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Stories of genocide can't be ignored

November 05, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

Since I stopped working full time nearly two years ago, I've spent more time with friends and books and movies I've missed.

I'm way behind, and I still haven't rented a few that have been on my list for ages: "The Killing Fields," "Schindler's List" and "Hotel Rwanda."

Yes, there's a pattern here. These films deal with genocide - in Cambodia, Europe and Africa. It's hard for me to even think about the fear and pain the victims experienced.

I'm a wimp.

It's a quality I don't like in myself. When I think about comparing my discomfort - big deal, I'll get upset and cry - with the horrors that people have lived and are living, I'm embarrassed.

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Catherine Filloux is not a wimp.

The New York-based playwright has written several plays that deal with genocide and responsibility - four of them about the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

One of those, "The Silence of God," was commissioned by and performed at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 2002.

Two years ago, I saw a New York production of another - Filloux's "Eyes of the Heart," a play based on the experience of a group of about 150 women who suffered psychosomatic blindness after what they witnessed during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

In New York last month, I saw "Lemkin's House," a play by Filloux that had premiered in the Bosnian language in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 2005. It also had a reading at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., last year and a production in New York last February.

Filloux's drama takes place in the imagined afterlife of real-life lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who coined the word "genocide." The word has Greek and Latin roots: "genos" is Greek for family, tribe or race; "cide" is Latin for killing.

Lemkin, who escaped the Nazi extermination that killed dozens of members of his family, worked tirelessly to have "genocide" added to international law.

The United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in December 1948, according to information on the Web site of the United States Holocaust Museum's Committee on Conscience, www.ushmm.org/conscience.

But history, Filloux's play and contemporary headlines show approval did not end the killing.

Just last Sunday, an Associated Press story reported that experts believe at least 200,000 people have died - many from disease and starvation - and about 2.5 million people have fled their homes in the Darfur region of Sudan in Africa. It is "widely alleged" that the Janjaweed, pro-government Arab militiamen,"have destroyed hundreds of villages, killing the inhabitants, raping women and stealing livestock."

The post-Holocaust promise, "Never again," has not been fulfilled.

In "Lemkin's House," Filloux, director Jean Randich and a powerful cast of actors make that point eloquently and movingly. Lemkin is happy that the legal concept of "genocide" is accepted. But he learns - when victims of Bosnian and Rwandan atrocities come to his "house" - that the international community has failed to stop it.

Many of the performances in the play's recent 3 1/2-week run were followed by audience discussions with panels of experts.

Clinical psychologist Yael Danieli, co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children, was a panelist the night I saw "Lemkin's House." She has lectured and published "worldwide" on care and training for Holocaust and other victim/survivor populations, according to program information.

A member of the audience asked Filloux and Danieli how they can bear to deal with such difficult issues, to work with and write about people who have lived such horrors.

Danieli simply answered, "We know, therefore we must."

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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