A call to action. A story. A voice.

Vermont Academy students participate in ‘One Million Bones’ project, a dialogue to stop genocide

SAXTONS RIVER — Although genocide is nearly always a historical footnote that American students learn about in class, occasionally, “we know someone” affected, as one Vermont Academy field biology student said.

She explained that she knew a girl and her brother who were friends and went to school with her. They escaped Rwanda as refugees, and now live in the United States.

The goal of the project is to make one million handmade bones that will be laid on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to honor those who have been victims of genocide and mass atrocities, and those still struggling to survive genocides in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and Somalia.

“Each bone represents a call to action, a story, a voice,” organizers say.

The project is the brainchild of artist Naomi Natale, whose nonprofit organization, One Million Bones, set the goal of fabricating bones of clay, paper, plaster, or gauze methods by students, educators, and volunteers on a national and international level.

They will be exhibited in Washington starting June 8 at 9 a.m.

Genocide often is invisible to anyone who has not experienced it personally. Because of its horror, most people would prefer not to “go there,” even the survivors.

One of the difficulties in prosecuting war crimes - such as ethnic cleansing or sexual violence as a weapon of war against women - is the reluctance of the witnesses to testify against the accused. Even when the conflict ends, they often fear reprisals, and because of the trauma, they would prefer to put it behind them. Revisiting it is too painful.

“It makes people uncomfortable to think about it,” Vermont Academy pottery teacher Mary Hepburn said.

So to give voice to the voiceless, Hepburn enlisted the support of teachers and administration to have students work on a social action art project aimed at raising awareness of ongoing genocide in the world.

VA students take up the challenge

The students from the Vermont Academy Field Biology class, aged 14-17, gathered in the pottery studio one day last week to participate in the Students Rebuild challenge part of the project.

A brief video of 50,000 bones laid out in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 27, 2011, was shown to the class.

“It's about the bones that are inside of us,” the video's narrator said: “The living bones, the pieces of us and about how we are not so different. We are all similar.”

A young man interviewed in the video described losing his brother and father, cousins, his pastor, and most of his friends in the Congo's genocide. “I knew them all,” he said.

Participating in the project, he said that his feelings were “not about revenge. It's not about that. If we have to think of revenge, then this is not a solution. All we need is forgiveness and thinking of the future so the new generation will not go through what we have been through. You really don't know something until you know something. That is what One Million Bones is doing: to let people know what is going on in the Congo, in Sudan, in Burma, in other countries. Keep talking about it. If the message can keep going, people can do something about it.”

The video concludes with a quote from Carl Wilkens, who was the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide: “When we make something with our hands, it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act.”

With brief instructions and 40 minutes for the class, 13 students were given clay and drawings of bones from the human body to use as models. Expressions around the table varied from somber to playful to thoughtful as femurs, tibias, backbones, and humeri took shape and mounted up.

Down the middle of the table lay hundreds of clay bones that had been fired from previous class work. A couple of jaw bones stood in stark contrast to curved ribs and longer leg bones.

Some students were also taking a Holocaust class, and understood a little bit more what “genocide” meant. Others needed it explained to them.

As the students made their bones, The Commons asked if they all knew what genocide was, and if they knew anyone who had experienced it.

Two students in the group knew someone who had personal experience with genocide and a couple of students asked what genocide was. Several students taking the class on the Holocaust knew that millions of people had been systematically killed by the Nazis during World War II.

One 15-year-old student said some of his relatives survived Kristallnacht (“the Night of the Broken Glass”) on Nov. 3, 1938. Across Germany that night, Nazi supporters rampaged and burned more than 250 synagogues, trashed and looted more 7,000 Jewish businesses, and killed dozens of Jews. Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted while police and fire brigades stood idly by. The pogrom, a violent mob attack, got its name from the shattered glass from Jewish-owned businesses that littered the streets.

Against the clock

The VA students raced to make as many bones as possible while they could in order to meet the overall goal of 500 bones to be sent from Vermont Academy to Washington.

Two 17-year-old students worked together, and between them made about 15 clay bones. They said they appreciated this kind of “active teaching” and “felt into it” as they shaped the bones with their hands.

Later, Hepburn said that, between the two classes that day, the goal was surpassed, and Vermont Academy will be sending 514 bones to the National Mall.

Vermont Coordinator Nancy Hellen said she has led hundreds of bone-making workshops involving people in retirement homes as well as church groups and students and artists throughout the state. She said she geared her talks to the audience, but even so, the keenest understanding could come from the youngest participants.

She related one memorable incident: “I was doing my talk (and) gearing it towards younger children. I talked about that people hurt each other in different ways, and I talked to kids about how we want to be treated.” Hellen continued, “One little boy that was making a very big femur bone spoke up and said, 'Bullying and war are the same thing, except in war, people get killed.'”

'He gets it...'

“This is a little kid and he gets it,” Hellen continued. “He didn't use the word genocide, but he somehow connected that the bullying in his life is connected in the big picture. This is what it is about: get people thinking about how they treat each other. That's how things change, so the youngest world citizens grow up with that understanding.”

Hellen said about 4,000 bones from schools and volunteers across the state were laid outside the University of Vermont's Davis Center this past Monday, in a smaller version of the Washington event.

She said the bones will be picked up and shipped to Washington toward the end of May in time to start laying them out June 8. The bones will be on display through June 10. Hepburn said she plans to attend with any VA students who want to go, as well as Hellen and any other Vermonters who care to participate in laying out the bones on the Mall.

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