Genocide: A Personal Journey

Genocide: A Personal Journey

by Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction

(Routledge/Taylor & Francis, June 2006)

Suspect: Tell me, Mr. Grissom, how does a man choose death as a profession?
Grissom: It chose me, actually.

- C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, 2004

Only in 1999 did I first hear the term "comparative genocide studies." But in many ways, my life and outlook -- as reflected in this book -- have been shaped by my passionate concern for human rights worldwide, and informed by travels in societies poised for, experiencing, or recovering from mass atrocities, including genocide.

In my youth, I absorbed The Diary of Anne Frank, and then read beyond it to the history and testimony of the Jewish Holocaust. A long-distance love affair with the state of Israel resulted -- abruptly terminated by the genocidal 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, inflicted by Christian Phalangist militia but presided over by Israeli soldiers under a commander, now prime minister, named Ariel Sharon. But the Jewish catastrophe never ceased to resonate with me; and in 1989, as the first partly-free parliamentary elections were underway in Poland, I finally walked the haunted ground of Auschwitz-Birkenau (see Dr. Michael Shermer's photo in Chapter 6, similar to -- but better than -- one that I took from the same spot).

My political consciousness was shaped in the 1980s by the forces of nuclearism and imperialism (see Chapter 2). The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has written of the nuclear age: "Entire generations grew up under the shadow of global nuclear battles which, it was widely believed, could break out at any moment, and devastate humanity. ... It did not happen, but for some forty years it looked a daily possibility."(1) That sense of impending annihilation brought millions of people, including myself, into the streets to protest. At the same time, the bellicose swagger of the Reagan Administration -- the latest in a long line of governments that viewed the countries to the south as a US "backyard" -- was leaving a trail of tens of thousands of corpses across Central America. I read voraciously: Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Eduardo Galeano, and others. And I became active in a Canadian solidarity organization, Tools for Peace, that dispatched millions of dollars in material aid to the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. That country was under attack by US-backed "contras" (counter-revolutionaries) organized into terrorist bands by CIA and Argentine trainers. Thousands of Nicaraguan civilians died at their hands during the revolutionary decade; when I toured the country for two weeks in 1986, visits to agricultural cooperatives had to be cancelled owing to the contra threat nearby.

The worst carnage, though, was unleashed elsewhere: in El Salvador, where one of the twentieth century's most totalitarian regimes unleashed a campaign of terror against dissidents, whether real, perceived, or potential. Perhaps 50,000 Salvadoreans -- overwhelmingly members or supporters of popular organizations, from church groups to labour unions -- were butchered by the army, Treasury Police, and death squads, often in ways that beggared belief. The campaign enjoyed the enthusiastic and continuous assent of the US government, backed by billions of dollars in military and economic aid. Was this genocide against an amorphous but definable sector of Salvadorean society -- popular forces, civil society, "subversives"? How deep was western involvement in the atrocities? From such questions would be born, two decades later, my first edited volume, Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity.(2)

In neighbouring Guatemala, the label of genocide was hard to dispute. Between 1978 and 1984, under successive military regimes, a holocaust was inflicted upon the native Indian population of the Guatemalan altiplano (highlands). The region was home to one of the most resilient patchwork of indigenous peoples remaining in the Americas. The ferocity with which the Guatemalan government -- again supported by the US, which had installed the army in power in 1954 -- fought guerrilla rebellion by attempting to "drain the sea" of popular support. They killed as many as 200,000 people, razed some 600 villages, and herded hundreds of thousands of survivors into concentrated settlements under ubiquitous military surveillance (see Chapter 3).

In 1987, with the worst of the holocaust past, I toured the Quiché Indian highlands -- notably the so-called "Ixil Triangle," which suffered as severely as any region of the country in the genocide. I will never forget the frozen atmosphere of the principal town, Nebaj, and its outlying settlements -- what was left of them. The winding dirt roads were dotted with charred patches where peasant huts and houses had once stood. The next town up the road, Chajul, was still off-limits due to guerrilla activity. On the outskirts of Nebaj itself were concentration camps filled with Indian children, women, and a very few men. Both the camp inmates, and the soldiers who patrolled them, sized me up with understandable skepticism as I strolled around, alone and nervous.

