Sunday, December 22, 2013


War means different things to different people. For business connected with war armament and supplies, it is an occasion to make quick and big money. For the ruling politicians, it provides a fertile ground for jingoism to project themselves as saviors of the nation and to make political capital out of it. However, war means something else for the soldiers and officers who are used as cannon fodder. A few of those who are killed in some dramatic battle might receive a measure of recognition by way of posthumous awards and rewards, but most remain anonymous, mere statistics for the chronicle writers. The worst fate though befalls those who are captured by the enemy. We as civilians fail to measure the trauma which these wagers of war i.e. the soldiers ,airmen and sailors ,endure on the battlefield and behind it as prisoners of war.
During a speech aired on the BBC in Dec,1945 Sir Winston Churchill defined a prisoner of war as “ a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him”. Articles 4 and 5 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (POW)of August 12, 1949 define a prisoner of war as one who, while engaged in combat under orders of his or her government, is captured by the armed forces of the enemy. As such, he or she is entitled to the combatant's privilege of immunity from the municipal law of the capturing state for warlike acts which do not amount to breaches of the law of armed conflict.
Contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Convention, the Iraq-Iran war, the gulf war ,the Yom-Kippur war, the Vietnam war and the Korean conflict to name a few, have shown that modern nation consider the POW compound as an extension of the battlefield. In doing so, they have used a variety of tactics and pressures, including physical and mental mistreatment, torture and medical neglect to exploit POWs for propaganda purposes and to obtain military information.
The first thing that a soldier experiences as a POW is an exposure to a completely new environment and culture. A environment in which he becomes the hunted while his jailors become the hunter. Prison life – even for short periods of time – can lead to any number of physical and mental health problems. A recent prison health study carried out in European jails found that inmates were found to suffer from low blood pressure. In addition, most of them were disorientated, unable to concentrate and experienced problems with their memories – for example, sudden “mind voids”. Scientists also observed an effect on the senses. With touch and sight diminished, inmates’ sense of hearing often became heightened, causing them to become “obsessed” with noise and disturbed by unexpected sounds. Furthermore, prisoners may develop personality changes, or even worse, personality disorders, mental illness and brain disease.
 Military training is such that a soldier is desensitized towards human misery and the killer instinct normally dormant in civilians is horned to such an extent that a soldier will not think twice if ordered to attack the enemy. Since the jailors themselves are soldiers their behavior towards a POW is hence far from humane.
The prisoner is subjected to harsh conditions .The Geneva Convention states that Confinement is illegal (POWs can't be held in prison cells unless it is for their own protection), but detention is allowed -- they may be kept within certain boundaries. However, their location must be as far from the fighting as possible. Besides being held in a special "camp," prisoners of war are supposed to be granted all of the rights and privileges that their captor grants to its own armed forces, at least in terms of food, water, shelter, clothing, exercise, correspondence, religious practice and other basic human needs. Paper treaties aside the reality is that this section of the Geneva Convention has never been followed.
The actual treatment got by POW’s can be best understood from the images of blindfolded Afghan captives subjected to “sensory deprivation” like covered goggles, earmuffs and facemasks kneeling shackled in wire cages at Camp X-Ray – a detention center on an isolated U.S. out spot on the edge of Fidel Castro’s Cuba
Starvation and the lack of sanitation are quite common even in civilian jails. The concentration camps of World War 2 may not be there any more but such death camps do exist even to this day in African nations like Sudan, Congo and Somalia. 
 Furthermore, some of the 800 odd pages of the Geneva convention talks about the protection of POW’s against “insults and public curiosity” (Article 13) where in a country cannot display POW’s as trophies in front of the media. The United States  did just that during the gulf war where U.S. networks showed  footage of Iraqi soldiers surrendering or being detained during military operation.
Article 22 of the Geneva Convention states that the buildings in which the POWs are quartered must meet the same general standards as the quarters made available to the forces of the captor. But the ground fact is that normally POW camps normally are structures built by the prisoners themselves. Hygiene is almost impossible with the bare floor as a mattress and a bucket for a toilet.
The trauma of a POW does not end with the ending of hostilities. In 1947-48, when the newly created Pakistan unleashed tribals and its army in Jammu & Kashmir, the word terrorism was not in vogue. In this war between India and Pakistan the latter’s troops tortured and dismembered many captured Indian Armed Forces personnel. While declared Indian prisoners of war were kept in far from satisfactory conditions, the worst case of prolonged inhuman torture has been the wrongful confinement and non-acknowledgement by Pakistan of 54 Indian Armed Forces officers and ranks like Cpt. S. Bhattacharya and Cpt. Avinesh Sharma. The harsh condition of their existence in jail is highlighted by the following words in Victoria Schoffield's book, Bhutto - Trial and Execution:
In addition to these conditions at Kot Lakhpat, for three months Bhutto was subjected to a peculiar kind of harassment. His cell, separated from a barrack area by a 10 foot high wall, did not prevent him from hearing horrific shrieks and screams at night from the other side of the wall. One of Mr Bhutto's lawyers made enquiries amongst the jail staff and ascertained that they were in fact Indian prisoners-of-war who had been rendered delinquent and mental during the course of the 1971 war.
