Faith, hope and hostage: a letter from captivity

As the Iran hostage crisis – which lasted well over a year – was under way, a young Maltese man was corresponding with the United States’ most senior diplomat to Tehran. Massimo Costa talks to Peter Bugeja

Bruce Laingen had been appointed chargé d'affaires to Iran a few months prior, making him the top US diplomatic official in the country
Bruce Laingen had been appointed chargé d'affaires to Iran a few months prior, making him the top US diplomatic official in the country

In the summer of 1980, Peter Bugeja had just emigrated to New York.

Bugeja, a Gozitan with a lifelong interest in international relations, was closely following the events surrounding the Iran crisis.

A group of Iranian students had stormed the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, taking over 60 Americans hostage.

Bruce Laingen had been appointed chargé d'affaires to Iran a few months prior, making him the top US diplomatic official in the country.

He and two other Americans were kept hostage at the Iranian foreign affairs ministry, away from the other hostages.

Prior to being sent to Iran, Laingen had been the American ambassador to Malta between 1977 and 1979.

The diplomat – who died on 15 July, aged 96 – and most of the other hostages would spend a staggering 444 days in captivity.

Months after the hostage crisis started, Bugeja, who is now a logistics manager in Gozo, asked his boss, who knew Laingen, whether he could somehow put him in contact with the captive diplomat.

“Laingen was a hostage, and it was very hard to get through to him. My boss said he’d see what he could do, but warned me that, if I did manage to correspond with Laingen, it would be under strict rules,” Bugeja told MaltaToday.

One day Bugeja’s boss came up to him and told him that, if he wanted to send a letter to Laingen, he’d have to draw one up within 20 minutes, as a very narrow window of opportunity had just arisen within which something could be passed on to the diplomat.

“I wrote a letter to him quickly, and didn’t include a date, because this was one of the rules,” Bugeja said.

“I told Bruce I was a young man from Gozo, Malta’s sister island, and I knew that he had been an ambassador to my country and that he has a love for the island. I said I would appreciate it if he could get back to me and let me know about the experience he was going through.”

Bugeja explained that Laingen was a man of faith, and admired the Maltese people’s trust in God.

“I feel very sorry for what happened to you and the other hostages,” Bugeja’s letter read, “…but God will never forget you, because he explained to us that he didn’t even forget the smallest bird on Earth.”

He told the diplomat that he wrote for a Catholic magazine, called Il-Ħbieb Isejħu, and that he would be happy to hear back from him.
Against the odds, two months later, he received a reply from Laingen.

The love for Malta

In a letter dated 12 September 1980, which Bugeja still keeps, the Minnesota native, writing from the Iranian ministry, thanked Bugeja for contacting him, saying he “could never forget the beautiful island of Gozo, its people and their great traditions of hospitality.”

The letter focused strongly on the Maltese people’s religious beliefs, with Laingen writing that he knew “what that faith has meant to them.”

“Nothing has meant more to me, personally, during this time of adversity in Iran, than the confidence that comes from that bind of faith – the bind of faith described by that patron saint of your islands, Paul,” Laingen wrote.

He told Bugeja that his ongoing experience in captivity also reminded him of another characteristic of the Maltese – their tightly-knit families.

“I think I can speak for all my fellow hostages here when I say that the knowledge of the love and support we know we have from our families at home has helped enormously to make these long months more bearable,” he wrote.

“Hold strongly to those traditions of religious faith and family ties that have always characterised the daily life and history of your island.”
Bugeja said that after the initial correspondence, he had kept abreast with what was happening with the hostage crisis.

Laingen and the other hostages were released in January 1981.

Years later, Bugeja managed to contact Laingen again. “I called him from New York about seven years later, and tried to re-establish contact. Later, he sent me a letter during Christmas time, with an update on how he and his family had been doing.”

Since Laingen had remained a member of the diplomatic corps, contacting him further had become difficult, but Bugeja would never forget the diplomat’s love for Malta.

The Iran revolution

In 1979 Iran was in the middle of a revolution which would see the country’s last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, overthrown, and his government replaced by an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini.

From a pro-West authoritarian monarchy, Iran became an anti-Western theocracy.

The Shah was widely considered to have enjoyed the United States’ backing, with some in Iran feeling the Americans had been trying to undermine the Iranian revolution.

In February 1979, revolutionaries installed Khomeini – who referred to the US as the “Great Satan” – as Iran’s supreme leader. The month before, Pahlavi had left with his family for exile in Egypt, never to return. Earlier that year, the US ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, stepped down.

President Jimmy Carter decided to send Laingen, a diplomat who had previously served in Iran in the 1950s, to take on the position of chargé d'affaires.

On 4 November 1979, a group of student protesters overran the US embassy, in an act seen as retaliation against US influence in Iran, and sparked by Carter’s decision to allow the ailing Shah – who was suffering from cancer – to enter the United States for treatment.

A total of 444 days would pass before all the hostages were finally released on 20 January 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as US President, succeeding Carter.

“The same day Reagan became President, they were released. The way Reagan was talking during the presidential race, Iran knew the new President would not stand for the hostage situation to go on without drastic repercussions,” Bugeja noted.

Laingen remains the last American head of mission to Iran. After the hostage crisis, bilateral diplomatic relations ceased and have never been resumed.

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