Ambassadors at gunpoint

According to Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be subject to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving state shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” Polish ambassadors were not always safe at their posts, however.

Read an excerpt from Lukasz Walewski and Marcin Pospiech’s book “Czego nie powie ci królowa. Ambassadors”:

Immunity protects not only diplomats, but also their places of work. Embassies have a status of inviolability, which means that the forces of the authorities of the country where they are located cannot enter their premises. The most dramatic violation of this rule was the 1979 occupation of the American embassy by Iranian students in Tehran. 52 diplomats and US citizens were held hostage for 444 days by supporters of the Iranian revolution. American President Jimmy Carter warned that the United States would not give in to blackmail. In April 1980, the U.S. military attempted to rescue the hostages, but Operation Eagle Claw failed – a sandstorm prevented the commandos from operating effectively. The hostages were eventually released following U.S.-Iranian negotiations.

Admittedly not on such a grand scale, but the People’s Republic of Poland also faced a similar crisis. On September 6, 1982, a group of armed men entered the Polish embassy in Bern and took 12 hostages, employees of the facility. The demands? To begin with, one thing – the lifting of martial law in Poland. The kidnappers threatened to blow up the building if their condition was not met within 48 hours.

This is how Ambassador Eugene Noworyta recalls the events: “We assessed the ultimatum of the kidnappers as a bargaining position that would be changed during the negotiations, which indeed happened. I was responsible for maintaining constant contact with the Swiss Embassy in Warsaw and cooperating with it in order to free the hostages. Assassinations of diplomats had already occurred in various places since the 1970s, and – at the initiative of the United Nations – had led to the drafting of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Committed against Diplomatic Representatives and Other Persons under the Protection of International Law. Referring to this agreement and other legal acts, especially the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in our talks with the Swiss Embassy we emphasized the necessity of safe release of the hostages and restoration of normal working conditions of the Polish embassy. Meanwhile, the participants in the attack expressed their readiness to leave the mission building and release the hostages – in exchange for allowing them to leave Switzerland with impunity, along with a ransom of 12 million francs (gradually reducing this amount to 3 million). The talks with them were conducted by the Swiss authorities, calling on them from the beginning of the occupation of the embassy to leave it without delay and release the hostages. As a result of protracted negotiations and growing concern about the health of the hostages, on September 9, 1982, it was decided to carry out an operation to rescue the hostages. In the morning hours of that day, as the hostages were taking over containers of food that had been delivered to the front door of the mission building, two powerful explosions of remote-controlled missiles placed in those containers occurred, creating a dense cloud of tear gas. Under her cover, police officers forced their way into the embassy building, overpowered the intoxicated kidnappers without using firearms, and freed the embassy staff. There remains the matter of trying the perpetrators of the attack. Poland and Switzerland signed a treaty on extradition and legal assistance in criminal matters back in 1937, but the Swiss authorities refused to hand over the kidnappers and decided to bring them before the Swiss Federal Tribunal. The Swiss court sentenced them to prison terms of several years. The presence of political and criminal motives in the case made it difficult to assess it unequivocally, but the professionalism of the Swiss and the exemplary cooperation of both countries involved in the case made it possible to avoid misfortune and to free the hostages.

Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk (formerly Ambassador to Iraq) also faced a crisis situation during his mission to North Korea. There is no need to explain to anyone how notorious North Korea is. From time to time, Kim Jong Un’s country informs of the detention of foreign tourists accused of espionage or, for example, of “abandoning” a Bible in a hotel. According to Edward Pietrzyk, similar situations are a daily bread for diplomats in North Korea.

As the ambassador recalls, the North Korean authorities put him under pressure a few times when they tried to move the Polish embassy: “In April 2013, I really felt shivers down my spine. I got a call from Deputy Foreign Minister Kung So Un, who asked me for a meeting. Of course, I agreed. The Korean came and declared with a stone face that the imperialist United States was preparing for an imminent attack on poor North Korea. As a result, Korean authorities have decided to evacuate all embassies from Pyongyang as the North Korean capital is expected to be Washington’s first strike target. “We will set up trucks to transport you to safety,” he declared. Under the circumstances, there could only be one response. With an equally stony face I countered: “No way. The embassy is inviolable, no one has the right to enter. We are not going anywhere.” “And the other outposts?”, the Korean asked. “The others are staying too,” I replied firmly. And so they did. It was the most brutal and brazen behavior of the North Korean authorities that I have encountered.”

