Tag Archives: genocide

Navigating the Language of Genocide


Recently, some activists called for the U.S. to formally charge the self-proclaimed Islamic State with acts of genocide. I can use the word informally on a blog post, but Secretary of State Kerry’s hesitation to use the word formally proves the power of language. If he makes a formal accusation of genocide, the word brings certain political ramifications, and expectations that may not be fulfilled.

U.S. officials have avoided using the word in the past, in order to avoid necessitating political and military action. During the Clinton Administration, U.S. officials were explicitly told to refrain from using the word genocide to describe the situation in Rwanda, which is now recognized as very obviously a genocide. Reluctance alone to use the word allowed the U.S. to justify not intervening.

This is where language falls short: refusing to call something murder does not change the fact that it is murder. Regardless of whether or not Secretary Kerry calls the destruction of Yazidi, Shi’i, Sunni, and Christian life genocide, that destruction counts as genocide.

However, there is a deeper, more complex narrative. To begin with, most of the groups pushing for a formal accusation are Christian organizations, and focusing on the Christian victims alone risks ignoring the multitude of other victims of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Kerry would also need to contend with the fact that the U.S. has supported other genocidal regimes in the region complicit in aiding the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is religiously and politically invested in the destruction of Shi’i Muslims and Sufi shrines. Turkey, another U.S. ally, is involved in crimes against its Kurdish population, another group the Islamic State has targeted.

There is also Palestine. While the contexts and implementation for the Israel and the Islamic’s State’s actions against innocent civilian populations differ in a few crucial ways, they are overwhelmingly similar. Palestinians, in many cases children, are held captive without just cause; the Israeli military regularly encroaches upon Palestinian land, removes the indigenous population by force, and occupies it by destroying local property and replacing it with Israeli property. If the U.S. accuses the Islamic State of genocide, which it should, the U.S. would be remiss if it did not make the same accusation against the Netanyahu Administration, which it should.

The issue of language is complex; the word genocide holds so much meaning, but we often ignore the meaning of its absence, and in its absence genocides continue to occur. History has proven this, and it proves it now. There is no way to measure suffering, and I do not intend to give that impression. All victims of genocide deserve justice, Jews, Palestinians, homosexuals, Kurds, Bosnians alike. Ranking the suffering of others is the heart of the problem: it allows those who can stop the slaughter to pick and choose who deserves to be salvaged, and if he is a responsible leader, Secretary Kerry will acknowledge all acts of genocide in the region rather than a select few.


Srebrenica and Why I Still Study Genocide

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, borrowed from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I should begin with a brief clarification about why I post so often about war and genocide. It affects me deeply, and I often have trouble bringing myself to read about it any more. As a result of the professors I’ve worked with, I find myself compelled to study and write about violent conflict in history. I do not find any satisfaction in studying it, and I feel the need to mention this because I know from experience that some people do find satisfaction in reading about genocides, especially the Holocaust; too often, I’ve heard people refer to it as ‘fascinating’ or ‘intriguing.’ I suppose I cannot dispute the value of somebody’s motivation, but I do not believe one should explore the industrialized slaughter of civilians because it arouses fascination. It should disgust, it should repulse, but I do not think it should invite intrigue. My motive for studying it is not rooted in a sick fixation with the gruesome details, which often keep me up at night; I do not believe enjoyment should be my sole motive, however. I feel compelled to study it in part because I have no power to change it.

I admit that the more I delve into historical traumas, the more guilt I feel, and I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with that. A guiltless being is a soulless one, and a belief that one is free of guilt, that guilt will never inflict legal or psychological damage, might be a common trait of the perpetrators. I think there is merit in a little collective guilt. History’s ghosts haunt us, all of us, if we stop and listen. The thing about history is that it persists, it continues into the present, and the battles are still going on.

I can distance myself from the details enough to write about them, just enough to maybe offer a brief commentary. The exception, however, is the Srebrenica Genocide. Today marks twenty years after the start of the massacre, and I have wanted to write about it. Anniversaries can be convenient opportunities to engage moments in the past, though they are also quite arbitrary: historical traumas are not relevant every ten years, but continually.

Though I have tried to write about the Srebrenica Genocide, I find it almost impossible. What happened in Srebrenica affects me more than other genocides. When I read about the details, I feel chest pressure and panic, and have to turn away from the research.

The region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Srebrenica is located, was solidified in the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, who took power after World War Two. Prior to that, the region had a brief period of independence after being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Bosnia was religiously and ethnically diverse, and the two are often conflated: With Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, the region had few moments of independence despite strong nationalist movements, such as Young Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip, one of Young Bosnia’s members, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking the First World War.

While Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s alongside the Soviet Union, Bosnia declared its independence. Serbian nationalists attempting to solidify the region again under the new Republic of Srpska, rejected the declaration of independence, invaded the region, and began a campaign to cleanse it of its Muslim population. This event is similar to how the Irish War for Independence and Civil War broke out, devolving into sectarian violence between Catholic Republicans and Unionist Protestants after the Republicans declared a kind of independence; this event is also similar to what is currently going on in Iraq, where a right-wing Sunni organization has the apparently unquestioning loyalty of many of Iraq’s Sunnis who felt oppressed by a Shi’i-led, and US-backed, government. Ireland did not witness a genocide against the island’s Protestants, though sectarian violence continued well into the 1980s and beyond. In contrast, Iraq and Syria may be witnessing a genocide now, despite the almost universal condemnation of ISIS and its tactics.

