History Of Ethnic Cleansing Research Paper

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‘Ethnic cleansing’ is a term that has come into common usage only with the recent war in former Yugoslavia. It describes the process of the forced deportation of peoples or nations from their homes and homelands. Even though violence and murder often take place in the course of ethnic cleansing, it is not the same historical phenomenon as genocide, which involves the intent to kill off part or all of a people. For a variety of reasons, some scholars find the term problematic. Nevertheless, it is useful not only for describing the attacks on national groups in former Yugoslavia, but for understanding similar instances of the violent expulsion of nations from their homelands throughout the twentieth century.

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1. The Term ‘Ethnic Cleansing’

The war of Yugoslav succession gave the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ its currency in the popular press and its meaning for political leaders, academic commentators, and the International Tribunal in the Hague. The term burst into public consciousness in the West in May 1992, and was used with increasing frequency during the following summer to describe Serbian attacks against Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia– Herzegovina (Gutman 1993). In this context, the use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ indicated that Serbs and Bosnian Serbs assaulted the Muslims with the intention of driving them out of targeted territories that the Serbs wanted to make ethnically Serbian. Subsequently, the term was also applied to Serbian attacks on Croats during the 1991–1992 Serbian–Croatian war, Croat attacks against Bosnian Muslims in 1992– 1993, and Croat attacks against Serbs in the Krajina during the summer of 1995. All of these attacks were motivated by the desire to seize and secure these territories for their own national groups.

Most recently, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been applied to the crisis in Kosovo, both in connection with the Serbian offensive against the Kosovar Albanians in the winter and spring of 1998–1999, which saw nearly a million Kosovars driven from their homes, and as a way to describe the Kosovar Albanian attacks on the Serbs since the conclusion of NATO bombing in May 1999. The origins of the term also are related to Serbian–Albanian relations in Kosovo. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was first used by Serbs in the mid-1980s to describe what they claimed were Kosovar Albanian attempts to drive the remaining Serbs of Kosovo from the province by means of economic pressure and physical threats (Vujacic 1993).

From the beginning of its use in the west to describe the events in Yugoslavia, the term was criticized on a number of grounds. Some commentators thought it was little more than a euphemism for genocide. Others were critical of the way genocide and ethnic cleansing were used interchangeably (Hayden 1996). In fact, distinctions between ethnic cleansing and genocide have been usefully drawn to understand the differences between the character of the Serbian attacks on the Bosnian Muslims, in particular, and genocides carried out earlier in the century. The intention to murder all or part of a nation, ethnic, or religious group, is critical to the definition of genocide developed by Rafael Lemkin during World War II and made part of international law in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, December 9, 1948 (Melson 1992). The intent of ethnic cleansing is to drive a nation, ethnic, or religious group out of a designated piece of territory, not necessarily to murder them.

The problem remains that ethnic cleansing is not free of genocidal implications. The Serbian massacre of some 7,300 Muslim men in Srebrenica should be characterized as genocide, even if the ultimate goal was to drive the Muslims from the territory. In this connection, the Croatian massacres of Bosnian Muslims in the Lasva Valley in the spring of 1993 were classified by the International Tribunal in the Hague as ‘ethnic cleansing,’ rather than ‘genocide.’ Critical was the intent to drive the Muslims from the region rather than the intention of mass murder.

Some scholars identify the mass rape associated with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as an attack on the reproductive potentialities of the Bosnian Muslim nation and therefore a form of genocide (Allen 1996, Stiglmayer 1994). It should in no way diminish the horrific quality of the crime to suggest that its purpose was fundamentally to drive Muslims from towns and villages seized and claimed by Serbs. It was therefore a part of the ethnic cleansing of the region rather than genocide. The mass rape in Bosnia led the International Tribunal in 1998 to classify it, for the first time in its long history, as a ‘crime against humanity.’ The word ‘cleansing’ is sometimes criticized by scholars because it ostensibly sanitizes a process that is otherwise brutal and murderous. But in the Slavic form of the word, for example ciscenje (Serbo– Croatian), oczyszczanie (Polish), or chistki (Russian), cleansing can refer to violent purges and is often used in a political context. The German word for cleansing and purges, Saeuberung, was used in pre-Nazi and Nazi eugenics and racial theorizing to indicate the need for ‘purifying’ the German race. In both Slavic and German, cleansing has a double meaning: the individual has been dirtied by alien elements and must be cleansed as a result, and the nation has been infiltrated by ethnic ‘others,’ who must be excised from the social body. Violence is implied in both. The definition of who belongs to an ethnic group is clearly determined by subjective criteria. The existence of the group itself often is a creation of the persecutor.

