THE RELEASE OF JOHN McCARTHY RAISES HOPES OF AN END TO THE HOSTAGE DRAMA IN LEBANON
BACK FROM BEIRUT
THE RELEASE OF JOHN McCARTHY RAISES HOPES OF AN END TO THE HOSTAGE DRAMA IN LEBANON
On the morning of April 17, 1986, British television producer Nick Toksvig took a phone call from Beirut. It was his friend and colleague John McCarthy, calling to say that he was about to leave for Beirut airport to board a flight to London, and would meet Toksvig that evening in their favorite pub. As it turned out, Toksvig and McCarthy would have to wait more than five years for their drink. Islamic extremists seized McCarthy on the road to the airport and held him captive for 1,943 days, often blindfolded and sometimes beaten. But when the kidnappers finally freed him last week, McCarthy appeared to have kept both his health and his sense of humor. “Well, hello,” he said with striking understatement as he faced journalists in Damascus before flying home to a tumultuous welcome in Britain. “It’s great to be here after five years.”
McCarthy’s release raised hopes that at least one more Westerner held prisoner in Beirut might soon be set free—and that a wider deal to free all hostages in Lebanon might be in the making. McCarthy, 34, carried with him a letter from his kidnappers, the fundamentalist Moslem group Islamic Jihad, to UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. In it, McCarthy said, the group was seeking Pérez de Cuéllar’s help in arranging an exchange of the remaining 11 Western hostages in Beirut in return for hundreds of Palestinians and Shiite Moslems held prisoner by Israel and its Lebanese allies. But hope of a swift solution to the hostage crisis quickly cooled when another Westerner, 26-year-old French medical worker Jerome Leyraud, was kidnapped in Beirut just a few hours after McCarthy’s release. A group calling itself the Organization for Defending Prisoners’ and Hostages’
Rights said that it would kill Leyraud if any more Westerners were freed.
That complicated what would already be an extremely difficult task for Pérez de Cuéllar: orchestrating a deal involving the Lebanese kidnap groups, their Iranian sponsors, Syria and Israel. Israeli officials immediately stressed that they would not free their nearly 400 Lebanese prisoners unless Israeli soldiers imprisoned in Leb-
anon were also released—and the bodies of dead soldiers returned. But Western leaders made clear that they now expect Israel to negotiate and to ensure that the new opening for an overall solution to the hostage crisis was not wasted. And in New York City, Pérez de Cuéllar said: “We have to consider that this is the beginning of a process leading to the release of all hostages”—including those held by Israel.
Indeed, another Lebanese group holding two Americans, Edward Tracy and Joseph Cicippio, said Saturday that it would release one of them within 72 hours. A photograph of Cicippio, 60, accompanied the announcement by the shadowy Revolutionary Justice Organization.
Still, those conflicting messages scarcely affected the outburst of joy in Britain that greeted the release of McCarthy in Damascus. About 20 of his friends and former colleagues at Worldwide Television News (WTN), the British TV agency that sent him to Beirut in 1986, had campaigned to ensure that he was not forgotten. Led by his friend and former companion, 33-year-old Jill Morrell, they lobbied the British government to work harder for the release of all of the Western hostages and sponsored newspaper and billboard ads to keep his name before the public. Just days before his release, they had erected new billboards showing hundreds of days crossed off, as on a prison wall, with the slogan “John McCarthy still counts.” They quickly changed the slogan to “John is free. Remember, the other
hostages still count.”
In London, hundreds of people packed St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, traditionally known as the “journalists’ church,” to give thanks for his freedom. A candle-covered altar in one comer had been dedicated to keeping McCarthy’s memory alive.
Early on Thursday morning, before his release was announced, a young church worker changed the label on it that recorded the number of days he had spent in captivity to 1,943. Within an hour, it was changed again to read simply: “Released.”
McCarthy was just 29 when WTN sent him for what was supposed to be a five-week assignment in Beirut as acting bureau chief in the spring of 1986. It was his first foreign posting, but it turned dangerous when American warplanes attacked Libya on April 14, 1986, in retaliation for Libyansponsored terrorism. Islamic extremists in Lebanon hit back by murdering several Westerners and threatening others. WTN ordered McCarthy home—but on his way to the airport, four gunmen blocked his car and dragged him away. It was four years before another hostage, American Frank Reed, was released and gave the first detailed evidence that McCarthy was still alive somewhere in south Beirut.
