Genocide in the 20th Century

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and I remember that episode in world history very well. This morning I watched a BBC special on a film on the genocide sponsored by Angela Jolie and it brought back memories. There have been many such incidents in the past – the elimination of the Kulaks in the Soviet Union when they resisted collectivization following the Russian Revolution, the mass killings of the Kurds in the Middle East.

Eddie Cross

But the Cambodian experience was different in that it was ideologically driven and executed by a small group of intellectuals trained largely in France. They held the view that the only element in society that was not exploitive was that of the simple rural peasant farmer, all others forms of human activity were capitalist and exploitive.

They took control of Cambodia and in a ruthless and savage campaign murdered millions. The targets were the educated elite, religious leaders, business men and women, anyone who was educated and urban. Those who survived were driven into the rural areas and forced into manual labour in the farming industry. The madness and genocide was halted and a measure of sanity restored by the Vietnamese who sent their army into Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge from power and restore conventional government.

At that time the news magazine Time, published a brilliant analysis of the Khmer revolution – its rationale and what the sponsors wanted to achieve and even today I regard that piece as an outstanding example of journalism. It will take Cambodia 100 years to recover from the genocide and become a normal society with only limited recollection of what transpired. What was interesting in today’s BBC programme on Cambodia was the feeling that only now, 40 years on, can they really look back at what happened in any sort of rational way and come to grips with the history that it represents.

The Cambodians interviewed by the BBC all welcomed the Jolie film as a chance to reflect on what happened and to guarantee it will not happen again. I would like to see the movie but it’s all in the local languages of Cambodia and we will have to wait for subtitles.

The genocide in Rwanda was on a similar scale but was completely different – it was based on ethnicity and was a struggle between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The ethnic differences were very limited but masked deep, long standing conflicts. The other key factor was the role of a small radio station in nearby Congo which broadcasted inflammatory messages into Rwanda on a daily basis. What deeply disturbs me is that the majority of the Rwandese were Christians, at least nominally, and even Priests took part in the slaughter.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new leadership wanted to produce a documentary on the excesses of the Soviet era but after looking at early versions of the film, the project was abandoned and buried. The reasons given were that it was just too graphic and would do little to rebuild Russian society. How many people died in the Soviet Union in the name of Communism will never be known, but it runs to tens of millions.

Add to these experiences the mass killings in China under Mau, the killings in the Far East during Japanese occupation, the tens of millions murdered by the Nazis in Europe and you get some idea of the capacity of man to inflict unspeakable horror on other human beings, some of whom are simply slightly different to themselves.

In 1974, a year after the Khmer revolution (if you can call it that), I took a little known man out to lunch in Harare. His name was Robert Mugabe and he had just been released from Prison where he had been detained for ten years by the Smith Government along with other nationalist leaders. At the time I was a senior economist with a major business group and my colleague was an analyst with one of the largest companies in the country. Our objective was to interview the men being released and to assess what it meant for the country and the economy.

Afterwards we discussed our conversation with Mugabe and concluded that he was too radical to be seriously considered as a future key player. In many respects his views reflected those of the Khmer Rouge in that he talked about the entrenched capitalist values in the Cities and the need to destroy these centers and to chase the white community out of the country. He wanted the liberation forces to march into the Cities and destroy what existed so that a new egalitarian society could be built on the ashes of the old.

Little remains of that young idealistic Marxist but the ruthlessness remains and he is deeply feared. Looking back on the past 40 years in Zimbabwe I can see that the ambitions and plans of Mugabe were tempered in 1980 by the negotiation processes that led to Independence. He was forced to compromise on the small white minority and on his more radical views and ambitions. The largely Christian population fiercely resisted any communist ideology and even on the land issue, he did little to disturb the economy that he inherited from the Rhodesians.

However he could not tolerate opposition and when his old rivals in Zapu, resumed a low level insurgency in Matabeleland, he reacted savagely. From 1983 to 1987 he ran a campaign which was called Ghukurahundi or “the storm that washes clean”. Using armed force, militia and mass restrictions on food and movement, he slowly strangled the Zapu movement in the south west of the country until in 1987 its leadership caved in and accepted absorption into the ruling Party, Zanu PF.

This has come to be known as our genocide and I must say that if it was not for the Catholic Church and a good friend, Lawyer Dave Coltart, the story may never have come to light. The report they produced analysed the campaign and stated that in their view at least 20 000 civilians died during the campaign and perhaps 1,2 million people were displaced. The human suffering inflicted on the communities in the Districts affected, was indescribable and the wounds are as real today as then.

The State here still refuses to allow any public discussion of this episode and has made only half hearted efforts to reveal what happened and why and who was affected. Although this pales into insignificance against the genocides described above, in our small population the wounds are deep and must at some stage receive our attention.

The United Nations call for States that have experienced this sort of thing to follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Investigate and reveal to the public, what exactly went on;
  2. Give those affected a sense that they have seen justice metered out to the perpetrators;
  3. Provide some sort of compensation to the affected families and communities;
  4. Publish the findings for all to see: and
  5. Make sure it never can happen again.

In Cambodia a programme of criminal investigation and trial has convicted just 4 key leaders of the genocide and spent millions in doing that. In Rwanda, the State has assigned this task to local tribal Courts and the Rwandese have a much greater sense that justice has been done. One day we are going to have to tackle these problems, once sanity and democracy has been restored.

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