By Alexandra Wolters

*This article was originally published in the Robert Bosch Stiftung Magazine #21 in January 2017.

In “See You Yesterday,” young acrobats from Cambodia perform a play about the Khmer Rouge – in a refugee camp in Rwanda. The aim is to inspire a dialogue about the genocides in their countries.

Dark wooden boards slam down on the dusty soccer pitch in a refugee camp in southern Rwanda. This throws up a cloud of sand, and a crowd of children come running, eagerly pointing and looking around to see what’s being built on the open space between the trees, tents and corrugated-iron huts. It’s a big stage with metal scaffolding and loudspeakers. In a few hours, young artists from Cambodia will be appearing here to perform a play about the genocide committed in their country by the Khmer Rouge. The audience is the inhabitants of the Kigeme refugee camp, where nearly 19,000 people have been living since 2012 after fleeing to Rwanda from the uprisings of the March 23 Movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Very different peoples who have suffered terrible things in the past are coming together here. It unites and helps them. Both peoples learn something about the conflicts and suffering in each other’s countries. At the same time, they are inspired to think about their own war torn past. The Robert Bosch Stiftung is supporting this project in the conviction that stable peace can only arise from consciously reflecting on a violent past. If a society does not talk about war crimes, it is difficult to deal with them. This is particularly true for children and young people who did not experience the war, but have inherited its terrible memories.

(“If a society does not talk about war crimes, it is difficult to deal with them”—Michael Lessac)

American theater and film director Michael Lessac uses dance and acrobatics to bring together young people of the post-war generations from different countries. For his latest project, “See You Yesterday,” Lessac spent four years with 19 young street artists from Cambodia exploring how their parents and grandparents experienced the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Performances of the play in Cambodia led many older people to talk for the first time about what happened. Now the play will performed at the refugee camp and at a festival in Kigali to stimulate a dialogue about violence and genocide – and encourage people to come to terms with the past. Lessac is convinced that the play, with its circus elements, will open the doors. “The clown breaks the ice and makes both groups laugh, and then they start talking to each other.”

Before the performance, refugees gather in front of the stage and on the slopes around it. An assistant sits on a speaker with a microphone in his hand and talks about the play’s historical background. Then the acrobats come bouncing onto the stage. Wordlessly, using body language alone, they tell of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, the desperation of their parents and grandparents, and their own hopes. Some of the audience of 6,000 are aware of scenes like these from their own experience. “I thought I was the only one that something like this had happened to. But now I see I wasn’t,” says one, when he sees a young man on stage being forced to beat another man. At the end, he’s not alone in this realization.

And even while the applause is still sounding, some children are already copying the acrobatics of the Cambodians. After the play, the acrobats offer the young refugees some tips. And, quite spontaneously, dialogues begin – just as Lessac intended. “Without adults – simply between young people talking to each other.”


About The Director—Michael Lessac

Ten years ago, Lessac wrote the play “Truth in Translation” about the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The play’s success in 11 countries led to the foundation of Global Arts Corps, a non- profit organization that supports reconciliation projects through the medium of theater. A film is being made about the current project, “See You Yesterday.” It documents rehearsals, performances, and the personal development of the young Cambodians.