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Terry Anderson, American Journalist Held Hostage for 7 Years by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Dies at 76

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Terry Anderson, the tenacious American journalist who was held captive for nearly seven agonizing years by Islamic militants in Lebanon, enduring beatings, chains and constant threats of execution in what became one of the longest and most searing hostage ordeals of modern times, died on Sunday in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. He was 76.

His daughter Sulome Anderson said the cause was complications following recent heart surgery. But in truth, the seeds of Mr. Anderson’s mortality were likely sown decades earlier, when he was snatched at gunpoint from a Beirut street in 1985 and plunged into an underworld of protracted cruelty and anguish as a prisoner of Hezbollah extremists during Lebanon’s vicious civil war.

The kidnapping of the seasoned Associated Press correspondent, then 38, made instant global headlines and emblematized the hazards facing journalists working in conflict zones. For the next 2,455 harrowing days, Mr. Anderson’s name became a poignant symbol of the risks inherent in eyewitness war reporting as he was subjected to deprivations, both physical and psychological, that he would spend the rest of his life trying to overcome.

“Terry was deeply committed to on-the-ground eyewitness reporting and demonstrated great bravery and resolve, both in his journalism and during his years held hostage,” said Julie Pace, the executive editor of The A.P. “We are so appreciative of the sacrifices he and his family made as the result of his work.”

At the time he vanished without a trace on that fateful day of March 16, 1985, Mr. Anderson had been serving as the news agency’s chief Middle East correspondent, chronicling the factionalized bloodletting and foreign interventions that had plunged Lebanon into anarchic violence. He was seized from his car after a tennis game with Don Mell, an A.P. photographer, by heavily armed militants who shoved the two men around before binding Mr. Anderson with duct tape and abducting him alone into the maelstrom of Beirut’s sectarian strife.

For his family and colleagues at The A.P., it marked the start of a long vigil of anguished uncertainty over his whereabouts and wellbeing as the kidnappers’ identity and motives remained murky. Mr. Anderson, an Arabic speaker, resurfaced months later in a blurry video in which he identified his captors as Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group that had formed to combat Israeli forces occupying parts of Lebanon.

Over the coming years, the tall, rangy newsman with a Marine’s bearing was shuttled between squalid militant redoubts and prisons across Beirut’s vast underworld of clandestine hideouts. He was frequently beaten, chained hand and foot in cramped cells, threatened with execution and deprived of communication with the outside world beyond the odd smuggled letter. At one point he was even transported while shackled to the undercarriage of a truck.

“One of the problems I had was I did not recognize sufficiently the damage that had been done,” Mr. Anderson acknowledged years later of his trauma. “So, when people ask me, you know, ‘Are you over it?’ Well, I don’t know. No, not really. It’s there.”

Through it all, the hostage remained defiant in captivity, frequently mocking his militant jailers and arguing with them over religion and politics, according to accounts from fellow captives. He taught himself and others ingenious ways to communicate using sign language. And in one instance, the always quick-witted Mr. Anderson even managed to inform the leader of his kidnappers that he had just heard news of his own release, prompting the two to share a laugh amid the bleakness.

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“I said, ‘Mahmoud, listen to this, I’m not here. I’m gone, babes. I’m on my way to Damascus,'” he recounted later to biographers. “And we both laughed.”

In reality, Mr. Anderson’s freedom remained a cruelty permanently postponed, as he became the longest-held victim of a spate of foreigner abductions carried out by Shiite militias in the 1980s amid Lebanon’s factional chaos. The radicals demanded the release of guerrilla prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli troops in exchange for the hostages.

His daughter Sulome was born in September 1985, half a year after her father’s vanishing act, the start of a childhood spent grappling with his prolonged absence. The daughter of Mr. Anderson and his fiance Madeleine Bassil grew into a young woman before finally reuniting with her father at age 6 upon his release in December 1991 at age 44.

Mr. Anderson was hardly alone in his tribulations. Among the prominent Westerners seized by Shiite groups were fellow American captives like the Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco, a Catholic priest held for nearly two years. The militants also grabbed Terry Waite, an Anglican church envoy who had traveled to Beirut in an attempt to negotiate freedom for the hostages before getting captured himself.

But Mr. Anderson’s ordeal proved the lengthiest of them all, inspiring deep admiration among colleagues for his stoic resilience and endurance in the face of unremitting dehumanization.

