March 23, 2003

Iraq gives ‘barbarous’ treatment to POWs, ex-prisoners say

By Carl Weiser
Gannett News Service

The U.S. soldiers captured by Iraqi forces could face beatings and humiliation. But just as agonizing, say former prisoners of war, is the isolation and the thoughts of what the family back home must be enduring.

The 23 prisoners of war captured in 1991 during the first Persian Gulf War reported abysmal treatment by Iraqis. Army Maj. Rhonda Cornum said she was sexually assaulted. Others had their jaws, knees and arms smashed. Lt. Col. Dale Storr told CNN Sunday that his captors would blindfold and handcuff him, then walk him into a concrete wall as they laughed hysterically.

“In the initial hours, you’re faced with the unknown,” retired Air Force Col. David Eberly told Gannett News Service in a phone interview. “It’s the unknown that haunts the families and friends.

“The worst thing is the families. You know how you’re doing as a person,” said Eberly, who was shot down over Iraq in 1991 and taken prisoner. “The families don’t, so that’s the worst part.”

On Sunday, a videotape aired on the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera showing four American soldiers in Iraqi captivity — including one woman — being interviewed. The video also showed five dead people, apparently dressed in American uniforms.

Iraq said they would adhere to the Geneva conventions, which require humane treatment of prisoners.

But Lt. Col. John Abizaid, deputy commander of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said showing the terrified prisoners on TV already violated the conventions’ prohibition against humiliating prisoners.

The chief of staff for the British Forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Peter Wall, called the TV images “disgusting.” President Bush warned Iraq to treat prisoners humanely, and said he was praying for the POWs and their families.

Last April, Eberly and other former gulf war POWs filed a $900 million lawsuit against Iraq for the “barbarous” treatment of American prisoners. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington alleged that the Iraqi agents tortured, beat, starved, shocked and burned prisoners. The Iraqis also constantly threatened to kill their prisoners, the lawsuit said.

Maurice Sharp, commander of American Ex-Prisoners of War and a POW during the Korean War, said that each prisoner of war reacts differently to being captured.

“Generally, you become silent. You immediately insulate yourself. ...You have this sense of distrust from the moment you’re taken prisoner until you’re returned,” said Sharp, who lives in University Place, Wash.

“You feel totally alone. You act alone. It’s just a scary, scary situation,” he said.

Prisoners of war are a fact of every war, and miserable treatment of POWs is all too common, said Bruce Vandervort, editor of the Journal of Military History, published by an organization of scholars and soldiers.

The Germans and Japanese had appalling records during World War II in their treatment of U.S. prisoners, especially as it became clear they were going to lose. Captors may take out their frustration on their captives, Vandervort said.

“Most people don’t treat prisoners of war terribly well as a rule,” he said. Americans have done a generally good job of treating their prisoners, he said. But one of the worst POW camps ever was at Andersonville, Ga., a Confederate prison where thousands of Union soldiers died of starvation and exposure.

“Andersonville is probably one of the most shocking examples of mistreatment of American prisoners, and it was done by our own people,” he said.


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