How should a soldier behave when they are captured?

How should a soldier behave when they are captured? by @Shaban113

Answer by Roland Bartetzko:

During the war in Bosnia I once saw a soldier sitting all by himself in the chow hall. He didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t touch his food and I saw that one of his ears was missing. Later on, one of my comrades told me his story:

This Croatian soldier was fighting in a dense forest when a bullet hit his leg. Separated from his unit he was captured by the enemy. Although wounded and bleeding he was severely beaten up. Then the enemy dragged him to the next Serb city where a mob of civilians was already waiting for him. They wanted to burn him alive and just when they got a big fire started and were ready to throw him inside the military police showed up and saved our man.

He was then put on the back of a truck and brought to Banja Luka, which was the capitol of the Bosnian Serbs. During the drive more prisoners of war were uploaded and at every stop they were all beaten with rifle butts and iron rods. When the truck finally arrived at its destination half of the prisoners had died.

Bosnian prisoners of war in Banja Luka

The captured soldier then came to a military prison where the beating went on. The Serbs mistakenly thought that he was a brigade commander, so he got interrogated and beaten even more. Finally they realized that he wasn’t the big fish they expected him to be and he was somehow treated a little better, but he still got beaten up at least once a day.

The Croats negotiated his release and after a couple of months and after paying a 30,000 dollar “fee for his lawyers” he was released. Being a tall guy and a former boxer he was down to only 45 kilos and had lost one ear and all his teeth.

Later on I met more guys who were prisoners of war. One of them was taking 5 showers a day and was washing his hands every 5 minutes. During his time as a POW he had never been allowed to clean himself up and was now overcompensating for it.

Near the end of the war I found myself in a POW camp in central Bosnia, not as a prisoner of war, but as a espionage suspect, which didn’t make things any better. Luckily I got cleared after a month and a half, but it was still a very bad experience.

I also received my fair share of SERE (Survival, Resistance, Evasion and Escape) training during my time as a paratrooper in the German army. Based on this training and what I saw in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, here are some general observations about what to do when getting captured:

  • Prepare yourself. First of all, during a combat mission, don’t carry anything on you that might harm you when getting caught. This means not only military information, but family pictures, home addresses and everything else that makes you vulnerable.
  • Tattoos that are depicting unit emblems, political or religious symbols might also get you in a lot of trouble. “Semper Fi”, “Kill them all- let’s god sort them out” or “I love Jesus” might not go down so well with the Taliban. These tattoos might even haunt you years later. A lot of Croats who live in Bosnia still have to cover up their “Ustasa” tattoos when travelling across the country, even years after the war. A Swedish volunteer who served with me in Bosnia got stabbed by some Bosnian refugees in his Swedish home town after they found out that he was fighting against their people.
  • The first hours after being taken POW are critical. This is the most dangerous time as you are often in the hands of trigger happy combat soldiers pumped with adrenaline. They might just kill you for one false move.
  • These first hours are also the best opportunity for you to escape! Combat units are not trained to guard POW’s and often they don’t have enough soldiers to spare to properly secure their prisoners. Later on you will have to deal with military police or specialized units which will make an escape much harder. Further, if you decide to escape from a military prison or an insurgent camp your enemy will retaliate and kill your comrades that you have left there.
  • Don’t expect a special POW status. In modern conflicts which are often counterinsurgencies, the Geneva conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war do not exist. You might be banged up with common criminals or civilian hostages. Therefore:
  • Most of the “informal” prison rules are also valid for POW’s. For example: Mind your own business. Avoid eye contact with other prisoners and guards,but especially:
  • Don’t trust anybody. You might have some cell mates you don’t know. They might be spies to hear you out or simply try to take advantage of you for their own survival.
  • During interrogations don’t think that you can outsmart your opponent. And don’t play dumb! Most of today’s regular and irregular armies have sophisticated intelligence organizations. You will deal with professionals who know what they are doing. As there is probably not much what they don’t know already there is also no reason to play the hero: Spill the beans and tell them what they want to know. Forget the “Name, Rank and Unit” thing.
  • Even after having provided them with information you might get beaten up, raped and tortured just for the pleasure of your captors. They enjoy hearing you scream in pain. There isn’t much that you can do, but some POW’s succeeded in pretending that they had passed out. Then the torturers usually gave the victims a break to recover.
  • After the torture and interrogations there will be extended periods of boredom and isolation. Try to keep your mind busy by remembering events, books and movies, songs or prayers.
  • Never give up hope! You might be saved much sooner than you expect.
  • Try to take care of your body! Most probably you won’t have enough calories in your food to allow you to do much sport, but try at least to keep your body flexible with some stretching.
  • Use every opportunity there is to clean yourself, especially your teeth, your feet and your behind.
  • You might get sentenced to death or to a long prison term for “war crimes”. This is most often a bluff and serves to destroy your morale. If your captors have kept you alive for that long you will probably have more value for them alive than dead.
  • The main problem will be to stay mentally healthy. There isn’t much you can do against the physical torture anyway.
  • What you do after your release is also very important. Don’t hesitate to ask for psychological help. Often the family of a former POW plays an important role in his recovery. It’s important to have somebody to listen to your story.
  • Don’t think you can shake this off easily. Aside from being killed, being a POW is the worst thing that can happen to you in a war. You might feel mentally strong after your release, but the problems will come sooner or later, sometimes after months or years.
  • Having been a Prisoner of War will change a person completely. Accept that you are not the person you were used to be, but somebody different and explain this to your loved ones.

Good luck!

How should a soldier behave when they are captured?

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