Suffering at Wars’ Ends

by Michael Patrick O'Leary


This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on December 11 2011 but has disappeared from their website.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end.


Over the past few years, there have been many books describing what happened at the end of the Second World War. The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard was published in April 2010. After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles McDonogh was published in July 2007. The Struggle for Europe by William Hitchcock was published in January 2003. Walter Laqueur’s books on post-war Europe came out in 1992. John Roberts, Norman Davies, Mark Mazower and Richard Vinen, David Calleo, and last but not least, the late, great Tony Judt,  have produced  strong analytical work examining Europe’s future in the light of what its 20th-century past reveals.


Scholars have had 67 years to assess the six years of World War 2. Sri Lanka has only had just over two years to come to terms with nearly 30 years of internal war.


In 1945, the Allies had to deal with  10 to 15 million DPs (displaced persons) –  concentration camp victims, foreign workers and slave laborers and  destitute Germans. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was set up to deal with DPs. Shephard is sympathetic but also describes incompetence and political manipulation. Some UNRRA functionaries made mistresses of Polish DPs. Others engaged in crime.


One thing for DPs to do after years of deprivation was to get blind drunk. Two thousand people died from alcohol poisoning  in two months after war’s end. Many DPs reacted to freedom with sexual abandon. At Wildflecken DP Camp in Bavaria, the Virgin Mary in the “Holy Manger” Christmas show had gonorrhoea. The birth rate in DP camps rocketed.


Not everyone was ready to debauch. Richard Wollheim, later a distinguished philosopher, was tasked with organising  a dance party for British soldiers and female survivors in Bergen-Belsen. The party ended in mayhem, with panicking women expecting nothing but more torment from uniformed men


“Resettlement” was not an easy task. Shephard describes American soldiers dragging terrified Russians and Ukrainians to assembly points. They were often being sent in open cattle trucks to their deaths in Russia or Yugoslavia. British soldiers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, had to force about 70,000 people who had, in many cases already suffered terribly under the Germans, to go back to a more horrendous  fate.


McDonogh describes the rape and pillage that went with Red Army “liberation” of  Eastern Europe. Native populations turned on ethnic Germans with frightening ferocity. Whole  communities of Germans, up to 16 million, who had lived outside the Reich for generations, were violently uprooted. Old men, women, and children were forced to march westward, or crammed into cattle cars in which they sometimes froze to death. The most conservative estimate that  600,000 German civilians were killed at this time is still high. The savagery was comparable to what the Nazis had inflicted. Schools and public buildings became torture centres. Up to 15,000 Germans were held at Strahov soccer stadium in Prague, where  the guards amused themselves by forcing thousands to run for their lives and then machine-gunning them.


The Americans set up PWTEs (Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures) which make Menik Farm seem like Club Med.  In the spring of 1945, some 40,000 prisoners died of hunger and exposure in the twelve open camps containing a million men. The Americans had burned their kit, so they had nothing to protect them from the elements.


The British and Americans also set up Direct Interrogation Centres to find major war criminals or  subversive activity. Their function soon changed to gathering intelligence against the Russians. Prisoners were tortured by guards with scores to settle. Methods are familiar today from their use in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan and CIA centres all over the world: savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Many never came out alive.


At Schwäbish Hall, near Stuttgart, Americans used methods similar to  those employed by the SS in Dachau. Prisoners endured  long periods in solitary confinement. Men were led off in hoods and  lifted off the ground to convince them they were about to hang.  When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry, they found that, of the 139 cases they examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”


NGOs such as Human Rights Watch were strongly critical of GOSL’s  decision to keep civilians in IDP camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and referred to extermination camps. David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, took time off from watching his members lose jobs and welfare benefits as the Irish economy went  rapidly downhill, to take  an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He claimed that 1,000 people were dying every week in concentration camps.


The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008. In recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end. Some wars just do not end.


Today, 63 years after the foundation of the state of Israel, five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) services.