Vincent Cochetel, a staff member for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), spent almost all of 1998 chained to a bed frame in a dark cellar in the Caucasus. The Frenchman spent 317 days at the mercy of his abductors, who tortured him and deprived him of light for all but 15 minutes each day.
Yet, after Mr. Cochetel was finally freed by Russian commandos that December and was able to recuperate, the then 37-year-old went back to the UN refugee agency – where he still works today.
As the UN marks World Humanitarian Day today, paying tribute to the dedication of thousands of aid workers on the front lines around the globe, Mr. Cochetel says there was never any question that he would return to his post after his ordeal.
“If I’d stopped working for UNHCR at that time, it would have meant they’d taken something away from me,” he told a UN interviewer earlier this week. “Those guys [would have] won. It was very important for me to continue, [to] prove [to] myself that I was able to work, and that I was maybe able to make a personal difference somewhere for some refugees.”
Mr. Cochetel was the head of UNHCR in North Ossetia, Russia, when three masked men armed with handguns equipped with silencers kidnapped him and his bodyguard as he arrived at his home in the town of Vladikavkaz on 29 January 1998.
The two men were then separated and the kidnappers asked Mr. Cochetel to kneel down as they put a gun against his neck.
“I thought that was it. I thought it was some sort of contract killing because there you have that sort of thing happening in that part of the world. And after some long minutes, they searched me [and] handcuffed me at the back. They put a bag on my head, blindfolded me somehow. And we went downstairs, six floors. I fell a couple of times… Then they put me in the trunk of the car, and then I was transferred from car to car for three days.”
Mr. Cochetel was taken to nearby Chechnya, where he was tortured for the first 12 days while loud music blared to cover the noise. The apparent aim was to extract information, but then the torture stopped, and he was largely left alone in the cellar.
“The most difficult thing to describe is the sort of depths of loneliness you go through because there is nothing happening in the darkness. And to describe that is difficult because it’s 15 minutes of light – the rest is you’re just alone by yourself.
“So you try not to think too much, because otherwise you’ll get crazy. But you have to keep your mind busy. So to keep your mind busy there’s all sorts of games and activities. And you try to keep your body busy too.”
Mr. Cochetel said he went through many “existential moments” during his period of captivity as he questioned the rationale of what he was doing there.
“But again, looking back, if I had to do it again, I think there was a good rationale for us to be there. We were feeding half a million people, we were restoring water supply to the entire republic, we were helping IDPs [internally displaced persons] to go back there, rebuilding schools, rebuilding social infrastructure, assisting people. We had good reasons to be there.”
Now, having gone through his ordeal, Mr. Cochetel says he feels a closer kinship to refugees and others.
“I didn’t know what torture was. I didn’t know what solitary confinement was. Now I can talk about it. I can recognize those signals when refugees talk about it.”
The experience also left an even more personal mark on the UN staffer.
“I know the line between madness and sanity. I’ve explored depths of loneliness that very few people have explored. But you find a way through things. That’s the beauty about humankind.”