NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Earlier this month, two women emerged from the Colombian jungle after many years as hostages. They carried letters, so called proof of life letters from some of the hundred still held by the Colombian rebels.
Late last year, a shadowy group in Gaza released BBC reporter Alan Johnston after many months in captivity. In important respects, the two stories couldn't be more different - one in South America, the other, Middle East. In one, a large group of hostages held together and the other held alone. One was the subject of a worldwide campaign for freedom and the other, the hostages worry they've been forgotten.
And yet, their experiences aren't very different - interrogation, fear and boredom, shame and powerlessness, the physical and mental challenges, relations with their captors. What's it like to be held captive?
Later in the program, we'll talk with a science writer whose writing was allegedly plagiarized in a romance novel.
But first, the experience of captivity. And as some listeners may know, I have some personal experience with this topic. In 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, I was among a group of journalists captured by Iraqi troops near Basra to be released about a week later. So, I have a glimmer of an idea of what it's like.
Our guests were both held much longer. So, if you want to talk with them about their experiences, what they thought about, what they learned, and about what they lost, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join our conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
John Limbert was one of 52 hostages held in the Iran hostage crisis from November 4th, 1979 to January 20th, 1981. And he joined us from the studios at member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JOHN LIMBERT (Political Science Department, United States Naval Academy): Hello, Neal. Thanks for inviting me.
CONAN: And thanks very much for coming. The anniversary of your liberation just passed a couple of days ago. Do you mark the day?
Mr. LIMBERT: Just yesterday. Yes, we do. And usually, we mark it with my family. So that's, in fact, why I'm here in North Carolina…
CONAN: Is it a reunion?
Mr. LIMBERT: …visiting family. It is a family reunion. Yes, indeed.
CONAN: And what do you - do you tell stories about what happened in those days - now so long ago?
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, my family, I think, has heard all the stories, so I don't bore them with those. But when TALK OF THE NATION called, I said, well, maybe here's a chance to go over some of those stories.
CONAN: And I wonder, do you have - this was obviously a huge chunk of your life and a very important chunk of your life - but do you have different accounts of the stories you give to different people? I mean, is there the 30-second version at a cocktail party where you don't really want to talk about it that much and there's the, you know, the three-Martini version where you're talking to a close friend?
Mr. LIMBERT: Oh, indeed. Indeed. I can go on. I have to ask you. Do you want the full version, semi-abridged or the 30-second one?
CONAN: I think we're going to have to settle for semi-abridged.
Mr. LIMBERT: That's fine.
CONAN: And you were held in solitary for quite a while. What did you think about?
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, that was about - actually, of about - of the 14 months that we were held, I was there for - in solitary for about nine months. About, basically, anything, but what this - what the experience did for me - and I think it does for many, Neal, it focuses the mind. I mean, the day before this all happened, I was a political officer in the embassy. And I was concerned with who's going left, who's going right, what's going to happen, who's up, who's down. And the next time, you're concerned with only one thing, and that is how am I going to get out of here?
CONAN: Hmm. Focus. It also makes your memories quite vivid, does it not?
Mr. LIMBERT: Yeah. It certainly does. That is true.
CONAN: Now, you've written that, in fact, or I've read that, in fact, you were debating as to whether to go get a haircut that morning. And if you had, you wouldn't have been captured.
Mr. LIMBERT: That's quite true. But I would have had to gone on government time. And being a good government servant, I said, no, no. I'll wait.
CONAN: And have you kicked yourself many times for that propriety?
Mr. LIMBERT: I had a long time to do that, actually. I had 14 months to reflect on the error or my ways.
CONAN: There is an aspect of this that I think most people don't understand is that that - did you feel ashamed of yourself for getting captured?
Mr. LIMBERT: No, not - not really. I think what was surprising to us was not that the embassy was captured because it was a time of great ferment and turmoil in Iran. What no one - none of us, I think, expected was the things to play out the way they did, where what started out as essentially a '70s student (unintelligible) turned into this 14-month international crisis, which just seized the attention of the world, seized the attention of the country and brought down an American president, and continues to cast a long shadow right down to the present day.
