SPECIAL REPORT

AGONY OF THE HOSTAGES

KIDNAPPERS SAID THAT THEY WOULD RELEASE AN AMERICAN, AND THE WORLD WAITED

JOHN BIERMAN April 30 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

AGONY OF THE HOSTAGES

KIDNAPPERS SAID THAT THEY WOULD RELEASE AN AMERICAN, AND THE WORLD WAITED

JOHN BIERMAN April 30 1990

When the news came on, I just looked at it and said, ‘Oh, yes. Again. ’

—Ruth Polhill, mother of hostage Robert Polhill

I want to watch and wait. It’s not the first time this has happened. I’ve learned that very well. —Virginia Steen, wife of hostage Alann Steen

My roller coaster isn’t as high as it used to be. I have learned.

—Estelle Ronneburg, mother of hostage Jesse Turner

Once again last week, hostages’ families were going through the emotional wringer—and once again, official Washington faced a cruel dilemma. Were Shiite Moslem extremists in Beirut serious about releasing an American prisoner, as they claimed to be, or were they once again trying to confuse and humiliate “the Great Satan,” as their Iranian sponsors call the United States? When the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine (ULP) first announced on April 18 that it was prepared to hand over one of its three U.S. hostages within 48 hours, there were grounds to believe that it meant business. But by demanding that John Kelly, the state department’s most senior Middle East officer, “should come to Damascus to co-ordinate some final steps,” the kidnappers, inadvertently or otherwise, undermined their own initiative. In the view of administration officials, they could not allow a terrorist group to dictate the movements of an assistant secretary of state. And when President George Bush said that he would not “knuckle under,” the ULP postponed the release. But hope remained. On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara told waiting Western reporters: “I hope to tell you some good news shortly.”

Shara spoke amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the Syrian capital. U.S. and Iranian officials, watched by a large international media contingent, were in almost constant movement between their respective embassies and the Syrian foreign ministry as one deadline after another passed. The Syrian government granted permission for a U.S. hospital plane to land at Damascus to take any released hostage to the American air base at Wiesbaden, West Germany. White House sources said that the U.S. administration had prepared a statement thanking the Syrian and Iranian governments for their part in obtaining the anticipated release. But there were clearly last-minute hitches. Late Sunday afternoon, the ULP issued a statement saying that the hostage release would come “within 24 hours.”

While the world waited, the ULP compounded the diplomatic confusion and emotional turmoil by failing to indicate which of its hostages it planned to release: Polhill, 55, Steen, 51, or Turner, 42. For the families of the three professors, who have been held since Jan. 24, 1987, it was a heartless lottery. But the outlook was even bleaker for relatives of 14 other Western hostages known to be held by fundamentalist groups (page 40). There was no report about their fate at all, although the initial ULP statement referred indirectly to them by expressing a hope that Washington would respond to the pending release with “a goodwill initiative in order to close the hostage file.” 

Amid the confusion and disappointment that followed the ULP’S first announcement, it seemed clear that the kidnap group’s initiative had the backing of the Iranian and Syrian governments. And despite the official U.S. policy of not negotiating for the release of hostages, U.S. officials confirmed at the weekend that they had been in daily contact with the Syrian government for months. The shared interest of Damascus and Tehran in ending the drawn-out hostage ordeal seemed apparent. In its announcement last Wednesday, the ULP said that its initiative was a response to “urgent appeals” from Tehran, and in accordance with “the permanent Syrian efforts in this line.” Certainly, the ULP seems to be closer to the Syrian government and to the pragmatic Iranian faction headed by President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani than any of the other Lebanese Shiite groups that are linked with the ULP under the umbrella organization called Hizbollah, or Party of God (page 42).

Deadlock: A further indication that Tehran was serious came on Saturday when the English-language Tehran Times urged all hostage holders in Lebanon to release their captives. The newspaper, which is known to reflect Rafsanjani’s views, added that a second group was also prepared to release a hostage.

Buoyed by the Tehran Times editorial, U.S. intelligence sources told Maclean’s that Syrian diplomats were continuing to work “hard, hard, hard” to break the apparent deadlock between Washington and the kidnappers. U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian flew back to the Syrian capital from a diplomatic meeting in West Germany, clearly hoping that the ULP would relent on its insistence that Kelly should be on hand to receive the freed hostage. One Western diplomat said that the Syrian government was trying to negotiate a compromise in which Kelly would arrive in Damascus after the release of the hostage. And Hussein Musawi, the leader of Islamic Amal who is also widely regarded as a spokesman for the ULP, said in Beirut that an eventual compromise was likely. Although Musawi accused the Americans of an “arrogant, cowboy mentality,” he added: “Kelly’s failure to respond is not going to cancel the release.”

Working in favor of a compromise, analysts said, was the fact that both the Iranian and Syrian governments are anxious to mend fences with the West, especially the United States. Iran’s Rafsanjani desperately needs Western expertise to restore his nation’s war-shattered economy, and he also wants the United States to release frozen Iranian assets worth more than $13 billion. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, alarmed by the growing military strength and assertiveness of his bitter rival, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, clearly needs to cement his friendly relationship with Washington because he can expect little help from the Soviet Union.

Less certain was exactly where the ULP was holding its hostages. Analysts in Beirut speculated that the three professors were in the ancient city of Baalbek, in Lebanon’s central Bekaa Valley, rather than in the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut with the other 14 hostages. Baalbek, a base for about 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is also where Musawi lives. And observers expressed doubt that the ULP could make such confident statements if they had to extricate a hostage from West Beirut, where rival Shiite factions were locked in battle throughout last week.

Mixed: But analysts warned that, even if the ULP did release one of its hostages within the next few days, there was no sign that the more militant factions of Hizbollah were in any mood to free their captives—five Americans, four Britons, two Swiss, two West Germans and one Italian. Those factions are all thought to oppose Rafsanjani’s pragmatic policies and to want to continue punishing the West. But, in Beirut last week, one well-placed Shiite militia source told Maclean’s that he thought that the factional differences were deliberately exaggerated to confuse the West. “The Iranians are experts at sending mixed signals,” he said. “They do it so that Rafsanjani can say to Bush, ‘I am doing my part, but you have to do more.’ ”

Against that confused background, the hostage families struggled to maintain emotional equilibrium. At her apartment in Fishkill, N.Y., 90 km north of New York City, Robert Polhill’s mother, Ruth, said resignedly: “I am going along with things. The kidnappers have put out teasers before. I have made up my mind that until I hear directly from the state department, I am not planning on it being my son” who goes free. She added: “I’m so exhausted with emotions that I can’t react.” Polhill’s Lebanese wife, Feryal, is in Beirut, living on the University College campus. He has two grown-up sons by his first marriage.

Emotional: In Boise, Idaho, Jesse Turner’s 68-year-old mother, Estelle Ronneburg, who calls her son John, was on a similar emotional ride. “My heart took a leap,” she said. “I was almost crying, but then I got myself together because they didn’t say which professor they were going to release, and the other mothers want their sons as badly as I want John.” She added: “I have to try and control my thoughts. I haven’t cried yet, and if it isn’t John, I’ll have a good jag.” Turner’s second wife, Badr, also a Lebanese, lives on campus in Beirut with their two-year-old daughter, Joanne, who was born six months after he was abducted.

Meanwhile, in Clarklake, Mich., Alarm Steen’s wife, Virginia, a 33-year-old art historian who is studying for her doctorate at the University of Michigan, said: “It’s a horrible thing to go through. You have to try to keep [yourself] in check. You don’t want to get too high, because then you get so depressed.”

The kidnapping of the three American professors, together with an Indian-born colleague, Mitheleshwar Singh, who was released after 20 months, was one of Beirut’s most audacious abductions. Gunmen disguised in the uniforms of the Lebanese Internal Security Force went to the campus on Jan. 24, 1987, and asked to see foreign professors to “advise them and co-ordinate their security.” When the gunmen snapped handcuffs on them, the four professors apparently thought it was part of their instruction in self-protection.

In a communiqué, the ULP claimed that the professors had been carrying out “American conspiracies” and, in return for the hostages’ freedom, demanded the release of 400 Palestinian and Shiite prisoners held by the Israelis. The Israelis dismissed the demand, and U.S. officials said that they would not pressure Israel to make such an exchange. During March and April of 1987, the kidnappers released two videotapes in which Turner said that Steen was gravely ill and near death. But, in May of that year, Steen himself appeared on tape saying that he had recovered.

In October, 1988, Singh, an Indian national with U.S. resident-alien status, was released, apparently through Syrian intervention and because of his ethnic background. On his return to the United States, Singh said that Polhill received regular insulin injections for diabetes and that Steen’s problem with high blood pressure appeared to be under control. In other respects, he said, their conditions had been dreadful. The four had been confined together in one small room, whose windows were kept covered so that they could not gain any information about where they were. Singh added that they were shackled at all times and were frequently moved from one location to another—always blindfolded, always at night and always lying on the floor of a car or van.

Hatred: Psychiatrists say that anyone having undergone lengthy confinement under such conditions is bound to be deeply and permanently affected. A Shiite militiaman in Beirut put it more graphically: “Forever, he will feel agony, pain and hatred, knowing what they put him through, knowing that he is innocent. He is going to hate Islam for a hundred years.” To protect their comrades, the hostages whom Hizbollah has already released have been careful not to express such thoughts. Their silence during last week’s days of alternating hope and uncertainty was more eloquent than words.