They ate a German diplomat

On the surface, it might seem that an ambassador’s job is a pleasure: lavish dinners, elegant ladies and gentlemen, clinking champagne glasses, exotic travel. Often, however, a diplomat must face events that are very unpleasant or even deadly. The mere fact that foreign service employees are protected by diplomatic immunity does not mean that they are invulnerable or not threatened. And sometimes these dangers are very exotic.

During his service at the United Nations, Polish Ambassador Eugeniusz Noworyta once went to a “routine” diplomatic banquet hosted by a Japanese diplomat who also worked at the UN. During dinner in his Manhattan apartment, he betrayed a tendency, rarely seen in diplomats, to tell macabre stories (especially at official dinners): “After the main course, and before dessert, when a lively conversation began among diplomats and UN officials about diplomat security, the host recounted an improbable, though authentic, incident. It was about a German diplomat who, in the course of his duties, visited one of the islands in the Pacific and ventured deep into the jungle, where he disappeared. After some time it turned out that the poor man was eaten by the natives, who, according to the local custom, showed him their respect in that way. After the authorities had intervened, the tribal elders explained the incident by the ingrained customs of hospitality among the natives, and offered to give the Germans one of their most worthy tribesmen to eat him too”. As far as is known, the Germans did not take advantage of this opportunity. (. )

At one time, the U.S. press considered the most dangerous job in the world to be that of ambassador to Yemen, a country wracked by tribal warfare and also a breeding ground for terrorism. Despite the huge risk, there was a man willing to do the “job”. A seasoned American diplomat, Matthew H. Tueller, took up the gauntlet. Al-Qaeda quickly put a price on his head – $160,000 in gold. Even though Tueller’s headquarters was surrounded by thick walls and guarded by 100 marines, bullets still came crashing down on it.

Of course, bullets do not only whistle in Yemen, but also in many other places in the world where Polish diplomats serve. One of the most dangerous missions a diplomat can undertake is in Afghanistan. Ambassador Piotr Łukasiewicz, among others, worked in Kabul: “One of my predecessors told me that before his departure for Kabul he used to ask his superiors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs what tasks they set him. As a rule, the answer was short: “survive!” (laughter). Therefore, strengthened by this knowledge, I did not ask about my tasks in Kabul. The tasks were clear: survive, and secondly, diplomatically secure the Polish military mission in Afghanistan”.

Mission Afghanistan

Ambassador Piotr Łukasiewicz is a professional soldier, Colonel in the Polish Army Reserve. As an officer, he served in Iraq and was recognized by his superiors there. “I was a young officer then, nevertheless my bosses came to the conclusion that they could entrust me with another important task. Afghanistan was a great honor and a great challenge.” In 2006, Lukasiewicz flew from Islamabad (where he served as a military attaché) to Kabul, shortly after completing a difficult wartime mission in Iraq.

As Ambassador Lukasiewicz recalls, his first contact with the city was a traumatic experience: “I got off the plane and didn’t know very much what to do with myself. No one was waiting for me, I just knew I had to get to my hotel. But I looked at the Afghans and the thought went through my head: oh God, I’m in Iraq, back. Except then I was in a tank, in an armored car, with a rifle, with my friends, and here I am alone with a suitcase in an ordinary T-shirt. The Serena Hotel in Kabul was the only well-secured hotel in the city. It was also a golden cage for foreigners. Some visitors would not leave the Serena for weeks. I had to buy a ticket to Pakistan and didn’t know how to do it. I spent half a day trying to figure out where the travel agency was. Finally, it turned out to be just around the corner, 200 meters from the hotel. The memories of Iraq combined with Kabul completely overwhelmed me. But it occurred to me that I either needed to break through or look for another job.