2. Ethnic Cleansing And Modernity

As quickly as ‘ethnic cleansing’ was accepted in public discourse as an appropriate description for the attacks in former Yugoslavia, scholars began applying the term to similar episodes in the past and present. Some analysts looked at ethnic cleansing as a phenomenon deeply rooted in human society going back to the beginning of history (Bell-Fialkoff 1996). The Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks are claimed to be the first ethnic cleansers. From this point of view, the causes of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia more often than not are traced to supposed ‘ancient hatreds’ between the peoples of the region.

A second approach looks at ethnic cleansing, like genocide, as a fundamentally modern phenomenon, one associated with the development of the modern state and the goals of its political leaders (Ahmed 1995, Baumann 1989). Especially the ‘high modernist’ aspirations of the late nineteenth and twentieth-century state, which seeks to control, homogenize, and manipulate its population, lead to episodes of ethnic cleansing (Scott 1998). The political ideology of the Serbian leadership and its relationship to the control of state power are at the core of the problem in the Balkans, not ‘ancient hatreds.’ The political manipulation of recent conflicts, like those during World War II in Yugoslavia, set the stage for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.

The modern state also commands the means to engage in ethnic cleansing. Not only can it register and identify the ethnic other, it uses modern means of communications to initiate and justify its ethnic cleansing campaigns. Propaganda and the mass media are critical to creating the appropriate images of enemies within and justifying forceably deporting the other. If earlier in the century newsreels and radio conveyed the messages of hatred and prejudice, television became critical to the late twentieth-century catastrophes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The state also uses modern means of warfare and transport to move populations from their homelands. Machine guns make it easy for small contingents of troops to guard (and sometimes to murder) large numbers of ethnic others. The sealed railway freight car might well serve as a symbol for ethnic cleansing, especially in Europe. Tens of millions of people were forced from their homes in hellish rail deportations; hundreds of thousands died from hunger, thirst, exposure, or disease in the process of transportation alone.

The major episodes of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth-century world reinforce these ideas. As a crucible for ‘industrial killing,’ World War I set the tone for the rest of the century (Bartov 1996). Yet even during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, some half a million people were driven from their homes or fled their persecutors. The Young Turk triumvirate that led the Ottoman Empire during World War I was responsible for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Approximately, 750,000 to 1,200,000 Armenians died as a result. The modernizing Turkish leader, Mustapha Kemal, drove the Greeks from Anatolia in 1922–1923, in a clear case of ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks died in the process, many in refugee camps in Greece and the islands from hunger and disease. Hitler and the Nazis engaged in a form of ethnic cleansing that quickly degenerated into genocide and the Holocaust. The Third Reich arrogated to itself a huge territorial realm (Lebensraum) where it would bring in German settlers and forceably expel the allegedly inferior local ethnic inhabitants. The case is complicated by the fact that Nazi rhetoric was consistently eliminationist, while the government’s policies until World War II were oriented towards forced deportation and population transfer. Gypsies, Poles, and Russians were involved in Nazi plans of racial destruction, as were the Jews, their primary target.

Stalin and the Soviet leadership engaged in a particularly Bolshevik form of ethnic cleansing (Martin 1998). During World War II alone, nearly a million people from the Northern Caucasus and Crimea— Chechens, Ingush, Karachaevtsy, Balkars, and Crimean Tatars, among others—were driven out their home territories to Central Asia. These ‘punished peoples’ were slated for elimination as nations, if not necessarily as individuals. Still, so many of them died in the process that their survivors speak of genocide. During and after the war, some 11.5 million Germans were ethnically cleansed from their previous homes in Eastern and East Central Europe, primarily Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Roughly two million died or were killed in the process. Poles were ethnically cleansed from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland (Ther 1998). During the separation of India and Pakistan, in 1947, some 10 million people, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, were driven from their homes or fled persecution. The list goes on: Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and East Timor, among others.

3. A Taxonomy Of Ethnic Cleansing

In these cases and others, the impulse of political leaders is to employ modern integral nationalism to achieve, maintain, and/or build political power. Nationalism claims superiority for the genetic material of the dominant nation, and it counters alienation and anomie by trumpeting a sense of collective belonging. It promotes the perception of shared national values, culture, and experiences. However, modern nationalism also fosters unity and common purpose among the dominant nation by denigrating the qualities of the subordinate ones. Part of nationalist rhetoric is the identification and stereotyping of the ‘other,’ an ethnic, religious, and/or national minority. The other cannot be tolerated because of their inherent inferiority and treacherousness. These minority groups are targeted for persecution and forced deportation, which almost always takes place in the context of violence.

