3/21/11 - avoiding the word "genocide"

In today's excerpt - genocide has been commonplace throughout history, whether in the millennia before World War II, or in the decades after. But because of the thousands of stirring and right-minded Holocaust speeches promising "never again," politicians go to any length to avoid using the word "genocide" given the obligation it immediately creates. And so it was in 1992 in the disintegrated chaos of Yugoslavia where Serbs were massacring Bosnian Muslims:

"Almost from the start, [Newsday reporter Roy] Gutman's reporting had been well ahead of the curve. In early July, one of his stories on the deportation of Muslims from Bosnia to Hungary bore a particularly prophetic headline: 'Ethnic Cleansing: Yugoslavs Try to Deport 1,800 Muslims to Hungary.' That was just the beginning. Within a few days he got an emotional phone call from one of the Muslim leaders he had met earlier in Banja Luka: 'Please try to come here. There is a lot of killing. They are shipping Muslim people through Banja Luka in cattle cars. Last night there were twenty-five train wagons for cattle crowded with women, old people, and children. They were so frightened. In the name of humanity please come.' With that Gutman managed to get to Banja Luka, where he heard reports of concentration camps set up by the Serbs for Muslims in northern Bosnia, the worst of them at a place called Omarska, which was an open iron-mine pit north of Banja Luka. ...

"Gutman could not get to Omarska - the Serbs said they could not guarantee his safety - but a Serb official offered him another trip to a prisoner-of-war camp in a place called Manjaca. Gutman and his photographer and interpreter went there, and again the images - this time of emaciated men with shaved heads - were hauntingly similar to those from Nazi Germany. ...

"It was a struggle in the summer of 1992 to get the top people in the govermment even to admit that genocide was taking place in Bosnia. ...

"By chance, there was soon more graphic evidence of the death camps. A British television team had managed to work its way to Omarska and got some film clips. As one of the journalists on the team, Ed Vulliamy, later wrote of what he saw, 'Nothing could have prepared us for what we see when we come through the back gates of what was the Omarska iron mine and ore processing works. ... [The prisoners] run in single file across the courtyard and into the canteen. Above them in an observation post is the watchful eye, hidden behind reflective sunglasses, of a beefy guard who follows their weary canter with the barrel of his heavy machine gun. There are thirty of them running; their heads newly shaven, their clothes baggy over their skeletal bodies. Some are barely able to move. ... They line up in obedient and submissive silence and collect their ration: a meager, watery portion of beans augmented with bread crumbs and a stale roll. The men are at various stages of human decay and affliction; the bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced. Their skin is putrefied, the complexions of their faces debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with looks like the blades of knives. There is nothing quite like the sight of the prisoner desperate to talk and to convey some terrible truth that is so near yet so far, but who dares not.'

"One of the most intriguing things about that period, thought Richard Johnson, the Yugoslav desk officer, was the dance of nomenclature. Starting in the Bush years, but extending well into the Clinton years, an attempt was made to avoid or at least modify the G-word; that is, genocide. To admit outright that what the Serbs were doing was, in fact, genocidal was a critical decision because the need to act would be that much greater. The most inventive kind of descriptions were demanded, the use of words and phrases the like of which had not been seen around the department in years, perhaps since the early days of Vietnam when, in the face of continued terrible news about the war, the government had steadfastly announced that it was cautiously optimistic.

"Johnson noted that even when State Department spokesmen gradually began to edge toward saying how terrible it was in Bosnia, there were still gradations that allowed the press officers to stop short of calling it genocide. Certain acts, they said, could be described as 'tantamount to genocide.' Or they had 'bordered on genocide.' Or a particular act was genocidal, as if the sum of everything the Serbs were doing was not and there was a difference between an act of genocide and genocide itself."


David Halberstam


War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and The Generals


Published by Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.


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