Mass Death of Civilians in Afghanistan

The following article is from the media watchdog, Media Lens, January 3, 2002. It talks about Afghanistan civilians. The original article can be found at

Media Alert - Media Ignores the Mass Death of Civilians in Afghanistan
David Edwards
January 3, 2002

On today's Lunchtime News, ITN again gave extensive coverage to bushfires in Australia. The fires are widespread and 6,000 people have been driven from their homes, but not one person has so far been killed. The BBC's 1 O'Clock News also focused on the same story. Both channels have repeatedly shown dramatic footage of the fires over the last few days, often using the exact same footage on consecutive days. During this time neither channel has made any mention of the refugee crisis in Afghanistan.

By contrast, also today, in a small article on page 14, the Guardian reported conditions facing 350,000 Afghan refugees in the Maslakh camp, 30 miles west of Herat city. Doug McKinlay describes how 100 of these refugees are dying every day of exposure and starvation (a disaster on the scale of September 11 every month). The small size of the graves in the graveyards on the edge of the camp "is clear evidence that most of the buried are children", McKinlay notes.

Ian Lethbridge, executive director of the charity Feed the Children, is quoted as saying: "I always judge everything by what I have seen in Africa. And this is on the scale of Africa. I was shocked at the living conditions of the new arrivals."(McKinlay, 'Refugees left in the cold at 'slaughterhouse' camp,' the Guardian, 3.1.02 - see end of alert for URL)

McKinlay reports that almost no aid is reaching these 350,000 people. Last week Feed the Children managed to fly 40 tonnes of food and shelter into Herat, but at present there are just four bakeries feeding the entire camp. One woman at the camp confronted McKinlay: "You are just taking pictures. You are not here to help. We can't eat pictures. We are dying. We need food and medicine."

Like reports of hundreds of civilian deaths from U.S. bombing over the Christmas period, both ITN and BBC TV news have deemed this mass death of Afghan refugees unworthy of attention.

Media Lens readers will doubtless recall the TV images of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting and bombing in Kosovo in 1999. ITN and the BBC repeatedly showed dramatic footage of whole hillsides covered in desperate refugees - detailed and extensive coverage of the human suffering was given. Similarly, while we might consider today's Guardian report a sign of the paper's openness and independence, a glance back at 1999 tells a different story. Since September 11, the Guardian has mentioned Maslakh twice - an average of once every two months. By contrast, between April and June 1999 the Guardian mentioned the plight of 65,000 Kosovan refugees stranded at Brace on Macedonia's border with Kosovo 48 times - an average of once every two days.

How can we explain the difference in media coverage?

Although much of the Kosovan human flood was in response to NATO's air campaign - independent monitors report that the mass exodus began +after+ the onset of bombing - the media chose to accept fraudulent British and U.S. claims that Serbian "genocide" was to blame. Thus during the Kosovo crisis, the plight of refugees was used as powerful propaganda supporting NATO's assault - politicians repeatedly drew attention to the plight of civilians and the media were happy to do likewise. In Afghanistan it is clear that the "war against terrorism" bears considerable responsibility for the refugee crisis, for the disruption of food supplies, and for the mass suffering and death both inside and outside the Afghan camps. In a report in the Sunday Telegraph, Christina Lamb wrote of refugees in Maslakh:

"Most come from the northern provinces of Faryab, Ghor and Sar-e-Pul as well as Ghazni in central Afghanistan, mountainous places to which the World Food Programme was giving food aid but stopped because of the bombing. Now their villages cannot be reached because the passes are cut off." (Lamb, 'They call this Slaughterhouse,' the Sunday Telegraph, 9.12.01)

This is deeply embarrassing for Western politicians, for the "war for civilisation", and for the establishment press supporting them. Western politicians have not repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of refugees for obvious reasons and, again, the media have been happy to follow suit. This standard pattern of obedience to power was repeated with even more dramatic clarity over East Timor. Massacres that happened before, during and after NATO's "moral crusade" in Kosovo were all but ignored by the press prior to the August 30 referendum in East Timor. The stunning hypocrisy of the West's moral crusaders in failing to respond to these atrocities, committed by our Indonesian business partners, also went unnoticed. Another example, of course, is the media's respectful silence over the mass death of Iraqi civilians, despite the resignation of high-level UN diplomats describing Western sanctions policy as "genocidal".

It is a long-standing tradition of 'free press' reporting to ignore Western crimes while focusing with great intensity on the crimes of whoever happens to be our latest enemy. As a result, the public is sold, as Gore Vidal notes, "the image of America the beauteous on its hill, envied by all and subject to attacks by terrorists who cannot bear so much sheer goodness to triumph in a world that belongs to their master, the son of morning himself, Satan". (Gore Vidal, quoted 'Why America?' William Blum, the Ecologist, Dec 2001/Jan 2002)

The maintenance of this deception allows hideous crimes to occur behind the scenes well away from public attention. Our media, our 'free press', plays a central role in making these crimes possible. Journalists would do well to remember the judgement of German media man, Julius Streicher, at Nuremberg:

"It may be that this defendant is less directly involved in the physical commission of crimes against Jews. The submission of the prosecution is that his crime is no less the worse for that reason. No government in the world... could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them. ...[T]hese crimes... could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him." (Conot, Robert E, Justice At Nuremberg, Carrol & Graf, 1983, NY, pp.384-385, citing International Military Tribunal, Trial of the Major War Criminals; the published transcript of the trial, Vol 5, p 118)

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