Last Friday, I had the awfully incredible opportunity to visit the Breendonk Concentration Camp in Belgium. The camp was largely used for prisoners of war and resistance fighters during the German occupation of Belgium during World War II; of course, many Jews were held there for no tactical reason. The goal of the camp was to break its occupants mentally and physically in the three-to-four months they stayed there before shipping them off to either a prison, extermination camp, or another labor camp further east.
I have yet to figure out the proper way to express how amazing this experience was without sounding insensitive. Everyone I have talked to who has visited a concentration camp has the same problem.
It is easy to think of the Holocaust during the Second World War as the apex of human cruelty. Along with the labor camps in Siberia during Stalin's reign, the concept of beating, torturing, and starving civilians for little to no purpose seems unthinkable now. We learn about and remember the Holocaust in the past tense and think that we are so lucky we will never make that kind of mistake again.
While I hope that sentiment is true, we cannot pretend that atrocities don't still occur across the globe. Though they may seem less dramatic in the absence of a World War as a backdrop, every human rights violation still needs our undivided attention.
Below, I have listed some aspects of the Holocaust that made it so incredibly horrific. Under each of these aspects, I have listed regions where they still happen today.
Some victims of the Holocaust were prisoners of war or resistance fighters; they were held in order to gain a strategic advantage over wartime enemies. However, the concentration camps in Eastern Europe served mainly to exterminate ethnic groups the Germans deemed undesirable like Jews and Gypsies. Genocides occurring today, according to Genocide Watch include:
Syria: President Bashar al-Assad, since 2011, has been accused of using Syrian armed forces to terrorize citizens and in 2015 a study by the Syrian Network for Human Rights accused he and his regime of ethnic cleansing— precisely what Nazi Germany was attempting to do...
Sudan: Since 2003, President Omar al-Bashir, with the aid of Sudan's armed forces and a militia known as the Janjaweed, has committed mass genocide against ethnic Fur, Massalit, and Zhagawa peoples (non-Arabs) in the Darfur region.
The Congo: As a result of enduring conflicts in the eastern provinces, the Congo is an insanely tense region. Victims of mass violence usually include civilians, children, and ethnic groups such as the Banyamulenge, the Hutu Banyarwanda, the Hema and the Lendu. These issues have been public since the 1990s and continue today.
Ethiopia: An ethnic Oromo group called Guji and the Ethiopian government has committed senseless crimes against the Burji people since 2009.
Burma/Myanmar: Tyrannical military junta has targeted innocent civilians including ethnic minorities, women and children since the 1970's.
In the Breendonk Concentration Camp, conditions were terrible for those held within its walls. Some prisoners were held in solitary confinement where they had to stand completely still for eight hours a day; others were forced to perform tough manual labor for no other purpose than to fatigue the prisoners and torture them.
Today, there are too many cases of forced labor to list them all. I have chosen non-sexual cases of forced labor from different parts of the world (though Asia by far has the most cases) to show how widespread and prevalent this issue is.
Uzbekistan: Uzbeki farmers are forced by their government to grow labor-intensive cotton. During harvest time, professionals from all sectors and school-aged children are forced to work in the fields lest they risk a life of unemployment and poverty.
USA: Farm workers, especially non-citizens from Mexico, Haiti or Guatemala, do not share the same labor rights as other US workers. Because of its lack of legality, forced labor in the US goes largely undetected. Perpetrators coerce employees in many ways including debt bondage and physical harm.
India and Nepal: The brick industry in India and Nepal accounts for many cases of forced labor. The law does not protect Kiln-workers like it does other workers. Workers are recruited from poorer states and often go into debt to perform the job for which the industry contracted them. This debt bonds them to years of labor and poor treatment with no hope of escape.
In order to get information about other resistance fighters (or sometimes because they were simply bored), the SS commanders at Breendonk would torture prisoners, regardless of age or sex. Today, several countries' militia still use torture in some way, though most countries have reached a consensus that there should be strict laws against it. Below are five countries Amnesty International has selected as their target countries to invoke change and I have listed one example of how torture is a problem within said country.
Mexico: The police and security forces sexually tortured several women to coerce confessions related to drug-related offenses and organized crime.
The Philippines: For fun, police officers spun a "wheel of torture" in order to decide punishments for detainees. One option included "20 seconds Manny Pacman" where the police punched the subject for 20 seconds straight; another, deemed "20 second bat," required the subject to be strung upside down for the same amount of time.
Morocco and Western Sahara: Officers attempted to force a man to admit he was involved in terrorist activities by torturing and demeaning him.
Nigeria: Soldiers and police tortured a sixteen-year-old so he would admit to being a part of a robbery.
Uzbekistan: Some citizens that sought asylum in Russia were brutally tortured by security agents after Russian officers forced them back onto Uzbeki soil.
I hope to one day visit a museum that commemorates the atrocities humans have inflicted upon other humans with the satisfaction of knowing that it is all in the past, to realize that we have evolved. However, today is not that day. It is important to learn about atrocities in the past, not just so we won't repeat them, but so we know how to combat similar atrocities going on right now.