"The one thing that I came away from Somalia with is a tremendous respect for the people that work for the ICRC..."
Mike Durant talks to the ICRC about his time in captivity in Somalia in 1993 and the role played by the ICRC.
1. You were captured by the Somalis on 3 October and visited by the ICRC on 8 October – what were those first few days deprived of freedom like for you?
Well, I would certainly say they were terrifying, and the Somalis, I think, and a lot of the organizations that take Americans today, are potentially much more violent, much more aggressive and much more anti-American than we have seen in the past. Their life literally hangs by a thread and that was certainly the case for me during that first phase: certainly at the cras h site when emotions are high. It was very, very volatile and very frightening. They were aggressive; they were not compassionate whatsoever; literally treated me like an animal; and tossed me around physically, threatening constantly. There was a period where we did what is referred to as video exploitation, where I was interrogated on camera and that was videotaped and then broadcast around the world on all the major networks. So there were many, many things that clearly, by our standards, violated the Geneva Convention. I was actually shot in captivity on the second day, when I was moved from place to place. No care was taken of my injuries or my physical condition. I was literally thrown into the back of a vehicle and sat on. Those type of things were pretty much the standard for the first period of captivity.
2. Can you describe the meeting with the ICRC delegate and the effect it had on you?
The meeting actually had two effects: one that I anticipated was the emotional impact of being visited by someone who is a neutral third party. They were there trying to help the situation and certainly had your best interest at heart. It is a welcome sight. You know I will never forget the moment that I saw Suzanne walk through the door. I was convinced that she was who she said she was and she was genuinely compassionate and had that human aspect to her that even in itself is tremendously valuable: being able to reach out to somebody who you think you can trust and know is there trying to improve your situation. But the effect I didn't expect was the secondary effect, and that actually occurred before she arrived. The Somalis were trying to put their best foot forward, you might say, and they had cleaned up the room. Up to that point I had been lying on the concrete. They brought a bed in with a mattress, the y gave me some clean clothes to wear. They pulled all the trash out of the room. The overall conditions improved dramatically and I thought it was all for show and that as soon as Suzanne departed it would all go back to the way it was before, but the good news was that they pretty much maintained that standard from that point on, and I'm not sure whether it was in anticipation of a follow-up visit or they just realised that is really the way they ought to be treating me in my condition and those things that were such a welcome sight at the time remained.
3. How important was the fact that you were able to write to your family and colleagues?
Well the one thing you crave more than anything in isolation like that is communication, even if it is only one way. To be able to send a message out to your friends and your comrades and your family is a tremendously uplifting experience and I think it is one of the most valuable aspects of all this: one small bit of communication and, again if it is only one way, which it was at that particular point, but to be able to handwrite messages saying the things you want to say to help the people you care about feel better about your situation is a tremendously uplifting experience and there were things that I think stay within the guidelines of neutrality that you can still put in there to help the organization as well. For example, it helps my unit to know what my injuries are and what my physical condition is. Those kinds of things, so that they can anticipate that for eventual release they can be prepared to help take care of me and service my needs. Another aspect of it is that if there are things that are able to be brought into you while you are in captivity, they can tailor those things to whatever it is your specific needs are. In other words, if they know there are injuries, and antibiotics might help, they can provide those medicines to you in the for m of a care package later on.
4. Did you notice any change in the attitude or behaviour of your captors once the ICRC was involved in your case?
Well certainly, you know, for a comrade who is being held by an enemy, the ideal scenario is to get their location and to get the information about how to liberate them from a military perspective. But it is obvious that if that information were provided, that would prohibit any visits in the future so, I understand the aspect of neutrality and I understand why it has to be maintained and I think it is the right decision to maintain. Otherwise again, I don't believe any captors would ever allow visits in the future, so it is a must-have. I think the one thing that I came away from Somali with is a tremendous respect for the people that worked for the ICRC, the risks that they take, the things that they do for unfortunate individuals like myself who are placed in harm's way. Let's face it, these representatives put themselves in harm's way as well when they go into these locations and deal with these people and I just have a tremendous respect for people like Suzanne and the comrades who are willing to do these things just to make my life a little bit better.
5. What lessons has the ICRC learned from this, to help its work elsewhere?
I think the ICRC is a quality-control mechanism if you will, in that they now are an official body that is holding these captors accountable for what they do and I think once the ICRC is involved that raises it up a level. So prior to that, yes, there is some accountability, but you know, most of the details of what is going on are not known and probably won't be known until released, but by the ICRC becoming involved, that raises that awareness and raises that accountability if you will, for the ca ptors, and I think, in my personal experience caused them to be more aware and be more concerned about how they treated me and the conditions in which I was being kept.
1. How was the visit to Mike Durant organised?
Well on 3 October when there was a lot of fighting in Mogadishu, we immediately heard that some American soldiers had been killed and that one was probably captured. It was very difficult for the expatriates to negotiate directly with the people who were detaining Michael Grant because we suppose he was in an area of Mogadishu that was out of limits for security reasons. So it was mainly our field officers who had contact with different clans in Mogadishu who did the negotiation to allow us to visit Michael Grant and it was possible to visit him on 8 October, in fact five days later.
2. How did the meeting with Mike Durant go?
It was strange. It was organized very quickly with no notice before. Mogadishu at that time was bustling with helicopters and there was alot of shooting. It was extremely tense, so I went with my field officer, not in a ICRC car, in a private car and he even advised me to put on a Somali scarf to hide my hair and to say that nobody could see from outside that there was a western person in the car. Then the visit itself when we arrived at the place where Michael Grant was detained, could be conducted according to the modalities of the ICRC. I could see him without witness during nearly an hour and it was extremely emotional because Michael was not expecting me to walk into his room. He was hurting. He had very serious injuries and he was extremely concerned about his fellow soldiers and about his family and we talked about lots of different things: his condition, how he had felt all these attacks, and that terrible day in Mogadishu. We talked about his family and what was great that even in that situation he kept enough courage to even joke. When I asked him what I could bring him next time I come to visit him, he told me he wanted a plane ticket and on his Red Cross message he wanted to give a hint that he was not doing that bad and he just mentioned that he was dreaming to have a pizza. So all in all it was a very intense visit for him, but for me too and it was a good visit that I remember very well.