The evidence that these 54 Indians exist can be found in the stories told by freed Indians like Roop Lal , who served 26 yrs in a Pakistani jail and the letters which were smuggled out.
There have been well documented cases of POW’s being used as guinea pigs in Nazi Germany during world war 2 for tests ranging from hypothermia to testing the effect of poison gas. The modern parlance is the use of Vietnamese prisoners by the US to test the effects of Agent Orange.
On the mental side is the fear for once life as well as the thought of what will happen of his family back home. A day to day existence and the very thought of what may happen the next minute is enough to drive a person mad. Long periods of confinement, especially of the solitary kind, also result in a feeling of abandonment not only by his superiors but also his country. The POW is subjected to Psychological warfare by his captors to convince him that his cause is unjust and hopeless so as to weaken his will. The main finding of recent studies conducted on POW’s exposed to severe trauma under captivity was the characteristic and significant prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with alexithymia and suicidal behavior .It has also been analyzed that methods used in torture were similar to those later used by the torture survivors in their suicidal behavior. The Stockholm syndrome is also experienced by some prisoners who after long periods of interaction with his/her captors develop a type of kinship with the incarcerator’s.
 When the prisoner of war returns home he returns back to a completely different situation. On the professional side, upon repatriation, POWs can expect their actions to be reviewed, both as to circumstances of capture and conduct during detention. While on the home side chances are that things will not be the way they were when the soldier went to war. Wife’s may have got remarried, infants may have grown up, parents may have passed away. PTSD can also emerge many years after the former prisoners of war have been liberated and readjusted to life. Sometimes this happens when other events take place in his/her life such as death of a spouse, aging, and physical limitations. Unfortunately many sufferers of PTSD turn to alcohol and drugs to help them cope with the symptoms. Treatments do exist some of which include cognitive behavior therapy, group therapy, exposure therapy and drug treatments but in a country like India where basic health care is hard to find and where mental illness is  taboo , proper treatment is almost non existent. Drug treatments include use of psychotropic drugs like Valium ,Xanax , Serzone, Effexor and Elavil and  anti-depressants such as Zoloft and Prozac but these carry with them the risk of dependency and addiction.
The families of the former POWs are also affected by this disorder in a great way.  They watch their loved one trying to cope with this disorder and feel helpless and are unsure of what to do. It is very important that the families become involved in the treatment plan to provide support and encouragement.  Some things that can be done to help the survivor are listening, spending time with them, if they permit, and most of all be patient and love them.
The U.S. war against terrorism has added a new dimension to the question of POW’s. Afghanistan and now Iraq have both shown that civilian militia is taking over the role of soldiers. During the “war on terror,” there have been repeated indications of brutality and abuse against detained terrorist suspects. Detainees in Afghanistan have apparently been killed during interrogation (including two in separate incidents in December 2002 whose deaths the US Army says it is still investigating) and many others have reported suffering abuse similar to that recorded at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There have also been repeated suggestions that senior Al-Qaeda figures in captivity are being subjected to actions such as “water-boarding,” a form of torture in which the victim is held under water, or that medical treatment for wounds suffered during capture has been withheld. The Bush administration has stated that the Geneva Conventions apply to the war in Iraq, but asserts that they are not applicable to detainees held as part of the wider campaign against Al-Qaeda.
There is no doubt, however, that torture and inhuman treatment of all military detainees are forbidden under both international and U.S. law. Even if the full protection of the Geneva Conventions are not available to terrorist suspects, it remains beyond dispute that prohibitions against torture and inhuman treatment form part of customary international law, which is binding on all military operations during armed conflict. They are also forbidden by the Torture Convention, which the United States has ratified. This forbids not only torture, but also cruel and inhumane treatment.
There have been repeated allegations that some terrorist suspects have been turned over to third countries where they may be tortured – a process known as rendition. International law is clear that states cannot get around the prohibition against torture by farming it out to other countries. The Convention against Torture forbids sending anyone to a state where “there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
For the Third Geneva Convention to have any real utility inside the camp, its contents must be known to those inside—prisoners and guards. Article 39 requires that the camp commander have a copy of the convention in his possession. If one goes and asks a common soldier in the Indian army what is the Geneva convention , seven out of ten times the answer will normally be  “Sahabji ko pata hoga”(my officer will know)which should not be the case .
Clearly, prisoners of war lose their freedom. But they are not criminals. They are enemy soldiers for whom participation in the war has come to a halt. The hard fact remains that until there are wars, problems created by them like POW’s will continue to exist.

~Amey Kantak
( The above essay won the first prize at PS Ramani Foundation all Goa essay competition in 2007)

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