CONAN: Indeed, it does. But how much of that were you aware of when you were in captivity?
Mr. LIMBERT: Not much, actually. We were cut off from news. We had no newspapers, no radio, no television. So, we had glimpses of it from here and there, but a very little sense of it.
CONAN: And when - even when you were put into solitary, presumably, after the failed rescue attempt that doesn't (unintelligible).
Mr. LIMBERT: Actually, it's before that. Before that, I must have impressed them as some kind of bad character being cause for - for whatever reasons they had, they said, no, no. We have to put this person in solitary.
CONAN: And at that point, were you completely out of touch with your fellow hostages?
Mr. LIMBERT: No. You get pretty inventive. You find ways. You pass - develop ways of communicating surreptitiously. It's interesting. I suppose, again, this is one of those things that every prisoner finds, he becomes creative and inventive; and communication, obviously, in that situation like that is extremely important.
CONAN: And were you afraid for your life?
Mr. LIMBERT: There were moments, yes. There were moments. Most of the time, I think you would say people - you're fighting boredom and you're fighting your own self-created fears, but there were a few times that things got pretty dangerous.
CONAN: Another man who knows what it's like to be held hostage is Vincent Cochetel. He was held for 11 months after being kidnapped from his home in the small Russian region of north of Ossetia. And he joins us now by phone from his home in Geneva, Switzerland.
Thanks very much for taking the time for us, today.
Mr. VINCENT COCHETEL (Deputy Director, Division of International Protection Services, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): Thank you for inviting me. Thank you.
CONAN: Your experience was a little bit different. Well, everybody's hostage experience is a little bit different. But tell us, briefly, what happened to you?
Mr. COCHETEL: So, I was managing a humanitarian operation in north Caucasus for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the body guard, the armored vehicle. I was changing by travel route every day, travel patterns every day. But we knew there was a danger the way a few humanitarian actors in the (unintelligible). It was a time where there was a war in Chechnya. We were delivering food aid and assistance with the region. But today, they want you. I mean, those guys are well-equipped on all that. So, a group of people will go to me. Abandon me in the trunk of a car and spent three days in the trunk of the car. And then they took me in captivity inside Chechnya and stayed in - stayed in the house for 11 months.
CONAN: For 11 months. And during that time, were you well-treated?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, the beginning was rough. It was violent interrogation, 45 minutes every day for about 12 days. And the violence ended. Then somehow, I discovered afterwards that maybe the violence, you know, that we're seeing me because violence (unintelligible) at least maybe a form of dialogue. You're a bit powerless. It's an imbalanced dialogue but it's a form of dialogue. Then I was in a cellar, handcuffed, and I had about 15 minutes of light every day. So, in other words, it was totally, totally dark. So, I had a candle for those 15 minutes to eat my soup and a loaf of bread. And that was all forced. It's very difficult to describe, and a sort of depths(ph) in loneliness that you develop on the sort of survival strategy or coping strategy, you have to find in order to approach each day as a new day, not having much chance at the beginning to find out whether it was day time or night time. And you have to keep the mind busy and at the same time not too think too much, so a bit difficult.
CONAN: Did you ever think - did you ever miss that dialogue you were talking about so much that you thought of, you know, trying to prompt another round of interrogation?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, not really, but every time guards would bring the soup on a daily basis, I would try to engage with them. Some refused to contact, some wanted to chat two, three minutes, but it was never longer than that. And, I was trying to get some news; could not get news. And then, you know, they closed the door, the trap on the - you end up with all your questions mark - should - do I have told them these, should have said that, should have been more polite, should have been more aggressive, only that you don't know what works because the guards were changing, so it was difficult to find out what was the right communication strategy with them.
CONAN: John Limbert, is that sound familiar from your experience?
