It was only a matter of time before the word genocide appeared in headlines describing the state inspired atrocities in Homs. The western world watches noisy but impotent as hospitals are rocketed, babies have their incubators shut down, children are tortured and horror builds on horror.
This impotent noise is a comfort blanket. Outrage at Russia’s and China’s support for Assad cloaks the reality that western leaders would not know what to do. Everyone repeats as a nervous mantra: Syria is not Libya. How would the “civilised world” intervene to support a disunited opposition which if it once gained the upper hand might massacre the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria for the last fifty years?
Russia has imposed a veto on any “civilised” response and so the horrific massacre continues. But from Iraq and Libya we know the cost of “civilized response”. “Civilized response can lead leads to significantly greater loss of life and the possibility of an even less “civilized” regime being installed. We also know – as does Russia – that hands can be sat on. Did anyone in the west lift a finger when the Hungarian uprising was crushed in 1956?
And while the Turkish Prime Minister fulminates against the Syrian government, he is no less incensed by the French charge of genocide levelled at the former Ottoman regime. Turkey has responded by accusing France of genocide in Algeria. Reports have recently emerged of how the British castrated their Mau Mau captives in Kenya.
The word genocide is often used in place of massacre or even atrocity. If we call the bombing of Dresden genocide, we would have to come up with a new word to describe Hitler’s Final Solution or the Ottomans’ Great Crime.
A sorry aspect of history is that every empire and dictatorship has resorted to massacre when its fading power is threatened either by its own people or by particular ethnic groups. In the past, the “civilised world” so often the indirect beneficiaries of imperial atrocities, has salved its conscience with a dismay that was merely verbal.
Should the British feel a flicker of pride that at the end of the nineteenth century an election was won by Gladstone’s pamphlet on the Balkan Atrocities. No TV pictures, just a few photographs, but mostly stirring prose caused such revulsion against the distant Turkish Empire and the Conservative Party that supported it that Gladstone obtained a landslide victory.
None of these hot words however prevented the harsh imposition of unreal borders on the new principality of Bulgaria. This Anglo-French-German imposed settlement, driven by the fear of Russia, resulted in continuous Balkan instability and arguably the eventual outbreak of world war.
Nationalists in Bulgaria still live off these outrages. The massacres that occurred after the failed April uprising, mostly carried out by irregular Pomak forces (ethnic Bulgarian Moslems), are routinely called genocide. The ethnic cleansing that took place in Northern Thrace following wars with Turkey and Greece, as well as the ethnic alienation in former Yugoslavian Macedonia, is described as “genocidal”. Nationalists demand that modern Turkey grovel in apology and offer large financial reparation. Nationalist politicians routinely try to block all programmes of neighbourly co-operation. These policies do of course expose the fault lines in the EU’s ambiguous relationship with Turkey.
The punk post-modernist Baudrillard built on Barthes’ concept of myth to formulate the idea that in a world mediated by special effects, the Gulf War never took place. What we experienced in the west was a spectacular TV simulacrum. As a logical extension of Baudrillard’s theories, Martina Baleva has seemed to state that the Turkish massacre of Bulgarian civilians at Batak was a myth. This shocking conclusion arose from a PHD structuralist analysis of pictures depicting the massacre. The result for Baleva is that she can no longer safely return to Bulgaria. She’s given the nationalist cause a blood transfusion. The word genocide is trumpeted through the TV cables.
I prefer the word atrocity. Right now, I am translating the poetry of Ivan Buzakov a man whose mission is to express the horror of the Red Terror following Russia’s invasion of Bulgaria in 1944. This attrocity gets less attention from nationalist spokesmen many of whom turn out to have been supporters of the Communist regime.
Past atrocities are much easier to deal with or even exploit than present ones, provided they are known about and not denied. Present atrocities confound us.