We all have a responsibility to tell the truth about genocide

·7 min read
More than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were murdered as part of a genocide carried out by units of Bosnian Serb forces: Getty
More than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were murdered as part of a genocide carried out by units of Bosnian Serb forces: Getty

Murder is murder is murder, I wrote last week. But genocide is not genocide, it seems. Not in Turkey, of course, whose mass murder of the Armenians reaped the lives of 1.5 million men, women and children in 1915 and whose government still “vehemently denies” that genocide ever occurred. But now – by that will-o’-the wisp which passes like a ghost through even the most earnest journalism – the slaughter of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica has been demoted.

It may have been a massacre. It might even have been part of a genocide. But this week, Reuters deployed a little roadblock on the highway to historical truth. Reconciliation between Muslims and Serbs after a war which killed 100,000 has been hindered, it reported from Srebrenica, by “conflicting narratives”.


Not only do I spot here a little weighing of the balance between Muslim and Serb suffering in the Bosnian war, but by the employment of the word “narrative” – which we journos call a "story line" – this report from the Srebrenica massacre cemetery on the graves of thousands of men and boys introduces an essential equality to the bloodbath. For if there is a “conflicting narrative”, between Muslims and Serbs, the very genocide of the Muslims of Bosnia itself is thrown into doubt. Because there’s obviously a “conflict” over this version of events.

Yes, I know, there are two sides to every story. If the Armenians call the slaughter of their one and a half million Christian souls a genocide – which it was – then we’ve got to mention those Turks who just won’t admit that their grandfathers or great grandfathers set off the first industrial Holocaust (and I always use a capital ‘H’ for the Armenians) of the last century in 1915. I’ll come back to the Turks in a moment. But when the “two sides” to our story create a balance between murderers and victims – or “conflicting narratives” -- then something has gone very wrong with our moral compass.

Let’s just try this out – as I have done in many articles and at many lectures in the past – with the Jewish Holocaust of 1933-1945. I choose 1933, by the way, because Hitler’s arrival in power marked the first moments of the destruction of the Jewish people of Europe, long before the killer squads of Einsatzgruppen had arrived in Russia in 1941 and the Nazis had set up their gas wagons and then gas chambers in the extermination camps. Every year, Jews remember the Holocaust. We rightly share this commemoration. But what we do not do is give a voice to Holocaust deniers who claim that those 6 million Jews were never murdered. David Irving and many others try to deceive us into believing that Hitler’s crime against humanity never occurred. But despite what they say, we do not suggest that there are “conflicting narratives” about the Holocaust. Nor should we ever do so.

But this parallel is not without consideration. For the Serbs who organised their outrageous “Srebrenica Liberation Day” in the neighbouring village of Bratunac this week were surely many fewer than the right-wing antisemites who today insist that the Holocaust did not happen. The latter get short shrift from us. We call them neo-Nazis. And they are neo-Nazis. So we don’t give them the space to utter their lies against history.

Yet in Srebrenica, we were up to our old reporter’s balancing act, being “fair”, I suppose, to “both sides” – the killers and those they killed – lest someone suggests that we scribes might have dropped our neutrality and allowed a little bias to creep into our report. Who are we, after all, to decide that Serbs butchered Muslims at Srebrenica? Who are we, for that matter, to suggest that the principal victims of the Bosnian war were Muslims (which was and remains the truth)? Weren’t there a few very small Muslim massacres of Serbs in villages around Srebrenica in the Bosnian war? Yes there were, but on a tiny, infinitesimal scale compared to the days and nights of mass shootings and mass burials of Muslims around Srebrenica in July 1995.

But now we have to contend with a “conflicting” narrative – that of the Serbs who still regard themselves as principal victims of the Bosnian war. So let’s slip back to a genocide of the 1930s, quite separate from the Nazi destruction of the Jews. Around 3.3 million Ukrainians died in what they call their "Holodomor", a mass famine brought about by Stalin’s collectivisation of Soviet farms. Stalin was the cause of this human destruction. But already we’ve cloaked it in “conflicting narratives” – because, as the BBC reported as long as seven years ago, “Russia…objects to the genocide label, calling it a nationalistic interpretation of the famine”. Kremlin officials, according to the BBC, insisted that while the Holodomor was “a tragedy”, it was not “intentional”.

And that’s still the story we churn out for readers. So here we go again. The Turks have more or less reached the same stage over their genocide of the Armenians – except that in Turkey you can go to prison for saying the opposite. They have acknowledged the “tragedy” of the Armenians who died in “relocations” in 1915 but have denied any intent to annihilate them as a people and have questioned the numbers of dead. Asking about the statistics, of course, is a starting platform for all kinds of deniers of the Jewish Holocaust.

Oddly, newspapers and news agencies have almost always bowed to the “conflicting narrative” set up by the Turks – who also state that Armenian survivors lied about their experiences – by saying that the Turkish government “hotly disputes” the Armenian “claim”. Or “vehemently denies”. The use of the word “hotly” (for Turkish anger) pops up remarkably often in my Armenian genocide files. It’s one of those old buzz-words that becomes associated with newspaper reporting of particular subjects (like politicians “on the campaign trail” or “fighting for their political lives”). But this is more than just a cliché. Does “hotly” suggest, perhaps, that the Turkish denial is more valid, that a “vehement” refusal to accept the genocide is more genuine than a mere denial on its own? For, as I say, almost all journalistic use of the word “denial” is followed by a reference to the Armenian “claim” of genocide, thus diminishing the reality of what happened in 1915 to something which is contested, however historically authenticated and researched the genocide may be. A claim is just that: not a fact but an allegation.

For the Turks, much of this revolves around the accurate but utterly irrelevant fact that the word "genocide" was not invented by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin until the early 1940s. How, the Turks ask, could they be guilty of a crime which did not even have a name in 1915? But the same might be said of the Soviets, whose "faminisation" of the Ukrainians also occurred before Lemkin drew up his Genocide Convention. Yet in the post-war years, Lemkin himself – who created the word after studying the fate of the Armenians -- publicly called the Ukrainian famine a “genocide”. The Jewish Holocaust, for that matter, began before Lemkin produced his earthquake word “genocide”. But no-one, mercifully, has suggested that the Jews of Europe did not suffer a genocide, even though it started prior to Lemkin’s nomenclature.

The very argument itself is preposterous, of course. Even the expression “First World War” – to which every Turk refers when he or she speaks of Gallipoli -- did not exist during or even long after the 1914-1918 conflict, because the Second World War only began in 1939. And are future historians supposed to whitewash the Roman Empire of its brutality simply because crucifixion was practised at a time long before anyone dreamed up the idea of international human rights?

I’m not suggesting that we journos are deliberately degrading the crime of genocide – although that is, I fear, the effect of “conflicting narratives”. I’ve always been troubled, for example, by the borderlines between “mass killing” and “slaughter” and “massacre” and “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”.

How many corpses make up a massacre? When does a massacre, for example, become an atrocity? But there must be a more ethical way of dealing with genocide denial. Perhaps we should always flag a “conflicting narrative” as an attempt to avoid guilt – or maybe even take a moral stand on crime. Tell it how it is. The deniers are refusing to tell the truth. Mass murder is mass murder is mass murder.

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