Afghanistan, where Piotr Łukasiewicz came to while still a military attaché (ambassador in Kabul since 2012), was a country with no rules. Since 2006, the Taliban began to regain strength. The insurgency was growing. Diplomats, whether they had military experience or not, had to switch to war mode: “This was a country where almost every week there were terrorist attacks against the military, against diplomats, against charities working in Kabul and Afghanistan. So the number one goal was to protect yourself, to survive. The realization of plans inscribed strictly of the diplomatic profession was relegated to the background.

The constant threat caused the “industry” of analyzing acts of terror in Kabul to skyrocket. After each attack, dozens of reports were published dissecting all sides of the attack: who did it? Why? What technique? Why did they choose this target and not another? As Ambassador Lukasiewicz explains, after each similar incident, “tons” of essentially useless analyses landed on his desk: “For example, we received lists of suspicious cars, along with a list of their registration numbers and makes. The problem was that in 99 percent of the cases these were Toyota cars, because 99 percent of the cars in Afghanistan are of this make. All this created a sense of security, but did not provide it in any way. How was it supposed to look like? Someone walking around the streets with a notebook and writing down numbers? Why this car and not another? If someone is suspicious, they should be stopped, not sent a report!”

Security experts, military officials, diplomats, and Afghans providing information made a living out of creating analysis in Kabul: “The so-called international community in Kabul was creating theories for its own use to ensure its security. One of them said that one must not leave the embassies on Friday evenings – for on Fridays prayers are held, and after prayers, it was believed, foreigners are murdered. This is utter nonsense!”

The attacks occurred randomly, like a lottery. Because there are no rules, terrorism attacks where you least expect it, making it impossible to defend against it: “I know this is a very undiplomatic category, but I just got lucky. During the time I served in Kabul, there was hardly a week that went by without an attack somewhere in the city, without a bomb going off, without people dying. When I would get news like that, I would realize that I had just passed by there five minutes ago, or that my convoy was going to be on that route in ten minutes. If I analyze all the major attacks in the almost seven years I spent in Afghanistan, they always happened near the places I happened to be. One time I was just driving to a meeting with the chief of protocol. Halfway there, the driver and I heard a powerful explosion. The sound of it was all over the city. We looked at each other. “We’re turning back,” I said, “there’s no point in pushing further. We will go to the protocol tomorrow. The next day we went and were greeted by a gigantic hole in the ground. At first I did not understand what had happened. People were moving around, taking out the remains of windows, scaffolding appeared somewhere. I asked the Afghan colonel: “What, are you doing some kind of renovation?” “In a way,” he replied, looking at me as if I had fallen out of a Christmas tree. The attack happened, a suicide bomber blew himself up. Fortunately, no one was killed besides him. There were only injuries and massive destruction. As far as I was concerned, it was a matter of minutes. I might as well have been on the spot at the time of the attack.”

Ambassador Piotr Lukasiewicz recalls that the massive terrorist attack also occurred during Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s visit to Kabul: “We left ISAF headquarters, arrived at the airport. While we were waiting for the plane leaving for Poland, a huge bang sounded. It turned out that ISAF had been attacked: right at the gate through which we had left an hour earlier, a booby-trapped car exploded with a suicide bomber. For our delegation, it was a moment when the officers realized clearly that they were in a country at war.

Working in Kabul gave Polish diplomats a hard time not only because of the constant terrorist threat, but also “crisis” technical failures: “In 2007 it was a really damn hard winter in Afghanistan. Temperatures reached minus 30 degrees at night. The embassy building had no external municipal power supply, so we had to rely on our own generator. The problem is that in 30 degree frost the fuel freezes. Paraffin precipitates, the engine stops. This happens at the worst possible moment, that is in the middle of the night, when you can’t count on support from anywhere. When the temperature became unbearable, all the staff of the embassy went out to the square in front of the building. We looked like a gathering of all the miseries of the world. Wrapped in blankets and all available clothing, we surrounded the broken engine. Some tried to speak to the generator, others raised prayers to it. Apparently no one was listening to them, because the engine just stood there. Unfulfilled requests for the intervention of a higher power quickly turned into threats. Someone reached for the key and started to pound on the engine. But the engine fell silent for good, not minding the cannonades of vulgarities directed at it by the diplomats. Eventually we gave up – the generator wasn’t working, we had to accept that. What was to be done? In Polish, we went for vodka. “.

