Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — A common refrain from those who study the Holocaust is "never again." The words appear over and over in comments left by visitors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The past 15 years, however, have forced people to face the grim reality of genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and more recently in the Darfur region of Sudan.
"When we say 'Never Again,' what does it mean?" asks Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in a new exhibit at the Washington, D.C., museum, "From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide." His question draws a striking contrast next to a photograph of a Rwandan survivor who lives with three deep machete scars across his face.
This is the starting point for a $1.6 million interactive gallery and Web site that challenges visitors to make civilian lives a higher priority for world leaders — and realize that genocide is not just for the history books.
"We wanted them to move from the black and white of history to the full color of today," curator Bridget Conley-Zilkic said of the new gallery located just outside the museum's permanent exhibit. "This is what genocide has looked like in our time."
Genocide was defined in international law in 1948. But that law essentially went unused until 1993, when a United Nations criminal tribunal found that Muslim men and boys had been systematically killed in the small enclave of Srebrenica, Bosnia. A year later, a sister tribunal was created for Rwanda. These are the only two cases to have an international criminal examination of whether genocide occurred.
The exhibit weaves these stories together with the case of Darfur, based on the U.S. government's stance and the museum's stance that the killing there constitutes genocide. Since 2003, up to 300,000 people have been killed and millions more left homeless in desert conditions, suffering from disease and hunger.
"War and genocide are not the same, although genocide often happens in the context of war," Conley-Zilkic said. "And what happens in these cases? Groups are destroyed, person by person."
Sections of the exhibit focus on warning signs that ethnic, racial or religious groups are being targeted, as well as common ingredients that have led to genocide — actions of leaders, dramatic changes within a country and attacks on civilian groups.
Much of the exhibit is based on eyewitness accounts of 25 individuals, ranging from humanitarian workers to survivors and journalists.
CNN's Christiane Amanpour talks of her shock at reporting on mass killings in Bosnia, in a place that once hosted the Olympic games.
"When journalists do their duty and report the story," she says in a video, "then it does eventually make a difference."
The firsthand accounts are also told through an interactive table that allows visitors to save certain stories by scanning an individual bar code that will let them to read further at home on a personalized section of the museum's Web site. Curators hope the museum's 1.7 million annual visitors will pass some of the content along to others through the site's social networking tools.
Finally, each visitor is challenged to write a personal pledge to respond to genocide. The messages, written with an electronic pen that reads their strokes, are added to a large video wall — an ever-changing visual element created in part by visitors.
Within the first month of the exhibit's opening, more than 10,000 people have made pledges, the museum said.
For Jasmine Keller, 17, who just graduated from high school in Moses Lake, Wash., the exhibit had more of an emotional impact than she expected. She plans to attend Whitworth University, a private Christian school, and vowed to pay more attention to news about Darfur.
"I will never let discrimination, death and hurt pass me by," she wrote in her meticulous personal commitment at the museum. "Never again will I turn my cheek. Never again."
On the Net:
From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide: www.ushmm.org/genocide/take_action
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.