The holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy family and friends, rejoice in the season, savour fine foods, celebrate good health, and cherish our freedom–because, sadly, many people do not have their freedom.
Hostages across the globe will remain incommunicado from their loved ones at this special time of year, which is incredibly sad. Still, we must always hold out hope, as there have been many heartwarming moments of hostages coming home in time to celebrate the season with their families.
One of the most significant hostage releases in recent history took place on Dec 6, 1990 in Iran. During the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had captured over seven hundred Americans and a large number of British citizens, using them as bargaining chips–or some might say human shields–in an attempt to prevent the coalition forces from carving apart his military with surgical precision. In August of 1990, a mere week after invading Kuwait, Hussein announced that all foreigners inside Iraq were to be detained and considered hostages against what he called “the increasing threat of western aggression.”
While many people tried to hide or found shelter in various embassies, thousands were captured and held hostage by his regime. When the coalition started operation Desert Shield, Iraq steadfastly refused to negotiate through normal channels. Several episodes of “celebrity diplomacy” occurred when both Jessie Jackson and Mohammed Ali conducted short visits to Iraq that helped gain the release of a small number of hostages. Shortly after Ali’s successful visit, Iraq released the remainder of the foreign hostages so that they could be home in time for Christmas. Although Saddam’s exact motives remain unclear, it appears that this goodwill gesture was an attempt to forestall the impending Desert Storm.
Unfortunately, the use of hostages as part of international diplomacy and battlefield tactics has a long, torrid history. From classical times forward, various monarchs, lords, and emperors would exchange relatives as collateral to ensure adherence to peace treaties, alliances, and other political agreements. The status of the hostage, or closeness of the relationship of the hostage to the head of state, was determined by the importance of the agreement. Even the ruler’s children were used as hostages in certain circumstances. These types of agreements even worked in cross-cultural circumstances, as Richard the Lionheart and Saladin exchanged hostages to reinforce agreements. When peace talks broke down or promises were broken, the lives of the hostages were then forfeit.
In western Europe, with the development of the laws of war and international humanitarian law, the use of hostages, or any form of targeting non-combatants, was effectively banished. Still, in certain regions of the world and among some powers, these modern standards have not be adopted. The use of hostages, even by state actors, to achieve political or military goals continues to this day. In Aleppo, the Russian-directed Syrian forces are using civilians as a negotiating tool with both the west and rebel fighters. The Ukraine, backed by France and Germany, are trying to negotiate the release of hostages held both by the Russian Federation and the separatists directed by Russia, and are pushing hard to make sure these men and women are home before the holidays. Let’s hope they succeed so that families will be reunited.
Worldwide, families come together to renew their bonds and celebrate the values most important to them during the holidays. That makes it particularly hard for families who have loved ones who are being held hostage. Traditions and music remind family members of the ones who cannot join them, renewing the pain of separation.
Individuals like Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson have been able to pierce certain captors’ armor and secure the release of hostages. What if we all made an effort to help those who are being kept from their families? How many hostages could we bring home in time for Christmas?