FREEDOM 2,455-day ordeal ends for Anderson, U.S.

December 05, 1991|By Nick B. Williams Jr. | Nick B. Williams Jr.,Los Angeles Times

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Terry A. Anderson, the last U.S. hostage in Lebanon, finally became a free man again yesterday, closing the door on a dark and painful chapter for himself and his country.

Held for almost seven years in captivity, deprived of family and friends, denied all but the simplest necessities, a victim of the hatreds of the Middle East, Mr. Anderson said he left his militant captors in Beirut with a single word: "Goodbye."

Mr. Anderson's plane landed in Frankfurt, Germany, today, the Associated Press reported. He was taken to the U.S. military hospital in nearby Wiesbaden for medical checkups.

The nearly decade-long drama of the U.S. hostages came to a joyous finish at a late-night news conference in the Syrian Foreign Ministry here.

Mr. Anderson, the 44-year-old chief Middle East correspondent for the AP, hailed old colleagues, embraced an AP correspondent and thanked the governments and organizations and "thousands and thousands of people whom I don't know, I've never met, don't know me, who I know have been working and praying for us all."

Greeting his colleagues, Mr. Anderson said simply, "You can't imagine how glad I am to see you."

Bedecked in broken eyeglasses, a cardigan sweater and an open-neck white shirt, Mr. Anderson -- looking well, his mustache neatly trimmed -- seemed to emerge from 2,455 days of captivity in better shape than the other recently released hostages.

Asked what kept him going through the hard years, the one-time Marine sergeant replied: "My companions . . . my faith, stubbornness, I guess. You just do what you have to do." And to his title as the longest-held hostage: "It's an honor I'd have gladly given up a long time ago."

At least 87 foreigners were kidnapped in Lebanon during the ugly era that gave the word "hostage" a wrenching, personal meaning to Americans. Seventeen U.S. citizens were among them; three died in captivity.

Mr. Anderson, held the longest, is the latest of several to win freedom over the past five months, three in the past three days, under a breakthrough initiative launched by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Two German aid workers are still held. A kidnapped Italian businessman is thought to be dead.

But it was Mr. Anderson who represented the defiant spirit and terrible plight of the hostages, and while he was caged in the name of Islamic militancy, his name became known across his country and the globe.

Even at the end of his ordeal, freedom seemed hard to grasp for him.

Advised Tuesday that he would be released, Mr. Anderson said, he spent a fitful night that opened to a frustrating day, as his journey to Damascus was delayed and detoured by snow-blocked roads. The usual, three-hour trip from Beirut, where he was turned over to Syrian military authorities, to Damascus took 12 hours, with several stops.

"I think these last 24 hours have been longer than the whole 6 1/2 years," he said.

Mr. Anderson was a captive of militant Shiite Muslims for six years, nine months and 18 days. Like most of the hostages, he was detained in dark, cell-like rooms, blindfolded, chained to walls and radiators.

In Damascus to meet Mr. Anderson yesterday were the daughter he had never seen, Sulome, 6, and her Lebanese-born mother, Madeleine Bassil, Mr. Anderson's fiancee.

In Tokyo, Mr. Anderson's estranged wife, Mihoko, and daughter, Gabrielle, now 15, declined to comment on his release.

In his long captivity, Mr. Anderson had treasured a photo of Sulome that his kidnappers allowed him to receive. In a videotape shot by a Lebanese company and aired over Cable News Network two months ago, the captive journalist said he had also heard a British Broadcasting Corp. radio message from Sulome. "I was delighted," he said.

Mr. Anderson came to Beirut in 1982, the year of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. On March 16, 1985, he was driving back to his office when he was seized by gunmen.

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