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Death March

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"The citizen of Yerevan died crying, wandering through foreign lands."

Most modern prisons transport their inmates by bus if or when the time comes for them to be transferred to a new location, both for humanitarian reasons and for practical ones. However, another form of transportation exists, commonly used in wartime and only used in circumstances where the survival of the inmates is considered optional — if desirable at all.

The Death March is essentially a forced march for captives such as slaves or POWs, most commonly one in which the participants are not expected to survive. This can be through dangerous terrain, harsh weather, torturous extremes of climate, or even additional work duties. Guards assigned to oversee the march may torture or execute any prisoners unable to keep up.

The goal of a Death March varies. Sometimes it really is a brutal form of transportation to new territory, and any deaths along the way are considered acceptable losses or even a useful side-benefit in culling the inmate population. At other times, it's intended as execution and little else — with the march continuing until every last captive is dead.

For this reason, Death Marches are classified as war crimes, and known examples include some of the greatest violations of human rights in recorded history.

Contrast Fatal Forced March for the voluntary equivalent of this carried out by non-prisoners, and Prisoner's Work for more pedestrian, less brutal forms of labor performed by inmates.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Osamu Tezuka's Adolf, in 1944 Adolf Kaufmann (an SS officer) supervises a death march of concentration camp inmates who are being taken further into the Reich's remaining territory; he's told to ensure that a percentage don't make it.

    Comic Books 
  • Maus shows Vladek being forced to participate in the Auschwitz death march after an aborted attempt to hide in the camp, which the Nazis threatened to firebomb. One of his fellow prisoners tried to bribe the guards to let them escape into the woods, who took the bribe but then shot him anyway.
  • Superman: In "The Death March!" in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #76, Perry White's great-grandfather is accused of having lead a "death-march" in the desert. Perry then decides to re-enact the march in order to clear his great-grandfather's name, using Daily Planet staff as stand-ins for the troops and civilians involved.

    Fan Works 
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: Soon-to-be human sacrifices for a ritual in the name of a God of Evil, Crowned Death, are mind-controlled and marched to the sacrificial site, with survival only relevant if they can't last until the ritual in a few days.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Apocalypto, a Mayan slaver gang captures an entire village of forest-dwelling tribesfolk and marches them on foot all the way to Mayan territory, leaving behind only the children: along the way, they pass through shoulder-deep rivers, along narrow cliff paths, and even into regions of the forest being cleared by loggers - forcing several of the group to dodge falling trees. No medical attention is provided to any of the tribesmen who were injured during capture, least of all the one who's clearly dying by the halfway point; however, Zero Wolf disapproves when Middle Eye makes sport of the wounded man before flinging him to his death. At the end of it, the female captives are sold into domestic slavery and the men are prepared for Human Sacrifice.
  • In Ben-Hur, not only an enslaved Ben-Hur is forced to walk from Jerusalem to the port of Tyr on foot, but he's also denied water by the Roman officer. Fortunately, a benevolent figure steps up to give him water, and the Roman officer can't do anything about it.
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has a one-man version when Tuco forces Blondie to march across the desert with no water or jacket as revenge for betraying him earlier in the film. Tuco (who's on horseback with an umbrella and all the water he can drink) taunts Blondie constantly throughout the march, and Blondie only survives thanks to learning the location of a stolen pile of money from a dying soldier they stumble across.
  • Special Forces uses this as an Establishing Character Moment for its main villain, General Rafendek. Right in his first scene, he's commandeering his army leading over a hundred refugees from Moldonia towards the border, where they will be promised their freedom, only for Rafendek to suddenly order his soldiers to unveil a pair of heavy-machine guns, which fires away into the crowd of refugees, killing all of them including many children. A later scene reveals that General Rafendek has been doing this on a regular basis as an act of ethnic cleansing.

