Death marches in world history

Nigel Tan

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Death marches in world history
The Bataan Death March, commemorated every April 9, is not unique to Philippine history. Here are a few other similar tragedies in world history.

MANILA, Philippines – For Filipinos, the term death march conjures images of the Bataan Death March, where 78,100 exhausted Filipino and American prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese to march 128 kilometers from the tip of Bataan province to waiting prison trains in San Fernando, Pampanga. 

A death march is a forced march, usually by prisoners, in which many of the marchers suffer and die through multiple factors, such as exhaustion, starvation, exposure to the elements, abuse inflicted by their guards, or all of the above.

Legally, death marches are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war and protection of civilians in wartime. Non-wartime death marches, meanwhile, are crime against humanity under inhumane acts and forcible transfer of populations clauses.

Despite its infamy, the Bataan Death March is not the only case of such an event in history. Here are other tragic episodes that were considered death marches in world history.

REMEMBERING THE TRAIL. Route of the Trail of Tears outlined by the US National Park Service. Picture from Southern Spaces/NPS

Trail of tears

The “Trail of Tears” is the forced removal of Native American tribes in Southeastern US to relocation sites in present-day Oklahoma and Arkansas following the passing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. 

While some native tribes complied with the relocation, others resisted through a series of wars, but were defeated and forcibly removed as prisoners of war.

Overseen by the US military, the relocations followed land and river routes, with those who took the land route suffering the most, having to deal with starvation, blizzards, freezing winters, diseases among those marching, and other privations. The forced removals occurred from 1830 to 1847. Of approximately 61,000 Native Americans forcibly relocated, around 8,000 to 16,000 died along the way.

While the US military took measures to ensure the safety of the displaced natives, it was still considered a death march as it was a forced removal of a population over inhospitable terrain and conditions. Furthermore, US government agencies handling the relocation were neglectful of the needs of the relocated natives, with their poor logistical decisions and the inadequate shelters they provided causing misery and death.

ARMENIAN ATROCITY: Male Victims of the Armenian Genocide and Deportation. Photo from the University of Columbia.

Armenian genocide and deportations

Armenians were one of the Christian subjects of the Muslim Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey). The empire gave way to an ultranationalist Turkish revolution, which viewed the Armenians as roadblocks to their eastern expansion and their ideal of a unified Muslim Turkish nation.

At the outbreak of World War I, the ultranationalists joined with the Central Powers and at the same time moved against the Armenians. On the pretext that they were aiding Turkey’s Russian enemies, thousands of Armenian men and community leaders were rounded up, imprisoned, and slain.

In 1915, Armenian communities were relocated en masse by the government to a village in Syria under the pretext that they were being moved to a demilitarized zone for their safety. What happened next were a series of death marches.

The caravans of Armenians were made to pass through difficult and wild terrain, and Turkish policemen guarding the caravans were believed to have allowed bandits to attack the caravans. The bandits not only stole from the Armenians, but they also committed rapes, murders, and kidnappings of Armenian girls whom the bandits sold to prostitution or domestic slavery.

Even the policemen were said to have participated in the atrocities, joining in the rapes and kidnappings. They forced the march to continue even when food and water ran out and anyone who lagged behind was beaten, while those who could not continue were shot.

The ordeal of the Armenians ended in 1918. A million Armenians died of the genocide, with 80,000 from the deportations. With the perpetrators largely unpunished, the genocide remains a sensitive issue for both Turks and Armenians to this day.

MOBILE HOLOCAUST: Prisoners of Nazi Death Camps marching under the gaze of German guards. Photo from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Holocaust death marches

Death camps are the common image of the infamous genocide of millions of Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II, but death marches were also held.

With the war going badly for the Germans in 1944, the Nazis started evacuating prisoners from outer prison camps into the German interior. This was done so the prisoners would not fall into the allies’ hands and reveal full details of German atrocities. They were also used as hostages.

Most of the evacuations were initially done via railways or ships, but because of the allies’ advance and air superiority, these evacuations were unsafe. Prisoners were then instead ordered to evacuate on foot or via small boats and box trains.

Strict orders were given to kill those who could not travel. Already weakened by maltreatment in prison camps, some of them were slain before the evacuation could even begin. Along the way the Nazi guards killed stragglers and anyone who collapsed from exhaustion.

Evacuation atrocities reached their height during the winters of 1944 and 1945, when many of the prisoners died of exhaustion or froze to death. It also weakened many individuals who were then killed by their Nazi guards. Even those in the transports weren’t so lucky, as the open trains exposed them to the cold winter. Those in small boats were mistaken by the allies’ planes for German military transports.

The evacuation was never completed and continued almost until war’s end in 1945, with some bands of prisoners rescued by the advancing allied armies as they marched.

DOOMED DRAFTEES: Fears that men such as these would be drafted into the North Korean Army forced South Korea to Draft them first as part of the National Defense Corps. File Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Korea’s national defense corps

During the war between North and South Korea, the North gained an early advantage. To prevent North Korea from getting more recruits, the South Korean Army rounded up men aged 17 to 40 near North Korea in a program called “National Defense Corps” in 1951.

Around 400,000 men were rounded up and organized into 49 units for training.

Early South Korea is known for the prevalence of corruption in government. With the US’ generous funding programs for South Korea’s defense during the war, there was a lot of money to be embezzled. And money for the National Defense Corps program was stolen by its top officers, leading to deprivation among men in training.

The draftees were made to march south to South Korean bases. Due to the freezing Korean winter and the lack of food and inadequate clothing, approximately 50,000 to 90,000 recruits died during the march. Afterwards, the National Assembly of South Korea disbanded the program and investigated the incident. 5 of the top officers involved in the embezzlement of funds were executed.  Rappler. com

Sources: International Red Cross: Crimes Against Humanity, Geneva Conventions: Treatment of Prisoners of War, Geneva Conventions: Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of WarChoctaw Nation: Trail of Tears,Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation,Trail of Tears: The Story of the American Indian Removal 1813-1855, The Armenian Genocide US Holocaust Museum: Holocaust Death MarchesProsecution of Former Military Leaders in Newly Democratic Nations: The Cases of Argentina, Greece, and South Korea p.138-9The Korean War: No Victors No Vanquished p.224. New York Times article on the National Defense Corps Program Incident

Photo Credits: Trail of Tears  from Southern Spaces, Armenian Genocide from Columbia University, Holocaust Death March from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum



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