Not My Turn To Die (review)

not my turn to dieAs the former Yugoslavia broke into a multi-national civil war, it became clear that the Serbs intended to gain control over Bosnia and Herzegovina through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. In Not My Turn To Die, Savo Heleta, a thirteen year-old Serb living in Gorazde, recounts his family’s experience during the army’s siege on that predominately Muslim area.

Even though Heleta’s memoir doesn’t provide a direct testimony of the ethnic violence raging through other parts of the country, it does provide a unique look at the fallout from the conflict. As non-Serbs found themselves persecuted, the reverse was taking place in Gorazde, as the city turned itself into a xenophobic conclave of Muslim refugees, the ultimate outcome being a mirrored response to the Serbians.

Even though the Serbs of Gorazde weren’t the victims of genocide, the similarities are certainly there — Heleta’s family lived in constant fear, were often threatened, were interrogated and beaten, and even spent a short period confined to a building that was nothing short of a makeshift “ghetto.” And just as the Holocaust is riddled with small stories of witnesses lending a hand to aid their former Jewish neighbors, this too becomes the recurring theme of Not My Turn To Die.

While it would be easy to dismiss Heleta’s account as one Serbian’s attempt to downplay the violence against non-Serbs, it’s far better to take this book as it was intended, as a lesson in the blind brutality of war. In fact, what’s most striking about this memoir is its ability to demonstrate that violent events are often viewed through large, global terms, with too little emphasis placed on personal experiences and responsibility. The majority of any given group might take part in a pogrom for instance, but it’s the individual who chooses not to follow that produces an extraordinary result.

Security Council meets on Darfur

Today, the United Nations is holding a special session on peace and security in Sudan. The meeting will be chaired by Richard Williamson, U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, and Mia Farrow, John Prendergast, and Niemat Ahmadi (Darfuri Liaison Officer to Save Darfur) are scheduled to address the council.

Jerry Fowler and John Prendergast released a report yesterday entitled: Keeping Our Word: Fulfilling the Mandate to Protect Civilians in Darfur. In it, they outline the steps UNAMID would need to take in order to protect civilian lives.

Rwanda empowers women to recover

Anthony Faiola recently spent time in Rwanda and discovered that women are restarting the country’s damaged coffee industry and in the process helping to provide much needed economic stability. He recently discussed his trip on NPR’s Tell Me More.

More than a decade ago, nearly a million people died in the Rwandan genocide. The violence claimed so many men’s lives that it left a gender imbalance that endures today. But that also provided the opportunity for many Rwandan women to take the reins of their country. Washington Post reporter Anthony Faiola discusses Rwanda’s new female leaders.

The most interesting part of Faiola’s message is that Rwanda has been successful because they have empowered women. In a society that used to live with rather traditional African roles, if they had remained unchanged by the genocide, they would likely be struggling with an even greater range of issues.

This is not to belittle the immense problems they are currently having, particularly with engrained prejudices, but clearly one of the biggest challenges in a post-genocide region is economic recovery. Without it, a country is far more likely to destabilize and fall back into violent patterns.

Why do people exhibit genocide apathy?

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, recently recommended that the international community enact a formal process that would require nations to publicly address why they’re choosing not to act. His proposal is based on his NSF-funded study on psychic numbing, which showed that people may respond well to one person in need but become numb to larger numbers.

The problem, according to Slovic, is that moral intuition, guided by feelings and emotions, is not sufficient to motivate action when genocide is happening. Both moral intuition and moral reasoning, that is, logical argument and calculation, are needed to stimulate action.

“Our basic way of responding through moral intuition is a problem because it breaks down in the face of large scale atrocities,” says Slovic. “Our compassion, our empathy, our feeling about what we should do gives us a rush of immediate concern, but it doesn’t sustain us when large numbers of people are involved.”

The solution is to engage moral reasoning, a slower and more logical way of thinking about problems that challenge principles of right conduct, along with moral intuition.

For example, he argues that the U.S. government doesn’t leave it to the moral intuition of citizens to determine how much money they should pay in taxes for Social Security. Instead, moral reasoning leads to laws that require individuals to pay specific amounts for this program.

