Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/28/2014

On April 17, prisoners held in Ward 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison were brutally attacked by their guards. According to human rights organization FIDH, dozens were injured and more than 30 prisoners were sent to solitary confinement, where they were further abused.

Ward 350 holds political prisoners, and many of its residents were incarcerated for their participation in the 2009 Green Revolution. Families of the prisoners say that the attack was carried out by members of the Prison Special Guard accompanied by plainclothes thugs sent by the Intelligence Ministry. Officials claim that there was no violence, simply a “routine crackdown on illegal possession of cellphones“.


For 42 years, successive Iranian regimes have used Evin Prison to hold alleged enemies of the state. It is notorious in Iran, a byword for torture, rape, and forced confessions. But the persistent abuses, and even this month’s mass violence, pale beside what happened inside Evin and other Iranian prisons a quarter-century ago.

In late July 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning all imprisoned enemies of the revolution to death. He set up special commissions to carry out these executions, and instructed them to begin work immediately. As Geoffrey Robertson relates:

“[P]risons in Iran crammed with government opponents suddenly went into lockdown. All family visits were cancelled, televisions and radios switched off and newspapers discontinued; prisoners were kept in their cells, disallowed exercise or trips to the infirmary. The only permitted visitation was from a delegation, turbaned and bearded, which came in black government BMWs or by helicopter to outlying jails: a religious judge, a public prosecutor, and an intelligence chief.”

Over the next 5 months, at least 4,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 political prisoners were slaughtered on the say-so of these “death commissions”.

The first victims of the purge were members of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (alternately: the MEK, the PMOI, or the MKO), a leftist revolutionary organization that had split from the regime in 1981. Shortly before the killings, MEK forces had invaded western Iran from Iraq. Many in Iran felt that the prison massacres were retaliation for the unsuccessful attack, but evidence suggests that the regime had planned the executions the year before, when officials began “re-questioning and separating all political prisoners according to party affiliation and length of sentence”.

MEK prisoners were taken before the death commissions and asked a single question: “What is your political affiliation?” Anyone who answered “Mojahedin” was taken away and executed. Prisoners who gave the correct answer of “Monafeqin” (“hypocrites”, the regime’s term for the MEK) were asked a series of follow-up questions about their loyalty, including whether they would be willing to walk over land-mined fields. A wrong answer to any of these also led to execution and burial in an unmarked, mass grave.

Once the Mojahedin had been exterminated, the death commissions turned their attention to members of other left-wing groups. These prisoners faced a more involved interrogation, aimed at uncovering their religious beliefs. Those who were found to be apostates from Muslim families were executed. Others, including female leftists, were tortured until they agreed to pray. By November 1988, “the country’s political prisoners had either been executed or else flogged into submission by a regime which would think it safe to release them over the next few years“.

It was months before the families of the executed heard any news of them. When they were finally notified, they were not told where the bodies were buried, and were required to sign away their right to hold a funeral or memorial service. Officially, these deaths simply did not occur.

The 1988 prison massacre is remarkable not only for its scale, but for the success with which the Iranian regime managed to keep it hidden from the international community. One researcher, chronicling these events twenty years after the fact, noted that he had “found no more than ten or fifteen English-language news reports of the massacre and only a handful of book chapters addressing the topic”.

In 2007, victims’ groups founded the Iran Tribunal, to provide symbolic justice for the mass slaughter. In its final judgment last year, this people’s tribunal concluded that the execution of thousands of political prisoners constituted crimes against humanity for which (contra international legal precedent) the State of Iran could be held responsible. But despite the headlines generated by these proceedings, and the fact that human rights groups have continued to report on the massacre, Iran faces little resistance from the international community to its official policy of denial. And as long as the regime refuses to acknowledge this atrocity, thousands of families are left wondering where their loved ones are buried.

*photo of Evin Prison from Wikipedia.

WTF Friday, 4/25/2014

On April 16, more than 200 teenage girls preparing to sit their final exams were abducted from their government-run boarding school in Chibok in northern Nigeria and taken deep into nearby Sambisa forest. The kidnappers are members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who strongly object to secular education, particularly of girls.

Two days after the abduction, the Nigerian military announced that the girls had been freed in an “on-going search and rescue exercise”. They hadn’t.

In fact, some of the girls managed to escape on their own, but the rest remain unaccounted for and there have been no ransom demands. As Jina Moore documents, the families of the missing students have grown increasingly frustrated with the government’s lack of action. Several days ago, they mounted a private search operation, heading into the forest themselves. They had to turn back empty-handed, lacking the firepower to confront the terrorists directly. But as one father later told a Nigerian newspaper: “If soldiers had accompanied us to the forest, we were optimistic that our missing children would have been rescued.”

