For 1,826 days, Terry Anderson has not known freedom

Published March 16, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

Five years ago in Beirut, in the clear light of a city that was just waking up to another weary morning of war, Terry Anderson played tennis for an hour on a court by the sea. On the mile-long drive home to take a shower, he was pulled out of his car by men with 9-mm pistols and shoved into their green Mercedes, the same one that had cruised past the tennis court while he was swatting backhands and forehands.

The kidnapping was over in 45 seconds. Then the real ordeal began.

In the 1,826 days since then, hostages who have been freed say, Anderson has been held somewhere in the rubble-strewn Lebanese capital, sometimes chained to furniture and blindfolded, sometimes taped from head to toe like a mummy and taken in a coffin to another hiding place.

Sometimes, the freed hostages say, he pounded on his cell door to demand a radio from his captors.

Sometimes he fashioned chess pieces out of tin-foil cheese wrappers. Sometimes he practiced French or Arabic, or he read the Bible.

Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, has been held captive longer than the 17 other Westerners who are hostages in Lebanon.

He is now 42. He has never seen his 4-year-old daughter.

In 1985 he was a broad-shouldered hard-driving former Marine, a fan of Linda Ronstadt and Hank Williams Jr. who covered the Lebanese war wearing a Marine Corps belt buckle.

Colleagues at the AP say he had just given up smoking, had taken up jogging and had lost 20 pounds on a low-carbohydrate diet _ strawberries and cream, but no rice or vegetables.

A year later, his Moslem captors released photographs of a grim, emaciated-looking man.

He spoke to the world last in a videotape in 1988, not long after he marked his 1,000th day as a hostage by ramming his head against the pale yellow plaster of his 10-foot-by-10-foot cell, until he bled.

Hostages who have been freed say that as the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years, Anderson went on hunger strikes and gave his captors defiant, satirical salutes.

Now, as they tear another page off the calendar, Anderson's relatives and friends can only guess at how the five years have changed him. They know how it has changed them.

His sister, Peggy Say, dropped out of college to spend her life trying to win his release, first behind the scenes, later publicly, demanding that the government do something.

She has logged thousands of flight miles, meeting with Ronald Reagan when he was president, as well as Lt.Col. Oliver North and anyone else she thought might help _ from ambassadors and foreign ministers to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Say has been the target of hate mail for her criticisms of the Reagan administration and its handling of the hostage situation.

Diplomats told her she was only prolonging her brother's ordeal, but she remains Terry Anderson's most determined advocate.

Above all, Anderson's partisans are determined that he not be forgotten in the rush of headlines from a changing world.

"Once you get past a day like Friday, everybody says, "We've done our bit,' until the next anniversary, the next videotape or bad Polaroid is released," said Bill Foley, who worked with Anderson and is now a photographer for Time magazine.

What Anderson knows about how the 1980s played themselves out and the 1990s began is an open question.

When he was kidnapped, Mikhail Gorbachev was just coming to power in the Soviet Union. Wall Street was climbing to new altitudes. The air pockets that sent the Dow Jones average plummeting were years away.

"So much has happened in the world since he was taken," said Don Mell, an AP photographer who was Anderson's tennis partner that morning.

"Our lives have gone on, people have been married, divorced, broken up with our girlfriends _ that sort of thing. We've all had these things happen, but Terry's life has been on perpetual hold."

He may or may not know _ the freed hostages think he does not _ that his father, Glenn R. Anderson, and a brother, Glenn R. Anderson Jr., died in 1986.

His brother died of lung cancer on an airplane flight from Batavia, N.Y., to his home in Ocala, four days after making a videotape plea to Anderson's captors.

The first thing Terry Anderson's friends tell people who for five years have known him not as a byline but as a pale, drawn face on grainy videotapes is that he had been in the Marine Corps.

He first went to Lebanon on temporary AP assignment in mid-1982 to help cover the Israeli invasion.

A promotion to chief Middle East correspondent came in 1982.

By then other reporters were agonizing about whether to leave town as the bombs landed closer and closer to home.

Not Anderson. By 1983 or 1984 the once-swaggering press corps at the Commodore Hotel bar was behind steel doors, playing Trivial Pursuit by gaslight. But Terry Anderson stayed on. And then he became a hostage.

"The first time I saw him was through a crack in a clothes closet, a man chained to a bed," said the Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest who was freed in 1986.

Jenco said Anderson constantly pumped their captors for information about the outside world, for better conditions, for more reading material than what they brought _ some Dickens novels, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Albert Camus' The Plague.

The AP, which has helped cover Say's expenses and has sent executives abroad with her, says that, until Terry Anderson comes home and executives have a chance to talk with him, no decisions will be made on when and where his next assignment might be.

"If I know Terry, that's about the first question he'll ask me," said Louis Boccardi, The AP's president and general manager. "So much will depend on his own wishes and what this ordeal has done to him."

But first must come his release.