Ethnic cleansing refers to one group—identified by race, religion, nationality, or other affiliation—expelling another group from its home. This has historically involved mass murder, although other methods, such as deportation and confinement, also have been used. It is historically the result of one group attempting to assert control over a country or region. It often overlaps with genocide, the systematic killing of large numbers of people. The term itself became widely used in the 1990s to describe events occurring in Bosnia-Herzegovina, although references to cleansing populations date back further.
1915 Armenian Genocide
Entering World War I, millions of Armenians were part of the Ottoman Empire. The empire was in decline, and its leaders opted to join Germany and the Central Powers, also consisting of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, in hopes of reclaiming some of its former territory. Its early military activity in the war led to tremendous losses. The Turkish leadership blamed the Armenians as a liability that was weakening the empire. They quickly began stripping away Armenian rights, disarming Armenian military personnel, and forcing them to serve in labor divisions. This gave the government the right to deport any Armenian deemed suspicious and to send the Armenians into camps across brutal terrain with little to no provisions. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in executions or from exposure during forced labor or marches.
The Holocaust was carried out by the German Nazi regime prior to and during World War II. The primary objective was to eradicate German and European Jews, due to the Nazi belief in racial superiority over them. Millions of Jews were rounded up and sent to camps. Some were forced labor camps, with brutal conditions and maltreatment of captives. Others were extermination camps, where groups of Jews were sent to be killed.
While Jews were the primary targets, millions of people from other backgrounds were also Holocaust victims. Particularly once Germany pressed east to engage the Soviet Union, Soviet and Polish prisoners were slaughtered by the masses. Disabled individuals and others who were judged as inferior were also slaughtered in vast numbers.
1992 Bosnian Conflict
The nation of Yugoslavia had been made up of many different ethnic groups, and when the country faced economic instability, it began to break apart. Serbia, a former part of Yugoslavia, declared war on other republics that attempted to leave and form their own countries. When Bosnia-Herzegovina broke away, Serbia invaded, using the pretense that it was liberating Serbian Christian citizens within Bosnia’s borders. Serbians and Bosnian Serbs began removing Bosnian Muslims from their homes and relocating many of them to camps where they were brutally abused, maltreated, and often killed.
The United Nations (UN) tried to intervene the following year, declaring certain areas as safe refuges for Muslims. Serbian forces openly defied this and took control of one such area in which troops forcibly relocated about twenty-three thousand women, children, and elderly, and killed the eight thousand men who remained. This led the UN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to take more decisive action by negotiating and enforcing a cease-fire and then charging and punishing some of those responsible.
1994 Rwandan Conflict
Throughout the twentieth century, Rwanda was largely divided between two ethnic groups: Hutus and Tutsis. The Hutus were a large majority and had forced the Tutsis out of power in the late 1950s. Many Tutsis formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and attempted to wrest control of Rwanda in 1990. They battled the Hutu government until 1993.
The following year, the Rwandan president and other high-ranking Hutus were killed when their plane was shot down. The Hutus held the RPF responsible, while the RPF maintained that it was a false flag operation, suggesting Hutus shot down their own people to frame Tutsis. In any case, Hutu militias carried out an attack on Tutsi civilians. The assault was massive and organized, with Hutu citizens rounding up Tutsis at traffic checkpoints, breaking into neighbors’ homes and slaughtering them, and killing family members if they were Tutsi. In the end, about eight hundred thousand Tutsis were killed. The RPF retaliated, and conflict spilled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, impacting both nations for decades.