It was becoming clear to me that genocide is woven inextricably into the fabric of modern history. One did not even need to leave home to feel it. As a Canadian, I witnessed the revival of an indigenous land-rights movement demanding a small measure of justice for the dispossession of native North Americans. This was followed by the first largescale outpouring of testimony from the system of native residential schools established across Canada and the US (with parallels in other parts of the world, including Australia). The schools had kidnapped Indian children from their parents and locked them up for years in institutions where privation and vicious abuse, including rampant sexual assault, were normal features. The mortality rate was often comparable to Nazi concentration camps. (Ward Churchill has unforgettably linked the residential school system to the broader native experience of genocide in a long chapter for Genocide, War Crimes & the West. It still echoes in the suicides, self-destruction, and imitative abuse of the schools' residents, decades after the last such institution closed its doors.(3))

On various other occasions during my travels, I stumbled across the legacy, or an incipiency, of genocide. Entering Yugoslavia from northern Greece in 1982, I passed unknowingly through an obscure territory called Kosovo, which would grab world attention in 1999. I travelled up the Dalmatian Coast before turning inland to the storied city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, I experienced a frisson while standing in the "footprints" of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914, embedded in the sidewalk where Princip had stood. The assassination triggered a dynamic that led, weeks later, to the First World War, the decisive event of the twentieth century, with its millions of casualties and its "lost generation" of young men across Europe. I hiked in the hills around Sarajevo and picnicked under the ski jump then being constructed for the 1984 Olympics, with its magnificent view over the town. A decade later, Sarajevo, once a byword for multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, was being shelled to fragments by Serb guns entrenched in those same hills. The siege was only the most visible event in what rapidly became Europe's first fullscale genocide since the aftermath of the Second World War (ch. 8).(4) A decade later, I traipsed the Dalmatian Coast of an independent Croatia; the country's leadership was going all out to join the European Union, and that meant making overtures to the estimated 200,000 Serbs who fled or were expelled from the Krajina region, during the Croatian Army's Operation Storm, which effectively ended the war in August 1995.

I also found myself drawn to the Middle East, a region that had long fascinated me from afar. In the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza, during the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising), I witnessed the clash between the Jewish residents of a state born of genocide -- Israel -- and a Palestinian people that views its experience at "Jewish" hands very much through a genocidal lens.(5) The cycle continues, with Palestinian extremists, and not a few ordinary Arabs,(6) defining liberation as the elimination of the Jewish state and the expulsion of all Jews from historic Palestine. Some Arab governments, of course, have displayed a readiness to commit genocidal massacres at the drop of a hat. I saw the scars of one such slaughter, in the Syrian city of Hama, where 25,000 died in a suppressed uprising in 1982.

My longstanding interest in military history has led me to sites that symbolize the intersection of war and genocide -- not just Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the First World War battlefields of Northern France, including the Somme (where the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead, on the single day of 1 July 1916). In Spring 1997, I was able to visit Russia for the first time. Driving into downtown Moscow from Sheremetyevo Airport, we passed the stark monument commemorating the point of deepest penetration by the Nazi invaders in their blitzkrieg of Summer/Fall 1941. To repeat, it lies between Moscow's international airport and the downtown core. Only at the cost of 27 million Soviet dead were the German invaders finally repulsed, with economic, demographic, and psychic consequences that were still felt decades later.

The decisive moment in my encounter with the history and study of genocide came in 1999, with the Serbian military "sweep" in Kosovo, and the 78-day Nato bombing campaign that opposed or helped precipitate it, depending on one's viewpoint (Chapter 8).(7) In a way, the centrality of Kosovo in my personal tale may appear strange. Despite the exterminatory scenarios mooted by many, including myself, in the conflict's early days, the Serb campaign against Kosovar Albanians was in fact more structured and disciplined than earlier horrors in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. It targeted overwhelmingly "battle-age" non-combatant men for torture and execution (for comparative analysis of this phenomenon, see Chapter 13). And even that most vulnerable sector did not experience the kind of extermination visited upon Srebrenica's Muslim men and boys four years previously. Nonetheless, thousands of Kosovar Albanians, perhaps well over 10,000, died at Serb hands, and accompanied by the expulsion of 800,000 other ethnic Albanians to surrounding countries and the wanton destruction of physical infrastructure, it qualified as "genocidal." It galvanized me while it was underway, and I responded especially strongly to the murderous atrocities inflicted on ethnic-Albanian men. They led me to formulate a concept of "gendercide" -- although I rapidly learned that an American scholar named Mary Anne Warren had beaten me to the term -- and to begin a wide-ranging comparative study of gender-selective mass killing throughout history. It was this research interest that first took me to the library shelf housing the small, but indispensable, academic literature on comparative genocide studies. That literature, in turn, shaped the case studies that form the heart of the Gendercide Watch educational project that I co-launched in 1999, and that currently attracts nearly a million "hits" a year. (See also my 2004 edited volume, Gendercide and Genocide.)

