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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Story Behind the Stories...

Friends of the Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English gathered at the Weismann Art Museum on May 30 to listen to acclaimed writers Patricia Hampl and James Dawes discuss writing about human rights. The event was a celebration of the University's "Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship." an initiative created in 2006 to support a Master of Fine Arts student to work with the HRP as a writer-in-residence. The Scribe serves as a storyteller - one who can transmit the deeply personal stories in human rights cases to a broader audience. Dawes and Hampl small.JPG
James Dawes and Patricia Hampl

Dawes, professor of U.S. and Comparative Literature at Macalester College and author of That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, and Hampl, a creative writing professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and author of the memoir, The Florist's Daughter, among several other award-winning books, engaged in a thoughtful discussion about exposing human rights abuses using the written word.
According to Dawes, "human rights work is fundamentally a matter of storytelling." But, this storytelling, not just using words, but also images, can sometimes have unintended consequences. Dawes relayed once such instance that took place in Dakha, Bangladesh. A group of prisoners were massacred in front of a group of photographers in Dakha during the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. Two photographers, who did not intervene in the violence choosing rather to document the killings on film, were given Pulitzer Prizes for using their photography to get the stories out to the rest of the world. It could be argued that getting the story out, in this case, was a kind of complicity with the violence - that the presence of the cameras actually incited the soldiers to greater violence to create a spectacle for the rest of the world. Ultimately, it was the photos, when viewed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that spurred the Indian Government to take action to stop the violence and future killings. However, as evidenced in this case, telling the story can sometimes be a part of the tragedy itself.
Emily Bright, the 2007-08 Scribe, contributed to the evening by reading from her writing on the student-led movement to stop child abductions in South Sudan. For several months, Emily followed the work of a group of students committed to addressing the abduction of one of the students' two young nieces. Emily spoke eloquently about observing the students doing their work, while acknowledging her own feelings regarding the abducted children, and the challenges faced as she tracked the project's progress.
Our newest Scribe, Katie Leo, is currently conducting research, volunteering, and engaging communities in dialogue to learn more about various human rights issues. Katie has spoken with local Hmong-American artists and community members regarding the desecration of Hmong burial sites in Thailand and has volunteered at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's public hearings in St. Paul in June. Her experience thus far has informed her about the process of community reconciliation and the importance of creating a shared group narrative. Katie is particularly interested in the power that shaping language has over human rights work, as discussed in the Dawes book. Katie will continue to write and research around these issues as a key part of her Scribes Fellowship.
As we proceed with the Scribes project we are gently reminded that there is always a story behind the stories. In exposing and reporting on human rights abuses, the writer has to come to terms with the moral and ethical questions that often arise. If the story is exposed, will people be in danger because of it? How many people are endangered if the story is not exposed? Whose story is it? Is it a writer's duty to tell the story? We are thankful to James Dawes and Patricia Hampl for allowing us to sit in on their dialogue on these very tough questions.

Save Yar Campaign Holds Congressional Briefing; Spawns New Nonprofit

To many who have followed the work of the Save Yar Campaign, it has become a familiar narrative: In October 2007, two young girls, Yar and Ajak Mading were abducted from the home of their grandmother in rural South Sudan. The abduction was violent and disturbing but strikingly similar to many hundreds of other abductions in the area in recent years. Yet, there was one major difference. The abducted girls had an uncle, Gabriel Kou Solomon, who was an American citizen already learning how to advocate for human rights. Congressional hearing (small) 2008-07-28.JPGDaniel Bernard, Gabriel Kou Solomon, Eric Bernal, and Tracy Baumgardt testifying before Congressional hearing.

Since its inception in October, the Save Yar Campaign, with support from the Human Rights Program, has made strides in raising awareness about intertribal child abduction in South Sudan and influencing action by South Sudanese and U.S. officials. Much work remains in untangling the many social and economic problems that contribute to child abduction.
After a March fact-finding trip to Juba, South Sudan, Campaign members Robyn Skrebes and Kaitlin Dougherty returned to the U.S., while Kou Solomon remained. Kou met with dozens of governmental and nongovernmental officials, and pressed leaders to examine the underlying causes of violations of children's rights and to seek possible solutions. Notably, Solomon met with two top presidential advisers and held multiple interviews with Governor Juuk of Jonglei state, the epicenter of this intertribal child abduction. In conversations with Solomon, the Governor emphasized the challenges facing law enforcement and the urgent need for paved roads and walkie talkies which would make policing the area easier. The Campaign carried forward these requests, balanced with a call for development aid targeting the poverty and illness that fuel the conflicts behind child abduction.
Campaign members continue to pressure elected representative and other leaders in the U.S. to address child abduction. In June, campaign members Tracy Baumgardt and Madeline Thaden traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with international experts regarding the efforts of the Save Yar Campaign. Late in July, Daniel Lynx Bernard, traveled with Baumgardt and Solomon to D.C. for a congressional briefing sponsored by Congresswoman Betty McCollum. Joining the trio in providing statements was Eric G. Berman, managing director of the Geneva-based think tank, the Small Arms Survey. The group drew attention to the relatively unknown patterns of child abduction in South Sudan and emphasized the unique affront to human rights and the destabilizing ripple effects upon the region.
In April, Save Yar Campaign members took the next step to form an umbrella organization to carry on the initial campaign and apply its lessons to other under-examined patterns of child abduction around the world. Members are working to formalize Child Protection International (CPI), an independent nongovernmental organization. In June, CPI announced its first Steering Committee which includes HRP Director Barbara Frey, and long-time Save Yar Campaign members Bernard, Thaden, Baumgardt, and Amelia Corl. Skrebes, an Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow with CPI, is serving as Executive Director. CPI will hold its first annual meeting in August.