How some hostages survived ordeal

"You know, you slowly discover that life as a hostage is best lived from day to day," said American Michael Howland from captivity last spring. "February was a particularly rough time for me, personally," he said evenly, almost as if telling someone else's horror story. "But I've gradually gotten used to the fact that we are going to be held for a long time.

"I think they'll try to put at least some of us on trial. . . . They'll hold us until the cost just gets too high."

During my various phone conversations with hostage Michael Howland, his frustration and anger came out only rarely, in spurts. Mostly, he spoke of what it was like to be a prisoner.

He once asked me to phone an Iranian friend with assurances that "I am fine." He requested tennis shoes (size 9 1/2) in case he got to walk in the garden. And mostly he asked whether "the others" were OK.

Sergeant Howland, a security officer, was one of the more fortunate hostages -- held with two other top US Embassy officials for most of their ordeal under Iranian government "protection" at the Tehran Foreign Ministry.

The other two were L. Bruce Laingen, who as charge d'affaires was the senior US diplomat in Iran, and Victor L. Tomseth, a political officer. Early this month all three reportedly were moved from the Foreign Ministry and joined some of the other 49 hostages where they were being held. The "others" were policed by the young Iranian militants who originally stormed the US mission in November 1979.

EVen the three Foreign Ministry hostages were none too well cared for. The food was "mostly rice, and mostly cold." Life was "stuffy . . . boring." And the privileges that set the "Foreign Ministry three" apart from the rest of the American hostages were bestowed and revoked in keeping with the wider United States-Iran crisis.

In February, Canada disclosed it had been harboring a half-dozen Americans who eluded capture when the US Embassy was stormed. The Americans had just been spirited out of Iran.

"They cut our exercise privileges after that," Sergeant Howland recounted.

Later, the exercise time was restored. Then President Carter imposed sanctions on Iran. "The privileges were cut again."

At one point, hostage Howland recalled, the three ministry captives went roughly two months without contact with the outside world.

Finally, in the spring of last year, conditions seemed gradually to ease. "For the first time in six months, they let us walk in the garden" of the ornate , imperial-era ministry, Sergeant Howland said with almost palpable relief. He asked for the tennis shoes "to walk in."

Days later, US forces mounted an abortive bid to free the hostages.Conditions , presumably, got worse again.

The ministry hostages' major blessing -- at least irregular contact with the outside -- seemed a mixed one.

Sergeant Howland and his colleagues watched the Iranian television news and read Iranian newspapers. Victor Tomseth, a Persian speaker, translated. They would anxiously check off lists of the embassy captives when the Iranians ran film snips of them. And the ministry captives followed the roller-coaster progress of US negotiating efforts with Iran through the International Herald Tribune -- a newspaper published by the New York Times and the Washington Post in Europe -- or on short-wave radio.

"It is impossible to keep your spirits from rising when there is apparent progress" in moves to free the hostages, Sergeant Howland explained. "And it's impossible to keep from feeling disappointed and anxious at the bad news."

It seemed equally impossible to keep from wondering and worrying about the other captives. Reports gathered by this and other correspondents in Tehran at the time suggested that Sergeant Howland and his two fellow captives at the ministry had ample cause for concern.

Confinement for the embassy captives was, at first, in dark and windowless rooms. Even though conditions appeared generally to get better, the hostages were reliably reported as late as last April to be limited to a single shower and 25 minutes of fresh air per week.

At least a few were being held in what amounted to solitary confinement. One , according to reports deemed believable by most Tehran diplomats, had attempted suicide.

"We kept saying [to the captives], 'When you get out, . . .'" reported one of the American clergymen allowed into the captive embassy last Easter. "But we kept hearing the words: 'If I get out. . . .'"

Such details, usually picked up by foreign broadcasts, had a way of getting through to the Foreign ministry captives.

Iranian television, meanwhile, broadcast what was billed as a "spy confession" by one of the youngest embassy captives: STaff Sgt. Joseph Subic.

The ministry hostages saw it all. Typically, there was only a fleeting note of anger in Sergeant Howland's reaction.

Sergeant Subic "served himself," he said.

"I really feel for the kid, though. I feel he didn't know what he was talking about. . . . He is just a kid."

Of free-lance American "mediators" -- particularly a trio of Midwestern clerics who visited the embassy at Easter and emerged with at least qualified sympathy for the captors -- Sergeant Howland seemed distinctly less forgiving:

"I was hoping they would come see us, too," he snapped.

"I was going to tell them where to go. . . .

"Their statements gave the Iranians hope they can turn American public opinion in their favor."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How some hostages survived ordeal
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today