Prisoner of time shrugs off his seven-year hitch

Robert Fisk in Beirut welcomes back his colleague Terry Anderson, who was the longest-held hostage in Lebanon
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We were driving through the Lebanese Shia Muslim suburb of Ouzai when Terry Anderson looked to the left of the car. "They took me straight down this road, through the Syrian checkpoint without stopping, and turned left into a lock-up garage right around here," he said. On 16 May 1985 "they" kidnapped Terry Anderson close to his home in west Beirut, and somewhere amid the furniture stores, bakeries and ironmongers here he spent the first night of almost seven years of captivity, the longest- held hostage in Lebanon.

And now he was back, grinning in the back of a Beirut taxi, driving towards southern Lebanon through the city in which he suffered a miniature Calvary of hopelessness for the crime of being an American. "How do I know exactly where I was, Fisky? I was blindfolded. But it was on this road."

Maybe up that cul-de-sac, I suggested, in one of the three steel lock- ups below the red-earth wall below runway 1-8 of Beirut International Airport? "I could hear the jets," he said. "You know, later, when I was in my cell at Hay el-Selum, I was so close to the runways that I could smell the aero-engine fuel off the jets."

We had known that, had sat on those same jets and looked at the two-storey concrete slums and said "Hi Terry" in our minds, knowing that the man we knew so well was growing older in the buildings 100 yards away. We were free - just - and he was not, and we did not wish for any exclusive interviews in the basements of Beirut.

And now here was Terry, returned for the first time, to film a documentary, to the land in which he spent so many years a hostage, not particularly interested in his place of near-martyrdom, refusing to blame anyone, reading the morning Beirut papers much as he did when he was the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut.

"Everyone changes, Fisky," he said. "I was locked up for seven years. If you spend seven years in that situation and you don't change it would really be a waste. I've changed as much in the last five years as I did in the previous seven. But I still believe the same things I did. I'm still the same person."

Is he? Overweight, as usual,waving away problems, he seemed to be the same Terry, oblivious to the dangers of bombs and shells. But that is how he was kidnapped, ignoring the warning signal of an attempted kidnap down the road from our apartment block a day before his abduction. He seemed to me easier to anger, his humour more cautious. Or was this because I too have less patience now?

On our balcony, he aimed a champagne cork at his favourite palm tree - Terry lived in the flat above ours - and the cork landed dead centre of the fronds. And in the corner by my front door, we later found ourselves remembering that this was where we had sat, one floor above, on the night before his abduction 11 years ago. I had told him then that it was better to fight a kidnapper. He had insisted it was better to give up without a fight: "if they come, it's better to let them take you". On his release, Terry had signed for me a copy of his hostage biography, writing on the title page: "See - I was right!"

He broke the US travel ban to return to Lebanon - he told the US Senate foreign relations committee he would do so because "neither the Congress nor the State Department can prevent any American from going any place he or she chooses" - but in theory he could be prosecuted. More likely, the State Department will keep its mouth shut, aware that if the very symbol of an American "terrorist" victim happily travels back to Lebanon, the reasons for the travel ban represent a lie. Algeria is more dangerous for foreigners than Lebanon, Anderson argued. So is Egypt. So why Lebanon?

He journeyed through Lebanon with his Lebanese wife, Madeleine; their daughter, Sulome, was born three months after his kidnap. "Our main task is to take the things that have happened to us and make use of them in a positive way," he said. "We have things now we would not have had; that doesn't in any way lessen the cruelty of what they did to me. We are here today because of everything that has happened to us. Both of us. But it is all done. It has brought us to this place. It's a good place to be."

Later, he will meet the leadership of the Hizbollah whose satellite minions once took Terry off to his seven years of captivity. But he has no interest in confrontation. "I want to hear what they say, to understand Lebanon with new eyes."

One of the more imperishable moments of his visit came when he met Lebanon's Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, who had no role in the civil war. As Terry stood to greet the ruler of the country in which he was held captive, Mr Hariri advanced with outstretched hand, just a hint of a smile on his face, wondering how to frame his greeting. After a slight hesitation, he said quietly: "Welcome back."