Three Beirut hostages recall their seasons in hell
`Your spirit can never be chained'
Three Beirut hostages recall their seasons in hell
Come now into the cell with me and stay here and feel if you can and if you will that time, whatever time it was, for however long, for time means nothing in this cell. Come, come in. —from An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan
Lebanon. Once a land of immeasurable beauty, with sunbaked hills and a glistening Mediterranean coastline, it slowly deteriorated into a rat’s nest of competing factions—Sunni and Shiite Muslims,
Christians and Druze—repeatedly prodded by outside powers and influences. By 1984, after nearly a decade of inter-communal bloodshed, foreign occupation and civil war, the first of dozens of hostages began to disappear off the streets of Beirut, some never to be seen or heard from again. Among those eventually taken were American Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press; Irish national Brian Keenan, who taught English at the American University in Beirut; and British Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, who was captured in the Lebanese capital as he attempted to negotiate the release of the other captives.
Since winning freedom (Keenan in 1990, the others in 1991), all three have written harrowing accounts of their imprisonment. The hostages descended into a bizarre netherworld— a place that at best resembled purgatory, and at worst mirrored the hell that Lebanon had become. By no means light reading, their stories are as disturbing as they are highly per-
sonal. But the books also contain a remarkable, and uplifting, common thread. Despite the hostages’ gnawing frustration at watching days in captivity turn into years—and the unimaginable physical and psychological abuse that each had to endure—what emerges in their memoirs is a testament to the resilience of the soul. “In the most inhuman of circumstances men grow and deepen in humanity,” Keenan writes. “In the face of death but not because of it, they explode with passionate life, conquering despair with insane humor.”
More often than not chained and blindfolded, the three—who were imprisoned together only briefly—shared their filthy quarters with cockroaches, biting insects and rats, sometimes with little more than a mattress on the floor. Repeatedly bound like mummies in suffocating packing tape, they were shunted between claustrophobic underground cells and specially modified apartments in and around Beirut. They were all held by Islamic Jihad (Holy War), a militant Shiite fundamentalist group under the command of Hizbollah, the Iranianbacked Party of God. Their captors hoped to use them to bargain for the release of the so-called Kuwait 17—members of an allied cell called Al-Dawa, or The Call, imprisoned in Kuwait for a series of bombings in 1983, including attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in the Persian Gulf state.
In Den of Lions (Crown, 356 pages, $29.95), Anderson, who was nabbed in West Beirut on March 16, 1985, while driving home from a
tennis game, brings the precision of a seasoned journalist to his chronicle of almost seven years in captivity. He not only provides useful background into “awesomely devious and complicated” Lebanese power politics, but also details his 2,453-day ordeal in a style that is introspective but never self-indulgent. Interspersed with Anderson’s narrative are moving chapters written by his Lebanese wife, Madeleine Bassil. “Young men who were raised in destruction and ruin, who have seen death done for a loaf of bread at their doorstep, have no mercy for a crying woman,” she writes. “I would sink so deep in depression that it almost annihilated my spirit.” When Anderson was kidnapped, Bassil was six months pregnant—the couple’s daughter, Sulome, is now 8.
The former newsman relates how he and his changing group of cell mates struggled to help one another cope. Anderson created a chess set from discarded processed-cheese tinfoil and Monopoly and Scrabble games from scraps of paper. He and the fellow American with whom he spent the most time—Tom Sutherland, dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut—passed many days conjugating irregular French verbs.
