Human history is filled with accounts of bloody warfare and seemingly endless conflict. War crimes have existed nearly as long as war itself, and stories of mass murder, indescribable suffering, crimes against humanity and genocide still haunt the history of many peoples and nations. Anyone interested in the subject of history will find equal parts progress, wonder, discovery, and accomplishment, and reaction, destruction, warfare, and death. War crimes sum up everything we would like to forget, not just about our own history, but of the potential to commit evil that exists in all of us.
One of the most outrageous facts about war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace is that the overwhelming majority of those who commit them are not prosecuted, either through whitewash and cover-up, lack of existing legal structures, lack of political will, difficulties in identifying the perpetrators, ideological justification for the crimes, or general public ignorance about them. Learning the sordid history of war crimes such as mass murder, forced deportation, war rape, and genocide and how they are committed, justified, and covered up is part of the process of preventing crimes against humanity from happening again and enforcing accountability and justice for the victims and those responsible.
To that end, here are 17 of the most shocking war crimes ever committed. Some of them well-known, and some of them forgotten by all but the living relatives of the victims. Some of them are from wars in the distant past, while others are still going on today, but regardless of the details, they provide a solemn look at the dark side of the potential of humanity.
Please note some of the descriptions are graphic and may be disturbing to some.
17. Srebrenica Massacre
No singular act sums up the wanton brutality and ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars better than the Srebrenica massacre, sometimes called the Srebrenica genocide. The Bosnia War in particular, became infamous for the war crimes committed by all sides, but especially by the Bosnian Serbs backed by Slobodan Milošević’s Belgrade government. In July 1995, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and teenage boys, were systematically slaughtered by the Army of Republika Srpska and the Scorpions, a Serbian paramilitary group, in and around the town of Srebrenica. The Bosnian Serb army was under the command of Ratko Mladić (currently on trial for war crimes).
The victims’ bodies were dumped in mass graves, which would be exhumed and buried elsewhere at the end of the war in an attempt to cover up the crime. The enclave of Srebrenica was supposed to be a U.N. safe area since April 1993, but UNPROFOR’s 370 lightly-armed Dutch Peacekeepers failed to prevent the Bosnian Serbs from taking the town. It was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II, and the U.N. war crimes tribunal recognized it as genocide.
16. Nanking Massacre
The Empire of Japan was infamous for the war crimes its army committed against the civilian population in the countries it conquered, but none of their crimes are as well-known and studied as the episode of mass rape and mass murder infamously known as the Rape of Nanking.
Nanking was the capital of the Republic of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. After Nanking fell to the Imperial Japanese Army, they spent the next six weeks looting, burning, killing, and raping everything in sight, annihilating the entire city in a frenzy of atrocities and mass murder.
It seems impossible to truly capture the carnage of Nanking. It’s estimated as many as 20,000 women were raped in a horrifying, systematic manner in which Japanese soldiers would go door-to-door searching for girls, who were often immediately killed after being raped. At one point, there was actually a contest between two Japanese officers vying to be the first to kill 100 people using a sword. Prisoners of war were machine-gunned and bayoneted en masse. Bodies were burned and tossed into rivers or mass graves, and journalists visiting Nanking at the time described piles of bodies six feet high covering every street and the Japanese military gunning down captured and bound Chinese by the thousands.
The official death toll has been the subject of intense dispute between the Chinese and Japanese governments, leading scholars, and Japanese nationalist voices who deny or minimize the massacre, but the consensus ranges from 40,000 to as many as 300,000 Chinese soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war slaughtered by the Japanese, according to the finding of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
15. Indonesian Invasion of East Timor
In 1975, Indonesia’s military leader Suharto, a U.S. ally in the Cold War, friend of the CIA, and one of the most brutal dictators in history, seemingly decided that exterminating over a million lives in the aftermath of his CIA-backed 1965 seizure of power simply wasn’t enough. After the Carnation Revolution in Portugal overthrew their authoritarian government and ended Portuguese colonialism, Indonesia saw an opportunity to annex the island of East Timor, and thus the Indonesian military invaded East Timor in the name of anti-colonialism, ousting a popular government and beginning an illegal occupation of the country.
