At last men came to set me free;
I ask’d not why, and reck’d not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fettered or fetterless to be,
I learn’d to love despair.
– Lord Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon, 1816
Over the last 69 days, we learned some of their names, sympathised with their families and observed life 3,000-feet below ground. When the first man, Florencio Avalos, reached the surface yesterday morning, he may have become the first copper miner in Chile’s history to meet its President. It’s not easy to be trapped in the earth’s depths, and it may not be that easy to come out either.
If yesterday’s rescue transfixed the world, the men’s long ordeal and their homecoming evokes particular feelings in those of us who have experienced something similar. The circumstances of my 1987 captivity in Lebanon were of course different, but aspects resonate. Neither they nor I knew, once we were thrust into a confinement we did not choose, if we would ever come out alive. Our movement was restricted, mine by chains and sealed doors, their’s by stifling and cramped space at the bottom of the shaft. They were underground for 69 days, and I was in a cell for 62. Our ability to communicate with others, however, was not the same. They had one another and could speak to the world above.
I was alone and had rare conversations, not with the outside world, only with Hezbollah interrogators. Their families knew they were alive, even as they feared that death might eventually find them. My family knew nothing, and one of my guards told me the group had announced it had executed me. I had no way then to know that he was lying.
Lives being in jeopardy in both our cases affected people we had never met in ways that our deaths or our sudden illnesses would not. An endangered life with a slim chance of survival touches something in most people, perhaps a memory of being lost or abandoned in childhood, perhaps the fear that it could happen to them and certainly the hope that rescue will come. The press took an interest in my story, as it did that of the other foreign hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, and likewise, it despatched armies of reporters to Chile to cover the miners this year. Its interest was a reflection of the public’s.
But public curiosity does not end when a hostage is free or a miner comes home. There will be much prying into these men’s lives and much speculation about their psychological well-being. I was not the only ex-hostage offered lucrative film and book deals, and apparently Chilean public relations fixers have already been in touch with the miners’ families. I hope the men make enough money telling their stories that they won’t have to risk their lives again.
The invasion of their privacy will nonetheless be unwelcome, however grateful the families are to the media for denying the mining company and Chile’s leaders an excuse to delay the rescue. Chile is not a country that attracts much coverage. (“Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead” may be an apocryphal headline, but it is as believable now as when Claud Cockburn coined it 70 years ago.) That may be why no one paid much attention when 63-year-old Mario Gomez, the oldest man in the mine, said the Empresa Minera San Esteban mining company “has got to modernise”.
The Chilean government, the miners’ employers and the world at large did not do enough to make sure that the mines were safe. And they probably won’t in the future. Digging into the earth in ways that guards against accidents can be expensive. The world wants cheap copper, the companies want profit and the government wants taxes.
The Middle East was like that when I, with so many of my compatriots (I am both American and British, and together we were the majority of captives at the time), languished in dungeons ignorant of the concern we had aroused on the outside. The public took us to their hearts, although we didn’t learn this until we came out. Groups, we discovered later, had formed in the US that passed out bracelets with our names on them, and the campaign in Britain to free John McCarthy and Brian Keenan put up posters everywhere so that the government would not be allowed to ignore them. But the underlying cause of our captivity, just like the real reason the mine caved in on those brave men in Chile, was not mentioned. It is still not being dealt with.
Since the days when Terry Waite and American journalist Terry Anderson were known to all, many other Westerners have been kidnapped in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Those of us who have done our time with the kidnappers know that it will go on until the US with Britain dutifully in tow declines to invade the region and as long as the western world supports Israeli colonisation of the West Bank. It is as simple as that.
And more miners will die in Chile, in South Africa, in Russia, China and in the US, where the Obama administration has reduced the fines on coal mining firms for breaching safety regulations. The world cares about workers when they are stuck at the bottom of the shaft, but not when they venture into subterranean depths every morning before the sun rises, work there until their hands bleed and come up with dust-coated lungs.
We care about trapped miners and innocent hostages enough to watch them on television, shed a tear when their fate is uncertain and share the elation when they come out alive. We turn away when the captivity, whether in a kidnapper’s lair or an underground tunnel, ends in death. We soon forget that it never had to happen.