Character: Build It Here
How to Survive Solitary Confinement
Have you ever thought about how you would survive imprisonment in solitary confinement? What a ridiculous question to ponder, you may respond, assuming that such a circumstance could never befall you. But just in case it happens, here is an account from a survivor, Vincent Cochetel, that will give you a few pointers.
Mr. Cochetel is the Bureau Director of Europe for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His career spans some thirty years as a courageous fighter for human rights. Up until 1998, Cochetel had worked as a humanitarian aid worker, relieving the plight of refugees, never thinking that he himself might be in need of rescue someday. And then it happened, on January 29, 1998, when kidnappers showed up at his door, snatched him from his home, shoved him in the trunk of a car, and whisked him off to a life of sudden captivity.
Below is an excerpt of the transcript from Cochetel’s story that he told on the T.E.D. stage this past December. If you would like to learn how to survive the ordeal of solitary confinement in a cold, damp cellar chained to a bed frame, with a bucket for a toilet, and only fifteen minutes of light by candle per day when the guard brought your food ration, then read on.
However, hearing his voice tell the story and watching his body language will add more to your understanding. I hope you will have time later to listen to his presentation, also.
“As humanitarian aid workers, we make the choice to be at the side of the victim, to provide some assistance, some comfort, some protection, but when these workers needed protection themselves, it wasn't there. When you see the headlines of your newspaper these days with the war in Iraq or in Syria -- aid worker abducted, hostage executed -- but who were they? Why were they there? What motivated them? How did we become so indifferent to these crimes? This is why I am here today with you. We need to find better ways to remember them. We also need to explain the key values to which they dedicated their lives. We also need to demand justice.
When in '96 I was sent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the North Caucasus, I knew some of the risks. Five colleagues had been killed, three had been seriously injured, seven had already been taken hostage. So we were careful. We were using armored vehicles, decoy cars, changing patterns of travel, changing homes, all sorts of security measures.
Yet on a cold winter night of January '98, it was my turn. When I entered my flat in Vladikavkaz with a guard, we were surrounded by armed men. They took the guard, they put him on the floor, they beat him up in front of me, tied him, dragged him away. I was handcuffed, blindfolded, and forced to kneel, as the silencer of a gun pressed against my neck. When it happens to you, there is no time for thinking, no time for praying. My brain went on automatic, rewinding quickly the life I'd just left behind. It took me long minutes to figure out that those masked men there were not there to kill me, but that someone, somewhere, had ordered my kidnapping. Then a process of dehumanization started that day. I was no more than just a commodity.
I normally don't talk about this, but I'd like to share a bit with you some of those 317 days of captivity. I was kept in an underground cellar, total darkness, for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day, and then the guards would come, normally two. They would bring a big piece of bread, a bowl of soup, and a candle. That candle would burn for 15 minutes, 15 minutes of precious light, and then they would take it away, and I returned to darkness. I was chained by a metal cable to my bed. I could do only four small steps. I always dreamt of the fifth one. And no TV, no radio, no newspaper, no one to talk to. I had no towel, no soap, no toilet paper, just two metal buckets open, one for water, for one waste. Can you imagine that mock execution can be a pastime for guards when they are sadistic or when they are just bored or drunk?
Isolation and darkness are particularly difficult to describe. How do you describe nothing? There are no words for the depths of loneliness I reached in that very thin border between sanity and madness. In the darkness, sometimes I played imaginary games of checkers. I would start with the black, play with the white, back to the black trying to trick the other side. I don't play checkers anymore. I was tormented by the thoughts of my family and my colleague, the guard, Edik. I didn't know what had happened to him. While trying not to think, I tried to fill up my time by doing all sorts of physical exercise on the spot. I tried to pray, I tried all sorts of memorization games. But darkness also creates images and thoughts that are not normal. One part of your brain wants you to resist, to shout, to cry, and the other part of the brain orders you to shut up and just go through it. It's a constant internal debate; there is no one to arbitrate.