Indonesian soldiers killed indiscriminately, massacring tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Starvation became widespread as communities subjected to bombardment were unable to grow crops. River transportation became seriously impaired after rivers and streams were literally clogged with bodies. From 1975 to 1999 over 200,000 people in East Timor were killed or died of starvation and disease, or one-third of the entire population. It was proportionately one of the greatest and harshest genocides in history. Suharto died peacefully in his bed at the age of 86.
14. Nigerian Civil War
Biafra, an eastern region of Nigeria, declared its independence in 1967 citing the economic, ethnic, cultural, religious, and political tensions which stretched all the way back to decolonization and persecution of the Igbo ethnic group in northern Nigeria. The secession of the state of Biafra began the Nigerian Civil War. Within a year the Nigerian military surrounded Biafra and imposed a blockade during the ensuing stalemate which led to a devastating famine. This was an intentional war strategy on the part of the government. One lead Nigerian representative famously declared at a peace conference, “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war and we have every intention of using it against the rebels.”
The Biafran government sought aid from the outside world, alleging genocide. The blockade caused widespread starvation. Between 500,000 to 3 million Biafrans perished from hunger and disease from the blockade. The Red Cross estimated 8,000-10,000 deaths from starvation each day. Images from Biafra soon became synonymous with famine in Africa and are still published to this day as shocking reminders of the war crimes of the Nigerian army.
13. Abuse in the Congo Wars
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is often called the “rape capital of the world” due to the enormous prevalence of sexual violence. Though the Congo has the worst rates of sexual violence against women, men, and children in the world, they would reach their terrible peak during the First and Second Congo Wars of the 1990s and later. The genocidal rape during the conflicts, which was not a by-product of conflict but a deliberate military strategy, was so severe that Human Rights Watch (HRW) described it as “a war within a war.” In 2009 it was estimated there were 1,100 rapes each month, with 72% of the victims reporting torture and mutilation. The American Journal of Public Health estimated there were two million victims of rape by 2011.
The majority of the rapes were committed by guerrilla groups and militia, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Mai-Mai, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, and the National Congress for the Defense of the People, though rapes carried out by the armed forces of the Congo have also increased. The mass rapes were noted for their extreme brutality, as well as victimizing children and the elderly.
12. Abu Ghraib Atrocities
When the photos of the human rights violations committed by the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were released in 2004, they shocked and horrified the world. The prison, which was a center used for mass torture and executions under Saddam Hussein, was taken over by the U.S. after the invasion and soon became used for the same purpose as before. Even more disturbing than the infamous photographs were darker reports of brutal treatment at the prison, including physical abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder.
One prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, died after a CIA operative and a private contractor interrogated and tortured him. The prison’s personnel had a list of 50-odd “coercive techniques” to be used against detainees, which included exposure to extreme heat, not being provided clothing, forced to use troughs for toilets, denial of sleep for extended periods, exposure to bright lights and loud music, and being forced to hold or be restrained in stress positions for long periods. Soldiers regularly beat, terrorized and humiliated inmates, and used them for target practice. There were also incidents of pounding wounded limbs with metal batons, smearing inmates with human feces, sodomy, pouring phosphoric acid on prisoners, and tying ropes to inmate’s legs or genitals and dragging them across the floor. At one point, there was a protest in the prison against indefinite detention without trial, to which the troops responded by killing one person and wounding seven others. The incidents received widespread condemnation in the U.S. and abroad, especially in light of leaked memos showing official state sanction.
11. Armenian Genocide
The Ottoman Empire’s systematic massacre of Christian Armenians in the context of World War I, where they were seen as pro-Russian traitors and enemy insurgents, has become the second most-studied act of genocide after the Holocaust. It began in April of 1915 with the arrest, deportation, and murder of many prominent Armenian intellectuals, and continued during and after the war with the wholesale slaughter of able-bodied men and the deportation of women, children, and the elderly into the Syrian desert on death marches. A
The state-sanctioned Ottoman effort to annihilate the Armenians was one of the main reason Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turkish and Kurdish troops. The modern Republic of Turkey rejects the term “genocide” for the mass killing, though it faces increasing pressure from the international community as well as genocide scholars and historians to recognize it as genocide.
