Commemorating injustice

Stumbling stones: Walking through Berlin, you will find little brass bricks outside houses from which Jewish families were deported to Nazi concentration camps Image: Shutterstock/ Graphia   -  shutterstock/ graphia

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE

Memorials to crimes committed by a State serve as reminders of mistakes we should not repeat. The absence of such emblems indicates we haven’t learnt from the past

In 2002 I found myself in Washington DC, sitting next to a memorial to Japanese-Americans. Soon after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an order creating internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry living in the continental US and Hawaii. Although most of these people, over 60 per cent, were US citizens, they were treated like enemy — children, women, grandparents forced to move to incarceration camps with nothing except what they could carry. A few hundred children — all of them orphans — were removed from care homes and sent to the internment camps.

Over 100,000 people were held in these camps, until in 1945-46 a US Supreme Court verdict ruled such incarceration illegal. At the same time, nearly 20,000 Japanese-Americans were serving in the US Army, fighting the Axis powers in both Europe and the Pacific. It took years to disentangle the history. The Census Bureau denied it had any role in revealing where Japanese-Americans lived, until paperwork released in 2007 confirmed it.

It was only in 2000 that the memorial was built, on top of which are two cranes entangled in barbed wire. It was odd for me to be sitting next to them two years later.

The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC were, since Pearl Harbor, the biggest casualties the US had suffered on the American mainland due to foreign aggression. As in those days, the tide of public opinion had quickly turned against people of Arab or South Asian origin. Sikhs, with their turbans and beards, became prime targets. A gurudwara was firebombed near my university in upstate New York, and although a local church welcomed the Sikhs to pray there until their house of worship was repaired, those were harsh times in the US. Internment of people based on racial profiling was publicly discussed.

In the end, though, the US did not repeat its mistake — although it made newer ones. I wonder how much of that restraint was due to the public commemoration of that mistake.

Walking through Berlin, you can find little brass bricks on the road, marking the houses from which Jewish families were deported to concentration camps. Through these tiny memorials, the city becomes a living reminder of those who lost their lives, those senselessly deprived of liberty and life simply because some people hated their race.

Of all countries, Germany has been the most fervent in its embrace of the horrors of its past, and walking through its capital, you are reminded that it is a site of some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

It may also be one of the reasons why Germany, of all developed countries, has been most successful in facing down bigotry; and although small factions do come up, they are easily outnumbered and outflanked.

We tend to forget, or are never really informed, that the concentration camp was not the invention of the Germans. The Russians used them against Poles in the late 18th century, the Americans used them against Native American tribes, the Spanish used them during the fight for Cuba’s independence, and the US used them in its war against the Philippines. But perhaps the biggest use of such camps in war before World War II was during the Second Anglo-Boer War, fought in South Africa from 1899-1902. Up to 26,000 Afrikaaners died in such camps. Although their history has not received the same level of coverage, more than 20,000 black Africans also paid with their lives. Unlike the Nazi-run camps, where the internees were either killed on purpose, or made to work till they died, these camps, according to Lord Kitchener, the man who directed the war effort on behalf of the British Empire, were meant as acts of “kindness”.

There are no memorials of these crimes in Britain; maybe because there are almost no public memorials to the crimes of the Empire, to the mass murder, the brutalities and torture, fools like Boris Johnson — now foreign secretary of the UK — could accuse people like Barack Obama of an ancestral dislike of the Empire because of being half-Kenyan. You do not have to have a half-Kenyan heritage to be against such things, you only need half a brain. But when we erase such things from the public space, we forget the horrors of our own making that should not be repeated.

Thirty-two years after the 1984 massacre of Sikh citizens in independent India, we have no memorial to the crime, and I wonder how many times we will repeat it.

Omair Ahmad is the Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Published on November 04, 2016

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