Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Community Arts in the Aftermath of Genocide: A Potential Strategy for Healing

I’ve not written to this blog for several months due to my annual visit with family and friends in California. While in Los Angeles, I, along with Pauline Ross, Executive Director and founder of The Playhouse in Derry, N. Ireland, attended a four-day conference on ‘Arts in the One World: Culture and Identity’, subtitled ‘Shape and shape shifting – How the arts and culture help destroy/create the sense of self and other’. The conference was held 25-28 January 2007 at California Institute of the Arts in Torrence, CA.

Over the past several years, students from various CalArts departments have collaborated with artists in Rwanda to develop a new paradigm of community art. They have done this under the direction of Eric Ehn, Dean of the School of Theater at CalArts and Jean-Pierre Karegeye, Director of Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies, Kigali, Rwanda. This collaboration is facilitated by using the arts as a neutral language to aid the process of healing between the perpetrators and surviving victims of genocide and their families.

The focus of the CalArts conference expanded beyond the work undertaken by community arts practitioners in Rwanda to include those engaged in similar projects in other countries where genocide has occurred notably Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Uganda. And, although retroactive acts of genocide are not covered under the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, representatives of Native Americans were also panelists.

Situated on rolling hills overlooking San Fernando Valley, the tranquillity of the CalArts setting contradicted the horror described by panelists of their family, friends and neighbors being driven from their homes and hacked to death with machetes, or dying due to suffocation, lynching, torture, or starvation. Alice Buhikare, a Rwanda genocide survivor, told of fleeing the carnage in her village after finding remnants of her parent’s bodies which she put into a suitcase and carried with her. Other Rwandan survivors did likewise because their tribal culture forbad their abandoning their ancestors without proper burial. Alice’s description of that ordeal, told in her calm, matter-of-fact monotone, signaled to me she was still in a state of profound shock 14-years after the ordeal which resulted in the killing of one-million people in a three-month period. Alice’s ‘telling’, like the telling by other genocide survivors in Rwanda and elsewhere is a personal political act that she, like they, use to free themselves from the unspeakable horrors they witnessed, to free themselves from the guilt of their survival, as well as unlock the denial of these events.

However, perpetrators of genocide also need to tell their stories to gain an understanding of why they so willingly slaughtered neighbors, friends, even relatives. They both, survivors and perpetrators, need to tell their stories in a public forum so they can begin the process of healing themselves, each other, and their community. In Rwanda this is being accomplished by the Gacaca Courts. For me Alice’s ‘telling’ was reminiscent of a remark by a panelist at a Playhouse-sponsored conference I attended at Monaghan, Ireland in November ‘06. During her presentation about being a refugee, Oraib Toukan, whose parents were forced to leave their home in Palestine to live in a Jordanian resettlement camp, stated that she needed others to ‘remind me to remember to forget’ (See my 7 December 2006 Blog).

Most of us became aware of the full horrors of the Rwandan genocide only after watching the film, Hotel Rwanda in 2004, which Belfast-born Terry George directed, produced and co-scripted. (George is a former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. (1) However, former colleagues of mine at the National Security Archive have obtained documents, released via Freedom of Information requests, confirming that the U.S. State Department had early information of the killings in Rwanda but failed to act on this knowledge. (2) But this failure to act in spite of knowledge comes as no surprise to victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Serb victims in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the genocide of Kurds in Iraq.

In Cambodia, it took the Khmer Rouge nearly three years to murder some two-million people because they were bureaucratically more efficient in their methods by
taking photos of their victims before killing them so they would have a record of those murdered. At the CalArts conference, a segment of a play, ‘S-21', was performed by its drama students. In the play, two of the Khmer Rouge victims, a man and a woman, whose photos are on exhibit in an art gallery, come to life and attempt to determine where they are and how they got there. S-21 is also in the title of a film, ‘S-21:The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine’, made in 2003 by Cambodian-born filmmaker, Rithy Rahn, who was 11 when his family died in that genocide. S-21 was the name given by the Khmer Rouge to Tuol Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh when they turned it into one of their numerous security prisons – today it houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

In her article in Peace Review, Chantal Kalisa, reminds us that we have all participated in the theater of genocide: ‘Perpetrators and victims played their role while the rest of the world watched the "spectacle" live on television.' (3) The question I pose is this: As spectator, how will I, we, respond, react, reflect when witnessing yet another act of genocide in yet another country on nightly television news? Have we played a part in its unfolding because after watching newscasts highlighting the precursors of genocide – forced community relocations, reports of torture, assassination of dissident leaders, accounts of ethnic cleansing – we ignored these warnings? How can I relate to ‘them’, whether victim or perpetrator, who might, one day, be me? Can ways be found to pressure for an end to human rights violations, such as those occurring today in Darfur? One small way I've alopted to put pressure on the government of offending nations is to aid the work of:

Amnesty International: http://www.amnestyinternational.org/
Global Exchange: http://www.globalexchange.org/
Human Rights Watch: http://www.humanrightswatch.org/

By the simple act of adding my name to one of their petitions aids their efforts to inform the leadership of offending nations that their actions are being watched around the world, that these violations are not to be sanctioned or tolerated.

(1) For a description of the formation and early years of the Irish Republican Socialist Party see my book, Daughter of Derry: The Story of Brigid Sheils Makowski (Pluto Press, London, 1989)

(2) See http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/ for the following documents: The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994 The Assassination of the Presidents and the Beginning of the "Apocalypse"
The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994 Information, Intelligence and the U.S. Response
The US and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994 Evidence of inaction

(3) Chantal Kalisa, 'Theatre and the Rwandan Genocide', Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Vol. 18-4, Winter 2006, p. 515.


trin yarborough said...

This fascinating account deals with many facets of genocide, by both victims and perpetrators, in several countries around the world, including Rwanda and Cambodia. Very thought-provoking.

Totie said...

This is great info to know.