10. Holocaust and Nazi Human Experimentation
No crime in human history is so infamous and intensely studied as Nazi Germany’s genocide of the Jews and other “undesirables,” in which men, women, and children were killed by the millions. Overall, around six million Jews were murdered, as well as five million non-Jewish victims such as communists, Soviet citizens and POWs, Poles, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally and physically disabled. Between 11 million to 17 million people were exterminated by the fascist regime and its allies throughout German and Axis-occupied territory from 1941-45.
Easily the most well-known war crime and genocide in history, the Holocaust remains unique not only for the sheer scale of its systematic starvation, forced labor, enslavement, and executions throughout Europe but also the unprecedented “factory-like” industrial efficiency with which the killings were carried out within the death camps.
Some of the most shocking war crimes committed in World War II were the human medical experiments performed by Germany on POWs and civilians, most notably those of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. including experiments on twins, transplantation of bone, muscle, and nerves, head trauma, cold water immersion and freezing/hypothermia, deliberate infections of tuberculosis and malaria, forced sterilization, and many other horrors.
9. Executions in the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War became one of the most important conflicts of the twentieth century, setting the stage for World War II and starting the crusade against fascism. When a military revolt broke out against the Republic of Spain led by General Francisco Franco, a bloody civil war ensued between the Nationalists, who received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and the Republicans, who fought with the International Brigades of foreign volunteers.
At least 50,000 people were executed during the war, but the bloodiest period would come after the Nationalist victory. Franco’s ensuing “White Terror” claimed as many as 200,000 lives in total. With the absolute minimum number of Republican victims being around 110,000. The purges mainly took the form of violence, summary executions, rape, and mass murder.
In 2008, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon opened an investigation into the disappearance and murder of 114,266 people between 1936 and 1951. However, the current Spanish government refuses to open the archives to allow historians to know more about the fate of those who suffered under the Franco regime.
8. ISIS Atrocities
Not all war crimes belong to the distant past; the war crimes committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have been the subject of constant news coverage and have been proudly shared by the terrorist organization’s own prolific presence on social media. The militant Islamic movement has been responsible for some of the most brutal atrocities of the modern age, including burning a captured Jordanian pilot alive, imprisoning POWs in a cage and drowning them in a tank, and executing 25 alleged spies by dissolving them in acid, among countless others.
In ISIS-ruled territory, those caught engaging in same-sex affairs are thrown from rooftops or beheaded. Punishment for nearly any crime is usually summary execution, including public flogging, beheading, and stoning. Sexual violence and sexual slavery are widespread, and the organization is known to use child soldiers. ISIS have also been responsible for the genocide and ethnic cleansing of minority groups from regions they’ve conquered, especially in northern Iraq where non-Arab and non-Sunni peoples were killed by the thousands and hundreds of thousands more fled the carnage. Their persecutions of Shia, Kurds, Christians and the Yazadi have all been labeled genocide.
7. Bangladesh Liberation War
Formerly known as East Pakistan, the country of Bangladesh won its independence in a violent civil war to separate from “West” Pakistan. During the nine-month long conflict, it’s estimated that members of the Pakistani military and the Islamist militias they support killed between 300,000 to as many as 3,000,000 people through deportation, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and mass rape. The military junta in Pakistan sought elimination of all nationalist sentiments in Bangladesh, and the military forces embarked on a campaign of genocidal sexual violence in which 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women were raped. A fatwa was issued by Imams and Muslim religious leaders in Pakistan that declared Bengali fighters were Hindus and their women could be taken as “war booty,” openly supporting rape by the Pakistani Army.
30 million civilians were displaced, and 10 million fled to neighboring India, who eventually intervened in the war. Pakistani soldiers also kept Bengali women as sex-slaves inside the Pakistani Army’s camps. Academic consensus has been growing in recent years that the acts committed by the Pakistani military constitute a genocide.
6. Andersonville Prison Camp
The Civil War remains the deadliest war in U.S. history to this day. The conflict between the Union and the Confederacy claimed over 620,000 lives, left a bloody mark on the popular consciousness of Americans, and changed the world forever. But in the midst of such carnage, only one man was tried for war crimes: Confederate officer Henry Wirz, who ran the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia, where Union soldiers were kept.
