Saturday, 15 December 2012

The 12 Days of Misogyny

It seems that media and advertising agencies worldwide have really gone out of their way this year to contrive the most sexist, misogynistic advertising campaigns. Laura Bates writes for the Independent and explains precisely why it is neither funny nor harmless and above all, why this matters:

"It matters because we are reaching the end of a year in which we have seen what can only be described as a torrent of reports of sexual assaults, paedophilia and abuse going back decades, many of them excused or ignored precisely because of a culture that made light of and normalized such incidents" - The Independent, "FHM, Virgin and Zoo Australia: The 12 Days of Misogyny"

FHM [Photo source: Huff Post UK]

Virgin [Photo source: Telegraph]

Zoo [Photo source: The Independent]

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Book Review: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad by David W. Lesch

David Lesch - Syria - The Fall of the House of Assad - bannerWhen Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria upon his father's death in 2000, many people had high hopes for this young man who gave up his passion for ophthalmology to lead his country. Many expected al-Assad to embark on a series of reforms and lead Syria to a more progressive future.

A decade later and the oppressive and powerful Syrian security-military apparatus reacted with increasing brutality to the Syrian uprisings that were part of the region-wide Arab Spring. Almost two years later and the country remains in the grip of a devastating civil war.

What went wrong in Syria, the country that once held the highest hopes of progression and reform in the region? Author David W. Lesch enjoyed exclusive access to Assad as a leading Middle East scholar and consultant between 2004 and 2009 and in Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, Lesch goes into detail about the rise and fall of the house of Assad.

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad is by turns quite fascinating. It begins with a discussion of al-Assad's first years in office, the Damascus Spring and the increasing international pressure following 9/11 and the assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafic Hariri.

David Lesch - Syria - The Fall of the House of Assad - coverWith its secularism and the overwhelmingly positive perceptions of Syrians of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma, many thought that Syria would be immune to the effects of the Arab Spring. The next portion of the book discusses why many in the Syrian government, military and Assad's inner circle thought that Syria was different, including Assad himself. This is followed by a breakdown of precisely why Syria was no different to the rest of the countries in the region and the reasons behind the escalating protests.

The following two chapters are dedicated to the Syrian response to the uprisings compared to the mounting opposition and popular action that took place amid reports of increasing atrocities.

Of particular interest was the next section of the book dealing with the the often confounding international response. Lesch goes into some detail regarding the divisions within and between the member states in both the United Nations and the Arab League and their evolving affiliations to Syria during this time.

As the book draws to a close at the end of the summer of this year, what is particularly startling is that the government and president of Syria continue to give the same empty promises of reform and cooperation as they did two years ago.

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad is an important book with valuable information covering both the background and current situation in Syria. The book does not go into much detail on the individual atrocities and massacres, other than to mention them and the consequences thereof, and the focus is on the background to the decisions made by key local, regional and international players.

It can be a little difficult to follow at times and the author does tend to jump back and forward in time, but I appreciate the layout of the book into clearly defined sections over the benefits that a strict chronological analysis would have brought.

I certainly recommend Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad to anyone interested in understanding the situation in Syria and would recommend it to academics and interested parties alike. Lesch makes a good attempt to present the book so that it will be accessible to non-academic readers.

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad is available to purchase at and

Article first published as Book Review: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad by David W. Lesch on Blogcritics.

An advance, electronic copy of this book was provided to me for the purposes of this review and all opinions contain herein are my own. This review contains affiliate links.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

FGC Is Not Only An African Issue [Infographic]

FGC is not only an African issue[Source]

This week the Orchid Project has released a fabulous infographic detailing how Female Genital Cutting is not only an African issue. 

When communities migrate around the world, they not only bring their traditions and customs with them, they also meet up with other members of their communities.  In doing so, they actively seek to keep their cultures alive through upholding customs that are deemed central to their cultural identity.

Female genital cutting is one of those customs and this is why it continues to be observed in countries including UK, Australia, Canada and the USA even though it is illegal and considered child abuse. 

In 2010, the USA even went so far as to make ‘holiday cutting’ illegal in a bid to protect minors who are taken back to Africa during ‘vacations’ and cut there.  This is the extent of the problem that such legislation had to be passed to protect young women and girls.

You can click on the photo above to see the full image but please visit the Orchid Project article Female genital cutting among diaspora communities  or share some of their information available on their fantastic resource page

You can also read my interview with Julia Lalla-Maharajh of the Orchid Project.


Thursday, 27 September 2012

Book Launch: Genocide Since 1945 by Philip Spencer

Tonight Philip Spencer talked at the Wiener Library in London about his book Genocide Since 1945. He gave an impassioned speech about what had made him become a scholar of genocide and why he wrote this book. He discussed Raphael Lemkin's struggle to comprehend why it was so difficult to bring the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide to justice, how this lead him to the naming and creation of the concept of genocide and how he lobbied the newly formed United Nations to make this act a crime under international law. Spencer noted how far we have come in such a short time from defining genocide to the International Criminal Tribunals and the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

What moved me the most about Spencer's talk was his focus on despair. I have often talked about my own despair, how the task of learning about genocide can seem so great, so unmanageable especially in the face of moral relativists, genocide deniers and others who seek to twist and rewrite history.

Spencer spoke of his own despair and the difficulty of drafting a book like this when the temptation is there to put it down as human nature and let the perpetrators get on with it.

He spoke of his obligation to the victims, those who can no longer speak for themselves or those who survived the vicious attacks. We need to speak up for them, to tell the world that it is not acceptable. We also need to speak up on behalf of the rescuers, those noble men and women who risk their lives to save others, who show that there is a choice and it is a crime to commit these acts. These are the people who show that there is hope for the future, and they are the ones who remain after the genocide to support the survivors and become their fellow citizens.

We need to continue learning about genocide causes and prevention in order to support and validate both victims and rescuers.

I spoke to Philip Spencer about Genocide Since 1945 and who his target market was with the novel. He explained that he had made the book as accessible as possible and it is certainly intended that his own university students would read it. The book contains an introduction to the concept of genocide and explains the differences between victims, perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers. Two full chapters are dedicated to case studies divided between the 'hidden' genocides of the Cold War era and those after. Each of the case studies carefully identifies victims and perpetrators with an important focus on intent. These chapters will be invaluable in understanding those genocides which have not formally been recognised or prosecuted.

Genocide Since 1945 is published by Routledge and available to purchase on For a limited time, you can use the discount code GEN45 to receive a discount of 20%.


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Before the Spring: Invasion of Iraq and Iraq War (2003-2011)

This is the second in a series on A Decade of Conflict Leading up to the Arab Spring.

The United States invasion of Iraq took place between 19 March and 1 May 2003.  It was presented to the American public and the world at large as an action that would rid the world against terrorism, protect against Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and liberate the people of Iraq. 

The invasion was seen to be successful because it resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party government in just 21 days and allowed the subsequent occupation of Iraq.  It was the first action in what was to become the Iraq War which officially lasted until 18 December 2011.

The difficulty is that Iraq held no weapons of mass destruction, was not in any way involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America (which was the galvanising force behind American support for the invasion), and left the people of Iraq traumatised and devastated after being subjected to nearly a decade of brutal force.

