well this was an interesting story about a prison uprising that happened in Argentina awhile back, (on pgs 18-21 of the 11/08/96 Awake!)
We Were Hostages During a Prison Uprising
At about three o’clock in the afternoon, on Saturday, March 30, 1996, Edgardo Torres, Rubén Ceibel, and I arrived at the Sierra Chica Maximum Security Prison, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Designed to hold some 800 prisoners, this overpopulated fortress held 1,052 convicted criminals. Their crimes ranged from robbery to serial murder. We were there as visitors.
For Edgardo and Rubén, this was one of many Saturday trips to this famous prison. As elders in a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they regularly visited there to deliver weekly Bible lectures to some 15 inmates. For me, a traveling overseer, this was a rare opportunity, as I had never presided over a meeting in a prison.
The prison has 12 cellblocks laid out in the shape of a fan. As we entered the facilities, we saw at a distance four prisoners waving at us enthusiastically. These inmates had progressed in their Bible studies to the point of becoming unbaptized preachers of the good news of God’s Kingdom. We were quickly escorted to cellblock 9, where we were to hold the meeting. There, a room had been painted and decorated with curtains, giving it a dignified appearance.
The Uprising Begins
Something was not right, though. There were only 12 prisoners in attendance instead of the usual 15. We all wondered why. The meeting started as usual, with song and prayer. After a few minutes, we were jolted by the sound of loud gunshots followed by bursts of machine-gun fire. Then we heard shouts and screams. A prison uprising had just begun!
Several hooded prisoners armed with makeshift knives stormed into our meeting room. They were surprised to find us—three visitors! We were quickly escorted down a smoke-filled hallway. There were mattresses burning, prisoners running in disarray, and a wounded guard lying on the floor. The guard tower located at the center of the prison grounds was engulfed in fire from a homemade bomb. We were taken outside and forced to stand about 150 feet [50 m] from the main fence. Looking straight ahead, we could see policemen and prison guards outside the fence, pointing their guns at us. A group of prisoners were hiding behind us, holding their knives to our throats. They were using us as human shields.
Five hours later, after sunset, the ringleaders allowed a medical doctor to enter the prison to treat the wounded. The doctor too became a hostage. Finally, about nine o’clock in the evening, we were taken to the prison hospital. There we joined a group of guards who were also held as hostages. Now the rioters forced all of the hostages to serve in shifts as human shields.
After a short while, a judge and her secretary were permitted to meet the rioters, in an attempt to settle matters peacefully. But the crisis escalated when the prisoners brazenly detained both of them as hostages.
There was sporadic fighting all night long. We tried to sleep, but it seemed that every time we dozed off, a loud scream would jolt us out of our slumber. Then, in the very early hours of the morning, our turn to pose as living shields came up again.
The Violence Escalates
On Sunday, March 31, the second day of the uprising, the situation got worse. The ringleaders could not agree on their demands. This created an atmosphere of anger and violence. Bands of rioters went on a rampage, destroying and burning everything in their paths. Old disputes were settled by violence and murder. A number of prisoners who refused to join the riot were executed. Some bodies were burned in the bakery oven.
All sorts of rumors and conflicting reports about our release circulated inside the prison. It was an emotional roller coaster for us hostages. Sometimes we were allowed to watch the news on television. We were amazed to see how far from reality the television accounts were. It was discouraging.
How did we cope? We focused on praying, reading the Bible, and speaking to others about Bible promises of a happy future. That was the key to our emotional strength during the ordeal.
On Monday, the ringleaders agreed to begin negotiations with the authorities. It seemed as if an end to the uprising was near. The rioters were using Edgardo and several prison guards as shields when a gunfight erupted among some prisoners. In the ensuing confusion, the police, under the assumption that hostages were being shot, fired their weapons. Edgardo survived the barrage of bullets, but some of the captive guards were shot.
Death Seemed Imminent
They took us hostages up to a roof to show the authorities that we were still alive. But the police kept shooting. This enraged the rioters. Everyone started to shout at the same time. Some yelled: “Slaughter the hostages! Slaughter them!” Others pleaded: “Not yet! Let’s wait!” Death seemed imminent. Rubén and I looked at each other as if to say, ‘Until the new world.’ Then we both offered a silent prayer. Immediately, we felt an inner calm and peace of mind, which, under the circumstances, could only have come from Jehovah.—Philippians 4:7.
Suddenly, the police stopped shooting, and one of the ringleaders called off our execution. The young prisoner who was holding me was ordered to walk me to and fro on the roof, as a warning to the police. He was extremely nervous. Right there and then, I was able to start a conversation that calmed us both. I explained that human suffering was instigated by Satan and his demons and that soon Jehovah God would put an end to all such suffering.—Revelation 12:12.
When we were taken back to the prison hospital, we found that many of the hostages were panic-stricken. We tried to share our faith in Jehovah’s promises with our fellow hostages. We talked to them about our Bible-based hope of a future in Paradise on earth. Some of the hostages began to call on Jehovah by name. The doctor manifested special interest and asked a number of specific questions. This led to a lengthy Bible discussion with the book Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life.
Celebrating the Memorial
Tuesday, our fourth day in captivity, was the anniversary of the death of Jesus Christ. On that day millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses and interested persons worldwide would meet to commemorate this event in obedience to Jesus’ command. (Luke 22:19) We too made arrangements to celebrate the Memorial.
One corner of the room was selected for privacy. There was no unleavened bread or red wine to use as emblems. But the three of us enjoyed singing praises to Jehovah, praying, and reviewing the Bible’s account about Jesus’ final night and other events surrounding his death. We felt very close to our families and our spiritual brothers and sisters as they celebrated the Memorial simultaneously throughout the entire country.
The Ordeal Ends
An atmosphere of tension, fear, and suspense prevailed during the following four days. Yet, we were comforted by numerous letters from relatives and friends, which the prisoners allowed us to receive. On one occasion we were even permitted to contact our families by phone. How refreshing it was to hear their voices and to read their expressions of love and concern!
On Saturday, our eighth day in captivity, the rioters reached an agreement with the authorities. We were told that the following day we would be released. Sunday, April 7, at 2:30 in the afternoon, we received the news: “Get ready to leave!” The prisoners organized a ‘guard of honor’ to escort us to freedom! As we were leaving the hospital, the spokesman for the ringleaders approached Edgardo and said: “Brother, I am so impressed by your conduct. I promise that from now on I will attend your Saturday meetings in prison. You will still hold the meetings even after what happened here, right?” Edgardo smiled and answered: “Of course!”
A surprise awaited us outdoors. As soon as we exited the building, the entire inmate population burst into applause in our honor. This was their way of showing that they were sorry for what had taken place. It was an emotional moment. No doubt our Christian conduct during the preceding nine days had impressed them all, to Jehovah’s credit.
Outside the prison fence, we met our families and about 200 of our spiritual brothers and sisters. We embraced one another with a great sense of relief. We had survived! One of the hostages approached my wife and told her: “I think Jehovah has reached my heart and wants me to serve him.”
Edgardo, Rubén, and I learned in a very special way that Jehovah can sustain his servants, even during the most terrible adversities. We experienced how marvelous it is to pray to Jehovah and to be heard by him. Like the psalmist, we can say: “I shall exalt you, O Jehovah, for you have drawn me up and you have not let my enemies rejoice over me. O Jehovah my God, I cried to you for help, and you proceeded to heal me. O Jehovah, you have brought up my soul from Sheol itself; you have kept me alive, that I should not go down into the pit.” (Psalm 30:1-3)—As told by Darío Martín.