By: jodi b. cohen
”I WAS COMING up an elevator having just arrived at the hotel and one of you said, ‘Hi Terry, I heard you went back to Beirut. . . . Are you crazy?'” former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson told a packed room at the annual Associated Press Managing Editors conference in Denver.
Crazy? “Not exactly, no I am not,” Anderson said. “It was a decision that was a long time coming and my wife and I thought about it for a while.”
Anderson was taken hostage on March 16, 1985 by Muslim extremists and released on Dec. 4, 1991 ? the longest-held of the 92 foreigners who were kidnapped.
Anderson went back to Beirut recently, not to look at his old cell or talk to his captors, but to shoot a documentary for CNN Presents on how Lebanon is faring post-war.
“I was not going back to look up old prison cells, it wasn’t about that, I wasn’t interested in that,” he said. “When you see the documentary, you want to know how I felt about that, and it’s there, but the real purpose was to look at Lebanon, a country I have a considerable stake in, and one that I like very much.”
Terry’s wife, Madeleine, first went to Lebanon to spend the summer with her family and deemed it safe for Anderson to return.
“I couldn’t go back as a tourist, that wouldn’t be right, so I thought up this documentary about Lebanon, sold it to CNN and we put together a crew and went over,” he said. “About a week before I left for Beirut, I had the first nightmare I had had in four years, sitting right up in bed with that vivid sense of being in prison again.”
However, he felt not only was it something he had to do, but something he wanted to do, as well. Not going back, he said, was a “restriction” on his life, and he always felt like he had to go back at some point to get rid of that restriction.
“It was a little strange flying into the Beirut airport, landing, driving through the suburbs . . . but the guns are gone,” he said. “I felt pretty safe and I didn’t have any fear for myself, but it was very strange looking at those bearded faces, because any number of them could have been my guards, and they are just normal people like me.”
Anderson traveled to the south, into the Hezbollah [umbrella group for Shiite guerillas] village, basically covering the entire country. He traveled to Baalbeck and saw the Greek ruins, over which you can see the prison where Anderson was held captive for six years.
“If you stand on the ruins and look up the hill, just maybe a half mile away, you can see the barracks with which whose basements I am very familiar,” he said. “It now belongs to the Lebanese Army; they threw out Hezbollah a year or so ago.”
Anderson did interview Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah’s secretary general.
“It was a little spooky to go into those offices with the guards, and now they have metal detectors that you have to go through,” he said, “and like before, they take the cameras and examine them; they are very suspicious people, for good reason I suppose.”
The guards sat him down in front of this “rather gentle looking and speaking man with a white beard and turban” and Anderson said he heard the harshest words spoken very softly.
“I asked him, ‘What do you think of the kidnapping?’ ” he said. “He said it was an individual response to an individual situation, talking about
the 17 in Kuwait for whom I was supposed to be exchanged, and he fudged over the rest.”
Anderson asked him if he’ll say now that it was wrong, and Nasrallah said no. Anderson then asked him if there are circumstances in which he could conceive of himself living in peace with Israel.
“He said no to that too, so they haven’t changed that much, their ideas,” he said, “but they have changed their tactics.”
Although the Lebanese frequently apologized to him, from those who “would have some reason to apologize” ? nothing whatsoever.
He said the Lebanese are much more practical now, and that’s encouraging for Lebanon. Anderson saw many old friends and was received “magnificently” he said.
“I was on local television so I had hordes of photographers following me for the first two days until I told them to stop,” he said. “The prime minister received us twice and said we had total access to whatever we wanted, and the president received us and spent a lot of time with us.”
Anderson’s return meant a lot more to the Lebanese, however. He said they thought that if he could return, then, “yes, it’s okay, and things are going well.”
Downtown Lebanon is being rebuilt and redeveloped “meticulously and very well,” using the Lebanese energy, focus and incredible stubborness, according to Anderson. However, it’s uneven development.
“They don’t have regular drinking water, they have insufficient electricity, not enough sewers, not enough roads, not enough phones . . . ,” he said, “and they have political problems. Syria still dominates. Otherwise, they are running things with a light hand, and you don’t see Syrians interfering with ordinary people.”
Anderson believes peace in Lebanon and the continued redevelopment depends on the progress of the Middle East peace talks. Although he doesn’t believe there’s going to be much action on that front for a while, he does believe Lebanon will hold its own.
Anderson said he is proud of the documentary that is scheduled to air Dec. 1 on CNN Presents. It’s tentatively called “The Return to the Lion’s Den” and he thinks it will be worth watching.
He then thanked the packed room of AP managing editors for never forgetting him during his ordeal.
“This is one particular group that has spent a lot of time thinking about me and has always warmly welcomed me every time I have come back to you, and I am always happy to be here.”
Anderson is happily married and still watching his child grow up, whom he had never seen before his release.
He is currently teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, has engaged himself in civic life in the city, and writes a column distributed by King Features Syndicate.
?(Former AP Middle East correspondent Terry Anderson walks with his wife Madeleine during his recent trip back to Beirut to film a documentary for CNN on his years as a hostage) [Photo &Caption]