Army Sgt stands guard near burning oil well in Rumaylah Oil Fields in Southern IraqArmy Sgt stands guard near burning oil well in Rumaylah Oil Fields [Wikicommons]

It is likely that the invasion of Iraq, a sovereign state, by United States forces was illegal and then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said as much in 2004.  Far from freeing the Iraqi population, the war resulted in the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi citizens (with some estimates rising to 1 million civilian deaths, see Casualties of the Iraq War).

A heavy bombing campaign lead to the wide scale destruction of infrastructure and services in Iraq, leaving the population without water, electricity, sewerage systems and hospitals.  The bombs dropped on Iraq were laced with depleted uranium resulting in a lasting radioactive contamination that will likely remain for generations.  There has been a sharp increase in childhood leukaemia, cancer and infant mortality in highly bombarded regions in Iraq.

The war in Iraq resulted in a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions that has spilled over into neighbouring countries. 

“UNHCR estimates that more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, many in dire need of humanitarian care. Of these, more than 2.7 million Iraqis are displaced internally, while more than 2 million have escaped to neighboring states.” - UNHCR, "Iraq Refugee Emergency"

Malnutrition and disease outbreaks are widespread in a population with a disproportionate amount of widows and orphans.

Finally, much was made of the positive effect that the war would have on the liberation of women in Iraq.  In their book What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt discuss the challenges facing the women of Iraq.  They have noted an increase in neo-conservatism and the rise of violence against women, oppression and honour killings.  Women and young girls are often forced into prostitution or become victims of sex trafficking and exploitation.  Despite the rise of women-headed households, Iraqi women face great obstacles in becoming employed or gaining an education.

More so than ever before, every step of the Iraq War was subject to media scrutiny with many news outlets employing permanent correspondents and embedded reporters in key Iraqi locations.  While news outlets struggled to remain neutral amid accusations of propaganda and censorship, Al-Jazeera was noted for being one of the few news outlets to portray Iraqi casualties and present to audiences a view of the devastation in Iraq.

As with the Second Intifada, the people in neighbouring Arab countries received these broadcasts and took to the streets in protest against the Iraqi War.  The sentiment was increasingly anti-USA, anti-United Kingdom and anti-Israel with protests in Syria, Tehran, Cairo and later Baghdad and Basra in Iraq itself. 

Once again, in the context of rising distrust and conflict following the 9/11 attacks, increasing reports of discrimination and Islamophobia, and war in both Israel and Iraq, Arab speaking people began to feel solidarity to one another and an identification with the Palestinian and Iraqi causes.

Further reading:


Saturday, 18 August 2012

South Africa: Where Life Is Cheap and Death Even More So

One of the top search terms on this blog is “crime in South Africa”, followed by “personal stories of crime in South Africa”.  I don’t know why people are searching those terms, but in my mind there are two main categories of searchers:

1.  Those wanting to visit South Africa and wanting to know if the horror stories are really true.

2.  Those who are still living in South Africa and have begun to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with this picture.

I once belonged to the latter category of people.  I knew many people who were raped, murdered, gang-raped, robbed, burgled, held up at gun point or hijacked.  I was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery, my home was broken into while I was at home and my dog saved my life, I was attacked in my car. 

Life is cheap in South Africa and death is even more so.  I finally comprehended just how extreme the situation is there following a dinner party two years ago.  We were 7 women having dinner in a flat in London.  I was pressed to talk about the crime in South Africa and as always, I hesitated.  Talking about it leaves me feeling raw and vulnerable and it always, without fail, ushers in nightmares, panic attacks and generalised anxiety in the weeks following it.

But on that evening, I felt safe amongst 6 other women and I talked.  At one point, one of the women left the table and soon after made her excuses and left.  It turns out that my story filled her with such terror that she felt quite traumatised.  In her world, she didn’t know anyone who had died from unnatural causes, no victims of violent crime, barely any victims of crime at all.  Sure, she reads the newspapers, listens to the news.  But her inner circle had never been touched by violence, crime and inhumanity and that is entirely possible in countries other than South Africa. 

All of this has been in the forefront of my mind for the past ten days.  I want to talk about it and raise awareness because I believe that every South African, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or class has the right to safety, security and dignity.  Four opinion pieces caught my attention over the past 10 days.

Take your Women’s Day and shove it” [Helen Moffett, 8 August 2012, Books Live]

Helen discussed the parades and money spent on Women’s Day celebrations in South Africa and the laughing stock they had become in the face of a situation where women are raped, murdered, beaten and violated each and every day in South Africa.

Helen was a little bit angry and in light of the situation, I have to ask why we aren’t all more than a little bit angry:

Our rape stats are a global disgrace (Goddess, how many times do I have to FUCKING say this, the WORST in the world for a country not at war – the scale is unimaginable, the suffering ditto), black lesbians have “carve me up and smash my brains in” signs stamped on their backs, rural women and children live in relentless, grinding misery and poverty HUGELY exacerbated by patriarchal strictures, which are of course absolutely sacred (and the fact that the Traditional Courts Bill, which would render these women even more helpless and wretched, is actually allowed to pollute national airtime is a bloody disgrace)

[Read more about South Africa’s Women’s Day]

Women don't deserve a day” [David Moseley, 14 August 2012, News 24]

Last weekend, violent protests erupted in Lonmin mine and David Moseley remarked that: “There is always something terrible happening in South Africa”.

He referenced Helen’s post and then went on to talk about his greatest fear, that someone he knows and loves will be raped.  It is a valid concern in South Africa where “women are getting raped (almost every 17 seconds in South Africa)” and “a survey … conducted amongst 1 500 Soweto school children … discovered that a quarter of all boys said that "jackrolling" (their lingo for gang rape) was "fun"”.

He closes by saying that:

Women don't deserve a day at all.

They deserve every day, every week, every month, every year. They deserve our undying attention. They deserve a country where they can live without fear.

They deserve life.

It can be really frustrating speaking to South Africans sometimes as their need to defend their country and all of its faults battles with their need to talk about the horrors that they face.  Ultimately it seems that they fail to grasp one small point.  Each South African has a fundamental human right to live safe from physical, bodily, emotional or psychological harm.  Especially where it is being dished out to them in such an aggressive, continuous and gratuitous manner.  While the government wraps itself up in corruption, nepotism, cronyism and negligence, the citizens of South Africa are dying.

Where is the Outrage?” [Camilla Bath, 16 August 2012, Eye Witness New]

On Thursday morning, Camilla Bath EWN Deputy Editor in Johannesburg asked the following question:

Have we become so insensitive in Gauteng, in South Africa, that we all but disregard the unspeakable violence that’s unfolding on our own doorstep? Are we too callous to care, too inundated with tragedy and violence on a daily basis to truly take stock of what’s happening around us? Have our ideas of what qualifies as shocking been warped to such an extent that we no longer see people being burnt and hacked to death as utterly unacceptable and appalling?