The name Andersonville is now synonymous with the brutality of the Civil War and is often considered a forerunner to the modern concentration camp. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg described his entry into the prison camp in 1864 thusly:
“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”
5. My Lai Massacre
The Vietnam War had many incidents of mass killing, but the one most embedded in the popular consciousness is the massacre of 347 to 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam. The victims were men, women, children, and even infants. Some of the women were gang-raped by the soldiers, and some of the bodies were mutilated.
My Lai was one of the single largest massacres of civilians by U.S. Army personnel in the twentieth century; it increased domestic opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and provoked global outrage when knowledge of it went public in 1969. For many years afterward, three servicemen who tried to halt the massacre and protect civilians were shunned and called traitors by U.S. Congressmen. In the end, only one Lieutenant, a platoon leader, was convicted of murdering 22 villagers and given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.
4. Bodo League Massacre
One of largest massacres of the Cold War is also one of least known. The Bodo League massacre was a war crime committed against communists and suspected “communist sympathizers” by the South Korean military during the Korean War. President Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, ordered the executions. At least 100,000 people suspected of supporting communism were summarily executed and buried in mass graves, with some estimates as high as 200,000. The mass executions were performed without trials or sentence. In one incident, during the recapture of Seoul in late 1950, 30,000 South Korean who allegedly collaborated with the North Koreans were slaughtered by ROK forces.
The massacre was concealed by the South Korean government for four decades, blaming it on the communists and threatening survivors with torture and death if they revealed the truth. The secret was effectively sealed until the discovery of the mass graves in the 1990s.
3. Murder of Four Missionaries in El Salvador
The 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador, during which the Salvadoran military and CIA-trained death squads fought the leftist FMLN, had no shortage of massacres. Units of the police and military as well as right-wing death squads killed tens of thousands of people, including civilians, villagers, women, children, and infants, as well as priests and nuns, including the notorious 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in retaliation for speaking out against poverty and the widespread killings and torture. But perhaps no single crime captured as much media attention and sparked such public outrage as the rape and murder of four American missionaries by the Salvadoran military.
Jean Donovan, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were charity workers who worked with refugees, giving them food, shelter, clothing, and transportation to safety from the death squads. Acting on orders from their commanders, five members of the El Salvador National Guard abducted the four women, raped and then murdered them, burying their bodies in a shallow grave. The next morning, peasants dug up the mutilated bodies. The crime was initially covered up and continued to be whitewashed, but public outrage in the U.S. forced President Jimmy Carter to suspend aid to El Salvador.
2. Paraguayan War
Proportionately speaking, the Paraguayan War is one of the deadliest wars in all human history. The little-known war between the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and Paraguay was the deadliest conflict in Latin American history and annihilated somewhere between 70 to 90% of the adult male population of Paraguay. The specific numbers are hotly disputed, the war was so brutal and deadly that it resulted in the deaths of 300,000 of Paraguay’s original 525,000 inhabitants. The male population was particularly devastated, and after the war, there were about 28,000 men alive. According to many historians, the death toll exceeded 60% of the population.
Even more disturbing, other estimates place the pre-war population of Paraguay at 1,337,000, which would place the total number of deaths from the war and disease at over 1.2 million people, or over 90% of the country’s pre-war population. One war another, the Paraguayan War is undoubtedly one of the most catastrophically destructive wars of all time, including some of the worst crimes against humanity in history.
1. Unit 731
The covert biological and chemical weapons research unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, Unit 731 was responsible for the most notorious war crimes committed by Japan. Their nature rivaled and even surpassed those of the infamous Josef Mengele. Japanese researchers in Unit 731 performed human medical experimentation on Chinese civilians and POWs as well as, Russian, Mongolian, Korean, and Allied prisoners.
The experiments almost always resulted in the deaths of the victims and included live vivisection without anesthesia, deliberate infection of victims with biological warfare agents such as Bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, and botulism as well as venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, frostbite testing, rape and forced pregnancy, and weapons testing, including that of grenades, flamethrowers, explosive bombs, and chemical weapons. Some historians estimate up to 250,000 people, including men, women, and children, were subject to experimentation by Unit 731 at one camp in Pingfang alone, and this does not include those at other sites. The unit was supported by the Japanese government until the end of the war in 1945. The perpetrators, instead of being tried for crimes against humanity, were granted immunity by the U.S. government in exchange for their medical findings.