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City Lights: Trying to understand genocide

City Lights: Trying to understand genocide
Barbara English at a candlelight vigil in 2007 about Darfur.

If you’ve ever been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, you may recall the installation that tracks the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. One of the early scenes depicts an outdoor cafe in Berlin in the early 1930s where customers talk casually about their reactions to Hitler coming to power.

I thought of that museum display when I had lunch last week with Barbara English at Native Foods in Costa Mesa. I don’t believe genocide will come to America any time soon. But this cafe couldn’t have been too different from ones in Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere — and as for it being a sunny spring day, consider that the genocide in those countries, as well as Armenia, Sudan and Bosnia, all started in April.


English, who runs the nonprofit Living Ubuntu, was telling me about her upcoming film series, “Remembering the Past Toward Healing Our Future,” which will feature films about the acts of genocide of the last century. The conversation turned to the potential for evil in each of us, and I asked her: Were the people around us on this outdoor patio capable of participating in mass killing?

“Yes” was her quick response.


“I think the range of possibilities for human beings in both directions is immense,” English said. “And if you look at the Rwandan genocide in particular, a lot of the so-called killers had previously been neighbors, and they were farmers. They were not long-term killers. They were not psychopaths.

“So I think it’s something that we need to really understand about genocide and understand about human nature, that there’s an awful lot of human beings that, under the right circumstances, would become capable of committing atrocities.”

I first met English six years ago when she made me part of the “E” in the word “End.” Her group, which oversaw the grass-roots campaign Orange County for Darfur, had called for volunteers to gather for a photo shoot in Corona del Mar and spell out the words “End Genocide Now!” with their bodies on the beach.

You may have seen English’s name since then. In 2010, Living Ubuntu distributed materials about the Darfur situation for Huntington Beach’s HB Reads program, which spotlighted a book by Sudan refugees that year; last November, she brought in Rwanda witness Carl Wilkens for a fundraiser in Newport Beach.


With Ubuntu, she’s led petition drives to Congress and taught tension- and trauma-releasing exercises, or TRE, to refugees and domestic-violence victims. Still, an honest description of English would focus on what she doesn’t do as much as what she does.

An Aliso Viejo resident with an office in Newport Beach, she doesn’t live to make money: She works only one day a week in her practice as a marriage family therapist. She doesn’t take vacations or indulge much in general. She doesn’t favor military force, push a partisan agenda or have a history of visiting, armed or otherwise, the regions her group defends.

Instead, English’s weapon — or tool, if you prefer — is rhetoric. She shows, tells, listens, encourages and provokes. Bob Dylan sang years ago, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” English has devoted her life to seeing.

With the upcoming film series, she hopes to make others do the same. “Remembering the Past” consists of six screenings at different campuses, including Golden West College, UC Irvine and Concordia University. Each event, organized in collaboration with Amnesty International and the respective campuses, will be accompanied by speakers, including activists and refugees from the regions shown on screen.


How much of an impact can an event like this have? I posed that question to two of the series’ guest speakers: Joseph Jok, a Sudan refugee who serves on the board for the Sudanese American Youth Center, and Levon Marashlian, a Glendale Community College professor and advocate of Armenian Genocide remembrance.

Jok, who met English through an Orange County for Darfur event about five years ago, has taken an active role in spreading her lessons: After taking a TRE class from her last fall, he plans to teach the exercises to fellow refugees. And he’s always keen on educating people outside that circle.

“Even small things can make a difference,” he said. “Eventually, they add up and they can make a difference.”

I got a longer answer from Marashlian, who is a new acquaintance of English’s and, when I spoke to him on the phone, hadn’t yet met her in person. Fighting genocide, he said, is not simply a matter of noble intentions. Atrocities like those in Rwanda and Cambodia are sanctioned by governments, and the perpetrators have specific goals — centered on race, class or other factors — that education isn’t likely to sway.

Still, it may not just be the student demonstrators of the future who make up the audience of “Remembering the Past.” Marashlian, who watched with dismay as the world shrugged off Pol Pot and the Rwandan militias, hopes that more politically inclined viewers will take away an idea or two.

“People who are in the audience who are students, today they are students,” he said. “Someday in the future, they may be a senator. They may be a president someday, or they may have connections to people with power. So the more people are aware, the more chance there is of preventing future genocide.”

I thought back on that day years ago when I toured the Museum of Tolerance. The guide, a Holocaust survivor, got a few puzzled looks from the crowd when he declared that Hitler only killed one person. Just one? “The only person he shot was himself,” the man said with a shrug.

The message was that, for good or bad, rhetoric is powerful. Those who attend the film screenings over the next month will have the immediate task of remembering the past. And in terms of healing the future, even an indirect effort is better than none.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

‘Remembering the Past Toward Healing Our Future’

April 1: “My Neighbor, My Killer” (Rwanda), Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo, 5 p.m.

April 2: “The Armenian Genocide,” Concordia University, 7 p.m.

April 3: “Enemies of the People” (Cambodia), Golden West College, 6:30 p.m.

April 17: Short films about Sudan, UC Irvine, 5 p.m.

April 23: “I Came to Testify” (Bosnia), Cal State Long Beach, 7 p.m.

April 29: “Numbered” (the Holocaust), Chapman University, 7 p.m.

Admission free to all screenings. For more details, visit