Her words are especially chilling and especially relevant in light of the tragic events that took place at Lonmin mine just hours later.  Bath spoke of the disturbing violence taking place at the mine and the murders of miners, police officers and security guards and yet she wondered why this was not even reaching South Africa’s newspapers.  The sad fact is that South Africans are so jaded, so used to violence and crime that I found more reporting on the violence in Lonmin on international news sites than on South African sites.

Bath concluded by stating that, “This type of brutality is never deserving of anything other than outrage and disgust. Why the violence really started and who is really behind it are, for now, irrelevant. Right now, it simply needs to be stopped”. 

It was stopped, in the most violent, traumatic manner.  By the end of the day, 34 miners had been shot dead by police in what the police vehemently deny constitutes a massacre.

Dear black person” [Ferial Haffajee, 16 August 2012, News 24]

It seems strange to close this piece on crime with mention of an opinion piece on politics, poverty and racism.  But it is very important and absolutely relevant in the South African context.

South Africa has one of the highest GINI coefficients worldwide which means that the gap between richest and poorest is wider than any other country, including Brazil.  The government is absolutely corrupt and citizens suffer without electricity, water, education, healthcare and housing.  There was some progress in the 1990s towards housing, jobs, education and healthcare but in the second decade of the 21st century we see a country torn apart by poverty, corruption, inequality and racism. 

It is clear that South Africa is a country on the brink and in the midst of all of this chaos, police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 human beings.  I’d like to say that it feels like a return to the Apartheid era but back then we lived in a police state under a permanent State of Emergency.  I’m not going to even try predict the effect of adding state-sanctioned extreme violence to the mix of lawlessness and chaos but I can guess that it can’t be good.  How much more has to go wrong in South Africa before a true leader steps in and cleans up both on the streets and in the government?


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Before the Spring: The Second Intifada (2000 – 2005)

This is the first in a series on A Decade of Conflict Leading up to the Arab Spring.

Also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada

The Second Intifada was a period of unrest and conflict between Israeli armed forces and Palestinian citizens.  It took place in the occupied Palestinian territories in Israel, starting on 28 September 2000 and lasting until 2004/2005.  It began in the context of the failure of the Oslo Accords, an attempt for peace negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Violence and protests erupted when Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition party leader, entered the Temple Mount / Al-Haram Al-Sharif area (a disputed area which has significant religious importance to both Jews and Muslims) and stated that "the Temple Mount is in our hands and will remain in our hands. It is the holiest site in Judaism and it is the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount".  This was seen as extreme provocation and the grounds for years of conflict and unrest.

The-Second-Intifada Palestinian protestors during the Second Intifada [Gallo/Getty]

Depending on which source you consult, the Israelis and the Palestinians are painted as the primary aggressors, with both sides using questionable tactics. For example, the overview section on Wikipedia notes the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks, lynchings, kidnappings shootings, stabbings, stonings and assassinations.  The Israelis are simply painted as imposing checkpoints and curfews (see: “Second Intifada: Overview”). 

Both sides refer to events such as the Muhammad al-Durrah murder (caught on camera by a French cameraman), the Ramallah lynching, the murder of Israeli teenager Ofir Rahum, and the battle of Jenin to further support their position.

Perhaps the figures speak for themselves?  In the Introduction section of the same article, Wikipedia cites B’Tselem statistics of a final death count of up to 5,500 Palestinians, 1,100 Israelis and 64 foreigners.

In the first few days of the clashes in September 2000, Israelis responded to stone throwing, riots and demonstrations with both live fire and rubber bullets and the death toll rose from 7 Palestinians in the first day to 47 after five days.  Amos Malka, then head of Israeli military intelligence, is famous for stating that 1,300,000 bullets were fired by Israeli soldiers in that first month alone.

“By the end of the year, at least 275 Palestinians had been killed and thousands had been wounded, along with 19 members of the Israeli security forces and five Israeli civilians, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Palestinian stone-throwers were met with Israeli snipers; gunmen, with helicopter gunships and tanks. What began as a popular protest movement quickly began to look like a war…

… Demonstrations were being met with overwhelming force by Israel and it made popular protest impossible.” - Al-Jazeera, "Remembering the Second Intifada"

After a year, Palestinians took to suicide bombings and sniper attacks.  The attacks were said to have a significant psychological effect on both Israeli military and civilians.  By the end of 2004, there had been 135 attacks and more than 500 casualties but nowhere near how many Palestinians were being killed by Israeli armed aggression.

“Israel's campaign to suppress the uprising took a heavy toll on ordinary Palestinians.

After four years, at least 2,859 Palestinians had been killed and tens of thousands injured. Israel destroyed more than 3,700 Palestinian homes and placed more than 7,300 Palestinians in Israeli prisons according to B'Tselem.

Significantly, the Palestinian leadership was also decimated by a concerted campaign of assassination.” - Al-Jazeera, "Remembering the Second Intifada"

Indeed, there were 273 assassinations of Palestinian leaders by Israeli undercover units, the most notorious being the July 2002 bombing of a compound that killed Salah Shehade, commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades along with 15 other people including Shehade’s wife and his nine children. 

The bombing was thought to be so barbaric that it inspired the “Pilot’s Letter”, a signed declaration by several Israeli air force pilots that they would not conduct bombing campaigns over Palestinian occupied territory.  However noble, the letter was roundly damned by the Israeli military with several pilots being fired in both military and civilian sectors and more being forced to retract their signature.

The Second Intifada was a long and protracted period of conflict in which the primary casualties were civilians.  Israeli forces were indiscriminate in their reprisals against suspected terrorists while Palestinian attacks specifically targeted civilian populations. 

It is important to understand how these events were viewed by people in the Middle East and the role these sentiments played in the Arab Spring.

Intense media coverage by Al-Jazeera inspired Arabs and lead to solidarity protests across the Arab world. The protestors identified with and supported the Palestinian cause and they were disappointed in their own leaders for not using their influence with the USA to assist against perceived Israeli brutality. Protests, attacks and flag burning occurred in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Further reading:


Saturday, 11 August 2012

A Decade of Conflict Leading Up to the Arab Spring

Syrian rebellionSyrian anti-regime protesters gather in al-Assy square  [HO / Shaam News Network]

When analysing the events that led up to the Arab Spring, commentators are keen to point out that the uprisings did not occur in a vacuum but were the culmination of a series of events over the past decade, if not longer.  In the book The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era authors Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren state that, “Far from being a sudden awakening, the Arab Spring capped a decade of protest, political action and media criticism that had laid the ground for more open political systems”.

One significant factor influencing the sentiment of Arabs during the Arab Spring was that this had been a decade of war in the Middle East.  It was also a decade of increasing access to news, information and diverse opinions corresponding with the launch of the Al-Jazeera news network in 1996, followed by 24 hour broadcasting in 1999.  While Al-Jazeera aimed to provide objective and balanced reporting, a sense of "Arabness" began to prevail as audiences across the Arab countries  were exposed to world events and could see the conflict and change in the region.

With this exposure came solidarity and a perceived divide between the Arab world and their supporters, and the United States, Israel, United Kingdom and their supporters. 

