re in the conversation, here’s what you can do: 1) Educate yourself. 2) Speak out. 3) Donate for humanitarian relief. 4) Ask policymakers to do the right thing. 5) Keep trying.
I believe we are on the threshold of a leap in consciousness. It’s on the proverbial tip of our tongue, and we’re going to get there. If I don’t have the answer, maybe you do. But how will you know if I never inform you? So share. Spread the word. Go public, go viral, go crazy. You never know.
Kiel Majewski is Executive Director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @kielmajewski.