For the ensuing five-and-a-half years, 2000 to 2005, I lived in Mexico City, by some estimates the largest metropolis on earth. There, a legacy of genocide can still be sensed in the ruined temples of the prehispanic civilization. Those temples presided over both the genocidal atrocities of the Aztec conquerors, and those inflicted upon them -- and other indigenous nations -- by the Spanish conquistadores. Shortly after my arrival I was able to spend two weeks in the sweltering Yucatán peninsula -- glorying in the region's magnificent archaeological sites and colonial architecture, but also tracing key sites involved in the little-known Caste War of the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1847 and 1849, taking advantage of a civil war that divided the white elite, Mayan rebels launched a millenarian uprising that bore strong similarities to the massive rebellion in Upper Peru (today's Bolivia) in the late eighteenth century. Like that earlier revolt, the Mayan campaign displayed genocidal tendencies from the outset. It aimed explicitly at killing any whites, combatant or non-combatant, who came within range of rifle or dagger. By this means, the hated colonizer and his brood would be banished forever.

The Mayan uprising had the predictable consequence of uniting the whites, and encouraging mestizos (mixed-bloods) to close ranks with them. The Yucatecan authorities responded with exterminatory race war of their own. Tens of thousands died on both sides. The end result was the exhaustion of the warring parties, and the establishment of a semi-independent Mayan kingdom in the eastern third of the pensinsula, roughly following the contours of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, that survived into the twentieth century.(8) In the small town of Tihosuco, astride the highway south to Chetumal on the Belize border, I was astonished to discover that numerous structures still lay in ruins from the Caste War. Others had been only partially rebuilt; the two categories combined might constitute half of the town's present-day architecture. Here is an urban landscape still ravaged, 150 years later, by genocidal warfare.(9)

Genocide features on the contemporary scene as well. In July 2004, Mexico joined the growing list of countries to view their recent pasts through the lens of genocide and crimes against humanity. Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo asked a federal judge to indict the country's former president, Luis Echeverría, on a charge of genocide. As president, Echeverría allegedly supervised a paramilitary force that carried out a 1971 massacre of 25 students; he was also interior minister at the time of the much larger student massacre in Tlatelolco Square in 1968. The genocide charge was preferred for two reasons: because there was no statute of limitations on prosecutions for genocide; and because Mexican national law defines genocide as "systematic crimes against the lives of members of any national group." Unlike the UN Genocide Convention (see Chapter 1, "The Origins of Genocide"), this explicitly includes political groups as possible targets of genocide. Echeverría's lawyer, however, rejected the genocide allegation as a "hallucination": "There was no genocide ... in the sense of a state policy of exterminating a population."(10) Some of the core themes and debates that feature in this book were on display: definitions of genocide and the issue of political groups; the threshold of deaths that had to be surpassed in order to qualify; the appropriate legal and social response to the crime, two generations after it was allegedly committed. (In September 2005, the Mexican Supreme Court finally rejected the charges against Echeverría, saying that the law of genocide did not apply.)

The same can be said of Argentina, where much of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction was written during travels in Córdoba province and a stint in vibrant Buenos Aires. In Chapter 14 of the book, "Memory, Forgetting, and Denial," I describe the controversy over creation of a museum-style "memory space" in the former Naval Mechanics School in suburban Buenos Aires. The school was a principal site for torture and "disappearances" during the most recent period of military rule in Argentina (1976-83), and in memorializing the "Dirty War" against leftist insurgents and oppositionist civilians, the concept of genocide has been deployed in a straightforward way that was surprising to me as an outsider. I visited the school in the first days of 2005, to take the photograph that accompanies Chapter 14. In a footnote, I describe an earlier (November 2003) encounter in Buenos Aires, when

together with a small group of other international scholars, I attended what was probably the first international conference on genocide in South America, held at the University of Buenos Aires. At a guess, 75 or 80 percent of the presentations dealt with the "genocide in Argentina" under military rule. Without exception, all the presenters took it as a given that the events in question had constituted genocide. This would be much more controversial among genocide scholars in the West, given the limited number of victims, and the fact that the violence was targeted against alleged members of a political group. In conversation with some of the Argentine scholars, though, it became clear to me that not only did they consider the term valid, but they considered its application vital to memorializing the events and validating victims' suffering.