There is a great deal to say about the role of media in the Arab Spring but that will not be the focus of this series.  Over the next couple of weeks I will focus on the decade of conflict that led up to and influenced sentiments in the Arab Spring.  This four-part series will focus on the following four conflicts:


Friday, 10 August 2012

The Suppressed History of Dutch Atrocities in Indonesia

The piece below is written by Paul Doolan and was published today in the Australian e-journal On Line Opinion as “In the Netherlands, a suppressed history makes the headlines”.  In this article, Doolan discusses the fascinating history of oppression and atrocities in post-war Indonesia during their fight for independence and how this history was all but erased from the Dutch public conscience in for over 60 years. The article is shared under the Creative Commons license with due credit given to both Paul Doolan and On Line Opinion.

The problem with the past sometimes, is that it isn't past at all, as the Dutch have been forced to face up to recently. For the Dutch, the history of the mid- 20thcentury was quite simple until very recently: a freedom loving people (the Dutch) were attacked by an aggressive neighbor (Germany) and suffered for five years until, with the help of some friends, they were liberated. Conveniently forgotten was that, following this episode, the Dutch state mobilized the largest army in its history and fought a war against the Indonesian independence movement. The Dutch lost the conflict, and in December 1949 their former colony, the Dutch East Indies, gained independence. During the following decades this tropical misadventure formed an almost blank page in the nation's history. But that, it seems, is changing. Events during the past year have forced the Dutch nation to reconsider the myth that for over a half century has formed their collective memory. Especially in the past couple of months, history has become front page news.

Eerste beeld van executies in indie

The Dutch had ruled most of Indonesia for 350 years, but found themselves prisoners of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. With the defeat of Japan, Indonesian nationalists declared independence. The Dutch tried, with great difficulty, to reassert their control of the archipelago. After over four years of bitter conflict The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to Indonesia in December 1949.

By the end of the war numerous cases of military excesses had come to the attention of the Dutch public. Massacres by Dutch Special Forces on the island of South Celebes (present day Sulawesi) had been the subject of parliamentary debate. A massacre in the village Rawagede had been the subject of debate at the United Nations Security Council in 1948. Such incidents gradually led a minority of the Dutch press to turn against the war. In February 1949 leftist De Groene Amsterdammerpublished a letter from an unidentified officer. He wrote that Dutch officers:

defend with passion and conviction the assertion that, for instance, if you are shot at from a kampong [village] than this kampong should be set on fire from four sides before the inhabitants have the chance to run away. And whoever then tries to escape (…) you shoot with a machine-gun, preferably not bothering with if these include women of children.

The officer then drew a comparison with Putten, a village that had become infamous as being the site of one of the worst Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch soil. The officer wrote of summary executions of prisoners who are "simply shot behind the head and then buried." He described the Indonesians as living under "military terror."

But after the loss of their colony in December 1949 and the return of their soldiers the Dutch authorities quietly and quickly put the lid on this uncomfortable period of contemporary history. For many decades, with only the occasional exception, the possibility that Dutch forces had been guilty of atrocities, or even war crimes, was kept out of public consciousness. But last September history ended up in the court room and a court verdict in The Hague found the Dutch state responsible for carrying out a massacre of over 300 unarmed Indonesians in 1947 in the village of Rawagede, Indonesia, and called on the state to award compensation to the plaintiffs – seven elderly widows of those massacred.

Photos emerge of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia

Recent months have seen an increase in public attention on Dutch military atrocities. Earlier this year a national television channel, NCRV, broadcast a documentary on the Dutch atrocities committed on Sulawesi in 1946-1947, when around 3,000 Indonesians were executed without trial by special Dutch forces. It turns out that an official parliamentary inquiry into these events had taken place in 1954, but the report was kept top secret. The NCRV managed to get hold of a copy and for the first time the Dutch public heard excerpts from the report which would seem to indicate that widespread atrocities had had the support of the military and political leadership, and had then been officially hushed up. A few months after the broadcast a foundation representing the widows of ten victims of the Dutch on Sulawesi began a legal procedure against the Dutch state. The lawyer representing the foundation is Liesbeth Zegveld, who also led the successful case on behalf of the widows of Rawagede. The odds are that the Dutch state will be found responsible for war crimes again.

In early July historians from three research institutes of worldwide reputation issued a public statement, claiming that the Dutch state has never come clean on its colonial past and called for the government to fund a large scale research project that would systematically look at the behavior of the Dutch military in Indonesia during the years 1945-1950 and examine the role of the Dutch political elite in the conflict. The fact that the history of the war of decolonization in Indonesia has become a hot topic can be seen by the fact that this announcement by academic historians was reported on national news, in newspapers and on radio and television. It isn't often that history makes the headlines. Yet more was to follow.

Dutch atrocities in Indonesia

On July 10th the national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos that seem to show three Indonesians standing in a mass grave, being executed by Dutch soldiers. The photos had belonged to a deceased former Dutch soldier and had been rescued from a rubbish dump. Remarkably, these were the first ever photos of Dutch executions ever to be published – 63 years after the end of the war. De Volkskrant ran the report on its front page and within hours it was being reported on the radio and television. I've just returned from a two week visit to the Netherlands and everyone I spoke to had seen the photos. The most common reaction was: "why have we been lied to all these years?" Perhaps we can expect to find an answer some time in the not too distant future.

About the Author

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

Paul blogs at ThinkShop


Sunday, 10 June 2012

This Day In History: 10 June 1942

The Destruction of Lidice

On 10 June 1942, Nazi forces completely destroyed the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice which is located just north-west of Prague.  They surrounded the village and rounded all 173 of the men up, taking them to a local farm where they were all shot to death. The women and children were separated and unspeakable atrocities were then committed against them.  Four pregnant women had their unborn children forcibly aborted and they were then sent to concentration camps while the majority of the rest of the women were sent to work at Ravensbrück concentration camp where most of them perished. 

Lidice Children's MemorialLidice Children's Memorial. Photo credit: Moravice [Source]

Eighty-eight children were transported to the Polish city of Lodz, south-west of Warsaw.  Seven of them were selected for Germanisation but the rest were taken to nearby Chelmno on 2 July 1942 and were gassed to death. 

The village of Lidice was razed to the ground, buildings were destroyed and even graves in the cemetery were dug up and destroyed.  The absolute cleansing of Lidice was complete.

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich was a Nazi official and one of the major architects of The Holocaust.  He spoke at the Wannsee conference in January 1942 where he called for Jews to gathered from across Europe to be worked to death in concentration camps or exterminated. 

He was assassinated on the morning of 27 May 1942 by British trained Czech and Slovak parachutists.  His death caused an intense stage of mourning amongst Nazi circles and Hitler called for the explicit destruction of any village found to be harbouring Heydrich’s killers.  He ordered that all males should be killed, women transported to a concentration camp, children Germanised or otherwise dealt with, and the village razed to the ground.

The Assassination of Reinhard HeydrichHeydrich’s car at scene of assassination. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv [Source]

Intelligence incorrectly linked the towns of the Lidice and Ležáky and Hitler’s orders were carried out to the letter in a terrible and brutal act of revenge carried out against innocent men, women and children.

Lidice Lives!

