by Kelly Himsl Arthur and Remy Arthur
The One Million Bones challenge mobilized students worldwide to make bones as a symbol of solidarity with victims and survivors of ongoing conflict in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia. Every handmade bone generated $1 from the Bezos Family Foundation for CARE’s work in these regions, up to $500,000! On June, 8, 2013, one million handmade bones – made by students, educators and artists – covered the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of a massive art installation and visual petition against humanitarian crises.
For nearly 2 years thinkpeace girls from California to New York and DC to Germany learned and talked about past and present genocides and other mass crimes against humanity. We made bones at club meetings, camps, weekend workshops, and at home, contributing nearly 5000 clay, plaster, and recycled paper bones to the One Million Bones Project. We embraced every chance we had to share this project and cause with others and encourage them to join us. We talked with people in parks, at churches, at the Museum of Tolerance, at schools and online… educating, creating dialogue, and providing space for reflection. We thought we had our heads kind of wrapped around the enormity of the deaths and atrocities as we laid our bones with others in a state installation last April. In reality… that was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
In June a few of us thinkpeace girls packed up our books to study for final exams on the road to Washington, DC, worried about getting swept away in Tropical Storm Andrea, yet determined to be a part of the installation the next day on the National Mall. Eager to represent the thinkpeace community, we donned our white clothes and headed over to the Mall. On the way we listened to the message Desmond Tutu sent to the participants. We were so moved by his words: “It is my hope that these bones will transform us to a place of greater understanding and compassion and inspire us to act.” They had certainly done that for us.
One of our German thinkpeace sisters, Serah, was so deeply affected when she created a baby’s rib cage from clay. With each rib she sculpted she felt the heaviness deeper and deeper in her heart. She knew that she needed to do something, to take action. She returned from camp eager to get involved in her school’s Amnesty International Club. Genocide awareness became her passion to share. Another thinkpeace girl, Chantel, was inspired to take action at her school, too, bringing the issue of genocide to the Model United Nations program. Wherever we talk about genocide, we are met with such shock and disbelief. We find that most people we talk to have no idea that it is still going on! We are often met with comments like, “yes, we learned a lot from World War II– that’ll never happen again.” or “No, that kind of thing ended a long, long time ago.” or “That’s how those countries are… there’s nothing we can do about it.”
We can bear witness! We can demand action from our governments and theirs. We can use our voices and our hands, our words and our actions to create real change. We must. For if not we, then who? We believe in ‘Ubuntu’- That each individual’s humanity is inextricably linked to one another’s. As Desmond Tutu said, “Your joy is my joy; your sorrow is my sorrow. We must raise each other up lest we all sink down.”
Together with UPS workers (who volunteered their time for this!), teachers, artists, religious scholars, children, mothers and more, we laid thousands and thousands of bones that Saturday in June, feeling the weight deeper in our own bones. We had talked often about how underneath our differences (skin color, religious or political beliefs, gender, sexuality, etc.) we are all made up of the same stuff and what is left behind are bones. And they all look pretty much the same. Seeing them in giant piles lining the National Mall was painful. The piles looked like mass graves. There were so many bones. So many. One by one we placed a bone on the grass in front of the United States Capitol. The most beautiful, yet haunting music was being played by Amy Ziff, that sounded like soft cries. It rained, then it was hot and very humid. We weren’t making a dent in the piles. It just seemed endless. And it hit us… the realization that it isn’t ending. That more real bones are being thrown onto piles, encountered along dusty hot roads in far away places, with no real thought as to whose bones they are– is it a child’s? A mother’s? A son’s? A grandfather’s? A teacher’s? Who is being killed today and left behind to become nothing but bones? Every bone is not only “the evidence of a unique individual journey” but also “the evidence of a collective journey– a story shared of the human experience.” (Tutu) Our human experience should be full of possibility and hope, peace and understanding. Once we are bones it is too late. We must come together now.
One million bones is just a number. It’s not anywhere close to the number of actual deaths by genocide in the last 70 years. Estimates range anywhere from 30 to 70 million people who have died in genocides around the world, from World War II to present day. Yes, present day. When we packed up the thinkpeace contribution for the One Million Bones installation (thank you UPS for picking them up and calling when they arrived!) we thought we had a lot of bones. When we started laying them on the National Mall, we thought, Wow! So many bones! A million! And then… when we took a step back to take it all in we were overwhelmed. Remy couldn’t breathe for a moment… the emotions hit hard. Imagining 30-70 times as many bones just wasn’t something she could wrap her head around. The tears fell softly and the hurt was felt deeply. To have created this symbolic mass grave, understanding that it represents a mere fraction of the victims of hatred and intolerance in this world has left us aching. And wanting to keep doing the work. Using our voices and our hands, our own courage, compassion and wisdom. We stood for a long moment arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, absorbing the bones on the Mall. We are a global family. Together we stand. We feel it, deeply.