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First person: He was held hostage for 444 days

Barry Rosen, 77, a former US diplomat who was one of the 52 hostages held in Iran during 444 days from 1979 to 1981, speaks to AFP journalists outside the Coburg palace in Vienna , Austria, on January 14, 2022. - When Rosen, one of the 52 hostages in the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, traveled to Vienna to demand the release of prisoners in Iran, he had no idea of the impact of his initiative. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Barry Rosen, 77, a former US diplomat who was one of the 52 hostages held in Iran during 444 days from 1979 to 1981, speaks to AFP journalists outside the Coburg palace in Vienna , Austria, on January 14, 2022. - When Rosen, one of the 52 hostages in the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, traveled to Vienna to demand the release of prisoners in Iran, he had no idea of the impact of his initiative. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Listen: The plight of the hostages in Gaza.

Barry Rosen says he can understand in some way what the hostages in Gaza are going through. Rosen was press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 when he was taken hostage and held, along with 51 others, until January 1981.

Guest

Barry Rosen, one of 52 Americans who was taken hostage for 444 days at the U.S. embassy in Iran from 1979 to 1981.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On November 4th, 1979, when students in the line of the Imam, a young Iranian militant group invaded the U. S. Embassy in Tehran. They took 52 Americans hostage, and network news covered the crisis every single night for 444 days.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: From ABC in New York, this is World News Tonight. Sunday with Sam Donaldson.

SAM DONALDSON: Good evening. The U. S. Embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students. The Americans inside have been taken prisoner.

BARRY ROSEN: My name’s Barry Rosen. I was the U.S. Press attaché at the embassy.

DONALDSON: Some reports say as many as 90 Americans may be involved, others say as few as 35.

ROSEN: And my office was overtaken almost immediately. The doors were blown open. About 15 to 20 young thugs came through. They tied me up and I said, “Can you just gimme one second? I want to say goodbye to the people in my office.” I turned around and my staff and I, we looked at each other and I said, “Khuda Haafiz, goodbye.”

And they blindfolded me and marched me out of my office.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: This morning, for the first time since the hostages were put under lock and key, one of the captives blindfolded was brought out into the open.

This is Barry Rosen, the Embassy’s Press Attaché. He was turned to face reporters and cameramen and several hundred Iranian demonstrators outside the embassy’s gates.

Yankee, go home, they cried.

ROSEN: I was punched in the stomach, knocked down. And for that evening, I slept with the cords of the curtains tying my feet and my hands.

One thing occurred that was very important, and it was a message from Ayatollah Khomeini on the radio. One of the hostage takers were listening to it. Ayatollah Khomeini commended the students for taking over the embassy. Once that happened, more than anything else, determined the fact that I and my colleagues were going to stay there for a long time.

(TRANSLATION) In the name of God, the most merciful and gracious. The 35 million population of Iran want this, the Shah returned. And unless he is returned, the hostages will not be freed.

ROSEN: I was frightened. He opened up cans of okra and force fed us okra. Between two or four of us were held in these, I call them cells. In each of these cells, there was a guard. And the guard commanded that we could not speak to each other, even though we were in the same cell together.

Days were very long. And we heard, it seemed like the entire city of Tehran, screaming. “Marg bar Amreeka.”  Death to America. Death to America. Front of the embassy chanting day in and day out.

I would say in December of 1979, I was put into a van and driven to the very opulent place. The floor was marble. Then, the next morning, there was a knocking on the door. And I was told that I had to sign a statement that I was a spy and plotter against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The next morning, he came back with somebody with an automatic weapon in his hand, and I was marched downstairs, and they ripped off my blindfold.

I was marching past a gauntlet of guards dressed in black, with weapons in their hands and straight ahead there was a desk, young man sitting in a chair at the desk. And he said to me, “If you don’t sign, we will shoot you.” And he said, “I’m going to give you 10 seconds to make a decision.”

And I eventually put my signature to the confession that I was a spy.

That was very demeaning, and I was, any ideas I had were thrown out the window. And so I was marched upstairs back into that room, and I lied there for a while, and there I saw a bunch of red ants on the floor and started to play with them and then fell asleep.

There’s also one major incident, and this is not really public and never has really been public. But it’s 44 years and I think it should be. And that is one of our colleagues was telling his guard who was in each cell, the positions that we held. To a large degree, we were getting held hostage by one of our own people, too, in a certain sense.

Because he outed all of us. This came out through little messages that we would leave in one of the corners of the bathroom. And many of us, later on, swore to each other we were going to kill him. But, of course, that didn’t happen. The idea of turning on all of us, is something that still disgusts me.

But the United States government did nothing about it. I think the reason why it never really got out into the public arena was because I think we came back, quote-unquote, as heroes. And I don’t think the American public wanted to hear that we were not, quote, all heroes.

NEWS ANNOUNCER #1: Now, day one of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And day one of freedom for 52 Americans.

The new president had not been in office an hour, when the former hostages became free men and women again.

ANNOUNCER #2: Just looking at them, they appear to have momentarily, at least, lost complete touch with reality. I’m quite sure they cannot conceive that they are free now.

Their faces are blank, their eyes are glazed. It’s a stunning emotional experience.

ROSEN: These people who are being held in Gaza are my brothers and sisters in many ways. Captivity has actually been part of my genetic makeup now for the last 44 years. That’s why I think you have to be hopeful.

That is most important in your mind, to be as hopeful as you possibly can be, and try to meditate on that, and the idea that you will one day see your family, your loved ones again. Continue with that in mind. It’s too important to let go.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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