In the aftermath of Heydrich's assassination, Adolf Hitler is said to have proclaimed that “Lidice shall die forever!”  When he heard of Hitler’s plan to destroy Lidice and the terrible price that the people Lidice paid, a Labour MP in Stoke on Trent, England decided to start the Lidice Shall Live campaign.

Through his work, Lidice was rebuilt and a home created for the 153 women and 17 children who returned after the war.

You can read more about Barnett Stross’s work and the incredible generosity of the people of Stoke on Trent in helping to rebuild Lidice over at Dáithaí C’s blog: Lidice Lives.  You can also read about the anti-fascist art exhibition in Melbourne in 1942 (partly inspired by the events at Lidice) at the Art and Architecture, Mainly blog: Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition, Melbourne 1942


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Prijedor: An Anatomy of A Genocide

prijedor-genocide-kozarac-massacre-1 Kozarac memorial [Source: Ranko Cukovic/Reuters]

If there were a guidebook for preparing for a genocide, it is likely that it would include several fundamental steps.  The budding genocidaire would be advised to seek out a society characterised by increasing socio-political tensions, preferably in the grips of a war or economic collapse.  The media would be used to conduct a campaign of propaganda, vilifying one ethnic group and blaming them for the ill fortunes of another. Radio and news stations would need to be taken over, newspapers controlled.

The enemy would need to be identified, dehumanised.  The coup de grace would be getting the enemy to participate in identifying themselves, making them carry passbooks and identity cards, wear arm bands or paint their doors.  And then you kill them.

If this reads as flippant, it is certainly not meant to be but it underlines the precise reason why genocide education is so important.  After the horrors of the Holocaust, there is no way that the painstakingly well-planned and systematic genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia should have gone unnoticed before it was too late, but they did.  And they followed a frighteningly similar pattern to that described above.

Prijedor is a town in north western Bosnia and Herzegovina.  According to the 1991 census, prior to the war in 1992-1995, Bosniaks formed 43.9% of the town’s inhabitants, 42.3% were Serbs while the rest were Roma, Ukrainians, Croats and Serbs.  In the aftermath of the war, 94% of the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats had been removed from the area in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that saw Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats murdered, raped and interred in concentration camps.

It began shortly after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991.  A local Serbian newspaper Kozarski Vjesnik began to print propaganda, instilling fear of local Bosniak and Croatian populations and imploring Serbs to arms themselves against these perceived threats.  The statements were inflammatory and emotive, using historically loaded terms such as Ustaše and Mudžahedini to refer to Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks respectively.  The local radio station Radio Prijedor was taken over, as was the television transmitter station.

There were rumours abounding of a document known as the “Silent Night”, a list of Serbian intellectuals, political leaders and community figures that were supposedly being targeted by Bosniak militants.  Such propaganda paved the way for the the next phase of identification and removal.

It is reported that on 31 May 1992, the Bosnian Serb authorities in Prijedor issued a decree that all non-Serb civilians should mark their houses with white sheets or flags and that they should wear white armbands when out of their homes.  This was witnessed by European Commission Monitoring Mission observers in August 1992 and is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews during the Holocaust, yet nothing was done to stop the upcoming extermination.

Thousands of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats died in Prijedor and the surrounding villages and thousands more still were forcibly removed from their homes, raped, executed and arrested and sent to nearby Keraterm, Omarska and Trnoplje camps.  Inhabitants in camps were subjected to further regimes of torture and beatings, many to the point of death, and widespread rape and sexual assault of both male and female prisoners occurred. 

It could be said that a blueprint of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews was taken and applied precisely against the local non-Serb population in Bosnia and just as entire regions of Poland and Europe remain cleansed of Jews, so have regions of Bosnia been cleansed of non-Serbs.  It beggars belief that this happened in 1992.

Tomorrow marks 20 years since Bosnian Serb authorities decreed that non-Serbs should identify their homes and persons with white sheets, flags and armbands.  To this day, and in spite of ICTY judgements, local authorities have not apologised for or acknowledged these atrocities. 

To this end, 31 May is marked as White Armband Day Worldwide and you are invited to show your solidarity with victims of mass atrocities committed in Prijedor and around the world by wearing a white armband or placing a white sheet or flag on your window.

Visited the Stop Genocide Denial website for more details.

Further reading:

Bridging the Gap in Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina [ICTY]
31 May – White Armband Day Worldwide [Stop Genocide Denial]
Milomir Stakić case information sheet (PDF) [ICTY]
Milomir Stakić judgement (PDF) [ICTY]
Duško Tadić judgement (PDF) [ICTY]
Prijedor Massacre [Wikipedia]
Aftermath of the Bosnian Genocide: In the Land of War Criminals [Bosnia Genocide]


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Southern Kordofan: Unfinished Business

When asked why there is so little coverage of the situation in Sudan, correspondent Peter Greste admits that Southern Kordofan is almost impossible to gain access to.  The Sudanese government in Khartoum will not allow entry to journalists and it remains for them to travel from South Sudan and into the area on long, treacherous roads. 

Peter Greste and Al Jazeera travelled to the Nuba Mountains in the remote state of Southern Kordofan in Sudan and discovered, in Greste’s words, “a humanitarian disaster”. 

“This is what a scorched earth policy looks like”.

This exclusive report by Al Jazeera exposes the hidden war in the Nuba Mountains.  It shows that the Sudanese government is targeting civilians, that they are being forced to live in caves, and that the government is embarking on a campaign of genocide.  Most importantly, it shows Sudanese government footage whereby troops are ordered to “clear out the area” and not to leave any survivors as this would lead to administrative costs for the Sudanese government.

In this report, Dr Mukesh Kapila, former UN head in Sudan and Mustafa Osman Ismail, senior adviser to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir are interviewed.  Mustafa Osman Ismail claims that civilian casualties are incidental, that civilians are not being targeted, and that food, water and medical supplies are being sent to the people.

“I’m very disappointed in my good old friend Mr Osman, it must be very, very difficult to be advisor to a genocidal head of state.  What I saw in Southern Kordofan, and it’s not just me, is that what he’s saying is an absolute pack of lies. 

If that was the case, we would not be seeing a deserted countryside, we would not be seeing black, charred fields, we would be seeing seeds being planted as the rains come, yet that is not happening.  We would not be seeing thousands and thousands of women and children living in caves, as I saw for myself, and as refugees, as I saw for myself. 

And we would not be seeing anti-personnel landmines and Antonov bombers as I saw for myself.  And if Mr Osman is right, then why doesn’t he allow independent and impartial access to the region, which he will not do?


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Film Review: Coexist Documentary by Amazo Productions (Rwanda)

Coexist logo

“When hate persists, how will you coexist?”

“The only alternative to coexistence is codestruction” – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian Prime Minister

On Wednesday I attended a screening of the Adam Mazo / Amazo Productions documentary Coexist at the Wiener Library in London followed by a question and answer session with David Russell of the Survivors Fund (SURF)

The reality in Rwanda today is that many of the survivors have no choice but to live amongst and interact with the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

On June 18, 2012, the Gacaca court process is due to end after hearing almost 2 million cases.  There was some good that came of these courts as the survivors were provided with an element of truth and a modicum of closure.  However, the prisons in Rwanda were overflowing and over the years (for example, in 2003 and 2005), President Paul Kagame sanctioned the mass release of confessed killers into the community.

