Former American Hostage in Iran Looks Back to the First Day of 444 Days of Captivity

Mr. Barry Rosen joined BBC Radio’s new feature show “Witness,” to take a look back at a hostage-taking event that changed the U.S. political landscape and the implications for modern Iran.

While The New York Times reported today that police officers in Tehran fired tear gas and wielded batons, clashing with anti-government demonstrators who sought to turn a rally commemorating the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the American Embassy into a renewed protest against the disputed June 30 election, Mr. Rosen spoke to the BBC about the ordeal he shared with 51 other Americans three decades ago.

Rosen recalls the first day of captivity
Rosen said, “November 4, 1979 started out as a dreary rainy day in Tehran. There were marches going on all the time against the U.S. embassy but on that day, at 10 a.m., I heard noises in the street, which in the Persian language sounded like ‘Death to America.’ I looked out my window and a group of hard-line students were climbing over the embassy walls and before I knew it, they were trying to pound on my door. I had no idea what my next move would be and everything was going on so quickly as more of these young men with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini pinned to their chests kept swarming all over the embassy.”

The students, according to Rosen, demanded that the Shah of Iran, who was being treated for cancer in a New York hospital, be returned to Iran to stand trial. But inside the embassy they rounded up the American and Iranian staff.

“They tied up my hands and blindfolded me and they brought me and the rest of my staff over to the embassy library where they started to question me about my role in the embassy in front of my staff. All the Iranian staffers were crying and the militants pulled out guns.

I said ‘Wait, let these people go and do what you want with me, but let them go.’ A lot of adrenaline was running through my veins and I just don’t know why I was saying these things. After some negotiations they freed every one of them. Those were the most touching moments—everyone was crying and kissing each other and I said goodbye and I meant goodbye. I really meant this was the end.”

BBC asks Rosen, “you must have been terrified”
Rosen answered, “There is no word for it. Your entire body tingles and you conjure up every possible moment of your life and possibly things that you could have done. There is no term that can be used to describe that moment.”

The worst part of the 444 day ordeal
Rosen told the BBC, “The worst part of my ordeal was that there was no end in sight. There was just a certain sense of agony and I think somewhere in my brain I gave up and couldn’t sleep. My entire nervous system shut down. Every time I tried to sleep, something would wake me up saying, ‘stay alert, stay alert,’ and in retrospect I always look back and realize that it was my brain saying to me ‘you are going to die, but if you stay awake, they can’t kill you.’”

Coping mechanisms
Rosen spoke about how he dealt with lengthy imprisonment, and to him, the unendurable agony of the captivity.

“To be perfectly truthful,” he said, “I would have liked to kill myself and there were some of my colleagues who tried to bang their heads against cement walls or even cut their wrists. I wanted to die every day. I woke up and as the sun rose, I said, ‘Oh no, another day here.’ I can remember that a little spot of light came into this dark cell and it moved from the top of the ceiling all the way to the bottom. It took about two hours to watch this spot move. It sounds silly but you had to take whatever you could get.”

Editor’s Note: The BMCC Office of Public Affairs thanks the BBC and its special program “Witness” for permission to use the audio interview from which this article is excerpted.