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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Beyond Genocide, With Nobody Listening

Note: This article appears in the current issue of The Minneapolis Liberator.

Though I can only imagine the details, I can read the general stories in their eyes: terror, horror, dissociation. Six young Jewish males at Auschwitz, maybe 12 or 13 years old, emaciated in the black and white photos. Only two of the six—I imagine they’ve arrived comparatively recently—have any remnants left of pride or rebellion. They can’t have survived long with that showing, however feebly, in their eyes. Or perhaps they were the only ones to endure, precisely because they were able to retain some semblance of self, of identity, despite all odds. I’ll never know.

The other photos in the room include crematoriums, ovens, double electrified fences, and Death Gate, the selection site for arrivals, for immediate or delayed death. In 1934, during one 52-day period, 438,000 Hungarian Jews were selected for the fast death. The largest photo, maybe 5’x 8’, shows countless empty gray canisters of Zyklon-B, the gas used to “cleanse the earth of undesirables,” the gas that could send the spirits crashing out of 20,000 bodies simultaneously.

The only bits of color in any of these photos are given to the flowers and candles left as memorials, as though every ounce of life left in that place had to gather together and concentrate intensely in these small areas for any luminosity to survive at all.

The next room is dark, with a small bench for sitting and a screen with changing photos of another decade, another country, in the same round world. I am the only one present and it’s eerily quiet in this mausoleum for the Rwandan genocide, a holocaust many have never heard of despite its nearly one million killed, killed amid a profound silence and inaction on the part of the West.

In the hush of deaths without cancer or accident, without reason, I see endless shelves with human skulls of varying size staring back, asking me questions I cannot answer. A new photo shows a lone cracked skull with empty eye sockets that seem to contain the entire failure of humanity. Then a black and white photo portrays one smooth skull that seems to be kissing another for all eternity. There are also mummified remains of entire bodies, though I don’t know why they’re mummified, or how. One is a baby, the size of 12 months perhaps.

Then there are the other changing photos, photos of the living. People mill about the streets in daily life, their eyes so faraway, half stuck in past horrors. I can’t find one face smiling among the crowd. Others pray or dance in full abandonment among crosses and altars. Survivors dance with their eyes closed, in supplication for another life. One man screams, his mouth as wide as the universe. Then a man looks through the camera directly at me. And through me to you. What can I tell him? What can you?

Then words show up on the screen. They would seem perverse among this carnage if the room wasn’t still dark and silent. The words inform that we are citizens of the world, not of imaginary, changing boundaries; we are citizens of the world and it’s our duty to question authority. When asking the survivors what other human beings might offer them now, the photographer was told, “to listen and to understand.” Then I am glad to see one young girl smiling, both feet in the present. She’s young enough—the genocide was 12 years ago. Some final words implore: “There has to be a way to look deeper into these kinds of subjects.”

The artist doesn’t sound sure, but he adds a quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.” I wonder, Is that enough? Every time I hear someone say that Gandhi proved the power of truthful nonviolence, I wonder if they know that it was a socialist prime minister just elected in Britain who moved quickly to give India its independence. Or that if empire-defender Winston Churchill would have won the election instead, countless Satyagraha Indians would have been systematically slaughtered.

There is one more room. As I enter, I can’t make it fit with the others. There are no skulls and half the photos are color. The people captured on film are alive, in movement. A boy on a bike, riding a city sidewalk. A community celebrating a wedding. What can these people possibly have to say that matches the profundity of the worst of what human beings are capable of doing to each other? Then I begin to read the words next to the images.

These photos seek to archive Somali cultural practices while new immigrants still retain them. When traveling, Somalis have a saying: “If you lose your way, look back.” But we all know that the young will look forward instead; it’s what they all do instinctively. Within a few generations, the descendents of these immigrants will be largely assimilated into U.S. culture, a culture of monetary value, of racism, sexism and warfare. And it may not be as alien to Somali culture as it initially appears: despite women’s hijabs with face veils, we are informed that they wear all their jewelry beneath the extensive rolls of fabric, as “a testament to their worth.” We all know that we are supposed to respect cultural differences when they are based upon sexual rather than racial discrimination. But I still have those human skulls in mind, skulls where I could not read race or religion or sex into the bones.

Somalia, like much of Africa, was colonized by Europeans—Italy and England in this case—and when they left, they left as usual a new vacuum in the social and political infrastructure that resulted in chaotic violence. In 1991, with the ousting of the Siad Barre regime, civil wars sent families running to neighboring Kenya. Photos of two Somali refugee camps there bear testament to the ravages of colonialism; the places remind me of Auschwitz. One pretty little girl named Batula, perhaps seven or eight years old, imprints her image onto my brain. It’s her haunted eyes, I think; they look like those of the boys in Auschwitz, the ones who had given up hope. Words on the wall inform me that surrounding communities, who resent the refugees, frequently subject the females to rape.

But some of the longtime refugees got out and gathered in Columbus, Ohio, where they maintain a strong sense of community. They have to; their presence isn’t well tolerated by either the descendents of Europeans or of African slaves. Some of the black and white photos document Somali children being so taunted that their families had to switch apartment buildings. I’m also struck by one photo of an “African Auto” shop which shows the Somali owners with two Mexican immigrants hired as mechanics. While I’m glad to see such connections built up among diverse groups, a voice of cynicism inside also suggests that this is the “American Way,” to keep nearby those valued even less than we are on the social scale. We all know that the newer we are to the country, the less social value we have as citizens.

As I prepare to leave Intermedia Arts’ exhibit “Against Forgetting: Beyond Genocide and Civil War” (January 26-April 1), it hits me that the present is always messier than the past. The present is not yet settled on a slide beneath a microscope. In conjunction with this, many unsettled thoughts and questions stir me up.