Those who are left behind become even more dangerous than those who are forced out: thus the impetus in ethnic cleansing is to drive out every member of the minority, leaving no exceptions. There is a totalistic impetus to ethnic cleansing as a result. Sometimes, in the case of the Armenians, the Jews, and the Tutsi, ethnic cleansing turns into genocide or overlaps with genocide. But almost everywhere, the ‘unmixing of peoples’ (Brubaker 1996) involves the application of extreme violence. Even in those cases where population exchange is mandated by international treaties—Lausanne in 1923, Potsdam in 1945, and Dayton in 1995 are the most famous examples—they usually follow upon, rather than prevent or ameliorate, ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing almost always takes place under the cover of war) or in a period of transition from war to peace. The force of international opinion or journalistic inquiry is easily neutralized. Paramilitaries are involved in ethnic cleansing even more than regular army units. Strategic objectives for displacing a people are used as a way to justify the actions. Sometimes, the territory inhabited by the targeted minority is designated as strategically located. Sometimes, the argument is that the nations themselves are allied with foreign enemies. During war, normal civil laws are often suspended; men are accustomed to bloodletting; refugees and the dead and wounded are a normal part of the landscape. Soldiers follow orders, and few are punished for attacking the ‘other.’

Yet the violence of ethnic cleansing has a different character from that of war. In war, men in military formations are aligned against one another and fight with guns and machines in a more or less reciprocal exchange. In ethnic cleansing, it is usually an armed perpetrator who attacks an unarmed civilian. Those who are conducting the ‘cleansing’ have complete power over the other, producing a variety of brutal and sadistic practices that have little relationship to the normal rules of military engagement. They burn down homes, rape women and girls, beat helpless victims, and rob indiscriminately. In the process of dislodging peoples from their homes and their homelands, every cruelty—maiming, branding, torture— has been used.

The violence of ethnic cleansing is therefore directed almost exclusively against civilians. This usually means women, children, and the elderly. The gendered quality of ethnic cleansing is notable. Unarmed women and girls are attacked and brutalized in almost every case. The history of rape, mass rape, and rape murder in Bosnia–Herzegovina, where some 50,000 rapes are said to have taken place, was not unique to ethnic cleansing, as it has occurred throughout the world. Females are targeted both as the biological source of the future of ethnic groups, and as the bearers and teachers of national cultural values. They are often the primary victims of ethnic cleansing, as men are the major victims of war.

It is never sufficient in ethnic cleansing simply to expel a people from the designated territory. Their physical and cultural monuments and artifacts are targeted for destruction, as well. Serbs routinely blew up mosques and desecrated Muslim graveyards; Turks tried to destroy the remnants of Armenian and Greek civilizations in Anatolia; Jewish gravestones were used to pave roadways or factory floors, as were the gravestones of the Chechens and Ingush. The names of the peoples, of their towns, and of their regions, were routinely changed, removed completely from sight, chipped away from stone engravings, and even banned from speech. There should be no physical traces left of their previous existence. They are written out of history, or histories are rewritten to denigrate their roles in the region they formally inhabited.

4. The Future Of Ethnic Cleansing

There is every reason to believe that ethnic cleansing will continue to take a fearsome toll on innocent human beings in the twenty-first century. Part of the problem is that international institutions have a very difficult time intervening in sovereign countries for humanitarian reasons alone. Most of the great catastrophes of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the twentieth century—the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Rwanda—were well known to the world community. Yet little if anything was done to stop them.

The recent NATO actions in Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrate just how difficult it is to gain international consensus for intervention. The Russian involvement in Chechnya might well end in ethnic cleansing; only the most tepid of protests are registered on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of innocent refugees from the conflict. Even when intervention takes place, it is very difficult to separate nations peaceably who have experienced the ravages of ethnic cleansing. One of the fallacies of those who justify ethnic cleansing is that peace is advanced by forceably creating homogeneous nation-states. Instead, long-term animosities and national traumas are engendered that can explode into violence and war.

Especially in the former communist world, there are numerous countries with weak state structures, underdeveloped civil societies, and struggling economies. Where political elites are willing to play the ‘nationalist card’ in order to mobilize populations on behalf of the modernizing nation-state, ethnic cleansing might well occur. Under similar circumstances, countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia could also be vulnerable to attacks on minority nations.


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