BBC reports that at a meeting on national security yesterday, the national government “vowed to do all it can” to rescue the hostages. But for many Nigerians, the delay in action reflects a devastating indifference to the fate of these young women, which, as Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani reminds us, may be bleak.

#BringBackOurGirls is now trending on Twitter, castigating not only the Nigerian state, but the international press for its disinterest in this tragedy. These girls have been missing for over a week; the least we can do is pay attention.

WTF Friday, 4/18/2014

This one’s not funny, but it does tangentially involve George Clooney:

Recent Satellite Sentinel Project imagery of the Nuba Mountains reveals a “significant mobilization of Sudanese armed forces”, including a “a Chinese-made multiple rocket launcher system“. This comes on the heels of Sudan’s Defense Minister’s recent announcement of the opening of the summer military campaign season (no word on whether a giant pair of scissors and a ribbon-cutting ceremony were involved). Even more worryingly, the director of the National Intelligence and Security Services said last week that extra Rapid Support Forces (i.e. janjaweed militias) are being sent to the region to fight against the SPLM-N rebels.

So basically: Add Nuba Mountains to your list of places to be desperately worried about civilians in conflict this week.

H/T: Stephanie Schwartz

Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/14/2014

Over the next four weeks, more than 800 million voters will go to the polls in India. It’s a landmark event in the world’s largest democracy, but global news coverage of the elections has focused almost entirely on the controversial candidacy of Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 2001, Modi has served as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He had been in power for only five months when terrible ethnic violence broke out.

On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists stopped at Godhra in Gujarat. They were returning from Ayodhya, where construction of a Hindu temple was about to commence on the disputed site where a mob had destroyed the Babri Mosque 10 years previously. Their train pulled into the Godhra railway station at 7:43am. Less than an hour later, the train was on fire and 59 people were dead. Over the next three days, a deadly ethnic pogrom was unleashed against Muslims, who were believed to be responsible for the fire.

These are the facts everyone agrees on. Everything else is contested.

The train burning was immediately denounced by Modi and other Hindu leaders as a premeditated attack by a Muslim mob. Gujarati police alleged that members of the mob arrived armed with rags pre-soaked in oil. But journalists investigating at the time revealed a more complicated chain of events. As the Washington Post reported on March 6, 2002, Hindu activists on the train “carried on like hooligans” throughout the journey, harassing the other passengers and shouting anti-Muslim slogans. On arrival at Godhra, they refused to pay the Muslim tea and snack vendors. But the vendors were ready for them, and some boarded the train and pulled the emergency brake. Stalled in a Muslim neighborhood, the train drew a crowd that quickly turned violent, trading insults and hurled stones with those on board.

The source of the flames that took 59 lives remains a mystery. In the immediate aftermath, railway officials reported that members of the mob set fire to the train, but that the attack was “not preplanned”. An inquiry conducted by retired Supreme Court Judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded in 2006 that the fire was the result of an accident. But a Gujarati commission empaneled in 2008 stuck to the initial story, finding that the burning of the train was the result of a “conspiracy”. In 2011, a local court sentenced eleven of the alleged conspirators to death.

Whatever the cause of the fire, its effects were clear. Hindu mobs rampaged in a frenzy of unchecked violence, egged on by government officials’ and local press’s scapegoating of the Muslim community. According to official estimates, 790 Muslims were killed in the following three days. Other sources suggest that the deaths numbered in the thousands. Horrific sexual attacks were systematically perpetrated against Muslim women, and businesses and homes were destroyed, and infants and children were burned alive.

As the violence unfolded, state security forces failed to intervene. One intelligence official described this as “a calculated decision by the state’s Hindu nationalist government”. As Human Rights Watch documented, calls to police, firemen, and even emergency medical services were met with the chilling response: “We have no orders to save you”. Other human rights groups reported that the security sector not only stood by as Muslim civilians were raped and murdered, but actively participated in the attacks.

Modi has escaped criminal charges for his role in the violence. But cases related the events of 2002 are still winding their way through the Indian courts, and the question of Modi’s complicity remains live. For the victims of the 2002 atrocities, the prospect of Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister is surely a sick joke. And yet for many Indians, his success in promoting rapid economic development during his tenure in Gujarat outweighs the blood on his hands.


*For more info on the Gujarat violence, and Modi’s role, check out these extremely disturbing interviews with the perpetrators:

WTF Friday, 4/11/14

In this week’s news:

  • More of the same from Uganda, where the US-funded Makerere University Walter Reed Project was raided by police who claimed that the health clinic was “training” Ugandan youth to be gay. I am officially out of jokes about Ugandan gay panic, so here’s a space for you to fill in your own: ______;
  • And someone threw a shoe at Hillary Clinton, making this all but inevitable:

WTF Friday, 4/4/2014

From the (apparently not a prank) April Fools Day edition of The Washington Times: “‘The problem from hell’ is only solved when God-fearing men with steel backbones and muscular arms stand between the evildoers and their victims.

