Enraged Somalis tried three times to kill him, the American helicopter pilot captured Sunday by gunmen in Mogadishu said in an interview Friday at the house where he is being held hostage.
In his first interview with a foreign journalist since being captured during a fierce 15-hour battle, Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Durant told the Guardian newspaper of Britain and the French newspaper Liberation how he was dragged through city streets, writhing in agony from the severe back and leg injuries he suffered when the Black Hawk helicopter he was piloting was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“I think I was dragged out of the helicopter by one of the other crew,” he said. “I think everyone was alive when we crashed. As soon as we crashed, there was a lot of gunfire and we were trying to protect ourselves. The shooting went on for about 20 minutes.
“I couldn’t move because of my leg and back injuries. We came down pretty hard. And I was lying right beside the aircraft, so I couldn’t see anybody. I could hear one of the crew chiefs. He was hurt very bad. I could hear him moaning. I could hear him.”
As he lay on a bed in the district of Mogadishu where his helicopter was brought down, Durant’s bloodshot eyes stared blankly while the terror of his capture flashed through his mind. Outside, in a sunny courtyard, a woman was hanging out laundry as her children chased each other with sticks across a sun-baked concrete yard.
“We lay there on the ground beside the aircraft, and I saw people coming out of tin shacks trying to get to us. I kept shooting at them, but then I ran out of ammunition. There was a large group of people. They grouped together on the other side of the aircraft, shooting. Then I heard the other crew saying, ‘I’m hit.’ Then the people got to me and started to hit me.”
The crowd pulled off his clothes and tied a rag around his head before dragging him out onto a main street.
“They held me up in the air. Some people would break through the crowd and hit me. But there were other people shouting at them; it seemed as if they wanted them to stop the beating.”
After 10 minutes, he was put in a truck and driven through the streets as people yelled and screamed at him. He was taken to a house and left for 30 minutes, by which time darkness had fallen.
He was taken to a second house, where a Somali cameraman filmed him. “They chained me up in a room. The chain was like a dog chain, with a small lock on it. In the morning, somebody came by when I was chained up. I saw the door open and saw the barrel of a gun--I think it was an AK-47--come round the door. I didn’t see the gunman. He opened fire and then disappeared. The bullets hit the floor and I was hit by shrapnel, which I had to pull out of my arm.”
That night he was unchained and moved to another house, he said. “As they were moving me, I thought I was going to be killed. On the way here, we stopped at roadblocks, where the people who were taking me had to explain to the gunmen what was going on. They gave me some spaghetti and some milk and then left me in the car for about an hour, and I thought, ‘This is it.’ But instead, they brought me here.”
Each of the three mornings he has spent at the house he is now in, he has been visited by a doctor to look at his broken right leg, facial injuries and bullet wounds.
On a bedside table in the cool, dark room were tablets, mineral water and cotton wool.
A newspaper was folded up on the narrow bed, where he fumbled with the controls of a small radio, listening to bulletins about the aftermath of the battle that brought him here.
“I have asked them a lot about what they intend to do with me. Initially, they said they were trying to work a deal in exchange for 24 of their people who are held. I heard on the radio that that won’t happen. It’s not what I want to hear, but I understand it. The SNA think it’s a bad situation, because I’m hurt. The SNA (Somali National Alliance) want to show the world that they’re not barbarians.
“Everybody wants it to calm down. Too many innocent people are getting killed. People are angry because they see civilians getting killed. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t live here can understand what is going on here.
“Americans mean well. We did try to help. Things have gone wrong.
“My biggest fear right now is that the people living around this part of town--and I don’t even know where I am--will find out that I’m here and try to kill me,” he said.
His first captors were the people living in the houses that were crushed when the helicopter crashed. But Durant is now firmly in the hands of leading members of faction leader Mohammed Farah Aidid’s SNA.
In the past three weeks, more than 30 SNA members have been captured by American troops under U.N. command and are now being held at the U.N. compound in Mogadishu.
Durant looked less stressed than he did on the videotape filmed hours after his capture, and understands that he is no longer in the hands of a furious crowd but rather in the hands of senior SNA members who realize his value to them.
“I look like Rocky,” he said, referring to the Sylvester Stallone film character, as he looked for the first time into a mirror that he asked to have before agreeing to have his photograph taken. “And that’s a bad thing. Rocky lost.”
His eyes filled with tears as he thought of his fellow crew members.
“The first thing I was told was that the people had killed them all. Chopped them up.
“I consider myself fortunate,” he said as he thought of his year-old son, Joey, and his wife, Laura, who were expecting to go to his sister’s wedding Friday in Washington.
“I regret the rest of the crew. They don’t have a chance to see their families again. They were the greatest Americans.”