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Sarah Ruden

The Catastrophe

Lessons from the Armenian genocide.

The Babylonian Exile of the Jewish élite in the 6th century BC was a notable alternative to openly neutralizing all survivors of a defeated population through occupation, mass execution, or enslavement. During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), British forces on Dutch-African colonists' territory made another such concession that was to prove characteristic for the 20th century and beyond. It was a response to guerrilla warfare, and at the same time an effort to equivocate about the fate of captured civilians, in the face of a growing international concern with human rights. They moved people, in this case to the first concentration camps.

Confined there, Afrikaner women and children could no longer provide material support to men in the field. In the harsh conditions that at the time were usual for actual prisoners of war, many of these noncombatants perished from hunger and disease, and after the war the devastated families and farms made for a weak and suffering body politic and economy—conducive, for a while, to British hegemony in southern Africa. The concentration camps, by extension, fostered the newer colonists' gold and diamond businesses.

Moving people can be a very sinister business. They can be ordered by their own government to "register" their property and turn it over for "safekeeping" before their "evacuation," and they may hurry to comply with the reassuring bureaucracy; once isolated away from their homes, they can be tortured to reveal the location of any hidden valuables.

They can be moved under physical conditions likely to kill them en route, or moved to a place with no resources at all to keep them alive, or to a mine or factory or construction site where they will quickly be worked to death. Or they can simply be marched out of town, shot, and buried, or loaded onto ships, taken out to sea, and drowned.

The first mass displacements to amount to genocide were of the Armenians of the Near East between ...

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