From the Field: Chained to a tree for three months – A peacekeeper’s ordeal in Darfur
17 August 2011 – When Istvan Papp awoke on the morning of 7 October last year, he had no way of knowing that he would spend most of the next three months waking up under the open sky, surrounded by camels and chained to a tree near Sudan’s border with Chad.
On that Thursday, the UN civilian peacekeeper had gone about his work with the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) – where he oversaw its programme for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants – and returned in the evening to the house he shared with four colleagues in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state in Sudan.
As he had on previous nights over the past year and a half, Mr. Papp was about to head to the house’s roof-top from where he would call his family in Hungary, when everything changed.
“I was in the corridor, just in front of my room when I saw someone standing in the hall with a machine gun and shouting at us, having all of us go into one room and they tied us up there,” Mr. Papp said.
An unknown number of armed men had broken in to the residence.
The 55-year-old was no stranger to the dangers of serving in remote locations. Throughout his 31 years of service with the Hungarian armed forces, as well as after his retirement in 2005, he served in various peacekeeping operations – both UN and non-UN – in Iraq, Iran, the Sinai peninsula, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Nepal, and also spent several years as a desk officer with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at UN Headquarters in New York.
To some degree, his training had prepared him for what was happening. But, looking back on his ordeal some months after it ended, Mr. Papp was keen to stress that despite the training, nothing quite prepares one in such circumstances.
“It’s like a fairy tale, it cannot be. It’s like a joke: ‘What’s going on?!’ You don’t believe it’s happening to you. You don’t really realize what’s up,” he said.
The butt of a machine gun being slammed into his kidneys helped him realize just how serious his situation was that windy Thursday night.
Along with a Serbian housemate, he was taken at gunpoint to a UN vehicle parked outside the house. With one of their abductors at the wheel and others in passenger seats, they drove off. Taking advantage of a momentary distraction, Mr. Papp’s housemate managed to escape from the unlocked vehicle. It was a different story for Mr. Papp, bound in the back of the 4WD.
“In one way, I was happy that he left because at least he could raise the alarm. He could do something that could also help me,” Mr. Papp said. “But I was tied up, I was thrown in the back of the vehicle. I had no chance…”
Of the other house-mates, two were taken in another vehicle but, being accompanied by fewer abductors, they managed to escape. The fifth house-mate had escaped detection during the break-in.
The UN vehicle carrying Mr. Papp was abandoned in El Fasher. He was transferred to another two vehicles – with the last transfer site near the UNAMID compound – before finally speeding off into the night, towards the border with Chad, around 400 kilometres from El Fasher.
It was on that long drive, as the shock of what had happened wore off, that the gravity of Mr. Papp’s current circumstances sank in.
“You don’t really think, in the first hours, about what is happening. You just obey and you do what you are told. I had read the UN brochure on how to behave during abductions and all that… you recall slowly that you better wait – they haven’t killed you and that’s a good sign,” Mr. Papp said.
This was further confirmed when, a day or two after his abduction, his kidnappers organized a satellite telephone call to Radio Dabanga – an independent, Netherlands-based radio outlet covering events in Darfur – which was Mr. Papp’s first opportunity to give proof of life, the term used to indicate that a kidnap victim is still alive.
“That’s when you also hear, for the first time, that they want a ransom. So it means they will feed you, they will provide you with security and all that,” he said. “They told me that my job was to stay healthy, they will provide security, they will feed me, provide me water and everything, plus they will do the negotiations, because that’s their business.”
The kidnappers were demanding a ransom of $1 million – however, the UN policy is to not pay ransoms and the responsibility for UN staff security in a peacekeeping area of operations lies primarily in the hands of the local authorities.
Initially, Mr. Papp had some degree of personal freedom – but that was not to last.
“For the first 10 days, I was considered to be an old man, and they appreciated that, so I was not chained. I was guarded, but I had a kind of freedom of movement, I could go to the toilet…,” Mr. Papp said. “But after 10 days, when they learned from me that I was former military – I mean, you have to tell them these things, they would get to know of it, so it is better if I tell them – they decided to chain me during the night and after two or three days they decided throughout the day also, so 24 hours a day.”
The chain became a regular and central part of the peacekeeper’s daily existence, along with a herd of camels and various trees.
“We moved from one place to the other every two or three days. Whenever we moved, first they went to look for a tree for me,” Mr. Papp said. “When they found an appropriate tree, providing shade for the day, they put one end of the chain to the tree, the other end to either my left or right leg.”
Despite the conditions he now found himself in, there was some thoughtfulness which Mr. Papp could appreciate.
“I always had the choice of which leg I would like to be chained,” he said. “During the day, as the sun was going around, I had to change my place. The chain was about three-metres long, with 96 links it. It gave me freedom of movement, just enough to move as the shade moved.”
Given the sudden narrowness of his future prospects, such considerations took on even more weight for Mr. Papp given the unlikelihood of a speedy end to his abduction.
