Drawing Out the Darkness: Yazidi Children’s Art & Genocide’s Hyperbole

Al Jazeera ran an article this week featuring six drawings by Yazidi refugee children in Dohuk, Iraq.  As is the case with children’s drawings from other genocides, the images are heart-breaking in their stark representation.  [On ISIS’ persecution of the Yazidi as genocide, see this article in the Christian Science Monitor.]

While looking at the drawings and thinking about the young artists, it struck me how reflective children’s art is of the overall pattern of genocide. Young artists in Terezin depicted camp life, the solemn ubiquity of brutality,  fear, and death, and the constant threat of public hangings and deportations. Child refugees from genocide in Darfur depicted scenes of janjaweed and Government of Sudan attacks on their villages and the refugees’  chaotic flight into the desert, as well as the rampant commission of rape against their mothers, sisters, aunts and neighbors. Yazidi children depict yet another pattern: the massacre of men (including beheadings) and the enslavement of women. Indeed, we can read genocide from the drawings, even in the absence of much other supporting evidence. By looking for patterns, especially gendered ones, we are able to peer with sudden vision into the pitch black darkness of the crime. Children’s drawings are stark reflections of the type of violence they have witnessed, filtered by nothing but their own responses to horror.

One of the drawings featured in the Al Jazeera story — the second to last — is perhaps one of the most horrific in the already horrific annals of children’s representations of genocide. The Al Jazeera description reads, “A child displaced by ISIL drew this sketch of a mother forced to kill and eat her own children. The text at the bottom reads: “They made my mother eat the ‘meat’ of one of my siblings, and the other [sibling] is lost. ‘My lord,’ how will I live all alone?”

In the middle of that drawing is a slightly dressed woman with long, black hair, sitting with her legs drawn up close to her body and crying red, heart-shaped tears. On her left sits a beautiful, smiling toddler with a bloody knife pointed at his bleeding throat. On her right rests a child’s decapitated head on what seems to be a platter. The entire drawing is otherwise filled with the words above and with representations of drops of blood.  We are not told what happened to the child’s mother.

What are we to do with this drawing?

Genocide scholars are well-versed in the atrocities committed by genocidaires. One the one hand, these atrocities are incredibly creative, demonstrating deep personal commitment to symbolism and to the communication of complex dark urges and desires. So one is always shocked in hearing about them. On the other hand, the atrocities are also boiler-plate: the more we research atrocity, the more clear it becomes that, like the wider process of genocide, genocidal atrocity also follows identifiable patterns. So one is simultaneously not surprised.

Despite our awareness of the deep depravity of perpetrators, however, even genocide scholars at a loss when we imagine what this young child had to witness.

Perhaps we even try to avoid imagining it.

But it is not an uncommon occurrence during genocide.

In a book chapter I recently wrote, I included an example of “forced child eating” from the Adana massacre of Armenians in 1909, a massacre which had distinctly genocidal tendencies. The example was taken from Raphael Lemkin‘s dossier on the Armenian Genocide.  He based his dossier on European sources, many of which used second-hand survivor and witness testimony that was difficult to substantiate.  A reviewer asked me to use a different example; in his opinion the one I had chosen was too hyperbolic to be believed. I obliged, since the Armenian genocide (and genocidal patterns of persecution of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey beforehand) is still plagued by well-financed denial efforts on the part of the Turkish government. One cannot risk spoon feeding the deniers with second-hand sources, even when reliable  (though we also cannot neglect that these deniers are hardly swayed by written documentation and first-hand testimony).

The fact that a description of genocidal massacre might be too hyperbolic to be believed interested me. It was not long ago that rape accusations, such as those made during the Bosnian war, were also dismissed by many people in academe and in the international community as being hyperbolic. Apparently we are still mired in a rather sanitized image of genocide, one that originates — quite ironically — from the distinctly unsanitary example of the Holocaust. The image of assembly line mass murder still influences many peoples’ understanding of the crime. And yet we know that there was no cruelty left unexplored by the Nazis in their persecution of Europe’s Jews.

The original example that I chose to describe the Adana massacre, from Georges Brézol’s Les turcs ont passé là (1911), tells us that the Turkish perpetrators first “burned the beards of the clergy, gouged out their eyes and later collected the Gospels and the crosses, bound them to the throats of the priests and soaked them in oil, set them on fire and burned these poor beings alive.” After this horrific spectacle, “It was then the turn of the women and children….The poor mothers clasped their children to their breasts… the villains caught the unfortunate creatures, thrust bayonets and knives into their hands and forced them to kill their loved children…They took these freshly killed children before they were quite inanimate, tore their tender flesh to pieces without pity, and roasted it on the fires; and the mothers, trembling, were forced to eat a piece of their children. But this was not the end; the women and virgins were horribly raped; like dogs they were attacked by 5 or 10 men, and then cut to pieces and thrown in the river.”

Unfortunately these atrocities, including the roasting of children and feeding them to their mothers, are not at all hyperbolic in the context of  genocide. Or, more precisely, genocide tends towards the hyperbolic.  We don’t often hear such stories, for various reasons: all the witnesses are killed; human rights reports simply leave out the narrative surrounding the data of killings and rapes; when the narratives are included in reports, it is usually in reports on women and sexualized violence, which is still considered to be a niche interest, no matter what is claimed about it; and refugees — survivors — are frequently just not believed. But the stories are there.