Kill the ambassador

On October 3, 2007, information about the attack on the Polish ambassador to Iraq began to reach Poland. Quickly on the Internet appeared also a video from Baghdad. In the first shot of one and a half minutes of amateur clip you can see the firefighters cleaning the street and burned car. Several seconds later, the sound of a helicopter reaches the viewer’s ears. A small helicopter hovers in the air and flies away as if it has given up on landing. Nevertheless, in the next shot, a black machine can be seen approaching the ground. Three soldiers appear in the frame, watching the commotion from a few dozen meters away. Soon new figures appear – four military men in black helmets and bulletproof vests are leading a lively man. He is not wearing a uniform, but a white T-shirt. His hands and head are bandaged. They approach the helicopter, the man rests his arms against it. For a second he turns to the soldier on his left still, and the viewer sees that he has a completely smeared face. The man gets into the helicopter. Cut. The next shot shows nothing but an empty street and a few firefighters hovering in the distance.

“At ‘normal’ posts in big Western cities like London, Paris, Berlin or New York, I would simply be mercilessly bored and my superiors knew it says former Polish Ambassador to Iraq and North Korea General Edward Pietrzyk. – I knew Iraq for a good few years. In 2003 I introduced Polish ground troops there. As a result, I visited the country three or four times a year. Then, of course, I wore a uniform; I was a military commander. When I retired to civilian life, Minister Radosław Sikorski suggested that I become an ambassador because I knew the country, the people, the government officials. Of course I agreed.

During Edward Pietrzyk’s service in Iraq the ambassador’s residence was in a different location from the embassy building itself. The explanation was security reasons. Besides, as Ambassador Pietrzyk recalls, “residence” in reference to where he lived is far too big a word: “It was a button, not a residence, just an ordinary building. The people in charge of my security were spread out on the first floor, and I lived upstairs with my computer. Every day was similar. In the morning I would go downstairs, three cars would pull up. One was always at the embassy, two drove up from somewhere else.

Button, not the residence

The function of Pietrzyk’s personal bodyguard was performed by Bartosz Hebda. “He would give me a sign that I could leave. I would put on my bulletproof vest, no helmet as a rule, and go out into the street.” One day the ambassador noticed something that caught his attention for a moment: “Opposite the building where I lived, there was a group of extremely elegantly dressed men in black and white. They looked like a welcoming procession or. a farewell procession. I waved my hand at them and got into the car. We had about 600 meters to go. It was as silent as a nightmare. We managed to cover about 500 meters when the silence was shattered by three explosions which in my ears blended into one. As it later turned out, these were so-called ajdiki, or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Their name may be misleading – the word “improvised” does not mean that they are less dangerous. Each of the bombs exploded near one car, so that in one fell swoop all three were destroyed.

