How should soldiers behave when they are taken prisoner of war?

During the Bosnian War I returned to our barracks once after a weekend on the Adriatic And met my mates in the canteen.

In front of us sat a soldier who caught my attention.He didn’t talk to anyone and didn’t seem to touch his food. I saw that he was missing one of his ears. A little later I learned his story from a comrade:

This Croatian soldier was fighting in a dense forest when an enemy bullet hit his leg.It was impossible for him to reach his unity quickly enough and so he was captured by the enemy. Although wounded and bleeding, he was beaten up badly.

Then the enemy dragged him to the next Serbian city, where a lot of civilians had already gathered and waited for him.They wanted to burn him alive and had already lit a big fire where they wanted to throw it in when suddenly the military police
and saved our man.

He was then thrown onto a truck and taken to Banja Luka.This was the capital of the Bosnian Serbs. During the journey, the truck often stopped to charge more prisoners. Then all the prisoners had to descend and were beaten by the Serbian soldiers accompanying them with rifle butts and iron bars. When the truck finally reached its destination, half of the prisoners were dead.

Our soldier came to a military prison, where the beatings continued.The Serbs mistakenly believed that he was a brigade commander, and therefore he was interrogated even more often and even more beaten all other prisoners. In the end, they realized he wasn’t the big fish and he was treated a little better, but still he was beaten up at least once a day.

The Croatian government negotiated his release and after a few months and after a payment of 30,000 dollars for “lawyer’s fees”, he was released.Before his capture, our soldier had been a boxer, of impressive stature, but after his release he weighed only forty-five kilos and had lost an ear and all his teeth.

Another soldier in our company had been a prisoner with the Bosnians.Now he showered five times a day and washed his hands whenever he had the opportunity. During his entire time as a prisoner of war, he was not allowed to clean himself once, and his cleanliness was probably an overreaction.

Bosnian POWs in the Serbian “Omarska” POW camp, 1992

I hope that no one gets into such a situation, but if so, here are a few tips on how to behave in captivity:

Get ready!

Don’t carry anything that could harm you if captured during a combat mission. This applies not only to sensitive military information, but also to family photos, home addresses and everything else that makes you vulnerable.

All tattoos, uniform badges as well as nationalist and religious symbols can cause a lot of difficulties.”Semper Fi,” “Kill them all, let God sort them out” or “I love Jesus” are not so well received by the Taliban.

These tattoos can haunt you years later.Many Croats living in Bosnia still have to cover their “Ustaa” tattoos while travelling, and a Swedish volunteer who had served with me in Bosnia was stabbed by some Bosnian refugees in his Swedish hometown after they were stabbed by his tattoos had found out that he had fought against their compatriots.

The first hours after capture are critical.This is the most dangerous time, as you are often in the hands of a soldier who is full of adrenaline and easily holds your finger on the trigger. You can very easily die for the slightest wrong movement.

But these first hours are also the best opportunity to escape!Combat units are not trained to guard prisoners of war, and often do not have enough soldiers to effectively guard and secure their prisoners. Later you will get to deal with the military police or with specialized units, which greatly reduces your escape possibilities.

If you decide to escape from a military prison, you must also expect that your enemy will take revenge on your remaining comrade.

Don’t expect special POW status.Modern conflicts are often guerrilla wars or insurrections, and the Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of Prisoners of War often have no value. You will spend your time with ordinary criminals or with civilian hostages. therefore:

Most “informal” prison rules also apply to prisoners of war.For example:

Just take care of your own crap!Avoid eye contact with other prisoners and guards, and most importantly:

Don’t trust anyone!You may have some cellmates that you don’t know. They could be spies to listen to you or people who just want to profit from you.

Interrogations and interrogations:

Don’t believe you can outsmart your opponent in interviews.And don’t play the stupid one! Most of today’s regular and insurgent armies have effective intelligence organizations. You’ll have to deal with professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.

There is also no reason to play the hero: tell them what they want to know.Forget the “name, unity and rank” story as soon as possible.

Even after you have provided the enemy with all the information, you will probably still be beaten, raped and tortured, this time for the pleasure of your guards.They enjoy hearing it when you scream in pain. You can’t do much about it.

Some prisoners of war managed to pretend that they had fainted.Then the torturers usually give their victim a break so that it can come back to themselves.

After the tortures and interrogations, there will be a prolonged period of boredom and isolation.Try to keep your brain busy by remembering past events, books and movies, songs, or prayers.

Never give up hope!You can be saved much earlier than you expect.

Take care of your body!There’s probably not enough calories in your food to allow you to exercise, but at least try to keep your body supple with stretching exercises.

Use every opportunity to cleanse yourself, especially your teeth, feet and butt.

Sometimes you will be sentenced to death or to a long prison sentence for “war crimes”.This is usually a bluff and serves to destroy your morale.

If your kidnappers have kept you alive until now, you probably did so because you have more value for them alive than dead.

Your biggest problem will be staying healthy.You can’t do much about the physical abuse.

What you do after your release is also very important.Do not hesitate to seek psychological help. Often the family of a former prisoner of war plays an important role in his recovery. It’s important to have someone to listen to.

Don’t think you’re going to shake it all off easily.Apart from being killed, prisoner of war is the worst thing that can happen to you in a war.

You can still feel so strong after your release, the problems will still arise sooner or later, sometimes only after months or years.

Being a prisoner of war will completely change your personhood.Accept that you are no longer the same person you once were, but someone else and explain this to your loved ones.

Side note: This is a translation of Roland Bartetzko’s answer to How should soldiers behave when they are captured?from English.

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