  • Joe Haldeman's Camouflage features the Bataan Death March as one of the things that the Changeling has endured, having been impersonating an American Marine at the time. Despite being capable of fleeing at any time in almost any conceivable form, it chooses to remain with the other captives and suffer alongside them, witnessing numerous atrocities along the way - most prominently the mass-slaughter of any prisoners who took water when the Japanese troops offered it. This segment ends when the Changeling accidentally yanks one of its jailers off a passing truck during a lassoing game, prompting the Japanese to execute it: it's forced to dig its own grave, beheaded, then unknowingly Buried Alive. As an immortal shapeshifter, the Changeling simply digs itself up and walks away.
  • In the Larry McMurtry novel Dead Man's Walk, the main heroes are arrested in a remote Mexican village and are forced on Death March across the titular Dead Mans Walk (the real world Jornada del Muerto). The walk itself takes them through Apache territory to a prison camp, and with the burning desert during the day, the freezing cold at night, the Mexican soldiers executing anyone who can't make the journey anymore, and Apaches picking them off one by one, the party quickly dwindles. Eventually, their lead captor offers them their freedom if they kill him, though mainly because he is exhausted, and his men are all dying alongside their captives. However, the group has come to realize that they are struggling together to survive and have no more hatred for the man for keeping them prisoner, and so the march continues, with some survivors making it through. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrive, the main characters are forced to draw lots for who among them will live and or die. Worse still, the Mexican soldiers are all sent right back through the Dead Man's Walk, with little thanks for their sacrifice or even less time given to resupply - meaning that it's almost certainly a death sentence.
  • In Harmonic Feedback, Drea's grandma tells her that her older brother Paul died in the Bataan Death March at age 18. He paused to help someone who had fallen and was shot for it.
  • In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi explains how, at the end, he and his fellow inmates departed from Auschwitz as part of a death march.
  • In "The Long March of Judge Dee" (a Fan Sequel of sorts to Judge Dee), the titular judge writes a report to his superiors stressing that there isn't enough food being brought into the capital Chang-An. The administration promptly takes action and... decides to exile a large fraction of the capital's population (decided by lottery, using family names) to a town hundreds of miles away. The judge is given responsibility over the convoy, but soon figures out the route was planned to have as many people die on the way as possible (confirmed when the Empress has some politically dangerous noble families added to the list). He does what he can to save as many as possible, which is made even worse when they finally arrive - and it turns out no one expected that many people to get dumped on a town mostly used as a resort for noble families.
  • The Stephen King novel The Long Walk is set in a dystopian Alternate History America where the government organizes a Deadly Game known as the "Long Walk" every year. One hundred teenage boys are selected to walk from a starting point on the Maine-Canada border and down the Atlantic coast until only one boy remains. They're accompanied by soldiers in half-tracks who monitor the walkers' speed, and will shoot to kill after issuing a walker three warnings for falling below the mandatory minimum speed.
  • Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night describes the Buna concentration camp being evacuated due to approach of the Red Army, and the inmates being forced to walk more than 50 miles to a train hub at Gleiwitz for transport to Buchenwald.
  • In The Odessa File, Solomon Tauber describes being on one of these death marches in the last year of the war in the diary he leaves behind and which Intrepid Reporter Peter Miller finds after Tauber's suicide. Tauber notes that during the retreat, SS guards sometimes outnumbered their prisoners 10 to 1, using the task of escorting them as a pretense to their own escape to western Allied lines so that the guards wouldn't fall into Soviet captivity.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: In the episode "Lines Of Communication", the Warrior Caste on Minbar attacks the Religious Caste, destroying their ships and forcing them to walk to the next city. Since this city was at the planet's polar region, many of them died from exposure. It is strongly implied that this was a deliberately lethal form of Loophole Abuse to get around the Minbari rule against killing other Minbari.
  • In Wallenberg: A Hero's Story, the Nazis resort to forcing the Jews that still remain in Budapest to march 250 km note  to the train station in Hegyeshalom at the Austrian border where the trains to Auschwitz wait. In the event that the trains aren't running, they're forced to walk the rest of the way as well, all as part of a deliberate effort to kill as many of them as possible.

  • Unsounded: The Red Marches were the forced deadly relocation of Inak from northern Cresce to further south after they fought back against Cresce's stealing of their lands and resources. The Inak were also forced to convert, or at least pretend they had, to survive.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Exo Squad episode "Scorched Venus", a member of the eponymous squad, Nara Burns, is captured by the Neosapiens after a botched deployment to Venus (which, in the setting, has been terraformed to have breathable atmosphere) and is forcibly marched together with other Terran prisoners to help construct a secret GRAF Shield facility. Many of Burns' fellow captives die en route, which lies right across a Venusian desert.

    Real Life 
  • Wikipedia has a list, including examples from as far back as 1603; notable Death Marches include the forced relocation of Native American tribes (among them, the Long Walk of the Navajo and the Cherokee Trail of Tears).
  • Josef Stalin's deportations of entire groups of populations (such as Crimean Tatars) within the Soviet Union were often death marches when it wasn't by train (in dire conditions in both cases).
  • In 1945, the Nazis put many concentration camp inmates through death marches far from Allied forces which would have freed them.
  • As part of the The Armenian Genocide, Armenians were marched by Ottomans to the Syrian desert, with large numbers being murdered, starved, robbed and raped along the way.
  • The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated town residents under extremely poor conditions when they took power in Cambodia, the first step in the Cambodian Genocide.
  • During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army forcibly transferred 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war from Saysain Point Bagac, Bataan, to Camp O'Donnell in what would be called the Bataan Death March - characterized by severe physical abuse and wanton killings and was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a war crime.