Wide Angle

Breaking the cycle of vengeance

cou_03_17_gac_01.jpg

Young people from Cambodia and the Congo meet after a performance of See You Yesterday at the refugee camp in Kigeme, Rwanda.
Using theatre as a catalyst for dialogue, Global Arts Corps encourages people from conflict zones to explore their painful pasts, and help them to build a future. A group of young Cambodians travel to a festival in Kigali to connect with Rwandan and Congolese audiences who have lived through similar traumatic experiences. Together, they help each other heal, through a shared understanding, tolerance and empathy.   

By Marie Angélique Ingabire

In July 2016, nineteen young Cambodian performers traveled to Rwanda to participate in the Ubumuntu Arts Festival. The world premiere of their production, See You Yesterday, a unique mix of theatre, dance and circus, was performed in an amphitheatre on the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The Cambodians – second-generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975 to 1979) – were afforded the rare chance to connect with an audience who were also survivors, of the genocide in Rwanda.

The arts festival brought together companies from eighteen different countries, all of which had emerged from violent conflicts. In a country like Rwanda, where a million lives were lost in the genocide of 1994, the concept of humanity has been so fragile that the restoration of hope requires serious work.  

The Cambodian group was performing under the banner of the Global Arts Corps (GAC), an international community of professional artists which uses the transformative power of the theatre to bring together people from different post-conflict areas.

“Through the rehearsal process, actors manage to hear the stories of those they have learned to fear, disdain, and hate and then, together, create a single, agreed upon, fair story of their multiple truths,” Michael Lessac, co-founder and Artistic Director of GAC, explains.  

Lessac, a well-known American theatre and film personality, is the creator and director of the award-winning international theatre piece, Truth in Translation, about the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Co-produced with South Africa’s Market Theatre, the project traveled to twenty-six cities in eleven countries around the world, and led to his co-founding of the Global Arts Corps in 2009, along with his wife, Jacqueline Bertrand.

Global Arts Corps, which has taken its work from Rwanda to Kosovo, and Cambodia to Northern Ireland, hopes audience members from vastly different backgrounds can find a piece of themselves in the experiences of other people. They have taken their work to seventeen countries on four continents so far, reaching over 100,000 audience members and facilitating reconciliation workshops for over 15,000 people in post-conflict zones.

Partnering with non-governmental organizations and training local activists, educators and artists, GAC works to ensure that the work they begin is carried on when they leave. Everything – from the rehearsals of each production, to the dialogues they spark – is filmed. The idea is to build a vast educational archive to supplement a group of theatre artists trained to collaborate with people emerging out of violent conflicts.

Using professional theatre to support reconciliation initiatives was “not an easy process initially,” Lessac recalls. “Young people did not want to talk about the past, so they used their extraordinary physical skills to creatively move back to the past, to try to understand what their elders went through during the genocide.”

After the festival, the Cambodian cast and crew traveled to southern Rwanda, to perform at the Kigeme refugee camp there. The camp is home to 20,000 refugees, displaced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, ravaged by two decades of civil war and famine. Using a makeshift stage in a vast open field, the Cambodians performed on three consecutive days – each time to swelling audiences. Besides, GAC facilitated workshops for young refugees after the performances.

The Cambodian youth, some of them street children, were trained in acrobatics by the Phare Ponleu Selpak, an association created in 1992 in Battambang city. Using their world-class circus skills, the association’s founders work to help children in their communities to overcome the problems of the dark past of their parents.


A curious Cambodian schoolboy watching the rehearsal of See You Yesterday, peering over Michael Lessac, Artistic Director of Global Arts Corps (GAC).

Empathy helps healing

The most significant outcome of bringing people from two different genocide backgrounds together was that both nationalities noticed that they were not alone, and had nothing to be ashamed of. A young boy said he remembered being forced to beat a prisoner when he was still in the Congo, as was enacted in the performance. Other touching testimonials emerged from the crowd.

Equally poignant was the reaction of Khuon Det, a co-founder of the Cambodian circus, who now works with the GAC. Growing up in a refugee camp on the Thai border after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, he remembered his own experience as a child, as he saw the Congolese children rush to welcome the Cambodian group. “We were so happy to see outsiders…it makes my heart full,” he said.  

“Talking about our past, however dark it may be, is a way to heal our wounds. It is also the best method to help future generations learn from past errors to prevent this from happening again,” says Innocent Munyeshuri, a young Rwandan actor who narrated the Cambodian show in Kinyarwanda, a local language also spoken by the Congolese.

Through an exploration of different identities, the GAC hopes to generate empathy among its actors. “You should be able to empathize through someone else’s point of view as well as your own, otherwise you do not know where you come from, you don’t understand others,” Lessac states.

Actors who grew up in post-conflict societies are the first to benefit from GAC’s work. Arben Bajraktaraj, an Albanian actor and one of GAC’s trainers, explains how empathy helps actors feel an inner security: “We see empathy as a discovery, the most important thing in our creation process. You must put your judgements aside to discover the real image, and it will change the way you see the world. For that, you must release yourself completely”.


Scene from the play Truth in Translation, which tells the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

Part circus, part theatre

The GAC’s future projects include bringing together people with similar dark pasts to participate in one huge production, which is part circus, part theatre. The actors will go back in time to discover where their prejudices and cultural anger come from and, out of that, create a story that includes truths from all the sides. This would create a solid basis for reconciliation, Lessac explains.

The project hopes to involve participants from the growing refugee communities in Germany and France. In Colombia, it will include former rebels who are being reintegrated into society after many years in the jungle. Young actors and musicians from Flint, Michigan (United States), will also participate. In the Middle East and Argentina, the work of women’s movements, past and present − dealing with peace and identity – will be highlighted.

“We don’t imagine that we can change the world directly but, by working with youth and creating ways for them to understand their own post-conflict situations through rehearsal, we can begin to build pathways for insightful communication and connection between young people from different cultures and conflicts around the world. Hopefully, this can help to break the revenge cycle that continues to plague us today,” concludes Lessac.

FURTHER READING: 

Memory: making peace with a violent past, The UNESCO Courier, 1999-12

Cambodia: a wound that will not heal, The UNESCO Courier, 1999-12

Rwanda's collective amnesia, The UNESCO Courier, 1999-12

Rwandan Tour of “See You Yesterday”.

Marie Angélique Ingabire

Marie Angélique Ingabire is a Rwandan journalist based in Paris. She has worked for Rwanda’s public television, presenting, hosting and producing political and educational programmes. She also conducts workshops on the freedom of expression in French schools.