Leeds University academics using arts to help conflict-torn countries build better futures

Leeds academics have been travelling the world to assist young people in conflict-torn countries to help their nations confront their pasts and build reconciliation. Chris Burn reports.

Mobile Arts for Peace Drama Camp and Dissemination Event participants, Rwanda (Photograph by Deus Kwizera from Kwetu)

Twenty-five years ago, the world watched on in horror as the Rwandan genocide unfolded over 100 days and resulted in killings of 800,000 people – a tenth of the nation’s population. Now young people in the African country who have grown up in the shadow of the terrible events of 1994 are attempting to help Rwanda come to terms with its past and move onto a better future through an arts project that has its origins right here in Yorkshire.

The Mobile Arts for Peace initiative which has worked with hundreds of children in establishing drama clubs is supported through part of a wider University of Leeds-led project called Changing The Story, which is using arts, heritage and human rights education to build bridges in countries that have come through devastating conflicts but are still living with their legacies. In addition to Rwanda, similar projects have been established in Columbia, Cambodia, Kosovo and South Africa.

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The four-year project, which is now supported by more than £9m from the Global Challenges Research Fund – a £1.5bn Government initiative that supports the UK’s role in global development research, initially came out of work being done in South Africa by Stuart Taberner, a Professor of German at Leeds University, who is an expert in the Holocaust.

Professor Stuart Taberner

While working in South Africa, he set up a touring exhibition about how Germany confronted its dark past which visited schools, museums and universities over two years. “It was about the German experience but there were lots of echoes to the South African experience,” he says. “From that I got talking to my colleague in Leeds, Paul Cooke, and we decided to do something a lot bigger across lots of different countries.

“We wanted to work particularly with young people and get them to think about human rights and justice, freedoms and leadership. We wanted to help them confront the trauma in their particular country but also develop skills around leadership and justice and fairness.”

The four-year project has now been running for around two-and-a-half years supported by academics from across the UK and the world who work with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and community groups to establish pilot projects and support existing initiatives they feel can make a difference. In Cambodia, Changing The Story has been involved with ‘peace tours’ in Anlong Veng, considered the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge Movement, the Communist regime led by Pol Pot which murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents.

“There is a big issue in Cambodia of people living alongside perpetrators,” Taberner says. “How do you live alongside people that may well have killed your parents? There is no easy answer but one place to start is having a degree of honesty about the past, another is to look at the different opportunities that exist to get justice. There are war crime trials across Cambodia but they are largely aimed at the really senior people.”

Trainee teachers taking part in the Anlong Veng Peace Tours get to grips with filmmaking (Photography by Keo Theasrun/Documentation Center of Cambodia)

Taberner says confronting the past is a painful experience for people living in countries which have been through great trauma but is an important part of the healing process – as emphasised by what has happened in Germany.

“Immediately after the war, there was a sense of victimhood in Germany. Around 12 million Germans had been expelled from the East, they had been bombed for three years and they were thinking about their own losses. By the mid-1960s, a new generation was growing up that was very focused on confronting the past and asking that key question, ‘What did my father do during the war?’ This confrontation with the past and being very honest about it became really institutionalised in the sense that there are memorials everywhere now and German foreign policy is based on human rights. Broadly speaking, the state has taken it up as a national mission.

“In South Africa, after 1994 when Mandela becomes president, one of the first things the ANC did was set up a truth and reconciliation commission which became a model for other countries and it was very effective in some ways. There was a five or six year period where former perpetrators would sit in front of people they had injured and damaged and confess their crimes and the idea was allowing people to move forwards. But what it didn’t address was the real economic injustices that were and are still there in South Africa.”

Taberner is involved with the South African strand of the project which encourages young people to become ‘leaders of change’ and resist extremism. He says participating in the workshops in schools can be an extremely powerful experience. “An interesting experience I once had was taking the exhibition to a school in South Africa which was unusually quite mixed racially. One of the good things from talking about a different history is it can soften people to talking about their own history. We talked about the Holocaust and then ended up talking about apartheid and people’s stories about their parents. White kids were saying that their dads were in the police force and black kids were saying my mum was tortured. After an hour or so, they said this is the first time we have talked about that past together. Because we are outsiders you can start conversations that are quite difficult to have otherwise.”

But he is keen to stress the importance of conducting the projects in a tactful way that accounts for cultural and political sensitivities. In Rwanda, for example, where Tutsis were massacred by extremist Hutus, talk of ethnicity is now illegal.

Taberner says the people involved with local organisations and NGOs are vital to the scheme. “They are often taking some risks to participate. In Cambodia, there is a bit of a Government crackdown on NGOs. In Rwanda, there is a very strict Government line on the genocide. It is really inspiring and exciting to start these conversations but you also have to remember we are there for a bit and leave and everyone else has to continue living with each other. You can’t go in, throw a grenade about the past and just walk out.”

He says the project has taught him much about human nature – and challenged his own previously-held opinions. “I come from a Holocaust Studies background and my academic learning was along the lines of this was a particular German thing, it was unique and somehow linked to how Germany has evolved across the centuries. But this work has taught me people can do awful things everywhere. But people can also do amazing stuff – risking their own lives to save others. There is also the work that has been done after these events, particularly by young people really concerned with bringing about a better society. You see a huge human capacity to reach out and change things for the better.”

Time to confront the past

Professor Taberner says it understandably takes time for post-conflict societies to come to terms what has happened in their countries – but the process is often remarkably similar in countries on different sides of the world and with little cultural similarities.

“It takes time,” he says. “There are almost stages to go through like grief.

“There is always a ten to 15 year period of people who rebuild and get on with their lives – that is necessary because if you confronted things straight after the event you would probably have civil war.

“Then the children come along 20 years later and say ‘What the hell, how did this happen?’ and realise their parents were involved and then trying to confront what they might have been involved in.”