Ha Jin on Settling the POW Hunger Strike

In addition to the issue of repatriation, our leaders also accused the American side of some other serious violations of the [Geneva] convention. To be fair, I didn’t feel that our captors treated us badly. At least we were sheltered and had food. Most of the wounded prisoners had access to medical treatment, though conditions still had room for improvement. About six thousand people had been crowded into a small compound, with no disease springing up, because sanitation had been adequately maintained. Some inmates had even gained a little healthy color, especially some cooks whose cheeks had grown thicker. We often joked that the latrines in the compound were better equipped than those in our barracks back in China. Seats had been installed in them, and at the centers of the rooms were washing facilities–faucets for running water and metal basins set into round concrete tables. On the whole, I had to admit that the Americans were generous, at least materially. Besides food, each POW was given at least one pack of cigarettes a week, and sometimes two packs. I saw with my own eyes that American medical personnel treated injured civilians at the Pusan prison hospital. Here in every compound the United Nations had set up a program for civilian education that distributed books among the inmates, offered courses in mechanics, science, and Christianity, and often showed movies. Unfortunately our compound, controlled by the Communists, wouldn’t have anything to do with such a program. Whenever a prisoner reported that he had lost his blanket or mat, he would be issued another one, since there was always a surplus of these things within the compound. Sometimes this would even apply to uniforms. Such replenishment was unthinkable in our own army, in which you would be disciplined for the loss. Back in China I had never heard of a soldier losing his bedroll.

[Chinese POW leader] Chaolin had a sharp tongue. The moment the [American] major finished reading [the Geneva Convention booklet], Chaolin said, “Obviously our treatment falls short of the standard set by the convention. For example, we Chinese don’t eat barley, which is fed to livestock back home. But you have made barley the staple of our diet, and most of the time there isn’t enough barley for everyone. Each man can have only two bowls a day, and the calories are way below the minimum need of the body. What’s worse, there’s very little vegetable in our diet, and meat is absolutely a rarity. If your country has difficulties, please notify our country. I’m sure China will send over shiploads of rice, meat, and eggs to keep us from starving.

What he had said about barley wasn’t wasn’t true. No Chinese would feed animals barley, which we didn’t like as much as rice but which tasted better than corn or sorghum, the principal foodstuffs in northern China. Having heard my translation, General Bell reddened and said, “I will take your unusual Chinese dietary habits into consideration and try to solve this problem. If you always feel hungry, I suggest that you stop the hunger strike now, which will increase your fellow men’s misery and waste food. As for the medical conditions, I will see what I can do.”

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 157-159

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