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Report from Iraq: Management of a POW Camp - 2003-04-16

Somewhere in the sands of southern Iraq is Camp Bucca, the only prisoner-of-war camp under coalition command. Colonel Sidney Ecke is the camp's chief administrator. In this report, he tells VOA'S William Chien how the camp manages the flow of prisoners.

The weather this week is unseasonably cool for April in the Persian Gulf -- a thick layer of clouds blocks the sun, keeping the temperature at 28 degrees centigrade. I board a military vehicle in Kuwait City bound for the only prisoner of war camp controlled by coalition forces in Iraq.

As soon as we enter Iraq, crowds and crowds of children appear, vying to be the first to sell paper bills to people crossing the border. It doesn't take long to realize that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the paper money bearing his visage is now war booty. Iraqis are selling it as a commodity, rather than swapping it for foreign currency. Up the street, American troops closely inspect Iraqis and their vehicles.

We travel 30 minutes further into Iraq's interior before reaching the "Camp Bucca". One soldier tells me the camp is named after a young firefighter named Bucca who died attempting to save people in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The main gate of the POW camp is blocked by a crowd of Iraqis, all relatives of Iraqi soldiers who are inquiring after their missing relatives.

A young soldier tells us Camp Bucca is the only prisoner of war camp inside Iraq under coalition control. He adds that this camp was built by British troops for previous containment of POWs, so there were already tents on the location. Camp's capacity is about 18-thousand prisoners. The camp now houses about six-thousand. That figure remains steady as new inmates are sent to Bucca in numbers approximately equal to the number who are released.

The Camp's Chief Administrator is Colonel Sidney Ecke. The Colonel states the most important tasks are to stabilize the mood of the prisoners and to repatriate those who are not prisoners of war. Another task, he said is to manage the relationships with prisoner's relatives who wait outside the camp's gate. It is completely understandable for family members to be anxious to learn the whereabouts of their kin. Managing the inmates, whether prisoner of war or not, is painstakingly complex work. "The only thing we have to go by is sometimes pictures," he says. "You're looking at pictures and trying to ascertain whether, in fact, they do have relatives inside the wire."

Col. Ecke adds that the inmates are treated humanely and in accordance with international standards set by the Geneva Convention. Ten inmates are assigned to one tent measuring about 28 square meters. Muslim inmates get three Islamic meals per day and are allowed time to pray each week.

Colonel Ecke explains that after an Iraqi is captured on the battlefield and brought to Camp Bucca, a team of U.S. and Arabic-speaking lawyers and other professionals sit with them to determine to what degree they are prisoners-of-war or some other status that has not been involved in fighting and are therefore managed separately.

He adds that until now the number of those who have been mistaken for Iraqi soldiers and sent to Camp Bucca is quite small. However, the personnel at the camp currently do not have the power to send those who should be repatriated back to their homes.