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One Million Bones Brings Genocide To Washington, D.C.

The National Mall was filled with a grisly but starkly beautiful reminder that atrocities are happening around the world.

Visitors to Washington, D.C. this weekend saw a National Mall transformed into a mass grave.

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It took more than 1,000 volunteers, clad all in white, more than four hours to lay out what artist Naomi Natale described as a “visible petition” of more than 1 million hand-made “bones.” It was a petition less about remembering any specific genocides of the past, than awareness of genocide in general, and ongoing atrocities in Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.

Photo by Teru Kuwayama.

The “One Million Bones” themselves were constructed by hand out of clay and papier-mâché over the last three years by more than 100,000 people in 30 countries. Each bone created by a student was matched by a dollar donation by the Bezos Family Foundation to CARE’s work fighting poverty in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the primary purpose was about symbolism more than fundraising.

“I uncovered bones to show the responsibility of leaders,” says former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo in a video endorsing the project. “I did it in Argentina, I did it as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. It’s crucially important, but it’s not enough.” He sees the One Million Bones Project as “a different way to connect people with this process: Showing that this international justice idea was born from normal people.”

Photo by Teru Kuwayama.

As for its impact on the legislators working nearby, before the bones were removed on Monday, activists trained by the Enough Project lobbied congress to advance specific legislation on Sudan and Congo. More than 200 activists met with staff of more than 90 representatives, carrying with them bones that they hope will continue to be displayed in the representatives’ offices.

As an art project, though, the purpose is less pointed. Natale said she hoped it would make passersby stop and think. “It really is about asking the questions: What’s happening? And then: What can we do?”

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About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.

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