TED全球问题:Vincent Cochetel: I was held hostage for 317 days. Here's what I thought about…

I cannot forget them.Their names were Aslan, Alik, Andrei,Fernanda, Fred, Galina, Gunnhild,Hans, Ingeborg, Matti, Natalya,Nancy, Sheryl, Usman, Zarema,and the list is longer.For many, their existence,their humanity,has been reduced to statistics,coldly recorded as "security incidents."

For me, they were colleaguesbelonging to that communityof humanitarian aid workersthat tried to bring a bit of comfortto the victims of the warsin Chechnya in the '90s.They were nurses, logisticians,shelter experts,paralegals, interpreters.And for this service, they were murdered,their families torn apart,and their story largely forgotten.No one was ever sentencedfor these crimes.

I cannot forget them.They live in me somehow,their memories giving memeaning every day.But they are also hauntingthe dark street of my mind.

As humanitarian aid workers,they made the choiceto be at the side of the victim,to provide some assistance,some comfort, some protection,but when they neededprotection themselves,it wasn't there.When you see the headlinesof your newspaper these dayswith 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 becomeso indifferent to these crimes?This is why I am here today with you.We need to find better waysto remember them.We also need to explain the key valuesto which they dedicated their lives.We also need to demand justice.

When in '96 I was sentby the United Nations High Commissionerfor 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 nightof January '98, it was my turn.When I entered my flatin 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 guNPRessed against my neck.When it happens to you,there is no time for thinking,no time for praying.My brain went on automatic,rewinding quicklythe life I'd just left behind.It took me long minutes to figure outthat those masked men therewere not there to kill me,but that someone, somewhere,had ordered my kidnapping.Then a process of dehumanizationstarted 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 yousome 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 executioncan be a pastime for guardswhen they are sadisticor when they are just bored or drunk?We are breaking my nerves very slowly.

Isolation and darknessare particularly difficult to describe.How do you describe nothing?There are no words for the depthsof loneliness I reachedin that very thin borderbetween sanity and madness.In the darkness, sometimesI played imaginary games of checkers.I would start with the black,play with the white,back to the blacktrying to trick the other side.I don't play checkers anymore.I was tormented by the thoughts of myfamily and my colleague, the guard, Edik.I didn't know what had happened to him.I was trying not to think,I tried to fill up my timeby doing all sorts of physicalexercise on the spot.I tried to pray, I tried all sortsof memorization games.But darkness also creates imagesand thoughts that are not normal.One part of your brain wants youto resist, to shout, to cry,and the other part of the brainorders you to shut upand just go through it.It's a constant internal debate;there is no one to arbitrate.

Once a guard came to me,very aggressively, and he told me,"Today you're going to kneeland beg for your food."I wasn't in a good mood,so I insulted him.I insulted his mother,I insulted his ancestors.The consequence was moderate:he threw the food into my waste.The day after he came backwith the same demand.He got the same answer,which had the same consequence.Four days later,the body was full of pain.I didn't know hunger hurt so muchwhen you have so little.So when the guards came down,I knelt.I begged for my food.Submission was the only way for meto make it to another candle.

After my kidnapping,I was transferredfrom North Ossetia to Chechnya,three days of slow travelin the trunks of different cars,and upon arrival, I was interrogatedfor 11 days by a guy called Ruslan.The routine was always the same:a bit more light, 45 minutes.He would come down to the cellar,he would ask the guardsto tie me on the chair,and he would turn on the music loud.And then he would yell questions.He would scream. He would beat me.I'll spare you the details.There are many questionsI could not understand,and there are some questionsI did not want to understand.The length of the interrogationwas the duration of the tape:15 songs, 45 minutes.I would always long for the last song.

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 guardsmay have leaked some detailsabout his private life.I kept talking about NGOssupplying medicines to local clinicsthat 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 untilthe 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 transferredto another place.There, a guard came to me,very close — it was quite unusual —and he said witha very soft voice, he said,"I'd like to thank youfor the assistance your organizatioNPRovided my familywhen we were displacedin 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 thinkingto try to reconcilethe good reasons we hadto assist that familyand 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 assumedthat they know why we are thereand what we are doing.One cannot assume this.Well, explaining why we do thisis 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 nota substitute for political solution.Yet we do this because one life matters.Sometimes that's the onlydifference 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 rescuerscoming 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 uswhen we help refugees,people displaced within their countryby conflict, or stateless persons,

I know many people,when they are confrontedby overwhelming suffering,they feel powerless and they stop there.It's a pity, because there areso many ways people can help.We don't stop with that feeling.We try to do whatever we canto 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.

