Patrick Cockburn: The strange forgettability of some civilian massacres

World View: It is too soon to know if the deaths of an Afghan family last week will alter things in Afghanistan, but some atrocities have the power to shape history

Share
Related Topics

I remember walking into Sabra and Shatila in south Beirut in 1982 just after the massacre of at least 1,700 Palestinians by Christian militiamen loosed on the refugee camps by the Israeli army. There was a sweet, sickly smell from the bodies of people that were beginning to bloat as they lay heaped up in small shops and alleyways. Most were old men, women and the young, some half buried by a bulldozer that had pushed sand over them. The effort at hiding the slaughter was half-hearted, leaving heads, arms, legs and rags of clothes of the dead sticking out of the ground.

It would be wrong to say the memory of the massacre never left me, because for years I did not think about it. I even lost the clipping in the Financial Times, for which I then worked, describing what I had seen. But then, in 2008, I saw a brilliant animated film called Waltz with Bashir, by the Israeli director Ari Folman, about how he had been at Sabra and Shatila but had suppressed any recollection of it. So had Israelis as a whole. Just before the end of the film the animation ends and turns into news film. It shows a group of Palestinian women wailing with grief as they search for their murdered families. It is a moving scene and, I believed, new to me until I suddenly saw that, walking with the group of women, was myself.

It would be nice to say that the exposure of the Sabra and Shatila massacre changed things for the better, but it did not. The Israelis once again killed Palestinians and Lebanese civilians on a mass scale in 1996, 2006 and 2008. Describing the slaughter of Lebanese at Qana in south Lebanon in 2006, Anthony Shadid, the New York Times journalist who died in Syria in February, wrote that "where Israeli bombers caught their victims in the midst of a morning's work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around". A one-year-old baby had died with its pacifier dangling from his body, and a 12-year-old curled into a foetal position seemed to be vomiting earth.

Massacres vary in their impact. Small atrocities can become the building blocks of history and others, in which greater numbers died, are soon forgotten. Mass killings by the government against peaceful protesters resonate more than those that are a by-product of armed conflict. What starts as an attempt to intimidate opponents can irreversibly delegitimise a state. British rule in India was fatally undermined by the massacre of unarmed Indian protesters by British troops in Amritsar in 1919; and the shooting of 13 demonstrators by British paratroopers on "Bloody Sunday" meant that the many Roman Catholics previously hostile to the IRA would now tolerate it. In each case, the opponents of British rule were enormously strengthened both by what had happened and by anger at official lies.

Will the latest massacre in Afghanistan have long-term significance? The facts are well established. An American army sergeant shoots 16 Afghans, mostly women and children, in two villages in Kandahar province a week ago. The impact so far appears to have been greater outside than inside Afghanistan. Foreigners may be shocked by the killings of civilians, but Afghans will scarcely find it unprecedented. The 16 dead in Kandahar will appear to many as just more of the same, differing only in that the latest crime is more blatant and undeniable.

Compare this to a much bigger massacre in Farab province in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, when US bombers killed 147 people in three villages. I was in Herat, the city to the north of Farab, but it was too dangerous for me to drive to the devastated villages because the Taliban were strong in the area. There was evidence that all the dead were civilians. Enraged farmers drove their tractors with trailers filled with the corpses of their relatives to protest outside the governor's office in Farab city. The initial Nato story was that the Taliban might have killed the civilians themselves by throwing grenades into houses, but this did not explain the giant craters. Late in the day, there was a grudging official admission that the US aircraft might have destroyed the villages. But the story never took off internationally because it could not be verified.

Massacres are often only the culmination of a long line of violent incidents, which have previously been ignored by all except the victims. When photos of US prison wardens mistreating inmates were published in 2004, the impact was greater outside Iraq. Iraqis were indeed frightened by US troops, but less by Abu Ghraib and more by shootings at vehicles that got too close to US convoys.

All contested occupations have the potential for atrocities by occupying troops. There was a time, during national service and mass mobilisations, when this would have caused no surprise. Soldiers were considered by home populations as dangerous young men with semi-criminal tendencies.

The Duke of Wellington was denounced for snobbery for calling his men "the scum of the earth", which was true. He was accused of inhumanity for favouring retention of the lash, but he argued that without the threat of a beating there was no way he could safeguard civilians from his soldiers.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering