COVER

ONE FAMILY’S AGONY

THE CICIPPIO FAMILY WAITS AND HOPES

HILARY MACKENZIE August 14 1989
COVER

ONE FAMILY’S AGONY

THE CICIPPIO FAMILY WAITS AND HOPES

HILARY MACKENZIE August 14 1989

ONE FAMILY’S AGONY

THE CICIPPIO FAMILY WAITS AND HOPES

The uncertain fate of Joseph Cicippio loomed over the two-storey stone and aluminum-sided house in Norristown, Pa. While more than 100 journalists and television technicians from U.S. and foreign news organizations waited outside, Thomas Cicippio—one of Joseph’s six brothers—and other family members awaited reports from Lebanon. Through the suspenseful week, Cicippio’s relatives experienced a roller coaster of emotions, as the Moslem terrorists who have held him captive for the past 35 months twice imposed, and then backed away from, deadlines for his execution. At one point, family members watched a grainy two-minute videotape in which Cicippio—looking haggard and desperate—pleaded for his life. Finally, on Aug. 3, the family learned that his execution had been—in the words of his captors—“frozen.” Said his brother, 65year-old Thomas: “Now I feel as though we can start to look forward to the release of all the hostages.”

Execute: The weeklong ordeal was a poignant reminder of the daily torment shared by at least 15 Western families whose relatives are held as hostages by Moslem factions in Lebanon. Tensions rose last week following claims by a terrorist organization that said it executed U.S. marine Lt.-Col. William Higgins in retaliation for the Israeli kidnapping of Shiite

religious leader Sheik Abdel -

Kareem Obeid. The leaders of another group, which called itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization, then announced that if Obeid was not released they would execute Cicippio, a 58year-old former Norristown banker and businessman, who was kidnapped from his Beirut home on Sept. 12, 1986.

The man who became a pawn in the complex political struggles of the Middle East left Pennsylvania in 1975 and went to work for a helicopter company in Saudi Arabia for four years before moving to Britain, where he worked as a manager for several firms. Then, in 1984, he was hired by the American University of Beirut as acting comptroller. According to the family, Joseph Cicippio felt safe on the

university campus and loved Lebanon. He married his third wife, a Lebanese woman, Elham, in 1985, and later converted to Islam. Despite that, he was taken by terrorists in the stairwell of his apartment building on the American University campus. Eyewitnesses said that there was a brief struggle as four men beat Cicippio over the head with a handgun, breaking his steel-rimmed glasses. They then forced him into the trunk of a waiting car.

Since that day, the Cicippios have had no direct contact with Joseph. Instead, they have received three poorly reproduced photo-

graphs—released by his captors—that showed Joseph’s shrunken face, along with sketchy details from former hostage Jean-Louis Normandin, who reported on Cicippio’s health after his own release in November, 1987.

Fears: Threats that Cicippio might be executed focused international attention on Norristown, a working-class town of 45,000 residents, 30 km northwest of Philadelphia. Thomas Cicippio was in the basement repairing an electric train when a telephone call from a reporter alerted him to the death threat against his brother. “The first thing I thought of was the kidnapping of Sheik Obeid,” said Cicippio. “My worst fears came true.” Within

minutes, Cicippio’s only living sister, who has cancer, telephoned in tears. “Just to hear those threatening words—it was devastating. This time we knew the threat was real,” said Thomas Cicippio. He tearfully told Maclean ’s that he looked up to Joseph because he was energetic, hardworking and active in the local drum and bugle corps during the 26 years he worked as a banker in the Norristown area. “No matter what he did, Joseph did it right,” said Cicippio.

Meanwhile, the drama attracted reporters from across the United States and from Canada and Germany. “They were all trying to inter-

view me at the same time,” Cicippio said. Still, he added that, during the harrowing week, the media attention helped to keep his thoughts off the terrorists’ threats to kill his brother. At the same time, the passing hours brought hope that behind-the-scenes negotiations would lead to a reprieve. That hope was realized last Thursday, when Cicippio learned that his brother’s captors had apparently suspended their threats to execute Joseph. But the agonizing week experienced by Cicippio’s long-suffering relatives could be repeated—until some means is found to win freedom for all the Western hostages held in Lebanon.

HILARY MACKENZIE