In their relentless quest to move forwards and to not dwell in the past, the Rwandan government is hard-selling the idea of unity and reconciliation.  The history of the genocide is not taught in schools and people are encouraged to views themselves as Rwandans and no longer Hutus or Tutsis. 

Coexist documentary posterWhat becomes increasingly clear in the documentary is that people are saying what they think they are meant to say, that they are forced to follow the government’s policies and are made to deal with their pain and devastation behind closed doors.  It seems that a great deal of effort is put into assimilating the perpetrators back into the community with reconciliation workshops and other initiatives.

But what of the survivors?

There are three major themes in the documentary which were picked up in the discussion: reparations and compensation, rehumanisation, and coexistence. 

Reparations and Compensation

Given the reality of the overcrowded prisons and the logistics of sentencing each and every single perpetrator of the genocide, many individuals were simply released on time served.  Some were sentenced to community service or to work on public works with no direct benefit to the survivors. 

Even if an order was passed for reparations or compensation, the perpetrators are often indigent (as are the survivors), with no means to pay their debts and it is rare that reparation or compensation orders are enforced.

David Russell explained that as the Gacaca process draws to a close, SURF are now moving to gather data on how many orders still need to be enforced.  He explained that initially it was impossible to put a number on the sheer magnitude of loss during the genocide.  How do you quantify the loss of parents, children, a spouse? How do you apply numbers to the loss of property or to abuse, rape and trauma?  The government had to support the most vulnerable and now there are motions to focus on compensation once again.  From the SURF website:

“Over the past month in Rwanda, SURF in partnership with Redress, and in collaboration with IBUKA, has been working on a project exploring the rights to reparation (which includes compensation, restitution and rehabilitation) for survivors” – Compensation, SURF website, 6 April 2012


It is easy to focus on the challenges and shortcomings evident in present-day Rwanda but we must not lose sight of the human beings involved and their incredible achievements over the past years.

David Russell reminded us that everybody has their own experiences during a genocide and there are four main classes of people: victims, perpetrators, witnesses and rescuers.  The challenge is to rehumanise people so that they no longer see themselves in terms of these labels but come to define themselves as Rwandans again, as human beings.

Fifi Coexist

But many survivors are in an untenable situation.  Fifi talks of the abuse she suffered at the hands of relatives after the genocide, how she grew up alone and without a family.  For her and Agnes, the pain and suffering did not end in 1994 but continues to this day.  Agnes suffers with the fact that she was raped and the enduring legacy of those attacks.  Théophilla was the only member of her family to survive the genocide.  Domitilie’s husband became a judge with the Gacaca courts and was murdered as a result of his work there.  Still these women must continue to live amongst and meet the perpetrators and murders on a daily basis.

Part of the work that counsellors and victim support groups must undertake is to assist survivors with their reconciliation, recovery and search for meaning.  Despite their circumstances, these women have achieved great things in their lives with Agnes leading a team of women that caters for the reconciliation workshops, Théophilla counsels those with PTSD and Fifi is attending law school.


“We cannot have a land of victims and a land of perpetrators” – Fatuma Ndangiza, RPF government official

It is clear at this time, when the genocide trials are drawing to a close, that the real fight has only just begun.  Throughout the website, the following quote is displayed:

“If we ignore each other, the genocide could happen again”

This really resonates with me.  When I returned from Serbia in 2010, the overwhelming impression I got was that genocide, intolerance and conflict could erupt again.  It seemed to me that nothing was being done to ensure unity and reconciliation amongst the Balkan states, NATO was still identified as an unfair aggressor, and I was informed that the school curriculum still defended Serbian hostilities during the the war and later in Kosovo. 

Coexist doc

It impresses me that despite the hurdles raised in this film, a lot more is being done in the name of unity and reconciliation in Rwanda than in other former conflict zones and scenes of ethnic or racial intolerance.

What occurred to me during the screening and the following discussion is that there is a four point continuum from revenge to coexistence:

revenge – tolerance – reconciliation – coexistence

Those interviewed in the film stressed the need to forgive in order to move on.  This despite the fact that the killers often show no remorse, have not asked for forgiveness, and continue to taunt them during commemorations, asking if they have not cried enough.

There is simply no other option but to coexist and that is why the work of SURF in supporting survivors and gaining compensation is so important.

Coexist Trailer from Adam Mazo on Vimeo.

Coexist is a must-see documentary that I would recommend to both individuals interested in Rwanda and those with an interest in escalating ethnic or racial tensions across the globe.  You can purchase the documentary here or watch it in full here


Saturday, 7 April 2012

Interview with Mark S Smith, Author of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling

Treblinka Concentration Camp sign

Mark S. Smith is the author of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling.  The book tells the story of Hershl Sperling, a man who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, only to take his own life 44 years later.  The paperback is due out in the US on May 1 and we spoke to Mark about his inspiration for writing this story, his journey to Poland, Islamism and rising Islamophobia, and genocide education and prevention.

Could you tell us a bit more about Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling? What inspired you you tell this story?

I began with the idea that I wanted to write something about anti-Semitism. Few Jews over the past two millennia have not been subjected to this vile phenomenon that is so deeply ingrained in European and more recently Middle Eastern cultures. I have been at the receiving end of it many times and so has my family, and I wanted to stick my oar in. 

I have always held the view, perhaps best expressed by Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi: “I can't bear how a man can be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong.” 

History teaches us that the consequences of hatred and discrimination are murderous and genocidal – 800,000 slain in Rwanda, two million Cambodians, 450,000 in Darfur, a million Armenians, six million Jews. An estimated four million Africans died chained in the belly of slave vessels en route to America. The list is continuous, the suffering incalculable, extending from the remotest days of human life to the present and forward into the future. Anti-Semitism, the theme of my book, is but one manifestation of evil. Yet it transfixes me – not only because I am a Jew, but also because it expresses the senseless self-loathing of Mankind. I wanted to analyze it and understand it, and, naively, cure it. 

I read volumes on the subject. I learned of the origins of anti-Semitism during the early days of Christianity, whose Gospels – violently anti-Jewish and political in nature – placed exceptional blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus. Their motive, conveniently circumventing the fact that Jesus died a Roman death on the cross, was self-interest – to demonstrate that the Christians had not shared Jewish disloyalty towards Rome during the revolt of 70AD. The words of the Gospels have had terrible consequences for Jews through the centuries. The attacks in the Koran are no less brutal for Jewish refusal to recognize Muhammad as a prophet. Muslims who cite these abuses to vindicate their own anti-Semitism disregard other Koranic passages which show respect for Jews and preach tolerance. I also saw how anti-Jewish vitriol through the ages – both Christian and Muslim – had been used by religious and political leaders to manipulate the herd. For many months, I churned my theme in my head, but I was a writer without a story. 

Then, one day in 2005, while the world was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my deliberations came to an end. I have been a journalist for more than a quarter of a century, and I recognize a good story when I see one. I was on the phone with Hershl's son, my friend, Sam, in London. 

Sam said: “You remember what my father used to say, ‘Auschwitz was nothing. Auschwitz was a walk in the park.’” 

