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Concentration Camps – Owning Victimhood?

Coen van Wyk

Posted on July 21, 2019 10:36

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Recent media debates suggest that references to concentration camps must have a relatively recent political connotation. Is it possible to own victimhood? Are some victims’ suffering somehow irrelevant? And is it useful to claim victimhood through excluding others?

Millions of innocent people throughout history have been subjected to the sheer horrors and injustice of concentration camps. 

Eager to exploit Africa's gold and diamonds, the British colonial office in South Africa pushed the stubborn President Paul Kruger into a war with the surrounding Boer Republics. However, the Boer Republics were not easy targets. The Afrikaner forces, composed of farmers, hunters, and mobile guerilla forces, defeated the much more powerful, but rigid armies of the Empire. The war dragged on to May 1902. Thousands of civillians perished in concentration camps. 

During Cuba's war of independence, both sides removed civilians en masse and confined them in concentration camps. These actions contributed to the death of up to 30% of the civilian population-- 300,000 individuals.

Another example is when America used a concentration camp system against Philippine rebels from 1899 to 1902. 

Cuban reconcentrado

No matter which conflict or which nation, all internees suffered immensly. During the Boer war, people's homes and possessions were burned to ash. Their livestock was slaughtered and their crops were destroyed. Women and children were ordered to report to the nearest camp where civilians were being held.

One woman by the surname of van Zyl tried to evade internment, but the unbearable hunger and the harsh climate forced her to seek the shelter offered by the enemy. Since her husband had refused to surrender, the van Zyl family was relegated to the lowest of a meager scale of rations. Two months later, their malnourished daughter Lizzie was hospitalized under the care of nurses who viewed her as an idiot because she could not speak their language. Lizzie was also considered a troublemaker because she kept calling for her mother. The young girl eventually died due to medical negligence and starvation. 

Lizzie van Zyl, dying in Bloemfontein in 1901

During the war, separate camps were set up for whites and blacks. The white internees were supplied with tents and minimal rations, while black internees had to construct their own accommodations and plant their own food.

By the end of the conflict, approximately 27,927 of the 116,572 white internees had perished. Out of at least 115,700 black internees, some 14,154 were estimated to have died. 

Nationalist South Africa built monuments in rememberance of victims who were women and children. They honored the victims of British imperial greed, but in time learnt that victimhood does not form a strong foundation for a better future.
 
The confinement, de-humanisation, and murder of target populations is a stain on many civilizations. Man's inhumanity to man has, after all, a history as long as humanity. The solution is not to fight about who owns the term "concentration camp," but rather to work together to ensure that such horrors are never repeated again. 

Coen van Wyk

Posted on July 21, 2019 10:36

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In 1979, Idi Amin was deposed as president of Uganda as rebels and exiles backed by Tanzanian forces seized control.

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