The Chaco war (1932-1935)
A border conflict over a remote piece of territory resulted in the capture of thousands of prisoners of war. The ICRC sent delegates to visit them but its help was not needed for POW mail.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Bolivia and Paraguay began disputing possession of the Gran Chaco, a vast, hostile and desert region lying between them. Though neither country had settled more than the areas immediately adjoining their own frontiers, both claimed the whole of the territory.
Clashes at border posts were a regular occurrence. The Paraguayans and the Bolivians had built a double line of forts right across the Chaco. In June 1932, a Bolivian patrol captured a Paraguayan fort. This triggered a military escalation which culminated in full-scale conflict. The belligerents became bogged down in the ensuing war and it was not until 12 June 1935 that they accepted an armistice. The Buenos Aires Conference of 1936 settled the conflict, awarding Paraguay the greater part of the contested territory.
In March 1933, the ICRC decided to send a mission to the warring parties. To head the mission, it appointed a Swiss citizen, Emmanuel Galland, who was secretary of the Federation of Young Men’s Christian Associations in Buenos Aires, and a Uruguayan professor of medicine, Dr Rodolfo Talice.
Visits to prisoners of war
Though neither Bolivia nor Paraguay was party to the Geneva Convention of 1929 on the treatment of prisoners of war , the two delegates obtained permission from the Bolivian and Paraguayan governments to visit their respective prisoners.
The delegates went first to Paraguay where they were received by President Ayala, who allowed them to visit the camps in which the Bolivian prisoners were interned. From 20 to 31 May 1933, the ICRC visited military hospitals and 24 internment centres holding virtually all of the 1,200 Bolivian prisoners of war.
On 1 July, the delegates arrived in Bolivia, where they met representatives of the government, the military and the Bolivian Red Cross. Together they drew up an itinerary – some 6,000 kilometres long – which would take them to the main places in which the Paraguayan prisoners were detained. Over a period of 22 days, the ICRC visited 137 Paraguayan detainees.
At the end of their mission, the delegate s suggested to the two governments a number of improvements in the conditions of the detention and these were generally carried out. They also recommended repatriating the sick and wounded. This proposal too was accepted. Thus, on 23 July 1933, the Paraguayan government organized the repatriation of 26 Bolivian prisoners of war. On 22 August, the Bolivian authorities repatriated 14 sick and wounded Paraguayans.
Mail for POWs
Following their mission to Bolivia and Paraguay, the ICRC delegates noted that there was no need to set up a prisoner-of-war information agency as the Uruguayan government had already established one in 1932. In cooperation with the Rotary Clubs of Asunción and La Paz, the Uruguayan agency had taken charge of forwarding the prisoners’ mail to their families.
Further visits to prisoners of war
In 1934, the confli ct intensified and the number of prisoners increased. As a result, the ICRC decided to send a new mission to the area. To this end, it appointed a Committee member, Lucien Cramer, and a delegate, Lucien Roulet, who would be joined by Dr Talice and then by Emmanuel Galland.
The ICRC delegates arrived in Paraguay on 27 October 1934. Lucien Cramer was received by President Ayala and representatives of a number of ministries, the army medical service and the Paraguayan Red Cross.
During their mission, the delegates visited some 18,000 Bolivian prisoners dispersed throughout the country, where they were employed in public works and agriculture.
At the end of November, the mission arrived in Bolivia. Around 2,500 Paraguayan prisoners were being held there, assigned to public works under the direction of Bolivian officers.
In both countries, the ICRC presented its observations to the authorities, who made numerous improvements to the conditions of detention while the delegates were still on the spot.
In addition, the ICRC obtained the two governments’ agreement in principle to repatriate the sick and wounded prisoners. The resulting operation was conducted in May 1935, with 135 Bolivians and 22 Paraguayans returned home. Following the armistice in 1935, the belligerents carried out a comprehensive repatriation with no need for ICRC participation.