In fact there’s a pattern across history. Consider the story of Nadine, a survivor of a massacre and genocidal rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many forces have committed genocidal violence in the past twenty years. I tell this story often, because of the genocidal pattern it exposes. Nadine’s village was attached by unidentified soldiers in 2007. First they killed the chief and his family; they then they tried to force Nadine’s brother to rape her. When he refused, he was killed. After this, they began to kill Nadine’s children, one by one, casting her infant daughter to the ground. Nadine was then gang raped, publicly and so viciously that her organs were ruptured. She was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, where the soldiers continued their ritualized atrocities against their captives. Before escaping, Nadine witnessed the soldiers eviscerating a pregnant woman and cooking her unborn baby: this child was then given to Nadine and the other women, who were forced to eat it.

I have written on the method I find in all this madness. Genocide is a wholesale assault on the social and biological reproductive capacities of a group. Attacks like the one experienced by Nadine are microcosms of genocide. But the drawing by the young Yazidi child has encouraged me to meditate specifically on the meaning of forcing women (and in some cases, men) to eat children, whether their own or others’. If we understand genocide to be a wholesale assault on reproductive capacities, then perhaps genocidaires are symbolically reversing the reproductive cycle: cells that were nourished by women’s bodies to become life are mocked as nourishment for women’s bodies, which results in excrement. It’s another way to turn love and life intto dross, by reversing the outward-flowing generosity of familial and communal love.

This is the life-negating anti-cosmos of genocidal ideology.

One truly cannot imagine anything worse.

There are many things we can learn from the sad Yazidi child’s drawing. As a practical matter, it underscores how much we must listen to and believe the words of refugees. As Peter Galbraith said regarding the genocide committed by the Saddam Hussein regime against Iraqi Kurds, “The real lesson of my experiences in these [refugee] camps over the years is that refugees don’t lie.”(Power, A Problem from Hell, 215) Galbraith’s tireless fact finding among Kurdish refugees from Hussein’s Anfal campaign is one of the shining lights of the fight against genocide.

The Holocaust historian Jan Gross has also urged that we recognize the value of survivor testimony in establishing the facts of genocide. As he discusses in his book Neighbors, a reappraisal of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust, it is the testimony of a single survivor that eventually led him to recognize that the Polish-Catholic denizens of the town of Jedwabne decided independently of any Nazi order to kill all the town’s Jews. One of his conclusions asks us to err on the side of believing survivor testimony:

“I suggest we should modify our approach to sources for this period. When considering survivors’ testimonies, we would be well advised to change the starting premise in appraisal of their evidentiary contribution from a priori critical to in principle affirmative. By accepting what we read in a particular account as fact until we find persuasive arguments to the contrary, we would avoid more mistakes than we are likely to commit by adopting the opposite approach, which calls for cautious skepticism toward any testimony until an independent confirmation of its content has been found. The greater the catastrophe, the fewer the survivors. We must be capable of listening to lonely voices reaching us from the abyss…” (92)

The lonely voice of this little person who witnessed his mother forced to eat his sibling must be not only be heard, but registered in our collective consciousness.

Real registration of this child’s story would mean that we devote more energy to preventing genocide from occurring in the first place, more might to combatting it when it is underway, and more resources to rebuild the lives of those harmed and displaced. While the international community dithers in naming anything genocide, and thus consigns all genocidal atrocity to dustheap of endless reports, we citizens of the world must use the word robustly. We must respond robustly. We must finance and engage robustly.

Right now, the Yazidis, as well as millions of other refugees from the Syrian civil war and multiple genocides in the region, languish in under-resourced camps with very few mental health facilities and very little help for children especially. This short-term situation will undoubtedly turn into long-term marginalization. The vast majority of survivors of genocide are economically vulnerable, both individually and as groups. So we can give money to organizations such as Yazda working with Yazidi refugees (or NuDay Syria, working with all Syrian refugees). More generally, we can press for much greater investment on the part of governments worldwide in reconstruction and peace building after genocide.

We can highlight the struggles of families to rebuild after genocide — a facet of reconstruction that is almost entirely neglected.

We can demand that our governments accept more refugees.

We can press for greater support of Kurdish fighting forces in Iraq and Syria, the only forces having any apparent measurable success against ISIS.

We can fight against ISIS-style nihilism at home — all those policies and ideologies that may be wrapped up in respectable language but that betray their roots in — and inspire the proliferation of — hatred and violence.

Genocide is not simple mass murder. It is not distracted, controlled killing. Genocide is passionate, hyperbolic cruelty, a permanent suppurating wound on the body of humanity.

Once genocide is committed it cannot be redressed. All we can do is hope for a small measure of justice. Even with justice mechanisms, the nightmare witnessed by the Yazidi child will stay with him forever. Let us hope that we can do our part to help him carry that burden by making it a burden on all of our consciences, on all of our shoulders, and on all of our hearts.

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