Mr. LIMBERT: It sounds very similar. Vincent, we - someone once told us after this that, in a situation like this, the worst thing to do is they say is you, you could not should on yourself, meaning, you can't say I should have done this or I should have done that.
Mr. COCHETEL: You know, that's true, but then, you know, you're left with, I mean, you are left alone, you know? Constantly, there's no one to tell you or to advise you or whatever - you have the feeling at some stage that you just choose the wrong options.
CONAN: That you've chosen the wrong options. Did you find yourself from time to time thinking a lot about your family, the people you left behind or did you try to drive that from your thoughts and say, all right, I need to focus on how to get out of here and how I'm going to survive?
Mr. COCHETEL: No, exactly, you try, I mean, for me, I try not to think too often about the relatives, solely - that was one of the main challenge; not too think about the beloved one, and get the mind busy on some other tasks, so all sorts of games, mental games; playing checkers against myself, praying, translating sentences in different languages, trying to memorize photo in the family photo album, the moments before the pictures were taken, the moment after - keep the mind busy constantly.
CONAN: Keep the mind busy, John Limbert, that's good advice?
Mr. LIMBERT: It's very good advice. And I think, the way it worked for me was that if you - if I could get through the next five minutes, I could get through the next hour, I could get through the next three hours, I could get through the next day, so…
Mr. COCHETEL: Exactly.
Mr. COCHETEL: (unintelligible) of physical exercise even if I was tied up to my - to the metallic frame of my bed, I could still run on the spot, do all sort of physical exercise to try to be physically tired because I think you sleep better when you're a bit physically tired. Then, eventually, when you lie down on the bed and pull the dirty blanket over your face, that's another world; you can try to drift away and dream a bit.
CONAN: We're speaking with Vincent Cochetel, who was held hostage in Chechnya for 11 months, and with John Limbert, one of the 52 hostages captured during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 to 1980.
If you'd like to speak with them about their experiences, if you've been a hostage yourself, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A bit later in the hour, we'll talk with a science writer whose words on the black-footed ferret he found in a reprinted, in a romance novel, as dialogue. That's coming up, but first we're talking about the experience of being a hostage. If you have questions about captivity, what people think about, what they learned, and what they lost, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also share your comments with us on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And John Limbert, as you were trying to figure out what was going on, you were talking about various ways of communications among the hostages; what was that like?
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, we worked it out, I mean, they - the idea was deprived us of news and then they could - presumably, we would be more malleable or easier to deal with. So, people - as people got snippets of news, one way or another, the idea was to share this news and also to pass news of each other - who are you, you've you seen, are you all right. Particularly, I mean, it was certainly important for me in solitary to establish some contact. So, we did it in many ways with surreptitious notes, passing, leaving them in various places. We developed a tapping code that prisoners have used for a long time. We didn't have much news. We didn't know much. But, for example, I'd learn about the failed rescue attempt in April of 1980. I was able pass that around to the other hostages, some of whom didn't know about it. They knew other things -were able to pass those onto me.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see - we get some listeners involved in the conversation. Again, it's 800-989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com.
And, Joe's(ph) on the line. Joe is in Walkerton, Indiana.
JOE (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
JOE: Thanks for talking my call. My question was along the lines that you've just commented on, I was wondering how you got the information about the rescue attempt and what exactly you knew about it, and whether that gave you hope, kind of your feelings on that.
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, it was, actually, it was a stolen newspaper. We had been moved. We've been moved out of Tehran to a place - I've been moved down to Esfahan, which is about 300 kilometers south of Tehran. No one had said why. I was still in solitary. But a couple of - after I've been there a couple of days, the people holding us had left a newspaper around, I picked it up. It gave a very scanty account of what had happened from, basically, from the wire services, but it said, there had been - I was able to pick up - there had been a rescue attempt. It had failed somewhere out in the dessert, in the Iranian dessert, and that there were casualties. And that was basically, all I knew until we got out and learned more about it.