“Moral reasoning says all human lives are equally valuable,” says Slovic. “Given that, if a large number of lives are at risk, they should be proportionally more valuable than a single life. But if left to moral intuition, we would feel a certain amount of concern for the large number of lives at risk, but that feeling would not necessarily be enough to lead us to action.”

This is one of the most perplexing, and difficult to explain, components of genocide studies. Even though students have difficulty understanding how so many people would do nothing, the evidence consistently shows that the vast majority of people disengage themselves from any involvement in these acts; this is true for people on the ground, facing the genocide firsthand, as well as the international community.

In America, it’s often hard to rationalize how these acts are so passively viewed. Particularly when you consider that:

  1. they do receive a modicum of media coverage,
  2. are often addressed by public officials,
  3. questions frequently surface during press gaggles, and
  4. they’re continually highlighted by a host of non-profit groups

Slovic’s research would seem to help answer the question of how we, as a nation, develop apathy towards ongoing genocides, when we are in fact aware of them. Whether this sort of approach would help governments form a more cohesive (and decisive) policy in dealing with these crimes is difficult to say, but based on the premise, it would certainly be an interesting first step.

Book pulled from curriculum

Barbara Coloroso’s book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide was recently pulled from a Grade 11 curriculum proposal in Toronto, after protests from the Turkish-Canadian community arose over including the Armenian genocide.

But a committee struck to review the course decided in late April to remove the book because “a concern was raised regarding [its] appropriateness. … The Committee determined this was far from a scrupulous text and should not be on a History course although it might be included in a course on the social psychology of genocide because of her posited thesis that genocide is merely the extreme extension of bullying,” according to board documents.

Ironically, it would seem that Coloroso’s attempt to demonstrate how common, everyday behavior (such as bullying, intimidation, and discrimination) can so easily feed an act of genocide, is the message that the committee decides to criticize during their statement. Normally this is exactly the kind of example Holocaust educators attempt to use in order to draw parallels.

Strangely, the committee decided to use works by Bernard Lewis and Guenter Lewy in place of Extraordinary Evil. Both men are deniers of the Armenian genocide, which seems a curious way to present material for a course covering the genocide, as it would naturally suggest that the committee is hoping their students walk away disavowing the events of 1915.

UK honors disabled Holocaust victims

Even though Holocaust education often centers on the plight of the Jewish people, a greater number of museums have been memorializing the other victims in recent years. This past week, the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire unveiled a memorial plaque, the first of its kind in the UK, to remember the disabled victims of the Holocaust.

Survivors, celebrities and disability groups were at the event, where a rose and plaque were dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust’s disabled victims.

Plans for a permanent sculpture were also revealed at the Holocaust Centre in Laxton, Nottinghamshire.

Artist Alison Lapper said it had been “an amazing day”.

Ms Lapper, who was the model for Marc Quinn’s statue that occupied Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, added: “It is so important that these people have finally been put on the map.

“It has been an excellent day, I hope it has opened people’s hearts and minds.”

The centre’s Stephen Smith said there had been “little recognition” of the persecution the disabled suffered.

The prejudice that drove the Nazi’s hatred of the Jews was equally to blame for the policies against the handicapped.

Forced sterilization began in earnest in 1934, where an estimated three to four hundred thousand mentally ill patients were given vasectomies or tubal ligations. By 1939, Hitler had enacted “Operation T-4” which authorized a euthanasia program against the handicapped, resulting in the deaths of 200,000 – 250,000 people.

JEM launches attack against Khartoum

Over the weekend, Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the rebel groups operating in the Darfur region, launched an attack against Khartoum in hopes of ousting current president Omar Bashir.

Early Saturday evening, the swelling sound of heavy fighting came from Omdurman, a suburb just across the river from Khartoum, and helicopters and army trucks headed toward the area, according to a Reuters reporter in the capital. Earlier in the day, the rebels said they had taken control of Omdurman and would not relent until they had pushed into the center of Khartoum.

