Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amnesty Misses the Mark with 'Gulag' Tag


As Don mentioned, Amnesty International issued a report that was denounced by the Bush administration. It called the US-run prison camps at Guantanamo Bay `a Gulag for our time.' That word, `Gulag,' especially riled the president and the secretary of Defense, and commentator Peter Klein agrees that `Gulag' is the wrong word for Amnesty International to use. Klein has researched the Gulag system for a family history he's working on.


During World War II my Uncle Joe(ph) was conscripted into the German-led Axis army. As a Jew in Hungary, he was forced to fight for an army that was deporting and killing the rest of his family back home. And to add injury to insult, he and other Jews were used as cannon fodder at the Russian front. Joe's platoon was captured in 1942, and the whole group was sent to Tjeljabinsk, a Siberian city nicknamed Tankograd since it was the only place that made the T-34 tank and the famous Katushka rocket. Joe didn't know he was in one of the centers of the Soviet military empire. His days were spent cutting down trees and doing other menial labor in the tundra of Siberia.

In 1949, four years after the war ended, Joe stumbled home to Budapest after a negotiated prison release with a huge handlebar mustache and stories that only war survivors could believe. I grew up hearing these war stories in Hungarian, which we spoke at home. Joe would talk about the lagaf(ph), the camp, which, to my American ears, meant Gulag. As far as I was concerned, my Uncle Joe was part of that vast, horrible Gulag history that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had written about. But when I started doing some family research recently, I realized I was wrong all these years.

I contacted an elderly Hungarian man in Canada, who was also a prisoner in Siberia, and told him I was looking into my uncle's years in the Gulag. He sternly corrected me: `The Gulag system was set up by the Soviets to punish political dissenters, and you were sentenced to five, 10, 20 years for saying or doing something that went against the party. But POWs in Siberia never knew when or if they would get out.' My Uncle Joe was never in a Gulag; he was in a POW camp.

The hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo don't really fit either category. The Bush administration has a new term for them: enemy combatants. They're careful not to call them prisoners of war since the prisoners would then fall under the Geneva Convention. But you certainly can't compare the Taliban fighters or suspected al-Qaeda members in Guantanamo to people like Solzhenitsyn, who was sent to Siberia for eight years of harsh labor and abuse for writing personal letters critical of Stalin.

It turns out many of the prisoners who've been in Guantanamo were actually swept up mistakenly or conscripted to be cannon fodder, like my uncle. Some have been freed and sent home. The ones that are still there four years later sit in their small cells on the island of Cuba with no fixed term, like Soviet dissidents had in the Gulag archipelago and with no diplomats negotiating their release on the outside. This new kind of prisoner, these so-called enemy combatants, aren't in a Gulag or a POW camp. They're just in Guantanamo.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Peter Klein is a producer at CBS News. He's working on a book about his family's escape during the Hungarian revolution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Klein