The effect, of course, was two fold. One, I was very sort of full of admiration for the people who had the guts to try something so difficult and so dangerous, disappointment and sorrow at the loss of life, disappointment that it end, of course, disappointment that it hadn't happened but a kind of reassurance that, in the fact, we were not forgotten about, and that someone was willing to embark on something so difficult and dangerous to get us out.
JOE: I remember, wondering, at the time, I was only 11, wondering at the time worrying about you guys even as a kid, man, I (unintelligible) that they made this attempt and it failed, what's going to happen to them, and so I just want to ask you that question, so thanks for your time, for the comments.
CONAN: Okay, thanks for the call.
Mr. LIMBERT: Not at all. Thank you, Joe.
CONAN: And Vincent Cochetel, you work for the United Nations, so, surely, you knew people would be looking for you and that you're case was not forgotten. Nevertheless, for 11 months, did you think - did you worry sometimes that they just thought you'd vanish into a black hole and you'd never hear from anybody ever again?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, not really, I knew that the family would be mobilized and, you know, the colleagues would be mobilized, but I knew also, at the end of the day, my employer would not pay the ransom those guys were asking for, so I wasn't sure what sort of solution could be worked out. On that time, the Russian troops were no longer in Chechnya. Chechnya was in the state of chaos, some independent, and I knew, for the Russians special service to get me out of Chechnya, it would take some resources that they are not normally trying to seek to rescue a foreigner. So, I was not really sure what they were going to do.
CONAN: Hmm, okay. Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Helen(ph). Helen, with us from Ithaca, New York.
HELEN (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
HELEN: Oh, hi. My question to your guest is, from their experience in solitary confinement - I know that they were definitely concerned about keeping their wits about them and it sounds like they were also concerned about the relationship with their captors. And do they find it helpful or not helpful to, actually, like, one of your guests said he was attempting to memorize different things and to vocalize or to just be quiet and talk to your self because of perhaps concerns about how your behavior would be, you know, your captors would react to that? And, I can take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Okay. Thanks for the call, Helen.
Vincent Cochetel, did you sing while you were in captivity? Did you speak verse from memory?
Mr. COCHETEL: No, I did not speak. I mean, I was told by the captors to be silent, so I kept things within myself.
CONAN: And what about you, John Limbert?
Mr. LIMBERT: Oh, I sang. That was a form torture for the captors. I thought I would, at least, get something back at them.
CONAN: I see.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LIMBERT: I, singing - actually, I developed some pretty good parodies of their revolutionary songs. I took some of their favorite revolutionary anthems and made up my own verses. They didn't like it. I'm sure they didn't like it, but part of the game we played is they couldn't - they pretended to ignore it because if they had come back to me, then I would have known I was getting to them and that would have been a little victory. But I kept after them that way.
CONAN: It sounds like you've kept a sense a humor through all this?
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, you have to. You have to because the situation is so ultimately absurd and it's not - things are not suppose to work this way. And so, you know, people react whatever works - people react in different ways, but you have to see the absurdity of the situation just to keep your sanity.
CONAN: And did you see absurdity, Vincent Cochetel?
Mr. COCHETEL: Absurdity?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, yes, you know, I saw that. I realized that at some stage, it was at the beginning of the captivity, you - I could reverse the relationship with the captor. But I mean, at least, for a moment. I remember that guy interrogating me what was five minutes of beating for the first days of the captivity. Before the last session, I asked him whether I could ask him a question, and he said yes. And I said, do you have kids, and he said, how do you know, I said, whatever noise in - above my head, on the upper floor, so there seems to be a kid who is sick, was a bit serious that the guard would have reported on (unintelligible) his family composition or whatever. I said, what have you keep guard. He said, well, he's sick and all that. And we talked about 45 minutes on how difficult it is to find medicines in war-torn Chechnya. You know, what medical NGOs can provide him with some assistance and all that. That guy never touched me anymore afterwards.
