Former Iran hostage captures audience’s attention

Alexis M. Johnson, Staff Writer

Cortlandt Barnes was once in the Navy, then a CIA employee. He is now retired and works as a U.S. government consultant. Thirty years ago, he was unsure of whether he would live to see the next day. In 1979, he was one of the hostages in the Iran hostage crisis.

Barnes spoke to FMU students, professors and other attendees about his experience on Thursday, Oct. 14.

The event, co-sponsored by the McNair Center for Government and History and Phi Alpha Theta, was proposed because of the 30th anniversary of the crisis.

“We’re in the middle right now of the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis,” Scott Kaufman, associate professor of history, said. “And I figured this being a very important historical event, and in some ways a watershed, not just have the McNair Center sponsor it, but have the history honor society take part because we’re talking about a historical event.”

Kaufman opened the presentation with an historical background leading up the crisis.

The crisis occurred at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and was sparked when President Carter allowed the Shah of Iran to receive cancer treatment in the U.S., an event highly unfavorable to the Ayatollah Khomeini because of hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran.

Barnes opened the presentation by focusing on the day he arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the same day the shah was allowed to receive treatment. He then discussed, nearly hour-by-hour, how the hostages were required to destroy documents and equipment that could tip the U.S. government off.

He went into detail about how, over the course of several weeks and months, he was blindfolded, handcuffed, had bags placed over his head, moved to several different locations and not allowed to talk to anyone except for guards.

Barnes provided an account of being held at gunpoint after the first terrorist raid in the middle of February 1980, in which the Iranians were searching for contraband.

Barnes then discussed several moves from the embassy building after the second raid in the middle of March 1980, when he was allowed for the first time to speak to others.

He discussed the final move from the Komiteh Prison in July, to what he believed to be the summer residence of the shah in northern Tehran in December, where living conditions improved.

Barnes ended by talking about the rescue of the 52 remaining hostages in 1981 by Algerians. They were flown from Mehrabad International Airport to Algiers where $7.95 billion worth of frozen assets were released to the Iranians. Within days, they were flown to Germany, to West Point and finally to Washington, D.C.

Barnes provided stories about how he kept his sanity and prevented boredom by reading books. He read at least one book a day, including an international Time magazine the hostages received – with 17 pages censored. He also discussed playing card games with some of his roommates.
Barnes shared the amusing names that he and other hostages gave to the captors including “Ahmed the Bald,” “Hamid the Mailman” and “Abbas with Buckteeth.”

Barnes ended his presentation with a question/answer session which included addressing the speculation that the current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was one of the hostage takers.

While he claims it is highly possible, Barnes was unable to fully answer due to his inability to identify a picture of Ahmadinejad from the time of the crisis to the time he was asked by the government to identify him, nearly 25 years later. Security reasons also hindered his ability.

Kaufman believed that, as a result of Barnes’ story, students would get a sense of what current hostages in Iran are dealing with.

“Right know we have at least two Americans being held in custody in Iran because they were accused of being spies,” Kaufman said. “This will give a sense of what it’s like to be held in captivity, to be held against your will by a government that sees you as the enemy.”

According to students, Barnes’ presentation succeeded in doing this.

“It put more perspective on what our troops our dealing with now, and brings it closer to home,” sophomore Nancy Reading said.

Other students also felt that the presentation provided a unique perspective that would be difficult, if not impossible, to receive elsewhere.

“It was really interesting to see exactly what happened, how he dealt with situations, and how they were treated and how the U.S. was involved,” sophomore Will Thigpen said.

Perhaps the part that captivated individuals the most was hearing the firsthand account of not only an historical event, but one that many individuals could not imagine experiencing.

“What is it like to be in that kind of situation where you don’t know what might happen to you tomorrow and you’re dealing with it for over a year?” Kaufman said. “That, I think, is going to really hit home.”