“Knowing the area that I was held in and knowing the people, their number and also the kind of weapons they had, I was sure that no successful rescue operation could be conducted. These people were in an area which was out of bounds for the Government and for the police…,” Mr. Papp said. “They were at home, nobody could enter the area without their prior knowledge. They had very good recce, or intelligence. They knew of any movement in the neighbourhood. Interestingly, later on they always stayed with the herd of camels. During the night they were sleeping like anyone else because the camels were the natural guards. You cannot fool them. If anybody wanted to get near us, they alerted, they made noise.”
Using a mixture of broken French, English, Arabic and body language, Mr. Papp’s abductors conveyed to him that his abduction was purely a business matter and that he would not be mistreated. He was provided with a small carpet and a blanket to sleep with.
“When it was very cold, after two weeks or so, they gave me a second one because I was shivering. I ate the same, I drank the same, I felt the same cold as my captors,” the peacekeeper said. “They used to tell me that we are on the same team: ‘our interests are the same’ – basically, they were right.”
Mr. Papp had been wearing jeans, a short-sleeve shirt and sandals when he was taken. His clothing was exchanged for a jelabiya – a traditional Arab robe worn locally – while his sandals, which wore out after three weeks of constant shifting to new locations, were replaced with sneakers.
“It’s not always as grave as one may think,” he said. “They asked me what’s my shoe size, I said, ‘42-43, in between.’ You won’t imagine what they did: they bought the left one, size 43, and the right one, size 42… It was funny.”
But the laughter was tempered. Over time, Mr. Papp’s own mood became dependent on that of his captors.
“Your mood changes with their mood. If their discussions with the UN or the Government of Sudan were getting better – that there was a chance of something happening – then they were in a better mood and they were smiling and all that, and my mood was also better because there was hope,” he said. “When they were shouting with each other or quarrelling, then I also had the feeling that something was wrong, so my mood was also down.”
While efforts to free him were under way far from the blazing sun of the Sudan-Chad border, daily life centred on waiting – and finding ways to fill one’s time while chained to a tree.
“We woke up at five, with one or two of them preparing the fireplace, preparing for the morning prayer. Around six o’clock, after they had their prayer, they prepared tea and came to my spot with some. By that time I was up, it was still cold, so I just took the glass of tea under my blankets and drank it. When the sun was up, I had my first chance to walk to the toilet, so I took that opportunity. I returned, set up my place and tidied it and then at around 10 o’clock I got breakfast,” Mr. Papp said.
“The main meal was at around three o’clock in the afternoon. I always saved half of my meal for dinner, because I’m used to having three meals… Then, when evening came, I got tea again and I went to bed. That was the daily routine. But every time you had to find something to pass your time. You are just lying down and it’s not good when you start thinking – it’s really not good.
“You have to do something physical that takes up your energy, so one way was to make my spot more comfortable, removing the stones from underneath my carpet. I tried to replace them with gravel to make it softer… When we stayed somewhere for two or three days, it was worth the investment to make a wall. Most of the time we were staying in temporary river beds, so I built a small wall, 50 to 60 centimetres high, to block the wind passing through but also to give me extra privacy. Then I was looking for small stones, if I found some that resembled an animal or something, I made a small collection. I found small pieces of wood or dried grass, I placed them parallel to each other, making towers, seeing how high I can make them. Then insects; I found grasshoppers, ants, and I played with them. You can’t imagine how one can think of minor things to pass your time.”
But the lighter moments and constant effort to keep occupied were only temporary distractions from the reality of his predicament, especially after the first 40 to 50 days, when Mr. Papp’s kidnappers ended the regular proof of life calls.
“Before that, every second day I could talk to the UN, I could tell them I am fine. They asked if I’m healthy, if I’m eating. The UN was calling them so it was no expense to the abductors; it was quite regular. As time passed, they were getting a bit upset that nothing was happening, so one way to put pressure was to cut all communication with me. They kept on saying, ‘Istvan is here, Istvan is fine, but he will be able to talk to you only if you give us something substantive and not only ask about Istvan’s health, and is he eating or drinking,’ – they were looking for something else,” Mr. Papp said.
All the while, he was conscious of the effects of the kidnapping on his family, friends and colleagues.
“I would say this uncertainty hurt them and the UN and the others more because I knew what was happening to me, and I knew that my family is OK, and I also knew that I’m OK – which the others didn’t know. The worst was the last 40 days, when they cut off all communication with me… I wasn’t allowed to give a sign of life.”
And as hard as he tried to keep his focus on his immediate predicament, Mr. Papp’s thoughts constantly returned to his family.
“No roof, open sky, it’s not that bad – my former military life helped me survive that,” Mr. Papp said. “But, you know, when you are lying on your back and you see the stars in the sky and also the planes flying by, and you think that people sitting on the planes, they have their families, they are going home. Then your memory and your imagination start working…”
While the relatively benign treatment from his kidnappers was welcome, not knowing if or when he would ever be released weighed on him.
