STOCKHOLM, May 12 (IPS) – An utterly unnecessary and all-too-tangible nightmare continues to plague Ukraine. Without a doubt, disaster after disaster awaits. Much of Ukraine’s crop, vital to global food supply, is in danger of being lost as a result of the warlike actions of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military. Last year, Ukraine harvested a record 106 million tons of grain. It is currently feared that 25 or even 50 percent of this amount will be lost this year, with most experts adding that “this is an optimistic forecast”.
Several years ago, a good friend of mine, Hussein Rahman, told me that it is not right to attribute mass famine to poor harvests. Hussein is very knowledgeable. He got his Ph.D. from Dijon University after researching a high yielding rice variety. He then worked for 15 years for the World Food Program (WFP) and was subsequently posted to Lesotho, Angola, the Comoros, Ethiopia and Yemen. During his final years at the UN, Hussein was active in Somalia and Iraq during ongoing wars, working for: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Hussein was convinced that famines are a political issue. There are no examples of mass famine affecting democratic societies.
While studying at the University of Dijon, Hussein was inspired by Amartya Sen .’s book Poverty and famine, in which Sen analyzed what he had seen as a nine-year-old boy in 1943 in Bengal: how people who succumbed to acute famine lay dead on the streets. More than three million people died from this devastating famine.
Amartya Sen proves that despite crop failures, there was sufficient food in Bengal in 1943, although extensive rice exports, panic buying, hoarding, military food storage and an economic boom caused food prices to rise and the mainly landless rural workers and the urban proletariat, whose wages undermined development. had not followed, who could not get enough food. Bangladeshi food production was admittedly lower than in the previous year, albeit more abundant than in previous years when there had been no famine.
Subsequent studies of the Bengal famine have proven Sen right in his conclusion that famines are created by humans and can be prevented, or at least mitigated accordingly. Archival studies have shown that Winston Churchill’s war cabinet in remote London had been repeatedly warned of the impending famine in India. The British government was well aware early on that excessive rice exports would lead to a deadly famine, but nevertheless chose to continue exporting unabated quantities of rice from its Indian colonies to other parts of the empire. †
London went deaf when Indians demanded a promised million tons of wheat in exchange for the exported rice. The warlords leaned over their cards and, with a cigar in his mouth, Churchill noted that the reason for the famine was actually that Indians were breeding like rabbits and jokingly wondered if the rice shortage was so enormous – how come Gandhi was still alive? The war was central to these men’s concerns, and in order to prevent the Japanese enemy, who was approaching Bengal from Burma, from getting the necessary food supplies, vast quantities of rice were carried away from the border areas, while thousands of boats were seized.
At the thought of Churchill and his associates leaning over their maps predicting and planning how the war would unfold, Requiem, a poem by Anna Akhmatova, comes to mind. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Akhmatova had survived the German siege and famine of Leningrad during World War II, her two husbands had been executed by the Soviet regime, and her only son spent more than a decade in Stalin’s Gulag camps. In her poem, Akhmatova writes about the immense suffering behind numbers, abstract data, numbers and statistics. One of the Requiems stanzas reads:
but the list has been deleted
and you can’t look anywhere else.
I have woven a shroud for you,
of poor words I heard.
I will remember you everywhere.
I will not forget you,
not even among new sorrows.
The cold attention that rulers show to maps and statistics, or to gatherings around computers, rarely acknowledge the immense human suffering their fateful decisions have caused.
According to Amartya Sen, it is the inability of those in power, or worse, their unwillingness to act in the public interest by guaranteeing the freedom of food producers, that is causing mass starvation. Amartya Sen writes of an urgent need for a “new human psychology”, taking into account how
- “…politics and psychology influence each other. Indeed, people can be expected to resist political barbarity if they instinctively respond to atrocities. We must be able to respond spontaneously and resist inhumanity when it occurs. To do this, individual and societal opportunities to develop and exercise moral imaginations must be increased.”
Fatal hunger is one of the most humiliating forms of suffering that afflicts a human being. Paralyzing hunger does not lead to rebellion. People plagued by an all-consuming hunger are forced into an animalistic, instinctive, all-encompassing quest for survival. During a famine, people experience indescribable suffering for months, weakened by famine that can lead to insanity, paralysis and eventually death. As a result of food shortages, entire social systems are falling apart due to a lack of morality, “decency” and compassion. Crime, violence and emotional insensitivity spread through the social body and were replaced by a relentless struggle of all against all. A desperate struggle for your own survival.
Inside the Gulag and the killing fields From the Stalin era, as well as in the Nazi death camps and the German-occupied territories, there was famine, accompanied by frostbite, beatings and general vulnerability. Even if not every hunger victim went through the agony of hunger and abuse, as if they had become animals, they all suffered from hopelessness, which drove them to shame and despair in addition to physical pain. It’s not for nothing that cynical rulers view hunger as an effective means of crushing their enemies, bringing unwilling subordinates to their knees by pacifying them, and paralyzing them with hunger and despair. Hunger is a weapon for the powerful and a bottomless shame for the needy.
In 1928, the Stalinist regime introduced its first five-year planintended to force peasants to become workers mobilized for mass industrial production, or to engage in “more efficient, modern agriculture” in the form of kolchozy (if they were cooperative collectives) or sovchozy (if administered by the state), while people branded as “reactionaries, saboteurs, and spies” were purged, exterminated, and/or “disarmed.” The same thing happened twenty years later in China.
The estimated figure for Ukrainian deaths during the holodomor (1932-1933) is 3.3 million, while at the same time 67,297 people died of starvation in the labor camps and 241,355 in the settlements to which people who did not want to participate in collectives were deported along with their families. Thousands died while traveling to destinations as far away as Siberia or Kazakhstan.
When we hear about the famines and wars that still plague much of the world’s population, let’s not forget that they renhuo, made by humans. Behind the statistics are suffering individuals – men, women and children – while the culprits, leaders who watch computers and calculate profits and losses while replacing people with numbers, are quite easily identified and held accountable for their pernicious actions.
sources: Applebaum, Anne (2017) Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Penguin Books. Dikötter, Frank (2011) Mao’s Great Famine. London: Bloomsbury.
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