But the atmosphere was often tense. “This place is like living in a hall of mirrors,” Anderson writes. “There’s no hiding from the others, and there’s no ignoring the reflections they give me of myself.” There was frequent bickering: Sutherland and another captive even argued about whether a fan was drawing air into the cell or pushing it out. Still, Anderson, a stocky, 46-year-old former marine, told Maclean ’s that he hopes his account of the squabbling does not overshadow the deep bonds that developed between cell mates. “It should not surprise anybody,” he said, “that when you lock a bunch of men in a room 24 hours a day, they get into fights.” What is surprising is that Anderson says he now harbors no bitterness towards either his captors or U.S. officials whose decisions may have prolonged his captivity. Chief among them were President Ronald Reagan and his aides, including marine Lt.-Col. Oliver North, who orchestrated the bungled Iran-contra scheme in which the U.S. government, while vowing never to negotiate with terrorists, traded arms with Iran in an attempt to spring the hostages. When news of that scandal and the subsequent illegal diversion of profits to Nicaraguan contra rebels broke, “no one in the Reagan admin-
istration wanted to even hear the word hostage,” Anderson writes. And although White House officials, concerned with their political survival, put the hostages on the back burner, Ander-
son does not cast blame. “That is the way politicians react,” he told Maclean’s. “You might as well be mad at a puppy for peeing on the carpet.” Another victim of U.S. foreign policy was Anglican church envoy Terry Waite, who first interceded in the hostage affair after Presbyterian minister Benjamin Weir disappeared on May 8,
1984. Waite was praised for helping to negotiate the release of three Americans—Weir in September, 1985, Roman Catholic priest Lawrence Jenco and Beirut hospital director David Jacobsen the following year. But in Den of Lions, Anderson notes that Waite was used as “a front man by North, set up to take credit for the releases” and detract attention from the real reason for their freedom: the secret dealings between Washington and Tehran. In Taken on Trust (Doubleday, 370 pages, $29.95), Waite ruefully admits that he was “caught between the machinations of groups in America and Hizbollah.” But he gives no indication in the book that he was aware at the time of the arms-forhostages fiasco.
In an interview with Maclean’s, the towering, soft-spoken Waite, 54, said that while he did share some information with North, he had the
best interests of the hostages at heart. And he denied that he was carrying a tracking device or was an American spy, as some have suggested. “I met with Oliver North because Oliver North was the person appointed by the American administration to deal with hostages,” he said. “Just because you meet with people is not to say that you are in cahoots with them.”
That aside, Waite’s association with the discredited Reagan aide, in the eyes of the Islamic militants, compromised his neutrality, leading to his capture during his fifth and final mission to Beirut in January, 1987. At the time, Waite had been given assurances from intermediaries that he would be allowed to visit Anderson and Sutherland, who, according to their captors, were depressed and ill. And despite the ob-
vious risk, he fatefully decided to meet with the kidnappers. “I actually had a chance to walk away,” he said. “But I told myself that if I believe in anything then I had to carry through.”
Unlike Anderson, Waite spent the lion’s share of his 1,763 days of captivity—almost five years—in solitary confinement. In order to keep his sanity, he recreated his entire life in minute detail in his head, later basing the book on those memories. Waite relives his childhood, his days in the Grenadier Guards and the Anglican Church Army, his time spent in Africa as a church adviser, and his work at Lambeth Palace as an aide to Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury. At times, the detail gets tedious—such as when he outlines the history of the church in Uganda. But Waite is at his best when his dry sense of humor shines through, as it often does, and while struggling to sort out his conflicting emotions. “Suffering need not destroy,” he concludes. “Your spirit can never be chained.”
The most powerful of the three books is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (Viking, 297 pages, $29.99). The 43-year-old Belfast native, who holds both British and Irish citizenship, was kidnapped in Beirut on April 11, 1986, while on his way to give a morning lecture at the American University, and imprisoned for 1,597 days—4Viz years. He takes the reader on a bizarre and erratic odyssey from the precipice of insanity, complete with hallucinations induced by solitary confinement, to moments of remarkable inner peace. The most challenging
of the three books to read—it is often overwhelmingly bleak, full of stream-of-consciousness musings that capture both mania and depression—there is an incredible payoff. Keenan, on the brink of forever losing his mind, was eventually moved into a cell with Briton John McCarthy, a television cameraman. A deep trust and love developed between the two men, who ultimately saved each other from complete disintegration.
Despite appalling conditions and savage beatings, Keenan and McCarthy maintained a twisted sense of humor throughout their ordeal. They referred to a pair of guards as the Brothers Kalishnikov. They hurled outrageous AngloIrish abuse at each other until they dissolved in laughter. They even acted out imaginary characters. “With these characters we entertained ourselves for many hours,” Keenan writes in one of the book’s most poignant passages. “Through them we brought other people into the cell to be with us, to talk to us or to make us laugh. In that laughter we discovered
something of what life really is. We were convinced that if there was a God that God was, above all else, a comedian. In humor, sometimes hysterical, sometimes calculated, often childish, life was returned to us.”
Keenan’s book is a masterpiece—sad and noble. As deeply disturbing as it is uproariously funny, it provides incredible insight into what it is like to lose one’s freedom—and, almost, one’s very identity. “That the human mind can travel into those dark regions and return exhausted but intact,” Keenan writes, “is more a miracle than that word can ever convey.”
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