It was a jarring remark. And I wondered how make sense of the pain of a man who felt "Auschwitz was nothing." 

I had known Hershl Sperling very well when I was a teenager. After all, he was my friend’s father. His death in 1989, a suicide from a bridge in the Scottish city of Glasgow, had shocked me. Suddenly, I saw him on that bridge and I was struck by the recollection of the blue-black number on his arm, his tattoo. He had survived almost everything the Nazis could throw at him – blitzkrieg, the ghetto, prison camps, work camps, concentration camps, death camps, death marches. He also survived Treblinka, the most murderous place on earth. Of the roughly one million souls who were transported there to die, Hershl Sperling was among 68 who survived. What had possessed him to take his own life almost fifty years later? 

Then Sam asked: “Did you know my father wrote a book after liberation?” I hadn’t known. 

“Have you read the book?” I asked. 

He hadn’t. It wasn’t until months later, after tracking down the work in an antiquarian bookshop in Jerusalem and getting it translated from the original Yiddish, that I discovered Hershl had, in fact, written just a part in this book, titled From the Last Extermination. His contribution, however, was called simply “Treblinka”. Only after reading it did I begin to understand the riddle of his suicide. In Treblinka, the most gruesome and efficient death machine ever known, the horror of Mankind’s self-loathing plunged to a terrifying nadir. 

So, I began with anti-Semitism and end up writing the story of my friend’s father.

In the book, you mentioned that Hershl's sons found it difficult to answer the questions that you needed to ask them.  Now that some time has passed, how does Hershl's family feel about the book and its success?

I know they are pleased their father's story did not disappear into history and that his testimony, his own words, was published for the first time in English as an appendix to my book. 

You researched the material for this book extensively, travelling to both Poland and America. If you look back on the process of writing your book, is there anything that you regret or that you wished had turned out differently?

This is a complicated question that needs to be answered at a number of levels. Hmm… the writing process. As I have mentioned, I began with the idea that I wanted to write something about anti-Semitism and consequences of racial hatred when it is manipulated and fanned for the purpose of controlling the herd. However, I really did not know my story until speaking with Sam, the son of the man who would eventually become the subject of my book. But the process of writing itself, the creation of the work beyond its basic structure, is mysterious to me. I had a sense of how I wanted it to be, what I wanted it to say and the effect I wanted it to have on the reader. Beyond that, it wrote itself, so I cannot truly say that regret any part of it or wish it turned out differently. I suspect it turned the way it was supposed to turn out.

In terms of information, however, there were things that came to light after the book was published, which I would have liked to include, had the timing been different.

There have been several significant developments since the book was published.

The first occurred several months after the book was published. I received a letter from the coroner who had been on duty the day Hershl's body was brought in. He had read my book and said he believed that Hershl had been in the water for perhaps several days. This contradicts the assertion of George Parsonage, the Glasgow Humane Society's lifeboat officer, who had pulled Hershl's body from the river into his rowboat. The coroner's contention raises the possibility that Hershl may not have spent as long wandering the streets of the city as we originally thought. If true, that means Hershl's suffering at the end was less, and I am glad about that. 

Hershl Sperling After Liberation

The second significant development has come from the recent work of British forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, who has unearthed fresh evidence to prove the existence of mass graves at the Nazi death camp Treblinka - scuppering the claims of Holocaust deniers who say it was merely a transit camp. The lack of physical evidence in the area has been exploited by Holocaust deniers, but the work of Caroline Sturdy Colls confirms Hershl's story and testimony, even to those haters who continue to deny and would rather it weren't true.

Could you tell us a bit more about your journey to Poland, to the areas that used to be Jewish but from which Jews had disappeared?

There is so much to tell and certainly not enough space here. I have been trying desperately to understand Poland without Jews. I travelled all over Poland while conducting research for the book. There have been Jews in Poland since the times of the first Crusade in the 11th century. 

Although my immediate family were not connected with Poland, the name on my maternal side, Kaminsky, has Polish roots. So Poland is in my blood.

At the same time, Poland is an integral part of Jewish history, my history.  There is no such thing as Jewish culture without Polish culture, and conversely there is no Polish culture without Jewish culture. I find it ironic that Jews first came to Poland because of its relative tolerance. Here they had their own language, religion, literature, music and even laws.

By the end of the 18th century, more than 70% of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. A visitor to to almost any small town or city in Poland for several centuries could not walk 10 feet down the street without bumping into a Jew.

Do you have any views on rising Islamophobia in Europe?

There is a striking photograph held in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which was also used as the back cover of the paperback edition of my book, which is coming out in the U.S. on May 1. It shows a smirking German soldier lining up a group of Jews during the round up in the Polish city of Czestochowa. Almost certainly, none of the Jews in that picture survived. What fascinates me most is the look on this soldier's face. It encapsulates that vicious strand in European culture which has stigmatised, persecuted and murdered whoever could be categorised as different. This tradition in Christian Europe - and by extension in the U.S. - found perfect expression for its unquestioning superiority in its anti-Semitism and in its racism. While the Holocaust was a unique historical event, the racism and anti-Semitism that motivated it continue to flourish. Islamophobia is the latest manifestation.  Clearly, most Muslims are not terrorists. 

However, there is something else I'd like to say here, because while Islamophobia may have its roots in European prejudice, the picture since September 11, 2001 has become far more complex. Islamism, which I regard as an Islamic version of Nazism, has become a major force not just in Islam but in the non-Islamic world. In many ways I feel Islam and Islamism are opposites. 

Let me make my position clear. I have enormous respect for Muhammad, who was without doubt a unique and luminous individual. He was a warrior, a sovereign, a revolutionary and a sage. He was a great man by any standards. His achievements were huge and judging by the astonishing legacy he left behind in terms of the culture and the system of belief he set in motion, he is certainly one of the most extraordinary men to have ever lived. I have enormous respect for Mohammad and for Islam, and for the numerous benefits both have bestowed upon mankind. 

In the decade that has followed 9/11, we have heard much about a so-called civil war within Islam, between moderate, life-loving Muslims and Islamism. Well, until the Arab Spring, it seemed the civil war was over and the Islamists had won. Until recently, it seemed moderates were silent. Now they are speaking again, it places like Tunisia. This is progress not just for Tunisia, but for the world. 

So, although I have enormous respect for Muhammad and Islam, I have zero respect Islamism and the the followers of al Qaeda, which of course feeds Islamophobia in Europe. We can hardly be expected to respect Islamism, an ideology that calls only for our deaths here in the West. Islamism is as self-loathing as anti-Semitism and all racial discrimination, but it is also loaded with self-pity and self deception. Populations should always beware of political parties that have their roots its hatred and division, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Anyone who doubts the aims of this group, should read history for themselves. Despite their place in the Arab Spring and attempts to be viewed as moderates, they are wolves in sheep's clothing and I am not afraid to say that they will promote further Islamophobia around the world and, to some extent, rightly so.

In your book, you mention the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur which I especially appreciated given my interest in those situations. Do you have anything else to say about those situations?