Does the title of this exhibit mean to suggest that simply not forgetting can carry us beyond war and genocide? How exactly would that work?

How could a work on genocide in this country possibly omit the intentional murder of entire Indian tribes, or the murderous approval of slave ships?

And where is Darfur in all of this? Are we only allowed to consider genocides safely removed from us in time? How could any exhibit on this topic ignore the current genocide in the Sudan? In fact, shouldn’t all this have led up to that exact point—to something we might concretely do now to help stop the killing there? To aid the survivors? We only end up feeling frustrated when we learn about atrocities but have no outlets for action.

I begin feeling a little irritated, like I’ve just unwittingly participated in a white liberal feel-like-a-do-gooder exercise. Don’t get me wrong; I greatly admire the work of Intermedia Arts and its people, and I know our nation would be a better place with more such institutions. I just want to push this further.

Among the Auschwitz photos is one of a latrine—a very long board with holes to sit over on either side, holes set close together for skinny people. It was so disgusting in the latrine, a placard said, that the Nazis refused to enter and so it became the place for black market trading and budding resistance movements. Where is our latrine? I want a latrine like that. Maybe it would be at the presentation in a few days with all three photographers present.

* * *

On February 25, I attend a presentation by the photographers. The theater at Intermedia Arts is largely filled with middle-class, middle-aged whites. The three visual artists, and one writer, introduce themselves and their work.

Mike Rosen, who photographed Auschwitz, was in the business sector for nearly half a century before picking up the camera in retirement and traveling to Poland: “I felt that as a Jew who undoubtedly has many ancestors that perished in the Holocaust, I wanted to see first-hand the scale and monstrosity of this most notorious of the Nazi death camps.”

Paul Corbit Brown has traveled the world as a professional photographer and worked for many human rights organizations before his eight-week trip to Rwanda. He is obviously deeply moved by his experience there and seems suspended in a delicate balance between despair and stubborn optimism: “It is my hope that through coming to understand the nature of the origins of such horrendous acts, we can learn to avoid them in the future.”

Abdi Roble grew up in Somalia and was a professional soccer player before coming to the U.S. in his mid-twenties, eventually discovering photography. He has won an arts fellowship, done freelance work for newspapers, and had several exhibitions. His primary focus is currently the Somali Documentary Project: “We hope that this record will draw international attention to the plight of Somalia, educate Americans about these new immigrants, and provide Somalis with a photographic record of their early experience in this country.”

Paul Brown tells the audience that he has been forced as an artist to go places he never could have imagined before, and that he still wrestles internally with issues the Rwandan genocide conjures up. He went there with the intention of exploring the roots of genocide, gathering stories of survivors on film (since personal stories are downplayed in historical accounts), and seeing how they survived. Brown wanted to know what happened to these people and communities long-term after such trauma. He realistically admitted—something frequently lacking in such presentations, and something I much appreciated—the Western tendency to ignore and deny such horrors as the Nazi and Hutu holocausts and, when forced to admit their existence, to offer only “band-aids.”

Abdi Roble mentions the disasters of the Asian tsunamis and Katrina, both of which temporarily took up media time, forcing us to look at human suffering. But, he says, “manmade” disasters—and here he notes that he did intentionally use that term—are the worst. Much of the historical documentation of Somalia was destroyed during its recent strife, and he feels “called” to document what he can through photography. A writer who traveled with Roble to the Kenya refugee camps, Doug Rutledge, stresses that the main complaint he heard from survivors is that “nobody listens.” And then he brings it home, relating a recent incident in Columbus. A black man was sprayed by mace and shot by cops, who asserted that he had a knife. There were a number of Somali witnesses, but the cops wouldn’t interview any of them. But the immigrant witnesses all had the same thing to say: the man had no knife.

This is how genocide begins. This is its roots. This is where I want the discussion to go, though I know it will not. When the presentation opens up to audience response, what follows is mostly predictable—a few politely academic questions, and responses calculated to keep things comfortable so we can all go to coffee shops afterward. There are two exceptions to the malaise. One young white man who has spent time in Columbia speaks passionately about his experiences and “the danger of hopelessness.” Without hope, he says, we do nothing. That is “not a normal way to be human.” As he continues, full of emotion and energy, you can feel a chill come over the staid audience; he has too much emotion and energy.

Then, at the end of the presentation, a Lakota man named Frances Yellow, who just may have something to add about genocide and its long-term aftereffects on communities, speaks of dreaming as an antidote to the psychological symptoms of oppression. He seems to speak of dreaming as the young white man spoke of hope: “A dream humbles you when you see how impossible it is.” He speaks of dreamers as activists who can empower themselves through internal worlds. Dreaming is a dangerous thing, he informs us.

Perhaps dreaming is also a warrior thing, because who can act without hope? Like Native Americans, black communities in this country carry the long-term ramifications of atrocities. Nor have the atrocities ended, though they frequently go unacknowledged in the larger national community. Another generally unrecognized aspect of genocide—budding or full blown—is that there will always be some percentage of people who choose to commit atrocities and who will never change, no matter the number of art exhibits or seminars or dreaming activists.

I allowed myself one statement at the end of this presentation on genocide, knowing it would not be well-received, though it seemed blatantly obvious if we took these questions seriously. I shared that I had recently read an article on sociopaths and learned that fully four percent of people in this country could be diagnosed as such, as having no real, functioning conscience. What, I suggested, are we to do with these people as far as preventing more holocausts?

I actually even received some looks of disdain for crossing the implied lightweight boundaries of the hour. But, you see, I was still thinking of the Columbus man maced and shot, who had no knife. And all the others like him that we’re not listening to. And so I’ll pass that question on to you: What is to be done with the brutish murderers who will never change?

Let’s find our latrine and discuss.

Think and Be Dangerous

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