McCarthy spoke only briefly last week about the conditions of his captivity. He told a Syrian TV interviewer that his first two years as a hostage were “very difficult,” but that conditions had gradually improved. Other former hostages who were held with him have said that all the prisoners suffered brutality and deprivation. Brian Keenan, an Irish hostage freed last August after more than four years, described how he, McCarthy and others were held in dark
cells for weeks at a time, beaten, often blindfolded and transported to new cells while shut up in what they called “the coffin”—a metal box strapped under a truck, with their faces and chests bound tightly with tape. But early in 1989, Keenan said, their treatment improved: they were no longer beaten, were given better food and could even watch television for an hour each evening.
McCarthy was held with three other Westerners, and last week he gave the clearest evidence so far that they are alive and well.
Two of the three men are Americans: Terry Anderson, a journalist with The Associated Press, imprisoned since March 16, 1985, and Thomas Sutherland, a former professor at the American University of Beirut who was kidnapped on June 9, 1985. The third hostage is British: Terry Waite, the Church of England’s special envoy who disappeared on Jan. 20, 1987, during a mission to free other hostages. “When I left them two days ago,” McCarthy said in Damascus, “they were in good health and in good spirits.” At her home in Cadiz, Ky., Anderson’s sister Peggy Say voiced relief at
the report. “It’s a great burden lifted from me,” she said.
For the families of other hostages, McCarthy’s release was both encouraging and tormenting, setting off yet another round of speculation over who might be freed next. “I’ve been through it so many times before,” said Virginia Steen, wife of American Alann Steen, who was kidnapped on Jan. 24, 1987, along with Jesse Turner, a fellow professor at Beirut University College. Added Virginia Steen: “It’s horrifying. It just goes on and on.” Still, Steen told Mac-
lean ’s, she was glad to hear McCarthy’s statement that other hostages are being treated well. “Just the knowledge that he is still alive and waiting for us helps,” she said. “That’s the best news.” Estelle Ronnenburg, Jesse Turner’s mother, acknowledged that seeing other hostages freed while her son remains imprisoned is very difficult. “It’s very devastating for us, but we’re always happy for the family that got the hostage back,” she said. “It just seems like a roller coaster—but we have to keep it as calm a roller coaster as we can.”
Amid their joy at McCarthy’s release, his
friends and former colleagues expressed surprise at how well he appeared to have endured his ordeal. Before he was freed, friends had acknowledged that they were worried that he might be deeply changed by the isolation and brutality he had experienced. But McCarthy appeared composed and lucid, joking with the Royal Air Force crew that flew him from Damascus to an airbase 150 km west of London. He seemed to falter only once during his appearance in Damascus, when he spoke of the men with whom he had been imprisoned and paused as if to regain control. “John is very tough, very resilient,” said Keenan. “I think he’ll do very well.”
Still, McCarthy faces a long process of readjusting to the demands of daily life— and to some sad news. He had apparently not known that his mother, Sheila, died at the age of 66 in July, 1989. Stricken with cancer, she had appealed to the kidnappers for her son’s release. “I urge you in the name of mercy for which Islam is known to fulfil the wishes of a dying woman who wants to see her son before she dies,” said her plea, which was published in Beirut newspapers. As it happened, McCarthy was finally released on what would have been his mother’s 69th birthday.
He must also adapt to the expectations of those who were close to him before he disappeared. When he went to Beirut, he and Morrell had been a couple for three years and were
discussing buying an apartment together. She spearheaded the campaign to free him, but in 1989 announced that she no longer wanted to be known as his girlfriend—just his friend. With no way of knowing when McCarthy might be freed, or even whether he was still alive, Morrell said that “it was the only way I could cope—I had to do it to save my own life.” She was one of the first people to see McCarthy when he returned to England, but she impatiently brushed off a question about whether they would be a couple again. “It’s an impossible question,” Morrell said. “The important thing is he is released and his life can start again.”
McCarthy will attempt to pick up the threads of his life after he has completed medical and psychiatric tests. His roommate kept his room exactly as he had left it. WTN kept his old job for him, with a desk set aside and his name still listed on weekly work assignment sheets posted in the office with the notation “Away.” And he has at least one pleasant surprise awaiting him: WTN paid his salary since he was kidnapped as if he were on a foreign assignment. With accumulated interest, it amounts to about $300,000.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.