[...] On one day, one night in that cellar, I don't know what it was, I heard a child crying above my head, a boy, maybe two or three years old. Footsteps, confusion, people running. So when Ruslan came the day after, before he put the first question to me, I asked him, "How is your son today? Is he feeling better?" Ruslan was taken by surprise. He was furious that the guards may have leaked some details about his private life. I kept talking about NGOs supplying medicines to local clinics that may help his son to get better. And we talked about education, we talked about families. He talked to me about his children. I talked to him about my daughters. And then he'd talk about guns, about cars, about women, and I had to talk about guns, about cars, about women. And we talked until the last song on the tape. Ruslan was the most brutal man I ever met. He did not touch me anymore. He did not ask any other questions. I was no longer just a commodity.
Two days after, I was transferred to another place. There, a guard came to me, very close -- it was quite unusual -- and he said with a very soft voice, he said, "I'd like to thank you for the assistance your organization provided my family when we were displaced in nearby Dagestan." What could I possibly reply? It was so painful. It was like a blade in the belly. It took me weeks of internal thinking to try to reconcile the good reasons we had to assist that family and the soldier of fortune he became. He was young, he was shy. I never saw his face. He probably meant well. But in those 15 seconds, he made me question everything we did, all the sacrifices.
He made me think also how they see us. Until then, I had assumed that they know why we are there and what we are doing. One cannot assume this. Well, explaining why we do this is not that easy, even to our closest relatives. We are not perfect, we are not superior, we are not the world's fire brigade, we are not superheroes, we don't stop wars, we know that humanitarian response is not a substitute for political solution. Yet we do this because one life matters. Sometimes that's the only difference you make -- one individual, one family, a small group of individuals -- and it matters. When you have a tsunami, an earthquake or a typhoon, you see teams of rescuers coming from all over the world, searching for survivors for weeks. Why? Nobody questions this. Every life matters, or every life should matter. This is the same for us when we help refugees, people displaced within their country by conflict, or stateless persons,
I know many people, when they are confronted by overwhelming suffering, they feel powerless and they stop there. It's a pity, because there are so many ways people can help. We don't stop with that feeling. We try to do whatever we can to provide some assistance, some protection, some comfort. We have to. We can't do otherwise. It's what makes us feel, I don't know, simply human.
[...] I know I'm very lucky compared to the refugees I work for. I don't know what it is to have seen my whole town destroyed. I don't know what it is to have seen my relatives shot in front of me. I don't know what it is to lose the protection of my country. I also know that I'm very lucky compared to other hostages. Four days before my eventful release, four hostages were beheaded a few miles away from where I was kept in captivity. Why them? Why am I here today? No easy answer.
I was received with a lot of support that I got from my relatives, from colleagues, from friends, from people I didn't know. They have helped me over the years to come out of the darkness. Not everyone was treated with the same attention. How many of my colleagues, after a traumatic incident, took their own life? I can count nine that I knew personally. How many of my colleagues went through a difficult divorce after a traumatic experience because they could not explain anything anymore to their spouse? I've lost that count. There is a price for this type of life.
In Russia, all war monuments have this beautiful inscription at the top. It says, (In Russian) "No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten."
I do not forget my lost colleagues. I cannot forget anything. I call on you to remember their dedication and demand that humanitarian aid workers around the world be better protected. We should not let that light of hope they have brought to be switched off.
After my ordeal, a lot of colleagues asked me, "But why do you continue? Why do you do this sort of job? Why do you have to go back to it?" My answer was very simple: If I had quit, that would have meant my kidnapper had won. They would have taken my soul and my humanity."
Here is a link to the news story of December 12, 1998 from the BBC of Cochetel’s release with the photo of the three Russian commandos who rescued him, holding one up who was injured in the raid. The article has another photo of him in the arms of his wife, who played a big role in bringing her husband home and making sure of a good ending to this story.
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