That's a picture of methe day of my release.Months after my release,I met the then-French prime minister.The second thing he told me:"You were totally irresponsibleto go to the North Caucasus.You don't know how manyproblems you've created for us."It was a short meeting.(Laughter)

I think helping peoplein danger is responsible.In that war, that nobodyseriously wanted to stop,and we have many of these today,bringing some assistance to people in needand a bit of protectionwas not just an act of humanity,it was making a real differencefor the people.Why could he not understand this?We have a responsibility to try.You've heard about that concept:Responsibility to Protect.Outcomes may dependon various parameters.We may even fail,but there is worse than failing —it's not even trying when we can.

Well, if you are met this way,if you sign up for this sort of job,your life is going to be fullof joy and sadness,because there are a lot of peoplewe cannot help,a lot of people we cannot protect,a lot of people we did not save.I call them my ghost,and by having witnessedtheir suffering from close,you take a bit of that suffering on yourself.Many young humanitarian workersgo through their first experiencewith a lot of bitterness.They are thrown into situationswhere they are witness,but they are powerlessto bring any change.They have to learn to accept itand gradually turn thisinto positive energy.It's difficult.Many don't succeed,but for those who do,there is no other job like this.You can see the differenceyou make every day.

Humanitarian aid workersknow the risk they are takingin conflict areas or in post-conflict environments,yet our life, our job, is becoming increasingly life-threatening,and the sanctity of our life is fading.Do you know that since the millennium,the number of attacks on humanitarian aid workers has tripled?2013 broke new records:155 colleagues killed,171 seriously wounded,134 abducted.So many broken lives.Until the beginning of the civil warin Somalia in the late '80s,humanitarian aid workerswere sometimes victimsof what we call collateral damages,but by and large we were notthe target of these attacks.This has changed.Look at this picture.Baghdad, August 2003:24 colleagues were killed.Gone are the days whena U.N. blue flag or a Red Crosswould automatically protect us.

Criminal groups and some political groupshave cross-fertilizedover the last 20 years,and they've created these sort of hybridswith whom we have no way of communicating.Humanitarian principles are tested,questioned, and often ignored,but perhaps more importantly,we have abandoned the search for justice.There seems to beno consequence whatsoeverfor attacks againsthumanitarian aid workers.After my release, I was toldnot to seek any form of justice.It won't do you any good,that's what I was told.Plus, you're going to put in dangerthe life of other colleagues.It took me years to see the sentencing

of three people associated with my kidnapping,but this was the exception.There was no justice for any of the humanitarian aid workerskilled or abducted in Chechnyabetween '95 and '99,and it's the same all over the world.This is unacceptable.This is inexcusable.Attacks on humanitarian aid workersare war crimes in international law.Those crimes should not go unpunished.We must end this cycle of impunity.We must consider that those attacksagainst humanitarian aid workersare attacks against humanity itself.That makes me furious.

I know I'm very luckycompared to the refugees I work for.I don't know what it is to have seenmy whole town destroyed.I don't know what it is to have seenmy relatives shot in front of me.I don't know what it is to losethe protection of my country.I also know that I'm very luckycompared to other hostages.Four days before my eventful release,four hostages were beheadeda few miles away from whereI was kept in captivity.Why them?Why am I here today?No easy answer.

I was received with a lot of supportthat I got from my relatives,from colleagues, from friends,from people I didn't know.They have helped me over the yearsto come out of the darkness.Not everyone was treatedwith 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 colleagueswent through a difficult divorceafter a traumatic experiencebecause they could not explainanything anymore to their spouse?I've lost that count.There is a price for this type of life.

In Russia, all war monuments havethis 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 dedicationand demand that humanitarianaid workers around the worldbe better protected.We should not let that light of hopethey have brought to be switched off.

After my ordeal, a lot of colleaguesasked 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 meantmy kidnapper had won.They would have taken my souland my humanity.

Thank you.


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