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“Get down! Get down! You are now Prisoners of War!”

By Jillian Kaplan, Central New York Region IHL Team Mentor

IHL Peer Educators in Syracuse, NY

Two Americorps volunteers, Heather Powell and Kaelyn Madden, burst into the room covered in camouflage, holding neon water guns and with masked faces. Our Red Cross leaders went to the back table, where they pretended to be International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representatives. The 14 of us, gathered in a Genesee Grande Hotel conference room for weekend training, were at the mercy of surprise.

No one knew what to expect that Saturday as we were brought together in Syracuse for training on how to become International Humanitarian Law, or IHL, Team Mentors. On the ride from Ithaca, Jessica Lane, Regional Youth and Young Adult Coordinator, told us that no agenda had been provided for the training on purpose.

“You, go over there! The rest of you, stay on your knees! Now… sing a song. Ready – First came the soldiers, then came the sailors, then came the prisoners of war, then come civilians who came in their millions, put them together that’s four.” Our “interrogators” were loud and determined.

We later learned this song describes the order of the four groups protected by the Geneva Convention. Through the simulation, we experienced the shock and unease of interrogation, humiliation, loss of identity (our “passports” were taken away), and forced labor (we were asked to build a railroad). Now I understood what Jessica had meant when she said surprise was an important element of the program.

Our training led us through a series of six interactive simulations, each one followed by a debriefing and discussions on the activity and on the rules and principles of the Geneva Convention and the role of the ICRC. By 5:00 pm, I felt like I understood the basics of the ethical dilemmas IHL addresses.

This is precisely what we’ll be working on in pairs to present to high school and middle school students throughout central New York next semester. After we take our students through the simulation called Raid Cross we’ll help them design an action campaign that educates others on IHL. The action campaign will be a class effort that culminates in a project where the students spread knowledge and understanding of IHL to their local communities through video, written word, or even flash mobs.

The goal is to get people to understand that even wars have limits. Frank Tiu, a freshman at Binghamton University, takes personal solace in this message. After training, he’s also excited to be part of a program that incorporates students from all over the region.

“I really like the idea of helping the local community and connecting myself with peers from other schools. It is a rare opportunity.” Tiu said. “It really makes me feel more secure and warm to know that there are Red Cross members helping POWs contact their families, and also helping to raise POW living standards.”

“Personally, this program will be a great opportunity for me to engage in the Ithaca Community on all fronts. I’ll get to work with Ithaca high schoolers and a student from Cornell to spread awareness of IHL to Tompkins County.”

Shweta Shreyarthi, a senior at Syracuse University, is also pumped to be a team mentor. She felt the training was great preparation for learning the material and relating it to current international conflicts.

“I can’t believe how much I learned in just two short days.” Shreyarthi said. “I am so excited to let people know about International Humanitarian Law. It’s something that often goes unspoken of, yet is so relevant to current issues.”