Working with Prisoners of War in Afghanistan

30 Mar 2017


Norimasa Tochibayashi (MPP 2011)

In August 2015 to 2016, I was in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan, working as a detention delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has a unique mandate to visit Prisoners of War (POWs) and monitor humanitarian situations in prisons under the 3rd Geneva Convention. The ICRC has been fulfilling the role for more than 140 years.

Although the status of POW only applies in international armed conflicts, today, as the world’s conflicts break out within the countries rather than among each other, the work of the ICRC has expanded. The Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II states that more categories of persons deprived of liberty for reasons related to non-international armed conflicts be covered.

In my line of work, I had many private interviews with the “detainees” inside the detention centres without the presence of the authorities concerned as in all interviews by the ICRC, which are conducted in strictly confidential manner. Those who were arrested, interrogated and detained by the authorities, often told stories of hardship that touched and also tore my heart. My colleagues and I were motivated in improving the living condition of detainees through very simple things that could be organised. We distributed winter clothing and basic hygiene items such as towels, soap and toothbrushes to keep detainees warm, clean and healthy. The distribution of such items was not only for the sake of distribution but aims to ensure their dignity and well-being.


Sometimes, I find myself in dangerous situations as armed opposition had constantly been threatening the security of Helmand province since October 2015. During one of my interview sessions in a prison, there was a road-side bomb attack just three hundred meters away from where I was. The explosion was so loud that even the windows in the building shook violently. I immediately checked that everyone was safe and started taking appropriate measures to protect the detainees, our interpreter and myself. Fortunately, the damage to the prison wasn’t serious, but we were made to remain in the building until the investigation was completed. Our operations were often cancelled because of such security concerns that kept us from reaching the detainees in need of our help.

Funny enough, I must admit that my experience at the LKY School was tougher than my professional life in Afghanistan (except for the security and conflict situation). The time management skills that I learnt, as well as the ability to work under pressure with my classmates, made me learn how to be diligent and tough at the same time, and I think that helped me in completing assignments. The ability to think on your feet is the same ingredient that is needed in the field. The rigorous curriculum at the school also helped me appreciate the technical side of my work. I have later realised that skills in policy planning, negotiation, policy analysis and reporting were relevant in building my career. If you ask if I would take the course again, I must admit that I would hesitate as it was extremely tough — ask the current students, and they would surely know how it feels! That is just in reference to the curriculum, though. I would never forget my two-year time at the school with all my classmates and professors. I consider the time spent at the LKY School an asset to my personal development.