CONAN: So, as soon as you became a human being to him?
Mr. COCHETEL: Yeah. All of the sudden, I was no longer a commodity to trade. We managed - and managed to pull the right string.
CONAN: And at the same time, was that the moment, your revenge fantasies about him ceased?
Mr. COCHETEL: Yeah, well, then, no, I mean, that was the old, I never saw that guy again.
CONAN: I see.
Mr. COCHETEL: He was not able to come to me anymore.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. And this is John(ph). John, with us, from Bakersfield, California.
JOHN (Caller): Yes. I'm in the military. No, I've never been captured. I've been through a lot of survival training and I want to thank you guys, people like you, because the impact that your stories have - I've been hearing the (unintelligible) is tremendous and it brought a lot of - really made out alive. My question would be is it did you feel any kinship towards any of your captors? And if you did, have you ever thought about, you know, meeting them on different circumstances?
CONAN: John Limbert?
JOHN: Thanks again.
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, first of all, thank you for your service and I'm glad to hear that some of this is helpful. When you say kinship, not really, I mean, I have often said in statements that what they did was disgraceful. And before we could have any kind of dialogue or talk, I have no particular desire to meet any of them under the circumstances. But before, they - before, really, a dialogue could start, one has - they would have to face up to what they did and simply say, this was a mistake, this was a terrible thing we did.
CONAN: Hmm. You could now go back to Tehran, if you wanted and meet with them?
Mr. LIMBERT: No. Right now, I'm not welcomed. I would love to go back to Iran. I love the country. I lived there for many years before this happened. My family, my children were both born there. I would love to go back, but right now, I'm - I don't think I'm very welcome.
CONAN: Okay. John, thanks very much for the call.
Let's see if we can get Josh(ph) on the line. Josh with us from Little Rock in Arkansas.
JOSH (Caller): How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
JOSH: I just have a simple question. I wanted to know if any of the capturers ever apologized while they were there or if they spoke fluent English?
CONAN: Vincent Cochetel, I don't think English was necessary the language that you had dialogued with your capturers in but in any case, did any of them ever apologized?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, we spoke in Russian. Once there was a guard he came to me, I never saw his face. He had a balaclava on his face, and he said, well, I'm a bit sorry and I'd like to thank you. I know that (unintelligible) provided assistance towards when we were displaced by the war six months earlier on.
CONAN: And I guess that's a kind of apology.
Mr. COCHETEL: Yeah, but it was difficult for me to get it because he was - it took me weeks to dissociate, you know. That guy, we rightly assisted with his family six months earlier on, on the sort of soldier of fortune, terrorist, he became down the line, you know? It was a very difficult mental exercise. He meant well but he was like a bled in the belly, yeah?
CONAN: Hmm. And John Limbert, did any of your captors, any of the people who brought you food and other things, did they ever apologize to you?
Mr. LIMBERT: Not directly - indirectly. Most of the communication was in Persian. There were a few who had been to the United States, studied - been there as students. There were a number of others who had known American Peace Corps volunteers as teachers and the strange thing was when I asked them about their experiences. They said, oh yes, our - we had so and so as a volunteer teacher. He was wonderful, or my experience in the States? Yes, people were very kind to me and very hospitable. And - but there was the obvious disconnect, the failure to see any contradiction between what they were doing and their previous experiences with Americans.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the…
Mr. LIMBERT: They had - let me just put it this way. These were mostly young people, people in their late teens, early 20s, and they had a certainty about what they were doing that seems to go with that age.
CONAN: Hmm. A feeling that they knew all the answers.
Mr. LIMBERT: Indeed.
CONAN: Yeah. Okay, thanks very much for the call, Josh.
JOSH: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: We're talking with John Limbert, one of the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979 and 1980, and with Vincent Cochetel, former hostage in Chechnya, held for 11 months when he was allowed just 10 to 15 minutes of light per day and where he suffered beatings as well. What's it like being hostaged?
