Cannibalism, once widespread across many cultures and throughout history, always manages to incite our fascination and fear. It features in the childhood tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the stories of the Olympian gods Zeus and Cronus, the Greek myths of Medea and Thyestes, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and is central to Freud’s interpretation of the origin of religion as elaborated in “Totem and Taboo” (1913). On the ground, the Anasazi tribe of the 12th Century American South West is just one example of cannibalism for the archaeologist or anthropologist.
The term “Cannibales”, a corruption of Carib, was coined by Christopher Columbus. It was not based on observation but the testimony of the Arawak tribe who were quick to defame their neighbours. Just over a hundred years after Columbus set sail, the early colonists in the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia (1607) would turn to cannibalism as a means of survival during the “Starving Time” of 1610. The same sense of hopeless is also seen in the Crusader accounts of cannibalism at the siege of Ma’arra in 11th century Syria. We are told by the chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, in his “Historia Hierosolymitana” [“History of the Expedition to Jerusalem”] that “the besiegers more than the besieged were tormented” by their actions. It was the “madness of excessive hunger” that drove the Crusaders to, “cut off pieces from the buttocks of Saracens already dead there which they cooked and chewed and devoured with savage mouth”.
More recently cannibalism has taken a different turn. On the 13th of May Nadim Khoury, the Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), responded to the video of the day before when the rebel leader of the Omar al-Farouq Brigade, Khalid Al-Hamad, otherwise known as “Abu Sakkar”, was seen mutilating and ingesting the organs of an enemy soldier. That Al-Hamad had resorted to cannibalism was only part of Khoury’s concerns: he pleaded that the opposition forces need to stop all acts of violence and that many acts were tantamount to war crimes against humanity. Nevertheless this heinous act by Al-Hamad has not only garnered international coverage and condemnation, but it has led to a platform, a Skype- interview with Time Magazine’s Aryn Baker, whereby the rebel leader has justified his actions in light of allegations of rape by the Shabiha, the brutal militia of the Assad regime.
Al-Hamad’s allegations are not without substance. Syria’s rape crisis is only beginning to unfold and it certainly has not received the international coverage it deserves. Under a journalistic initiative originally spearheaded by Gloria Steinem, The Women’s Media Center has produced, “Women Under Siege”, a report which explores how rape and sexualised violence have been used as instruments of hate in conflict. Evidence of rape is now emerging within Syria. Thankfully, under the G8 declaration of April of this year, rape and serious sexual violence in conflict will be both a breach of the Geneva Conventions on Human Rights and constitute war crimes. (Previously war crimes did not automatically follow from Convention breaches).
Yet, there is something more to Al-Hamad’s actions than meets the eye. Pathological and deeply disturbing these video images may be, the retaliatory act, or dare of dismemberment, coupled with the proclamation that “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and you livers, you soldiers of Bashar [Al Assad] the dog” and “hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is”, resides in a ritualised notion of empowerment and demarcation. This shares more in common with Shamanism than it does with the Islamic reference the Farouq Brigade seek to inscribe. It can be traced to the rite of exo-cannibalism, the consumption of human flesh by those outside of the community, long since a study of anthropology. In this understanding, as exemplified (until the 1960’s) by the Wari’ Tribe in the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil, the ingestion of the victim’s organs, notably the lungs or heart, is seen as both means of control over the inferior tribe as well as the absorption of the vitality of the deceased.
Today Ma’arra, the modern town of Ma’arrat al Nu’man, is known not simply for the Crusader siege of 1098 but for a vicious battle critical to the conflict which has engulfed Syria. In June and in October of 2012 the town, situated on the M5 highway which joins Damascus to Aleppo via Hama and Homs, was the victim of an on-going struggle for control. Sixty civilians and over 300 soldiers (of both rebel forces and Assad regime), were killed. This figure includes 50 defectors who were executed by their former cohorts, the Syrian military.
Nemesis is far from kind. History has shown that as conflict nears to an end, the violence associated with retribution escalates. As Tony Judt has illustrated in his book, “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945”, revenge killings associated with the Second World War were extensive: approximately 10000 people were killed in extrajudicial proceedings in France. In Italy close to 15000 deaths were attributed to reprisal in the course of the last months of the war. In Kielce (Poland) of 1946, popular vengeance was directed towards the Jewish minority when the abduction of a child and resulting accusation of blood libel, typically associated with the rite of Passover, reared its ugly head.
More recently the sectarian crimes in post-war Iraq only add to the bleak picture.
Can the threat of indictment, trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, deter any more bloodshed? If the ghoulish theatre of Al-Hamad is any indication, the pleas of Khoury (and HRW) will be ignored and more atrocious acts will emerge from the darkness.
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. email@example.com @blitz_adam on Twitter