Let me start with this… I know that my friend’s father tumbled from that bridge at least partly because the trauma of Treblinka had become a part of his very being and he could never be cured, but I suspect also that he understood the world could not be cured either.

By this I mean that there must be hundreds of thousands of Hershl Sperlings in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan, people whose families have been murdered and whose emotions have been lacerated and brutalized, and whose suffering did not end when the news stopped.

Do you think that enough is done to discuss and prevent genocide?

I don't believe we can ever stop people behaving savagely toward one another. The herd can always be manipulated. But I believe that more we understand this human phenomenon, the greater our chances of reducing it.

Anti-Semitism and racism in general are diseases passed from one generation to another. Yet the optimist in me knows that no child is born an anti-Semite or a racist. I paraphrase others when I say I do not know what a Jew is – or for that matter a Christian, a Chinese, a Muslim or even a Pygmy – I recognize only human beings. It occurs to me that every time we resist hatred and each time we teach tolerance to our children, we make the future of the world that much better. 

I put this idea to Sam, Hershl’s son. He sighed and said: ‘I think that’s too much to hope for.”

Thank you to Mark for taking the time to participate in this interview and for the incredibly detailed responses.  Read the review at: Book Review: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling by Mark S. Smith.  You can purchase the paperback of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling at or

This interview was conducted by me and first published as Interview with Mark S. Smith, Author of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling on Blogcritics.


Sunday, 19 February 2012

Book Review: I’m Not Leaving by Carl Wilkens

Carl Wilkens, Jean-Francois Gisimba, Freddy Mutanguha and James Smith

In 2011, I had the privilege of watching Carl Wilkens speak at the event "Rwanda: Strengthening Society Through Genocide Education” in London.  It was a privilege not because Carl Wilkens was the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and we got to hear about his experiences, but because his story was one of hope, inspiration and near-miracles in the face of incredible horror. 

Carl Wilkens has written a book about his experiences in Kigali during the genocide and the decision he made to stay behind when most foreign nationals left.  I’m Not Leaving is based on Wilkens’s recollections and almost 8 hours of cassette recordings that he made during that fateful time but he is keen to stress that this is not another book about genocide:

While the stories written here happened during the genocide, this book is not really about genocide. It is more about the choices people made, actions people took, courage people showed, and sacrifices people gave in the face of genocide.

In 1994, Carl Wilkens was director of the Adventist Development Relief Agency.  On April 6, 1994, the presidential airplane was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali airport, killing all on board including Presidents Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Rwanda and Burundi respectively.  The assassination was a catalyst that set off the genocide against local Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

I'm Not Leaving Carl Wilkens book coverIt was a catalyst, but not the cause.  The genocide had been in preparation for months, if not years before, as lists were compiled and weapons stockpiled.  In fact, it was on January 11, 1994 that the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, warned his superiors of plans to exterminate Tutsis.

Carl Wilkens knew this and when his wife and three young children were evacuated on the morning of April 10, 1994, he made the decision to stay behind to ensure the safety of his Tutsi employees Anitha and Janvier.  All of the foreign nationals were leaving Rwanda and the American embassy was closing for good.  Not surprisingly, his decision to remain behind was not well received by his superiors at ADRA or the United States embassy and he had to stand up to both of them.

"I took one of Mindy's school notebooks, found a blank page, and wrote with a pencil: "I have refused the help of the United States government to leave Rwanda"

As an eyewitness account I’m Not Leaving gives a valuable insight into the situation in Kigali before and during the genocide.  Wilkens reminds us that at the beginning of 1994, there were over a million refugees in Kigali due to the 1990-1993 Rwandan civil war and the October 1993 assassination of Burundi President Melchior Ndadaye. There was already a widespread humanitarian relief effort in Kigali at that time and Wilkens notes that their food stocks are what kept Kigali going during the genocide.

Wilkens also provides insight into the role of the UN peacekeeping soldiers that had been in Rwanda since August 1993.  While acknowledging the work that they did do and the lives that they saved, Wilkens questions whether their presence gave Rwandans a false sense of security.  He believes that their presence might have contributed to people not fleeing or protecting themselves in face of RTLM propaganda and hate speech.  

It seems incredible that there was so much inaction in the face of the genocide and that, as Wilkens notes in the final pages of the book, it was solely the actions of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that brought an end to the slaughter.  This is especially notable as Wilkens transcribes a BBC report from April 24, 1994 (18 days after the start of the genocide) in which the term ‘genocide’ was already being used to describe the events in Rwanda.

It was in the second week of the genocide that Wilkens thought of recording his ideas and thoughts on a cassette recorder.  He then dedicates the majority of the book to chronicle his incredible actions over the next three months.  Nearly every day, Wilkens and other ADRA associates braved snipers and mortars to drive around the streets of Kigali bringing food and water to various orphanages around the city.  He achieved this despite the ADRA headquarters being completely sacked.

"Soon you stop diving for cover each time you hear an explosion, realizing that you will never hear the one that kills you".  

There are times in I’m Not Leaving when my heart felt as though t might stop and the book is uncomfortable to read at times. This is an intimate account of service, faith and courage and I almost felt like a worthless bystander watching as people risked their lives to save others. Wilkens talks about real fear and I got that.  I could feel it as I read the book and my chest began to tighten. 

In his ADRA vehicles and borrowed UN flak jacket, Wilkens achieved what no one else could achieve during the genocide.  This man got into a neighbourhood like Nyamirambo to get food and water to two orphanages when the UN couldn't even get in. He talks about negotiating and pleading with genocidaires to save the life of Tutsis, how he got one Major Emmanuel to rescue 12 Tutsis.  They were rescued as they knelt in prayer, with the killers standing with machetes raised above their heads, poised to strike.

He tells of the events at Gisimba orphanage where his intervention led to the rescue of hundreds of people as they were moved to the safety of Saint Michel church. He was then helped by government soldiers to pack up the orphans’ belongings and take them through to the church (you can read more about Carl Wilkens and Jean-Francois Gisimba talking about their recollections of that day here).

No matter how many lives were spared, Wilkens reminds us of the incredible loss of life:

"Such staggering losses, so enormous that it seems wrong for me to keep on writing without some sort of respectful pause". 

Indeed, there were times when I had to pause myself to respect the gravity of what I was reading.

Since the end of the genocide, Carl Wilkens has dedicated his life to educating people about prejudice, genocide and entering the world of “the other”.  I would really recommend that you check out his speaking schedule and take the time to see him speak when he is next in your town or city.  I’m Not Leaving was self-published and all proceeds go towards the educational efforts of his organisation (click to go straight to the purchase page). 

I’m Not Leaving is essential reading for anybody wanting to know more about the genocide in Rwanda.  If you are new to this topic, you might find it useful to read Jean Hatzfeld’s Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda or Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda first to gain some insight into what happened during the 100 days of the genocide, how the genocide occurred, and the failure of the international community to stop it.

This is a self-published book without the benefit of professional editors or proof readers and as such, there are inevitable grammatical and spelling errors.  These are minor though and don’t detract from the unique and inspirational perspective provided by Wilkens in the book.

Article written by me and first published as Book Review: I'm Not Leaving by Carl Wilkens on Blogcritics.

© A Passion to Understand

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