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Susan(ph). Susan with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.
SUSAN (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon. Go ahead.
SUSAN: Oh, I was, I had told your associates that I was held captive by a sheriff's deputy in the 70s for four hours, who stopped me for speeding as presumably, but he took me down on a country road and held me for four hours and, you know, threatening me and it was an experience that made me realize that most people are never in a situation to be held against their will. And you go to a place in your brain, you know, like an animal because, you know, on jobs when people are at work, they think, oh, I wish I could leave here but then you always can, you really can but to be held against your will, there's nothing that most people don't really ever experienced.
CONAN: Could you imagine what it was like, again, you said it was for a few hours?
SUSAN: Four hours.
CONAN: Fourteen months, 11 months, six years like these women in Colombia?
SUSAN: It is incomprehensible to me because I don't know how people, you know, do survive it. I am - it's just - it's incomprehensible.
CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call.
SUSAN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Vincent Cochetel, that leads to a question: what did you learn? What did you take out of this that you think is positive?
Mr. COCHETEL: Well, I think everyone has good inside himself, lots of resources that we ignore. I mean, it's unfortunate that usually when you're confronted to extraordinary circumstances in life that you realize that you have the sort of capacity to resist and to make it through. The thing what I learn at the end of the day I think it's like (unintelligible) is dead. There are not that many things that matter in life. There are really important things, I mean, there was a radical shift of some of the values when I came out.
CONAN: John Limbert, what do you think you learned?
Mr. LIMBERT: Agree. I mean, what you think is what you think is important one day ceases to be important and all of those political considerations and all of this close analysis that I thought mattered didn't matter at all. I mean, when it came down to this, when the Iranians holding us said that they wanted the shah back to release us, my first thought was that sounds reasonable to me. I don't see any problem with that. And then, if they shifted to $24 billion and some F14 parts, I said, well, I don't see anything wrong with that either. That sounds very reasonable. If they want Henry Kissinger in the bargain, I'll throw him in, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Janet(ph). Janet with us from Cincinnati, Ohio.
JANET (Caller): Yes. Your sort of preempted my question a little bit but given the horrors that these men went through and you read about people, the times you go through terrible things and say at the end of it, it made me who I am today. I guess I want to know would they not do - would they have chosen not to have had this happen to them?
CONAN: Oh, if you go back and erase it, Vincent…
JANET: Basically, yeah.
CONAN: …yeah, Vincent Cochetel, would you do that?
Mr. COCHETEL: No, because I believe that I was there for a fair cause, the way people are suffering and there was a job to do, and I enjoy it with my team. And if I had to do it again, I'll do it again. Maybe I would take all the precaution, maybe I would work with different security measures around me. I'm still working for the same organization today, but I think I'd learn some more personal values out of that. I think I've learned to say things to people directly, less indirectly, you know? In our society, sometime you don't dare to say to people thank you, you don't dare to say to people I love you or forgive me and all that when you know you're not going to be sure to see the people the day after. You learn to take those shortcuts in life that make like much more enjoyable.
CONAN: John Limbert, if you could tell us in 30 seconds, if you…
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, I was - like Vincent, I was very proud of what I did as a Foreign Service officer but I must say, if I could have gone out and gotten that haircut this, that morning, I would've done so. So, this was not my event of choice or preference.
CONAN: Janet, thanks very much for the call.
JANET: Thank you.
CONAN: And thanks to both of our guests.
Vincent Cochetel, a former hostage in Chechnya, held captive while working for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees where he continues to work as deputy director of the UNHCR's Division of International Protection Services, on the phone with us from his home in Switzerland. Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. COCHETEL: Thank you.
CONAN: And John Limbert, one of the 52 hostages held in Iran. Appreciate your time today as well.
Mr. LIMBERT: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And he joined us from the studios of WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.
When we come back, we'll talk with an author, a science author, who found his words reprinted in a romance novel.
This is NPR News.