“The international community has failed to protect our people, and now we are in a position to do it,” said Tahir Elfaki, chairman of the legislative council for JEM, speaking from a London airport as he headed to Libya, which, along with the government of Chad, is a main backer of the rebel group. “We are not going to stop until this regime is removed once and for all.”

The United States has officially condemned the attack and claims that such actions only frustrate the already tense negotiations. Nonetheless, the government of Khartoum is seen almost universally as a regime that has ignored practically every region of its country, murdering hundreds of thousands and displacing over a million.

While the rebel action was not entirely unanticipated by the international community, reports from the ground, citing examples of Sudanese soldiers joining the rebels, have been particularly troubling for international observers who fear that this could signal the breakdown of party loyalties across the country. To add fuel to the fire, JEM is reported to get funding from Chad, which heightens the risk of cross border conflicts, inter-country disputes, and puts the millions of displaced people in-harms-way.

Yes, I’ve moved

If you’re reading this, it probably means you’ve been to my old site and followed the link here. As I said there, I’ve been meaning to migrate to my permanent domain for almost a year now, but with work demands I’ve had precious free time lately.

Fortunately, my biggest project of the (07-08) year is finally finished, and I should have a little more free time for updating. In case you’re wondering, there are a number of things I’m currently working on for this site, including:

1. A set of book reviews (genocide specific)
2. An in-depth examination of the evidence behind the Leica Freedom Train (fact or fiction?)
3. A look at post genocide information accumulation
4. Holocaust imagery and genocide themes in Battlestar Galactica (just for fun)

Thanks for reading.

Denial in policy making

In 1994, I can clearly remember watching State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley standing behind a podium and addressing a room full of reporters. It was the usual State Department briefing, and with the Rwandan Genocide being in the news, one reporter asked, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”

It may seem like a strange question, but two weeks before, during a similar briefing, Mike McCurry, another State Department spokesman, was asked: “has the administration yet come to any decision on whether it can be described as genocide?” McCurry responded:

I’ll have to confess, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the issue was under very active consideration. I think there was a strong disposition within the department here to view what has happened there, certainly, constituting acts of genocide.

Two weeks later, when Shelley got the clarification question, about how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide, she responded, “That’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.” When the reporter then asked if she had “specific guidance not to use the word ‘genocide’ in isolation, but always to preface it with these words ‘acts of’?” she responded:

I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can. There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of. I don’t have an absolute categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions. I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best as we can apply to exactly the situation and the actions which have taken place.

The simple fact is, despite all of Lemkin’s hard work, the genocide convention has always been a faulty mechanism, which is backed by sovereign powers only as needed to excerpt policy forces where they’re advantageous. As Jonah Goldberg reported in the Los Angeles Times recently, this type of political maneuvering has recently reared its head in Russia, where the lower house of parliament passed a resolution stating that the Ukrainian famine wasn’t genocide.

Virtually no one, including the Russians, disputes that the Soviet government was involved in the deliberate forced starving of millions of people. But the Russian resolution indignantly insists: “There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines.” It notes that victims included “different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas” of the Soviet Union.

As Goldberg points out, the distinction the Russians are attempting to make (which many others have attempted to make in the past), is that the victims of this genocide were not an ethnic or religious group, but simply a bunch of people who happened to be living in an area that was decimated by a violent act. He goes on to explain that Lemkin made a number of concessions in order to get the convention passed, after years of fighting for its adoption.

The Russian’s argument, of course, like Turkey’s anti-Armenian lobby, is nothing but a semantic dodge. It’s the same kind of dodge Mike McCurry and Christine Shelley made in order to keep the Clinton Administration shielded from having to take action in Rwanda. And while I agree that this is a loophole that needs to be closed, I can’t help but notice that the United States and her sister nations have plenty of other excuses to ignore genocides, including, unfortunately, those that are currently unfolding.

The Devil Came On Horseback

dcoh.jpgNext Sunday, April 6, the Virginia Holocaust Museum will present a free screening of the award winning documentary The Devil Came on Horseback at 2 p.m. The film chronicles the tragic genocide currently taking place in Darfur through the eyes of former U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle.

The screening will be followed by a question and answer session with Jane Wells, one of the film’s producers. For more information, visit the VHM website.