WASHINGTON -- Morning tea. Radio shows and occasional videos. Enough -- or even too much -- to eat.
While uncertainty still clouds the future of American hostages in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, reports from released hostages John McCarthy and Edward A. Tracy provide assurance that treatment of the captives is better than it once was.
Hostages who were shackled in roach-infested cells, beaten and starved in the mid-1980s seem now to have more freedom to move around, greater opportunity to socialize with fellow captives, and at least minimal access to medical treatment and other necessities.
"For the last two years at least, food and living conditions have improved greatly," John McCarthy, the British television journalist, told reporters after he was released last week.
The newly released hostages continue to provide additional details of these improvements. Tracy, an adventurer and book-seller, has told how his captors gave him coffee once or twice a week, tea every morning and card games each day.
Once or twice a week he saw a video. "Some of them can cook really good," he said of his captors.
Indeed, hostages Terry Anderson, Terry Waite and Tom Sutherland, who are being held jointly by the group called Islamic Jihad, "are frantically exercising," Anderson's sister, Peggy Say, said after talking to McCarthy. "They want to look good when they come out and they've become a little obese."
The three men have a short-wave radio that could pick up news reports, McCarthy said, and is particularly useful to Sutherland, an agricultural professor, who is fluent in French.
Other recent reports have indicated that the hostages, who were often chained in darkened cells in the earlier days of their captivity, are now kept in large rooms that are partitioned into cells and joined by common rooms where they can spend time together.
Experts believe that there are a number of possible explanations for the improvement in the hostages treatment, which they say has improved gradually since 1985.
The captors who are about to give up hostages want them to appear well-treated, so Western governments will be more likely to give up Islamic prisoners -- and less likely to launch military missions against them.
As time has passed, the abductors have probably found it easier to provide for the various needs of the prisoners and feel less pressure to treat them like CIA spies who should be sweated for secrets, said Brian Jenkins, terrorism expert at Kroll & Associates in Los Angeles.
"After all those years, what valuable information could they have left?" he asked. "Pressuring them becomes irrelevant."
Terrorism specialists say that, despite the apparent improvements in the hostages' lives, the physical and emotional toll of their captivity should not be underestimated. The close confinement without sunshine, fresh air or easy movement, combined with frightful uncertainty, leaves prisoners weak physically and emotionally frail, as Tracy's appearance demonstrated Sunday.