I can’t believe how much time and money has been wasted studying the root causes and dynamics of mass atrocity, when all along the answer was biceps!

On Looking Good in Bad Places

If you read this blog, chances are you either have gone or will go to places you can’t buy a travel guide for, or are my mother (hi Mom!). If the former, pick up a copy of Expat Etiquette: How to Look Good in Bad Places ASAP.

Co-authored by Michael “The Bear” Kleinman, Expat Etiquette offers tips on navigating squat toilets, share cabs, black market alcohol dealers, and the poisonous Expat Bubble. And it doesn’t omit the single most important piece of advice for anyone heading to the non-touristed world: “Do not forget to bring your own emergency toilet paper.”

I look forward to sequel “Coming Home: What to Do When You Find Yourself Crying in a Big Box Store”. (Get on that, guys?)

Mass Atrocity Monday, 3/31/2014

My research is on post-WWII mass atrocities, but there are some real doozies pre-1945. So because I’m jet-lagged and can’t make words into sentences today, let’s all head on over to “Focus on the Horn” and read about Ian Campbell’s research on the Addis Ababa massacre of 1937.

Teaser: Approximately one-fifth of Addis’s population was slaughtered by Italian colonial forces following the attempted assassination of their commander, Rodolfo Graziani, in February 1937. For three days, security forces and civilian mobs rampaged, murdering men, women, and children and setting fire to homes. It only ended when Mussolini stepped in. (I’ll take “unlikely candidates for stopping a mass killing” for $400.) The extent of the bloodshed was hidden from history for years, but Campbell’s painstaking research demonstrates not only the scale of the mass killing, but the complicity of senior regime leaders. Check it out.

And if that’s not enough to get you through the week, go Google my favorite medieval European atrocity, the Massacre at Béziers during the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. It’s best known for Abbot Amalric’s (possibly apocryphal) order: “Kill them all, and let God sort them out”, which led to the deaths of 20,000 townspeople. You’re welcome.

WTF Friday, 3/21/2014

Today is full of mind-blowing news:

  • In Kenya, female MPs staged a walk-out in Parliament today as a bill passed allowing Kenyan men to marry additional wives without checking with their existing spouse first. Explained a (male) MP: “When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa.”
  • And finally, Robert Kaplan has once again succeeded in trolling the entire internet, this time with a piece up at The Atlantic extolling the virtues of empire. Choice quote: “imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable”. There’s also an approving shout-out to Rudyard Kipling’s pro-colonialist classic “The White Man’s Burden”. (Ultimately he gets to the point which is, apparently, that America needs to rediscover grand strategy, which: sure.) Obviously, Twitter is going insane over this.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 3/17/2014

In Haiti, generations of children have been warned to be good or else Tonton Macoute (“Uncle Gunnysack”) will come along and pop them in his sack to eat for breakfast. In 1959, the fable suddenly took on real-world significance. That was the year that president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, nervous about the possibility of a coup attempt, disbanded the entire Haitian security sector and created his own personal police force.

Papa Doc used his secret police to terrorize the Haitian population into submission. Anyone suspected of opposing the regime might be tortured, killed, or abducted and never heard from again. The rash of disappearances quickly earned the organization the nickname “Tontons Macoutes”.


The Tontons Macoutes are suspected of brutally murdering tens of thousands of Haitians. The inclusion of voodoo practitioners in their ranks lent their bloodthirstiness a supernatural quality. Ghoulishness like their leader Luckner Cambronne’s brisk blood and cadaver export trade added to the horror.

Papa Doc Duvalier died in 1971, but the reign of the Tontons Macoutes continued under his son and successor, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Baby Doc’s rule, like his father’s, was characterized by widespread and systematic torture and disappearances. Political prisoners were incarcerated, and frequently extrajudicially executed, in a notorious network of prisons known as “the triangle of death”.

Unrest over rising food prices forced Baby Doc to resign in 1986 and flee into French exile. In 2011, he returned to Haiti, where he was immediately slapped with corruption charges for his apparent embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars while in power. Victims of his human rights abuses seized the opportunity to file complaints for violations of international law. After extensive legal back-and-forth, these cases may finally be allowed to go forward. Last month, an appeals panel ordered further investigations into allegations that Duvalier was responsible for crimes against humanity. Victims will have the opportunity to present their testimony to an investigating judge, who will decide whether to proceed to trial.

Meanwhile, Baby Doc’s lawyer has resorted to the tried-and-true strategy of announcing that a civil war will break out if his client is convicted.

* Tonton Macoute photo from