That is precisely the situation Bosnia was in, starting in 1992. The United Nations, appalled at the Serb nationalists’ tactics, intervened in the war (at least in theory) and declared the town of Srebrenica one of several safe zones. UN peace-keeping soldiers were placed on the ground, world powers condemned the violence, but nobody wanted to intervene directly. Instead, the United Nations designed a system that effectively blocked any nation from direct confrontation with combatants.

This is where I find it difficult to go on reading, sometimes. In 1995, Serbian nationalists, under the presence and observation of the UN, took Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica at gunpoint, ushered them into the surrounding woods, and slaughtered them. They buried them in mas graves, often with the intention of preventing the bodies from ever being found, proof that they were aware that the world would look upon them as criminals, proof that they wanted to hide the evidence of their crimes. But there is something wholly corrupt about a system that prevents peace-keeping soldiers from intervening in the slaughter of 8,000 men and boys.

Some UN soldiers express guilt, shame, and even sought treatment for PTSD afterwards. I should also note that this is not the only crime against humanity committed during the Bosnian War. The perpetrators also implemented a campaign of systematic rape against women and girls, a crime that victims report ISIS has committed in recent months (trigger warning if you open the link). But I have not been able to bring myself to read about these crimes beyond broad overviews. I simply can’t, unless I choose to tolerate the inevitable anxiety I feel from researching it.

Historical trauma does not continue only in a communal sense. Russia recently rejected a UN resolution to classify the Srebrenica Genocide as genocide, and right-wing Serbian organizations threatened to disrupt commemoration events. Many Serbs deny that Muslim casualties were as high as reported, and several mass graves remain yet to be uncovered and documented. The trauma persists daily; many perpetrators still walk among the victims’ families, and collective denial of the genocide, which is strong in many circles, is an active assault on the Muslim community in Bosnia.

Maybe, in some ways, I feel like one of those UN soldiers, unable to intervene but forced to watch. I feel helpless when I read about these and other crimes, and guilt can be overwhelming. It should not be debilitating, though I often let it become too much to handle. There is more that I can be doing.  There is more that I should be doing. But I will continue to engage these traumas as best I can, even if I leave historical research behind academically. It will haunt me no matter what I do, and I can invite the ghosts in or close the door on them. I’d rather leave the door open, because I believe that history’s ghosts have something to say, and it’s our responsibility to listen. Will these blog posts make a difference? Probably not. But I’d rather not be silent when the past is so loud.

Modern Turkey and a History of the Word Genocide

Photo of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex

Photo of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex

Earlier this week, an important but under-reported incident occurred in international politics. Brazil’s government passed a resolution to recognize atrocities committed against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population in 1915 as genocide, which dozens of countries and most historians already recognize. As a response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded by condemning the resolution, saying that it “distorts reality.”

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. One hundred years later, the use of the term genocide is still contentious. Historical truths can be malleable. In Brazil, what happened in 1915 is genocide; in Turkey, it is only a tragic conflict. The use of one word to describe an event might seem like a pointless semantic argument to some, but language is crucial when discussing history, and it’s important enough to spark discomfort between nations.

Part of the problem is that the Armenian Genocide occurred decades before the term genocide came into use. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire joined Germany and Austro-Hungary against Britain, France, and Russia in World War One; the Ottoman military, after a disastrous failed invasion of southern Russia, attacked civilian Armenian Christians through forced deportations, mass imprisonment, confiscation of property, death marches, and massacres. The total death toll is still in dispute, but a common estimate is 1.5 million Armenians. Some Ottoman officials thought the Armenians were a pro-Russian threat, and such an argument was used to justify the atrocities. After the war, the Allies carved up the Ottoman Empire, but an independent Turkey emerged after revolutionary forces took control of Anatolia. The revolution was partly led by Mustafa Kemal, a talented Ottoman military leader who defended the Gallipoli Peninsula during the War. Becoming the first president of Turkey, Kemal rewrote history to make the new Turkey a heroic nation. Taking control of national education, Kemal erased the Armenian Genocide from his new country’s textbooks and public discourse, and this pattern continues in Turkey today.

Despite a wealth of archival evidence, Turkey’s national investment in keeping the term genocide out of its history is wrapped up in the complicated nature of the word itself. Raphael Lemkin coined the term to describe Nazi atrocities during World War Two. Lemkin’s activism began much earlier; a Jewish migrant from Poland, he had heard many stories about Ottoman atrocities as well as pogroms against Jews. In 1948, the United Nations recognized genocide as an international crime in its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, referring to it as requiring “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Consequently, forced deportations and ethnic cleansing (the attempt to remove a group of people from a designated geographic area but not the group entirely) do not necessarily count as genocide (though they often lead to genocide, historically). Like most criminal matters, recognizing the Armenian Genocide, at least in a legal sense, requires proof that the perpetrators intended to erase the Armenian population from Anatolia through their physical and cultural destruction.

But for Armenians today, as well as countless activists and historians, genocide is not always a legal matter, but a matter of identity and truth. In Armenian collective memory, what the Ottoman military did goes beyond specific legal parameters; it was an assault against an entire culture resulting in the death of over one million people on the basis of a shared ethnic-religious identity. Its historical scars are still visible for many Armenians, but history is more than just past crimes; history is a living, evolving beast. Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide is a direct attack on Armenians today. Such a refusal wipes away the validity and dignity of those Armenians the Empire slaughtered and the generations who are around today, the descendants of the survivors. Brazil’s resolution is a positive step, but real progress will come only when the Turkish government comes to grips with its predecessor’s crimes and its own complicity in the denial of those crimes.