But there are places where the notion of genocide has barely gained a foothold, though it seems entirely appropriate. As this book was nearing completion, I embarked on a six-week journey through the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano, for me one of the special and rarefied places on the globe. It included a pilgrimage to a place I had long dreamed of visiting: Potosí, Bolivia, home to the Cerro Rico mountain, the richest silver mine in the history of the world. For two centuries, this mine fueled the epic excess of the Spanish monarchs. Still today, it is excavated (mostly for other minerals) by a small army of poverty-stricken miners, whom I had the honour of joining for a couple of hours deep in the humid bowels of the mountain. Incomprehensible though it might seem, anywhere between one million and eight million forced labourers, mostly Native Indian but including some African slaves, died in the mines -- or soon after leaving them -- during the colonial period. There are grounds for believing that the Cerro Rico is the world's greatest single tomb. Was it time, I wondered, for someone to begin the process of constructing a "memory space" for the mountain -- a holocaust museum for Potosí? Perhaps it is a task to which I will direct some effort in coming years. Meanwhile, Potosí reminds us that our journey into genocide is only beginning; with it, our reckoning of our past and present barbarisms, and our potential to banish the scourge for good.

New Haven, USA
September 2005


1. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 226.

2. Adam Jones, ed., Genocide, War Crimes & the West: History and Complicity (London: Zed Books, 2004).

3. Ward Churchill, "Genocide by Any Other Name: North American Indian Residential Schools in Context," in Jones, ed., Genocide, War Crimes & the West, pp. 78-115.

4. By "aftermath," I refer to the mass killings and epic expulsions of ethnic Germans from the Central European countries, which seems to me a fullscale genocide, more destructive by far than the Bosnian case. See box text 6a for details.

5. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about as highly-contested as any subject in international politics. The most nuanced brief judgment I have seen on the applicability of a "genocide" framework is Martin Shaw's. "Israel was created in the late 1940s by driving hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their land and homes. In a brutal case of what has more recently been called 'ethnic cleansing,' thousands were killed (although, of course, Arab fighters also killed Jews). Clearly Israel has never aimed to exterminate the Palestinians as a people -- indeed, there is a large minority of Arabs among Israel's citizens. But the establishment by force of an ethnically defined state in a multi-ethnic territory has caused a long-lasting conflict, with genocidal dimensions. Arab states and movements have sought to destroy Israel in turn. ..." Shaw, War and Genocide: Organized Killing in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), p. 170; emphasis added.

6. I will not forget a sweltering collective-taxi ride from the Allenby Bridge border crossing to the Jordanian capital, Amman, jammed up against a Palestinian matron who lectured me at length on why Palestinian suffering was worse than anything the Jews had experienced under Hitler, and brusquely rejected my attempts to dispute the point. As genocide often leads to counter-genocide, so does suffering and humiliation -- predictably -- blind victims to the historical suffering of their tormentors (see chapter 10).

7. In my view Nato's actions neither prompted, nor effectively opposed, the Serb campaign in Kosovo.

8. The standard history of the Caste War in English is Nelson Reed's The Caste War of Yucatán (1964), recently and gratifyingly revised and reissued by Stanford University Press (2001). The war's millennarian dimension is explored in Nicholas Robins, Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

9. Much the same scenario presented itself on the north coast of Haiti, in 2002, where I stayed at an out-of-the-way hotel owned by an American and his Haitian wife, built on the ruins of a French plantation from the 1790s, just prior to the only successful slave rebellion in recorded history. It established Haiti as the second territory to free itself from European rule in the western hemisphere, after the United States (and not longer after); also as the world's first Black republic. It was previously Saint-Domingue, and its unparalleled wealth -- in a territory about 60 kilometers by 60 -- was founded upon exploitation of enslaved West Africans, at a level of genocidal intensity perhaps unmatched in the history of Atlantic slavery. (Life expectancy upon arrival in was often measured in months.) See the collection of Haiti photo galleries and the "Port-au-Prince Journal" from the same 2002 visit.

10. E. Eduardo Castillo, "Mexican Ex-Leader Faces Genocide Charges," Associated Press dispatch, 24 July 2004.

Copyright Adam Jones 2005-06. This essay may be freely copied and distributed
for educational and other non-profit purposes, if the author is credited and notified.

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