One Massacre That Didn't Grab the World's Attention

International Herald Tribune, Paris, Saturday, August 7, 1999
By Rupert C. Colville

NICOSIA - A year ago this weekend, between 5,000 and 8,000 people were killed over three or four days because of their ethnic identity. Most of them were men.

Some were shot on the streets. Many were executed in their own homes, after areas of the town known to be inhabited by their ethnic group had been systematically sealed off and searched. Some were boiled or asphyxiated to death after being left crammed inside sealed metal containers under a hot August sun. In at least one hospital, as many as 30 patients were shot as they lay helplessly in their beds.

The bodies of many of the victims were left on the streets or in their houses as a stark warning to the city's remaining inhabitants. Horrified witnesses saw dogs tearing at the corpses, but were instructed over loudspeakers and by radio announcements not to remove or bury them.

Do you recall this massacre? Where it happened? Who was killed by whom and why? If it doesn't ring any bells, don't feel guilty about it, because you will be in the great majority. It did not happen in Kosovo or Bosnia. It happened in Afghanistan, which was in many ways the Kosovo of the 1980s but is no longer considered important.

For a while, it looked as though the massacre committed by the Taleban in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif might slip through the floorboards of history altogether. More important things were occupying the world's media, such as the Monica Lewinsky revelations, football games, riots in Indonesia. In the end, however, it did register but only as a minor historical footnote.

The first report by an international organization was a press release by Amnesty International on Sept. 3, 1998. A week later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also went public, saying, on the strength of what it described as “extremely consistent” interviews with refugees arriving in Pakistan, that it believed several thousand people had been killed. On Nov.1, Human Rights Watch came out with a detailed report, based on an investigation in Pakistan. Shortly afterward, a UN Commission on Human Rights report also covered the massacre. None of these reports created much of a stir, however, despite their shockingly graphic detail. One reason for this was that there were no gruesome pictures of piles of bodies, and not a single major TV station attempted to interview refugees or aid workers in Pakistan. Yet between March and June this year, hundreds of TV stories were reported in precisely this way with the refugees in Albania and Macedonia, long before the NATO-led force made it possible for camera crews to enter Kosovo.

In fact, pictures from Mazar probably could have been acquired if the will had been there: On at least two occasions people using secret cameras have filmed the situation of women in Taleban-held Afghanistan. For the Taleban, filming living women is actually much more contentious than filming dead bodies.

A few journalists did react with passion, and a few good articles were written in newspapers here and there. In general, however, the Mazar massacre was brushed aside by the international media, and in particular by the influential American press.

The New York Times confined the killings to a few paragraphs in a story about Iran on Sept. 16. A reporter in Islamabad offered Newsweek a 1,500-word article that was finally reduced to a 150-word snippet.

The only major U.S.print organizations that came up trumps were the Los Angeles Times, on Sept. 18, and The Washington Post, which published a story on Nov. 30, followed by an editorial in early December (both of which were carried by the International Herald Tribune). These were too isolated and too far apart to spark outrage about the massacre, however, Compare this coverage with Kosovo. On Sept. 26, 1998, while the few who knew about the Mazar massacre struggled to bring it to wider attention, about 20 people were killed in the Kosovar village of Gornje Obrinje. On Jan. 15, 1999, another 45 ethnic Albanians were killed in Racak. On both occasions the TV crews piled in, headlines raged and NATO started reacting.

Perhaps the closest analogy for Mazar is the massacre of Bosnian Muslims that took place in the small town of Srebrenica after it fell to the Serbs in July 1995. Once again there were no pictures, but when the survivors began arriving in nearby Tuzla, most of the world's media were there waiting to report the horrors.

Twice over the next three months, a young journalist with the Christian Science Monitor called David Rohde trekked secretly into Srebrenica and came out with evidence of the massacre that everyone knew, but had not been able to prove, had taken place there. Mr. Rohde won Pulitzer Prize for his part in revealing the fate of about 7,000 men who were murdered in Srebrenica. That massacreis a key element in the war crimes indictments of General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, among others.

A similar number of men were killed for much the same reasons in Mazar-i-Sharif last August. But nobody will win a Pulitzer for exposing the massacre in Mazar, because no one traveled there for months afterward except for the BBC's Kabul correspondent, William Reeve, who visited Mazar four months later.

Mr. Reeve did not attempt to investigate the massacre by interviewing refugees or aid workers gathering evidence across the border in Pakistan. His strongest criticism of the Taleban was that “their tactics could be described as brutal.”

Afghanistan is by no means off the media map altogether. Osama bin Laden attracts cruise missiles, as well as plenty of media coverage, because he is allegedly behind attacks on U.S.embassies. And when the Taleban instruct women not to wear white socks or squeaky shoes, articles are printed around the world and women's rights groups are up in arms. But when the Taleban kill more than 5,000 men, first because of their ethnic identity and second because of their gender, it seems that no one gives a damn.

There is no question that the Mazar massacre was a valid and powerful story. Yet while about 3,000 journalists were on the ground at the peak of the Kosovo crisis, only a handful of international journalists took the trouble to interview refugees from Mazar in Pakistan.

Much of the international support for the Kosovo Albanians was a direct product of the media coverage of the refugees and of the atrocities committed. What will be the fate of the tens of thousands of ethnic Hazara children left without fathers and brothers in devastated, impoverished Afghanistan, where widowed mothers cannot work?

The writer was a UN spokesman in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not in any way represent the views of the United Nations. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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