According to the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, a genocide is defined as a ‘crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part’. While many genocides of the past few hundred years are still remembered and commemorated around the world, some have been completely written out of history books, as they now largely exist in the collective memories of the communities that faced them.
10. Herero And Namaqua Genocide
The Herero and Namaqua genocide happened between 1904 and 1908, resulting in the massacre of about 50,000 to 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people by German military forces in German South West Africa. It was triggered in January, 1904, when the Herero – led by Chief Samuel Maharero – began an armed rebellion against oppression by colonial German forces. The occupying side was initially caught off guard, though was eventually able to prevail thanks to superior weaponry and organization.
While they had tried to negotiate during the early phases of the conflict, the Germans – led by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha – eventually decided to completely eradicate the native population, resulting in the brutal Battle of Waterberg in August 1904. Additionally, Trotha issued an order in October 1904 detailing the extermination of all Herero men, while the women and children were driven into concentration camps. The surviving native population would face some of the most horrific conditions in the camps, including forced labor and medical experiments.
9. Anfal Campaign
It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Kurds, mostly civilians, lost their lives in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign carried out by Iraq’s Ba’ath regime between February and September 1988. The Anfal campaign – as it’s remembered today – was the regime’s response to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and independence. While the precise number of casualties remains uncertain, estimates by Human Rights Watch suggest a range of between 50,000 to 100,000 deaths.
The massacres began under the leadership of Ali Hassan al-Majid, when the ruling Ba’athist party conducted a series of military operations against Kurds involving systematic bombings, chemical attacks, and summary mass executions of combatants and non-combatants alike. In some areas, entire populations, including women and children, were brutally hunted and massacred, including one horrifying episode involving chemical weapons in March 1988 that resulted in the death of about 5,000 civilians.
8. Aktion T4
Aktion T4 – or just the T4 program – refers to one of the first acts of genocide committed by Nazi forces before the start of the Second World War. The program, initiated by Adolf Hitler himself in 1939, aimed to eliminate everyone considered physically, mentally, or emotionally disabled, all under the guise of a necessary euthanasia program. The T4 program required the cooperation of German doctors to identify those deemed ‘unworthy of life’ according to Nazi ideology, and the victims included infants and small children. Over the course of the action, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were transferred to six institutions in Germany and Austria, where they were killed using gas chambers or lethal injections.
Despite public protests in 1941, the Nazi leadership continued the program in secret until the end of the war, costing the lives of about 200,000 people between 1940 and 1945. The T4 Program served as an early model for the mass murder of Jews, Roma gypsies, Soviet POWs, communists, and others classified as enemies of the state in the latter parts of the war. It also served as training grounds for SS members that later staffed and ran these camps.
7. East Timor Genocide
The southeast-Asian nation of East Timor – also known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste – was the site of a devastating genocide during Indonesia’s invasion and occupation from 1975 to 1999. The invading forces committed numerous atrocities against the native population during this time, including murder, mass expulsion, starvation, sexual violence, and kidnapping. The genocide resulted in the death of about 20,000 people, plus up to 180,000 additional deaths due to starvation, disease, and other post-conflict factors.
The tragedy was suppressed by countries like Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States throughout this time, largely due to economic interests in Indonesia and East Timor. Declassified documents have also detailed covert-but-direct support from the United States, especially in the form of direct arms supplies to Indonesia’s military.
6. Guatemalan Genocide
The Guatemalan genocide, lasting from 1980 to 1983, was a particularly brutal chapter in central America’s history. It began after the government’s army, supported by private death squads, launched Operation Sophia to suppress anti-government rebels. Many of them belonged to the native Maya community, as they were primarily accused of supporting and supplying the insurgents.
Over 400 villages were systematically destroyed during this campaign, including widespread destruction of crops and livestock, poisoning of the water supply in the region, and the murder and abduction of much of the civilian population suspected to be allied with the rebellion. An estimated 150,000 – 200,000 people were killed during this period, though some historians suspect the real numbers to be far higher. The conflict was also marked by large-scale sexual violence against women, as more than 100,000 victims – most of them Maya women – were raped throughout the conflict.
5. Roma And Sinti Holocaust
The Porrajmos – or ‘The Devouring’ – refers to the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Roma and Sinti people during the Second World War. Anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people were systematically murdered during this time, though this tragic chapter remains missing from many history books detailing the crimes of the Third Reich.
The persecution of the Roma and Sinti began long before the war, as they were considered racially inferior according to Germany’s state ideology. The genocide intensified during the conflict, however, when they were specifically targeted for persecution, imprisonment, forced labor, forced sterilization, and medical experimentation. Like other victims of the Holocaust, a large part of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population was deported to ghettos and concentration camps across occupied territories, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Poland that housed a special ‘Gypsy Camp’.
4. Assyrian Genocide
The Assyrian genocide – also called Sayfo by the surviving Assyrian community in the aftermath – happened during the First World War, though it remains relatively-unknown compared to other ethnic cleansing campaigns of the war. Organized by the Ottoman government along with local allies, an estimated 250,000 to 275,000 Assyrians – about half of the population at the time – died during the horrific chapter, mostly due to factors like starvation, forced deportation, and disease.
The Assyrians are an indigenous Christian group native to Assyria in Kurdistan and northern Mesopotamia. By the start of the First World War, there were an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 Assyrians living in southeastern Anatolia, though that number would be drastically reduced by the end of the war, with much of the violence centered around the Van and Diyarbakir provinces.
3. Kikuyu Genocide
The Kikuyu genocide refers to the mass killing of the Kikuyu people during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, when about 1.5 million natives in Kenya were locked up in concentration camps, beaten, tortured, and murdered for demanding greater autonomy and rights from the colonial British government of the time.
The Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, formed the majority of the Mau Mau fighters, and the primary cause of the conflict was economic marginalization caused due to settler expansion in the region. While nationalist leaders like Jomo Kenyatta had been pressing the British government for political rights and land reforms for years, the rebellion itself was sparked by radical, militant factions within the Kenya African Union, leading to attacks on political opponents and settler farms.
In response, the British declared a state of emergency in 1952, triggering a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that lasted until 1960. Officially, 11,000 rebels were killed throughout this phase, but unofficial estimates point towards a much higher death toll.
2. Circassian Genocide
The Circassian genocide took place during the Russian-Circassian War – a conflict between the Russian Empire and the independent nation of Circassia in the Caucusus region. It lasted for about 101 years and ended in the mass expulsion of Circassians to the territories controlled by the Ottomans – an event that has been characterized as a genocide by many modern historians.
While exact figures are hard to find, a large majority of Circassians perished or lost their homes during the genocide. Some estimates put the number of killed at over one million, compared to the pre-war population of anywhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million people. Till today, May 21 is observed as the international day of remembrance for the tragedy, as many human rights organizations based in Georgia continue to create awareness about the loss of life experienced by the Circassian people during the course of the war.
1. Bangladesh Genocide
The partition of British India created India and Pakistan in 1947, with the East Pakistani territory – now Bangladesh – being geographically and economically distant from West Pakistan – now just Pakistan. Exploitation and neglect by the military government in the West led to widespread resentment among the local population across the region, leading to growing demands for freedom under the leadership of one Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The response was heavy-handed and is still counted as one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, even if it remains largely forgotten in mainstream discourse today. Known as Operation Searchlight, the counter-insurgent Pakistani forces – supported by the United States – targeted activists, intellectuals, and civilians, resulting in mass displacement, financial instability, trauma, and death among much of the civilian population. Over 10 million Bangladeshis fled due to the genocide that involved brutal killing methods and widespread rape, resulting in an estimated three million fatalities.