Unveiling untold stories of hardship, hope and humanity from the annals of captivity, preserved in the Red Crescent Archives in Ankara.
When Türkiye’s First Lady Emine Erdoğan attended the opening ceremony of the exhibition, entitled “Centennial Inheritance-Turkish Red Crescent Prisoner of War Letters”, at the National Library of Türkiye in Ankara on November 7, not only was she marking the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Türkiye, or making a political statement on Israel’s attack on Gaza.
Inadvertently, she also stirred the pot of history, in which the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement emerged as a beacon of humanity amid the depredations of European military conflicts of the mid-19th century. That is because lesser known among the responsibilities of the international humanitarian organisation and its national counterparts is their commitment to supporting prisoners of war transcending the battlefield, alleviating the plight of those captured in battle.
From identifying the names and addresses of military personnel and civilians ensnared in the chaos of wars, to arranging accommodations and addressing essential needs such as food, clothing and healthcare, these organisations play a pivotal role in mitigating the challenges faced by captives. Ensuring communication with families, especially, becomes a lifeline, a connection to the world outside the confines of captivity.
The early years
“The Turkish Red Crescent, which helped sick and injured soldiers behind the front-lines in the first years of its establishment, and developed aid models to suit the needs of a time, also took initiatives to meet the communication needs of captive soldiers with their families during the Balkan Wars and World War I. Families put all their faith on the Turkish Red Crescent when they sought clarifications from military authorities on their relatives with whom they had lost touch. They thought they could get information about relatives they had lost touch with from an institution that was developed to heal people’s wounds. In their most hopeless moments, they reposed faith in the Red Crescent, Türkiye’s largest humanitarian organisation,” Dr Ibrahim Altan, Director General of the Turkish Red Crescent, told TRT World.
Delving into history, the magnitude of such efforts becomes vividly apparent. For example, in the tumultuous late Ottoman era, Türkiye yielded a significant number of prisoners — around 100,000 alone in the Balkan Wars. That toll escalated during World War I, with the Ottoman Empire yielding a further 200,000 prisoners to nations like England, Russia, France and Italy. The turbulence continued into Türkiye’s War of Independence. In total, the Ottoman Empire had given up 300,000 prisoners by the time the Republic of Türkiye had emerged from its ashes. And it was the Red Crescent that, in the end, took care of the communications of these imprisoned soldiers, and their return home when released from captivity.
Narratives of pain and hope
A poignant exploration of the Red Crescent Archive unfurls a narrative of pain and suffering, shedding light on the experiences of soldiers ensnared in the throes of war. There are annals of ill-treatment meted out to them in captivity, of forced labour at internment camps, the daring (often unsuccessful) escape attempts, the day-to-day struggles within the confines of the camps, and the traumas etched on the souls of those who could finally return home. In the vast collection of the Red Crescent Archive are 75 meticulously preserved prisoner books, 127 lists documenting names and particulars of 308,645 prisoners, and approximately 30,000 letters and requests for investigations. Each document is a testament to the efforts made by humanitarian organisations to navigate the complex terrain of captivity.
As one immerses oneself in these narratives, a profound appreciation for the roles played by organisations like the Red Crescent in providing solace, emerges. Etched in the records, the stories not only reflect the trials of captivity, but also the indomitable spirit of individuals, who, against all odds, clung to hope and emerged from the shadows of adversity with resilience.
“The Red Crescent tried to deliver letters and answers of soldiers captured in wars to their families, at all costs. Considering the conditions of the era, it is undeniable that communication was difficult. We are still working on the letters that could not be delivered under these difficult conditions,” said Altan.
Guardian of forgotten narratives
Take for example the letter sent to the Red Crescent by a Turkish prisoner named Haci from Indochina, sometime in 1918, translated to English by this reporter: “I have been a prisoner for three years. So far, I have not received any letters from my hometown. I cannot describe in any way the ordeal I have faced because of this. I kindly request you, to urgently bring me news of my father Suleyman — whether he is alive and dead — by enquiring at the address given below.”
It is such poignant stories of pain, resilience and triumph that the archives have preserved. As you turn the pages of the prisoner books, each entry is a silent witness to the spirit of those who weathered the storm.
The documents are not mere records; they are windows into the experience of captivity, while the archives are guardians of the narratives, ensuring that these stories are never forgotten.
Source : TRT World