The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Inspiring Action: One Million Bones at Swarthmore College

Vija Lietuvninkas writes about her experiences organizing a workshop on "Perceptions of Genocide." Vija is a rising junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania majoring in Peace, Development, and Gender Studies. 

The death of a loved one invokes intense emotion in those left behind. The grief process may be long, and the memory of the person is not often forgotten. Why, then, when genocide involves hundreds, and even hundreds of thousands of deaths, does it seem to leave those not directly affected so unfazed? How can such tragic events go hardly noticed by the global community so often? It seems that the higher the numbers go, the less affected people are.

For the final project in my Philosophy class Human Rights and Atrocity, two of my classmates, Aly, Marina, and I created a project through which we provided people the opportunity to understand genocide in a more real and emotional way, to counteract the idea that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Our goal was to use art and thoughtful discussion to provide a space in which people would be able to understand genocide in a different way than they would normally understand it.

In researching the intersection between art and genocide, I stumbled across the One Million Bones project and felt that it had great potential and fit perfectly with the theme of our own class project. Overall, the motivation for the event is encapsulated by Carl Wilkens’ quote: “When we do something with our hands, it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act.” In addressing the issue of genocide, where so much suffering has been the result of inaction, inspiring action is the ultimate goal.

Marina, Aly, and I organized an event at Swarthmore College called “Perceptions of Genocide: A Workshop,” during which Sana Musasama, an artist and art professor at Hunter College in New York, spoke about her experiences in Cambodia over the past six years. After the speech, the attendees participated in making bones out of plaster gauze and newspaper for the One Million Bones project.

In planning and publicizing the event, I had several people ask me why “Genocide Awareness and Prevention month” even exists. The simple answer is that as horrific as genocides are, little attention is paid to them. Consequently, designating a month to focus on genocide directs people’s attention toward the issue. While many don’t question the importance of “awareness,” promoting “prevention” is more tenuous.

The “prevention” of genocide seems like a practically insurmountable task to be undertaken by people who may often be no more than voters in the scheme of politics and policy-making, so merely putting a label on the month of April as a month in which “we” will try to prevent genocide can seem like an inadequate, and even inappropriate, response. However, I believe that the role of genocide awareness is one that is critical in the prevention of genocide.

The more people who are aware of these atrocities, the stronger their voices are, and the more influence they can have on our policies. That is the ideal under which Naomi Natale, the artist behind One Million Bones, operates. Hoping to unify at least a million people in a symbolic gesture to show our government that we care about its policies towards crimes against humanity such as genocide is what she has aspired to. But, like many complex issues, the first step to preventing genocide is raising awareness and educating about it.

After all, how can you stop something if you don’t know it exists?

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