Al-Ahram Weekly Online
8 - 14 November 2001
Issue No.559
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A silent genocide

Ignored by the media and dismissed by American and British politicians, millions of impoverished Afghans are being casually starved to death. Faiza Rady investigates

'The civilised have created the wretched quite coldly and deliberately... are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement, rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their vital interests are menaced... These people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the 'sanctity' of human life or the 'conscience' of the civilised world.'
James Baldwin

They say that death is the great equaliser. However one looks at it, this old adage does not ring true. Take the death toll of 11 September, for example. If quizzed about the approximate number of victims, most people -- even the most illiterate and uninformed among us -- would most likely pass the test with flying colours, quoting a figure of between five and six thousand dead. But how about other massacres, which may have claimed more lives despite receiving less media attention. Recent history offers plenty of examples, but very few such massacres would evoke instant recall from anyone but a handful of political activists and obscure specialists.

A case in point is the current starvation of the Afghan people, courtesy of the ruthless US bombing of their country. The military offensive so far has been a success story by any standards. Following five weeks of relentless sorties, US bombs have killed an estimated 1,500 civilians, shattered a clearly marked Red Cross warehouse in the capital Kabul, hit a UN building, decimated towns and villages and destroyed the remnants of the country's already tenuous infrastructure.

Besides slaughtering people and "bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age," the B-52 sorties have a more sinister side effect. They prevent food aid from reaching the 7.5 million Afghanis currently threatened with widespread famine.

Although not a massacre in the conventional sense of the term, the current situation amounts to a slow asphyxiation of the Afghan people's lifeline. Christian Aid spokesman Dominic Nutt described the urgency of the situation in unambiguous terms. "We are beyond the stage where we can sit down and talk about this over tea. The food supplies have dried up. We can only get the food aid in if they stop the bombing; it's as simple as that."

His plea, and the pleas of others -- the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Oxfam and Islamic Relief -- fell on deaf ears. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied all responsibility for starving the Afghan people. "The overwhelming number of people who are in dire poverty in Afghanistan were in dire poverty before 11 September and they were in dire poverty because of the actions of the Taliban," declared Straw.

Dire poverty, however, does not necessarily mean starvation. Dismissing the facts and responding with a blanket generalisation, the British foreign secretary refused to acknowledge that the situation was under control prior to the war. Before the bombing started, the WFP had, in fact, made provisions to distribute sufficient staples for the 7.5 million Afghans at risk. To meet its target, the WFP had planned to ship a daily convoy of 1,700 tons of staples into the country. By 31 October the agency was only able to meet half of its projected target. The result: between three and four million people are facing imminent starvation.

Prominent linguist and writer Noam Chomsky defined the situation as a form of genocide. "Plans are being made on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people. Very casually, with no comment and with no particular thought about it. It looks like what is happening is some sort of silent genocide," said Chomsky.

Far from the limelight of the sensationalist war coverage, tucked away in the back pages of the mainstream press -- if reported at all -- the "silent genocide" of the Afghani poor is quietly suppressed from the collective consciousness of both the North and the South.

The media tactics being used are not new, and they work brilliantly. "The power of the American propaganda and doctrine is so strong that even among the victims [the facts] are barely known," explains Chomsky. Take a relatively recent example. How many of us know or remember that more than 150,000 Iraqi civilians died during the neatly-packaged "Operation Desert Storm"?

Back in 1990, during the tenure of George Bush senior, the US propaganda apparatus was already speeding ahead in high gear. We were told that we were in the aftermath of the Cold War, that times were changing, and that good and evil had to be redefined. But it is not only religious fundamentalists who have their own versions of good and evil. Market fanatics can play the same game. "The arms industry and the gigantic war machine of the US also needs enemies to justify its existence," commented prominent Ecuadorian writer Eduardo Galeano in the Mexican daily La Jornada.

The US military-industrial complex is now peddling its own peculiar definition of good and evil. Prior to "Operation Desert Storm," the Pentagon racked their brains to invent a fitting euphemism for the carnage. It is not a "war," they decided, because that would evoke images of high- powered war planes bombing cities with real live people. Instead, the spin doctors defined it as a hi-tech US airforce "operation" -- embellished with just the right dosage of burlesque Hollywood-style imagery and conveniently oozing the inevitable Biblical subtext with the imagery of the crusade against Satan Saddam.

Courtesy of CNN, "Operation Desert Storm" was further disinvested of its real purpose and reduced to a surreal greenish blur on global networks, reminiscent of the kind of innocuous video game played in suburban arcades.

Yet, beneath the blur, the imagery and the news speak lurked death and destruction -- in the shape of an estimated 150,000 victims of the US-led coalition. Buried under the rubble of the media Blitzkrieg, which serialised the virtual reality on TV screens across the world, the victims of "Operation Desert Storm" rarely -- if ever -- made the international headlines.

The terror did not end with the war. After the bombs came the sanctions with their long-term ripple effects, which claimed even more lives. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates, between 1991 and 1997 at least 1,500,000 Iraqis died as a result of malnutrition and lack of medical care -- all directly attributable to UN-imposed sanctions. Lesser victims than their American counterparts, Iraqis -- like the Afghans and other lesser peoples -- are deemed expendable by US policy makers. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded as much when she acknowledged that Iraqi lives did not weigh much in the balance of US strategic, or other, interests.

This inherently racist and convenient designation of the "lesser victim" is an attitude which -- by and large -- is shared by the intelligentsia of countries in the North, believes Chomsky. He argues that terrorism by the strong takes on a different dimension. "At some deep level, however they may deny it to themselves, they regard our crimes against the weak to be as normal as the air we breathe," says Chomsky.

So it seems that the "lesser" victims of US military action in Afghanistan -- the starving Afghans -- will most likely remain invisible. Unlike the 6,000 victims of the 11 September terrorist attack, they will soon be forgotten.

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