While You Focus on Ukraine, This Genocide Goes On

The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked the world and rightly so. But what about Ethiopia, China, Yemen, Syria and Myanmar, countries in which atrocities which are no less serious are being committed? Why is the world not holding its breath, opening its heart and swiftly reacting for them too?

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-while-you-focus-about-ukraine-the-genocide-in-myanmar-goes-on-1.10703741

STOCKHOLM — Last week U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, declared that the United States recognizes that the Myanmar military has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the country’s Rohingya minority. The murder of thousands and deportation of hundreds of thousands was mostly committed in 2016-2017, but according to Blinken, the troubling situation in Myanmar continues to this day, after the military seized power in 2021. Blinken spoke of “widespread and systematic” attacks and atrocities committed with the clear intent to annihilate.

This is the eighth case since the Holocaust in which the United States recognizes a genocide. The previous were the Armenian genocide during World War I, the murder of Kurds in Iraq, the genocides in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur, the murder of the Yazidis and other minorities by the Islamic State, and the genocide in Xinjiang, China, against Uyghurs and other minorities. In his speech, Blinken described the process preceding the murders – discrimination, stripping of rights and citizenship, incitement, imprisonment and deportation. He further went on to detail some of the atrocities – rape, executions, destruction of villages, children burned alive or trampled underfoot by soldiers, and boats sunk with families aboard.

Despite the importance of the U.S. declaration, it is not a necessarily a call for sanctions, nor does it come with an automatic international alignment against the regime in Myanmar. All this stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. attitude toward Russia following its attack on Ukraine. It may be hard to admit, but Ukraine gets a lot more attention than countries where the suffering, devastation and death toll are no smaller. Those imprisoned and tortured in camps in Xinjiang, the ethnic groups slaughtering each other in Ethiopia, and those doing the same even closer to Israel’s border – none of these affairs have made the world hold its breath, open its heart, or change its agenda.

Why, then, does the Myanmar genocide fail to produce headlines and reactions as strong as those sparked by the brutal invasion of Ukraine? It’s not because it it's over. The regime in Myanmar continues to oppress its people and imprison its critics. It is also hard to explain the indifference by geo-political considerations. While the effects of the Ukraine war could be disastrous, what’s happening in Myanmar isn’t a small, localized conflict either. The Russians sell weapons to the regime. The Chinese, who do so as well, share a border with Myanmar, and have massive investments there. Not far from the border, in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya populate the world’s largest refugee camp. International institutions, organizations, and courts are also involved in the conflict. Myanmar may not have nuclear weapons, but it is a larger and more populous country than Ukraine, located in a strategic area between India and China. One would have to be blind or disingenuous not to recognize the simple truth behind the world’s silence and indifference.

After all, it's quite natural. The Rohingya, the Uighurs, and the Tigrayans are not like us. They are distant, alien, and most of us know very little about them. Unlike the Ukrainian refugees on the news, they carry colorful wheeled suitcases with them, not rag bundles. They sit en-route to the border in Mazdas and Toyotas, not on donkeys or in rickety boats. They’re the ones wearing H&M clothes, not those manufacturing them. They are the people for whom Hungary and Poland throw their gates open, not those for whom these countries erect barbed-wire fences and station armed soldiers. It’s very human, and therefore we can, and should, admit: The Ukrainians resemble Europeans, and that's at least one reason that Europeans have opened their hearts. Nor is moral preaching called for. Human empathy is differential. Our emotional connection to our family, our tribe, and our people is an integral part of our civilization. It is a survival tool and a source of beauty and cultural richness, not just an excuse for indifference.

Yet there is also no need to make an ideology of it. We are allowed, are able, and should do for those who are different from us, for those who are foreign and distant, and this is no mere slogan. Here are two examples:

Blinken chose to recognize the genocide in Myanmar at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, of all places, because denial is an integral part of any genocide. The purpose of the denial is not just concealment of the crime, but also denial of the very existence of the annihilated group. That is why recognizing a genocide is not only necessary to rescue or punishment – it is an act of redemption and of struggle against the murderers.

-The book “The Voice of Thy Brother’s Blood” (Dror Lanefesh Press), an anthology of poetry by victims of genocide, including those in Myanmar, was recently published in Hebrew. The book, which also includes “The Poem of the Murdered Jewish People” by Yitzhak Katzenelson, shows that even when our sympathy is turned first to Jews and Israelis, we can also hear the poetry of others, teach it in schools, read it at ceremonies, and thus aid the victims and fight the murderers by, in a way, bringing the dead back to existence.

No less important: Decent people must ask themselves what part their country plays in the misfortune of others. In the case of Israel and Myanmar, the answer is clear. The Myanmar military is equipped, among others, by Israeli weapons, which it continued purchasing until at least 2018. Because it's so obvious, it may be unnecessary to mention the tragic aspect of the Jewish state exporting arms that assist in a genocide. But it is, however, necessary to fight  this phenomenon. Israeli NGO "YANSHUF – Arms Exports: Transparency and Oversight" does just that, promoting legislation against weapons exports to homicidal regimes. Israel is one of the world’s largest weapons exporters. It is not a signatory on the Arms Trade Treaty, and it sells weapons to murderous regimes as well. We should support YANSHUF’s struggle to promote legislation on the subject and by this help prevent the next genocide.

