It started with just one bone, and within a few hours, over one million of them were laid out in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
The display was a collaborative effort, involving 30 countries and the United States, to call attention to the crime of genocide.
Thousands of volunteers from across the country arranged the hand-made bones to form a symbolic mass grave and visual petition against genocide, which is the deliberate elimination of a particular race, culture or ethnic group.
The event was the brainchild of artist Naomi Natale, founder of the non-profit organization, One Million Bones
. Its mission is to use the intersection of art and activism to focus attention on genocide.
“It’s really inspiring and humbling to see everybody come together,” said Natale. “We’re all dressed in white and we’re laying down bones with the intention of raising awareness about these atrocities that go on in Sudan and South Sudan and the Congo, Burma and Somalia. It’s powerful and I hope that people feel that as they carry these bones and they go to lay them down and that they feel connected.”
Event participant Orela Anani felt that connection.
“I’m familiar with genocide because I studied the genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, the lives lost in the Sudan Civil war and several other countries in the world,” she said. “And just being here today is a symbolic remembrance of why I’m grateful to be alive and why I should pay homage to those who lost their lives because their spirits are with us, as they say, ‘we are one and the same.’”
Eric Ndaheba, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a survivor of the Gatumba [Burundi] massacre of 2004, when armed combatants attacked the refugee camp where he and his family were seeking shelter. He lost family members in the massacre and says he is happy to see such a symbolic tribute to the lives lost to genocide.
“I believe that everyone who came here will take the message to their community so that people can be helped in the Congo and other countries,” he said.
The bone-laying ceremony was part of a three-day event in the nation’s capital that included international speakers and musical performances, workshops and a candle-lit vigil. There was also a Take a Bone to Congress event.
The bones were crafted out of paper, plaster and clay by 125,000 people, including students, artists and activists worldwide over a three-year period.
Many communities in the United States hosted their own bone-making events, including churches, synagogues and community centers.
Georgetown Day School in Washington was one of 1,000 schools that participated in the project.
Over 200 students came together a few weeks before the event to make human-like spines, skulls and hip bones out of clay.
Natale hopes the hands-on project will help children learn about past genocides as well.
“For instance, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide," she said, "so many [of them] that we find students, even adults, don’t know of.”
Logan McDermott, 12, sees the project as “a great way to honor people who are victims of genocide because people in America, we don’t always realize what’s going on in other countries.”
Genocide survivor John Dau is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who was featured in the award-winning documentary God Grew Tired of Us
“This event is a clear reminder of what we, the human being that has power, is supposed to do,” he said. “We must actually take action right now.”
Pointing in the direction of the U.S. Capitol, Natale said it’s the people there that need to see these bones the most. “I hope that they’ll be able to come and hear about it and see what our children have made,” she said. “Our children made this symbolic mass grave.”
She hopes that the million bones laid in front of the U.S. Capitol will end up in a permanent display as a memorial to those lost to genocide.