“I was accompanied by two BOR officers: Bartosz Orzechowski and my personal bodyguard Bartosz Hebda (currently protecting President Andrzej Duda). Suddenly I felt a stream of fire flowing past my neck, over my shoulder, which hit the driver – Bartosz Orzechowski – with all its force. The car burst into flames, the cabin instantly filled with a mixture of corrosive fumes. Instinctively I threw myself on the helmet lying on the seat next to me. I hid my face in it and drew in the still “unburned” air. Had it not been for that, my lungs would have burned in a few seconds and I would have died on the spot. I looked at the driver – he was unconscious, his head lying on the steering wheel. And he was the one controlling the door opening and closing system – we were trapped! I shouted to my personal bodyguard Bartosz Hebda to shoot the door. There was a shot in the lock. It worked – I crawled out. I don’t know how I did it, considering my carcass. When I look now at the pictures of the breakout that occurred on the side of the car, it just seems impossible! On top of that, I was close to suffocating – as it turned out later, I had burned out my bronchi. But the adrenaline did its job.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of unpleasant incidents: “We crawled onto the asphalt directly under the bombers’ fire. They were shooting at us with machine guns. Fortunately, the assassins did not perfect their action. Shooting from the second floor of the building, they had to aim above the destroyed cars, making the Poles a more difficult target. “The bullets ripped through ten, twenty centimeters away from me. I asked Bartosz Hebda how much ammunition he had. He replied that he had quite a lot. I ordered him to “lay down” fire on the roofs of buildings surrounding us. Hebda stood behind the car, looked around, assessed the situation, and then with angelic calm reported: “Mr. Ambassador, it’s okay, five full magazines”. Every now and then he would lean out from behind the car and “silence” the next points from which bullets were flying at us. Meanwhile, I was lying along the car, unable to move, because it would mean exposing myself to a shot and certain death. On the other hand, staying behind the cars was also deadly dangerous, because we expected that any moment there would be a frontal attack of terrorists, which would seal our fate. I threw to Bartosz Hebda: “Let’s run!” Easy to say, harder to do when your lungs are filled with poisonous gas. Nevertheless, we had to try. Luckily for us, Lieutenant Górski (now a bodyguard of Prime Minister Beata Szydło) joined us in firing at another location.”

The ambassador and his bodyguards ran about 150 meters and ran into the nearest house. “We exceptionally entered without knocking,” Ambassador Pietrzyk laughed. One BOR officer stood at the window, another at the door, with Pietrzyk between them. They quickly realized that the decision to evacuate to the building saved their lives: “Several brand-new military vehicles quietly pulled up to our burning cars. Iraqi soldiers in impeccable uniforms poured out of them. At first glance it was obvious that they had little in common with the real Iraqi army and were just masquerading as soldiers prepared for special actions. The guys ask: “Mr. Ambassador, what do we do?” “The first one that comes up here, you blow his head off, and then we’ll worry,” I announced. Soon the head of an Iraqi “soldier” appeared in the window, trying to get his bearings. He didn’t even have time to move when he felt the barrel of the Pole’s gun in his mouth. A dramatic clinch ensued: “We stood staring at each other and waiting for the inevitable exchange of fatal blows. Suddenly we heard the whirr of a helicopter.”

As it turned out, the Americans, in addition to watching the whole situation from their satellites, were alerted by the Polish embassy. This frightened the Iraqis: “Hurriedly, in their pressed uniforms and berets, they packed back into their cars and took their feet by the belt. We returned to the site of the attack, to the wreckage of our cars, next to which a tiny helicopter was approaching for landing. It was piloted by a man I will never forget for the rest of my life, an American soldier named Dan Laguna. He was the one who pulled us out of that dragnet. If it wasn’t for his courage and bravery, and the fact that he chose to land in the fire, we would have been dead.”

The helicopter with the Polish ambassador on board flew straight to an American hospital. “Only there did I feel safe. The commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, accompanied by the American ambassador to Iraq, appeared at my bedside. Petraeus unclipped a medal from his uniform and placed it on my bed – a beautiful gesture and the last thing that stuck with me from that day. I later lost consciousness, and as it turned out, I woke up a month later, no longer in Iraq, but in Gryfice, at the Center for Treatment of Severe Burns.

After recuperating, Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk returned to Iraq. “I am a man who used to see through to the end the tasks entrusted to him. A month and a half after the attack, I was back to being as fit as possible. Then I got the news that Prime Minister Donald Tusk was planning to visit Polish soldiers in Baghdad before Christmas. I did everything to be there. I made it – I found myself in Iraq three days before the visit of the head of government”.

An excerpt from the book by Łukasz Walewski and Marcin Pośpiech “Czego nie powież ci królowa. Ambasadorowie”. Published by SQN. Release date: October 2016.

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