Don't look away from Rojava

“If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people,” Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, wrote a little over a month ago. Abdi, who commands tens of thousands of male and female soldiers who fought and beat the Islamic State organization, knows what he’s talking about. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, is on the brink of an abyss. The American abandonment, the offensive by Turkey and its jihadist allies, and the involvement of Syria’s Assad regime and its Russian patrons have forced the area’s inhabitants, especially the Kurds, to maneuver and compromise in order to preserve human life and stop the fighting.

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-the-slaughter-in-syria-still-goes-on-1.8187413

But the agreements that have been reached primarily serve Turkey, whose achievements include damaging the armed Kurdish forces, causing civilian flight from the new “security zone” and diverting international attention to other places. After a few days in which the world showed signs of concern over the hundreds of people who were killed or wounded and the thousands more who were expelled, the imaginary cease-fire has calmed international public opinion and allowed Turkey to continue with its plans for regional domination. But the fire has not ceased and quiet has not been restored. All the world needs to do in order to realize is to stop plugging up its ears.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with several Kurds who were in Rojava during the Turkish operation. These conversations took place in Sweden after the interviewees — Swedes of Kurdish origin — returned from visits to northern Syria. When you hear their stories and combine them with reports from other sources, it’s no longer possible to believe Turkey’s claim that it’s only fighting terrorists and restoring order. Bejan Rashid, for instance, is a Syrian who found refuge in Europe nine years ago. After receiving a European passport, he went to visit his hometown of Qamishli. “I was in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain) when the fighting started,” he said. “On the afternoon of October 9, F-16 planes started to bomb various targets, some of them entirely civilian. They bombed schools, residential buildings and hospitals.” Bejan said that  he volunteered to help the Kurdish Red Cross to transfer the wounded to a hospital. “I saw many who were killed and many who were injured,” he said. “Most of the injured were missing arms or legs or were hit by shrapnel. I tried to help the children and the elderly people first. The thing that’s hardest to forget was a girl, about 8 years old, who was sitting by her dead brother, trying to wake him up.”

A few days after the Turkish offensive began, Amnesty International published a report that showed the big picture. According to this report, civilians were bombed indiscriminately. One of the testimonies in the report described the bombing of an area near a school that was far from any military target. “In total, there were six injured and four killed, including two children,” a Kurdish Red Crescent worker said. “I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls because their corpses were black. They looked like charcoal.” Other witnesses described an attack on a convoy of hundreds of civilians. Six people were killed and 59 wounded in this incident, which a journalist who was present described as “an absolute massacre.” The report also accused Turkey’s jihadist partners of executing people in cold blood, including a female Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on the road between Raqqa and Qamishli. These claims have been reinforced by a Wall Street Journal report that quoted American sources as saying that serious war crimes of this sort were filmed by American military drones.

Those who survived the attacks and escaped to safer areas have to endure impossible conditions and uncertainty about the future. Helin Kerim Sonmez is a young Swede of Kurdish descent who traveled to Rojava after the Turkish invasion and spent a week volunteering in the Hesîçe (Hasakah) region. She told me about thousands of refugees staying at schools who suffer from bad sanitary conditions and a lack of medical care. There is no running water and sometimes no mattresses or blankets either; they just sleep on the bare ground.  “Traveling between the different schools between Hasakah and Tell Tamer,” she said, “we saw buildings in the villages that were totally destroyed. Roads were destroyed. We saw a water silo which was bombed and destroyed and schools that were hit too.”

Another Swede of Kurdish descent, Lorîn Ibrahim Berzincî, was in Qamishli on a family visit when the fighting started and was witness to the artillery bombings and the panic they created. “At night they bombed the old town area (Kudurbek) and the next day they hit right in the center of town. They hit a bakery, a soccer ground and a street in the center of town, but luckily that bomb didn’t detonate.” Lorin, who was staying at Qamishli with her family — which included young children and old people — managed to leave town before the situation deteriorated. But before coming back to Sweden, she witnessed another aspect of the Turkish assault. In a local hospital, she briefly met Mohammed Hamid, a 13-year-old boy from Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain), who suffered from horrible burns that may have been caused by white phosphorus. “More than half of his body was burned,” she said, “and the doctor who took care of him told me he’s never seen anything like it.”

Many Rojava residents say these crimes are part of a deliberate policy. Elisabeth Gouriye, one of the leaders of Rojava’s Christian community, said in a videotaped speech that the Turks intend to “cleanse” northern Syria of its Christians by means of massacres and expulsions. This jibes with the claim that the Turks’ goal is to settle the region with Syrian refugees expelled from Turkey in place of Christians, Kurds and others. The Amnesty report, which was published in October, reinforces these claims and brings evidence that Syrian refugees have indeed been deported from Turkey into battle zones in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to “flood” Europe with 3.6 million migrants if its leaders oppose his actions.

Even though Rojava is disappearing from the headlines, a catastrophe is still in the offing. Fighting continues in key areas, suicide bombings are targeting civilian populations, clerics are being murdered and refugees aren’t being allowed to return to their homes. This is a manmade catastrophe, and it’s happening before our very eyes. But unlike previous such catastrophes, it’s accompanied by pictures, videos and calls for help on social media. In his address to the Bundestag in 1998, the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer suggested adding three more commandants to the existing 10: “You, your children and your children’s children shall never become perpetrators”; “You, your children and your children’s children shall never, never allow yourselves to become victims”; and “You, your children and your children’s children shall never, but never, be passive onlookers to mass murder, genocide, or (let us hope it may never be repeated) to a Holocaust-like tragedy.”