“They didn’t hurt me – but of course, you have a kind of mental pressure because of the uncertainty. That’s really the hardest, when you don’t know how long you will stay and you don’t know where the discussions are, at which stage – you only know that one day after the other not much is happening,” Mr. Papp said. “They are trying to calm you down by telling you that ‘Istvan, in sha’allah they will pay, you will be free, tomorrow, day after tomorrow…’ which never came. They said at the beginning that if nobody is going to pay for you, we will release you after 30 days. Thirty days came, then they said 60 days. After 60 days I didn’t care about whatever they said. But my release was sudden. I didn’t really expect anything to happen and then…”
In early January, three months after he was abducted, Mr. Papp’s captors indicated he would be taken to a hill-top, not far from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he would be handed over to representatives of the Sudanese Government. After hours of driving to the hand-over point, he was shepherded into a helicopter bound for El Fasher – and asked what size pants he wore.
“I wasn’t really sure of my safe release until I arrived in El Fasher because when I arrived at this hilltop – you don’t know whether it’s a set-up or whatever… when the helicopter landed me in El Fasher, I saw the [UNAMID] Deputy Joint Special Representative, Mr. [Mohamed] Yonis, the chief medical doctor and two or three friends from the UN and also the wali [governor] was there and some of the military and other friends, also from the Sudanese side, and then I realized that I’m OK – I’m safe,” the peacekeeper said.
Changing into government-provided clean clothes on the helicopter’s arrival in El Fasher and after a brief encounter with the media, UNAMID staffers took Mr. Papp away for an initial medical check-up and de-briefing. He then boarded a government-organized flight to Khartoum, where – after another encounter with the media – he met Sudan’s Vice-President, Ali Osman Taha, before being taken to a hospital for a full medical check-up. That night was spent in a hotel in Khartoum and the following day, 6 January, the Hungarian Ambassador to Egypt and Sudan accompanied him on a flight to Cairo, from where he travelled, along with an escort from the Hungarian Government, to Budapest.
“I was crying, I have to admit. I’m a military fellow, but I had tears in my eyes when I stepped on Hungarian soil,” he said. “And I did the same thing that I did in El Fasher and in Khartoum: I touched the ground with my forehead. ‘That’s the motherland, I am home.’ That was really the point when I knew I am back at home, I am free.”
Whisked to a location away from the airport, Mr. Papp was reunited with his family – his wife and two children – before being brought before waiting journalists. The media awaiting Mr. Papp were a preview of what he could expect in coming days as news of his release spread.
“Not too many Hungarians have been abducted, so it was something new… and what I learned the day after, when I was at home and I went to a shopping centre, meeting with people, was that the media throughout the three months had kept the public very much up-to-date. They had been releasing information on me, people did recognize me and I could feel that my case was something that united Hungarians, which is not so easy to do,” he said.
Instead of shunning the media attention as an intrusion, Mr. Papp took it in his stride, even seeing how it could help his own recovery.
“First, this is something that you cannot avoid. Regarding the media, it is better to talk to them than to close your door and shut your mouth. That’s even worse. The second thing is the psychological effect. The best way to cure yourself is to talk it out. Even if you have to repeat it 10, 15, 20 times, with the same words or different words, the story is the same basically, but talk it out. Don’t keep it inside. The media helped a lot,” Mr. Papp said.
Having been the first UN disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration officer on the ground in Darfur, coupled with his desire to stay active following his retirement from the Hungarian Armed Forces, Mr. Papp was keen to return to his work there but was unable to do so due to security considerations.
After some rest, he was deployed earlier this year to another peacekeeping operation, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). He said returning to the field did not pose any problem for him, especially knowing that while he was bound to a tree in Darfur, his plight was not forgotten – a fact driven home during his visit to UN Headquarters in New York in early March.
“You know, you don’t think these high-ranking guys would like to see you or anything. Yes, I was sure that they knew from daily reports that something had happened… but it was really coming from the heart that the Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Safety and Security, the Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and then the Secretary-General spared time to see me and my wife – and it’s not a one-minute courtesy thing just to shake hands, I could see from small things that they did get prepared to meet me, like they pronounced my name properly, they knew my background,” Mr. Papp said.
Some of their questions were similar to the questions he has been fielding since his release, and Mr. Papp expects the questions to continue.
“The question that is put to me most of the time is ‘How do you feel to be a hero?’ Well, I’m not. I’m not a hero. I’m a peacekeeper who was lucky enough to have had a good negotiating team both in the UN, reinforced by a small Hungarian team, and with the Sudanese, and who was freed,” Mr. Papp said. “My job was only to have some stamina and, as I always used to say, a love of life. That was my job: to stay alive. And the rest was, thank God, done by the others. It’s not so easy to stay alive – but it’s also not easy to die just like that.”