Often, less is more, and more is less. For example, the death of Princess Diana in a road accident in Paris generated thousands of hours of television coverage worldwide, but carnage in Congo, Sudan or Indonesia resulting in thousands, even tens of thousands, of deaths gets barely a mention. We like to believe that all human lives are equal, but obviously some are far more equal than others.
Images, myths, proximity, kinship, publicity and official patronage raise some events and the “heroes” and “martyrs” associated with them to a high pedestal, while their absence consigns others to oblivion. It goes without saying that victors have a decisive say in the writing and rewriting of historical events. Success, it is said, has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.
Almost exactly 60 years ago, towards the end of the Second World War, British and American bombers firebombed the German city of Dresden, incinerating a 15 square kilometer area, destroying nearly 25 thousand buildings and killing anywhere “from 35,000 to more than 135,000” people. The Japanese capital, Tokyo, was meted the same treatment on the night of March 9-10, 1945, when 334 American planes dropped 1,700 tonnes of bombs destroying a 41 square kilometer area of the city, resulting in the death of over 100,000 people from the firestorm that ensued.
Firebombing consisted of “dropping large amounts of high-explosive to blow off the roofs to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining ‘fire storm’ with temperatures peaking at over 1500°Centigrade. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.” Dresden and Tokyo were not the only German and Japanese cities chosen by the Allies for this dreadful punishment.
Apparently, it is not human suffering or human lives as such that matter, rather it is the context of the events and the relative clout of the victims and perpetrators that glorify some, and condemn others to indifference, or worse, damnation. Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbour is recorded as “an act of infamy” but the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo are mere military episodes in the Second World War.
The 300,000 Americans (out of a population of 129 million) who died in the Second World War are commemorated, but the 3,500,000 Germans (out of a population of 78 million) who were killed in the same war are best forgotten.
In the mid- and late-1960s General Suharto’s regime launched a campaign of extermination against alleged communists which led to the death of up to a million Indonesians in what the New York Times calls “one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history”. For all we know, these uncelebrated victims of the Cold War never existed, and this injustice never occurred.
Srebrenica gained worldwide infamy in 1995 when, over a five-day period, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serbs. The massacre and subsequent events created such outrage in the West that, for the first time in its history, NATO intervened militarily. At about the same time, the world silently watched the systematic extermination of three quarters of a million Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda over a three month period. That translates into one Srebrenica per day, every day, for over three months but there was barely a whimper.
In Congo (Zaire), three million people may have lost their lives in the last decade in a civil war involving neighbouring countries. In southern Sudan, over the last two decades, war and repression by the government has resulted in close to two million civilians killed, and more than 4 million displaced. The civilian death toll is one of the highest of any war since 1945. The same Khartoum regime is now engaged in ethnic cleansing in its western Darfur region.
However, the media coverage that human suffering on a colossal scale in Sudan, Congo or Angola attracts is minuscule compared to, say, violence in Iraq. Few people know that a million people lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq war. For all we care, they are just a footnote to history. Nor does the killing of 200,000 Kurds in Iraq in 1980s fare any better in public perception.
But the Palestinian casualties, 3,500 dead over the last four years, are played out on the front pages of newspapers and television news every day, over and over again. If a count is taken, probably more people have died in sectarian violence in Pakistan over the same period. In the cycle of hatred, violence and counter-violence that grips the “promised land”, it hardly deserves a mention that over a thousand Jews have also lost their lives.
Similarly, the half million killed – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – during the mayhem that accompanied the partition of India in 1947 come a distant second to the couple of thousand Pakistani and Indian soldiers who have died in Indo-Pakistani wars. Wars, by definition, are a dance of death, but they give birth to martyrs and heroes, besides myths and legends.
Indo-Pakistani wars are no exception. They have created whole battalions of shaheeds (martyrs), duly remembered every year amid great fervour, panoply and fanfare in both countries, thanks to state patronage and “national pride”. On the other hand, abandoned by the state to which they swore loyalty, the so-called Biharis languish in Bangladesh as despised, stateless, non-persons as a consequence of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war.
Perhaps the most commemorated shaheeds in the history of the South Asian subcontinent are the three students killed by police firing on February 21, 1952 during the language movement in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Between then and its secession in 1971, East Pakistan witnessed many political movements and violent confrontations with police resulting in far greater casualties, but none could overtake the language movement in significance, nor the three shaheeds in stature. Even now, the martyrs of the language movement have a pride of place in the pantheon of the heroes of Bangladesh.
Nine-eleven has had an impact on the world like no other event. The American response has been stupefying. The significance of 9/11 and the American reaction cannot be measured by or related to the number of victims, which was just about 3,000.
Nine-eleven has shocked and infuriated the world’s mightiest superpower and thrown the Muslim world into turbulence. The images were horrifying, the victims blameless, the motive incomprehensible and the portents frightening.
Those 104 minutes of the morning of September 11, 2001, the time it took for the NorthTower to collapse after the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 was deliberately rammed into it, seem like eternity, etched in peoples’ memories and to be recorded in history books as no other. The impact that reduced the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre to rubble also shook the world.
(Published in Daily Times, 17 Feb 05)