“The word ‘hero’ gets tossed around a lot but applying it to Terry Anderson just enhances it,” said Louis D. Boccardi, who was The A.P.’s president and chief executive during the hostage crisis. “His six-and-a-half-year ordeal as a hostage of terrorists was as unimaginable as it was real — chains, being transported from hiding place to hiding place strapped to the chassis of a truck, given often inedible food, cut off from the world he reported on with such skill and caring.”

Mr. Boccardi said his staff spent every waking day for years trying to locate Mr. Anderson and secure his release.

When he finally emerged in Syrian custody on a December day in 1991, a wizened, graying Mr. Anderson was greeted by celebration and relief at The A.P.’s New York headquarters. But his reintegration into normal life proved another arduous journey.

He received treatment to address the severe post-traumatic stress he experienced after being held in isolation, issuing curmudgeonly threats and exposed to an ever-present potential for violence over such an extended stretch. Though released into freedom, his psyche remained caged.

“Terry was never the same after his unfathomable imprisonment in Lebanon,” said Mr. Mell, who was in the car with him on the fateful day he was seized and remained Mr. Anderson’s lifelong friend afterward. “Our relationship was deeper than just that one incident. He was brave as could be, but he changed.”

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Wearing his experience like a bodily scar, Mr. Anderson had a mercurial second act upon regaining his liberty in the 1990s. He parlayed his fame into a career as a professional speaker and teacher, establishing journalism courses at several prestigious universities. His searing memoir “Den of Lions” became a best seller.

The U.S. government also enabled Mr. Anderson to recoup tens of millions of dollars in damages from Iran, which a federal court found had supported his Hezbollah captors. But the author’s business investments went awry, and he ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

In his waning years, Mr. Anderson seemed to find a semblance of the peace so cruelly denied to him during his interminable Myanmar’s harsh imprisonment. After retiring from the University of Florida in 2015, he settled on a small horse farm in rural Virginia he discovered through camping trips, trading urban commotion for pastoral quietude.

“I live in the country and it’s reasonably good weather and quiet out here and a nice place, so I’m doing all right,” Mr. Anderson said with a resigned chuckle during an interview in 2018.

Born on Oct. 27, 1947, in Lorain, Ohio, where his father worked as a police officer, Terry Alan Anderson had aspired to be a writer from a young age despite a childhood stutter. After high school, he turned down a scholarship to the University of Michigan, instead enlisting in the Marines and serving in the Vietnam War, where he earned the rank of staff sergeant.

Upon returning stateside, Mr. Anderson attended Iowa State University, developing passions for journalism and political science that steered him toward a globetrotting career as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in the 1970s and 1980s. Postings took him across the United States and overseas to bureaus in Louisville, Tokyo, and Johannesburg before the plum assignment in Beirut, on the cusp of Lebanon’s unraveling.

That coveted opportunity in Beirut quickly became a prolonged nightmare from which Mr. Anderson spent a lifetime trying to recover both physically and psychologically.

On March 16, 1985, he was leaving a tennis game with his friend and AP photographer Don Mell when their car was ambushed by heavily armed militants. Mr. Mell was shoved around but ultimately released unharmed. But Mr. Anderson was bound with duct tape, shoved into the car trunk and taken away at gunpoint, disappearing into the anarchy gripping Lebanon’s streets.

His captors were members of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which had formed in opposition to Israel’s military occupation of parts of Lebanon and was taking Westerners as bargaining chips. Mr. Anderson’s fluency in Arabic likely made the intrepid reporter appear suspect to the radicals in their paranoia over spies and foreign agents.

What ensued was a prolonged saga of deprivation, torture and anguish that saw the veteran journalist shuttled between cramped cells and primitive hideouts across Beirut’s underground militant network. He withstood beatings, threats of execution, was frequently shackled hand and foot, and endured harrowing transportation tactics like being chained under the carriage of a truck.

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Fellow hostages recounted how the defiant Mr. Anderson frequently mocked his captors and argued over politics and religion. He taught inmates ways to communicate secretly in sign language and semaphore. In one absurdist moment of black humor, he fabricated news of his own release to the leader of the kidnappers, provoking howls of laughter in the midst of their torment.

As the years grinding on with no freedom in sight, Mr. Anderson’s daughter Sulome, born six months after his disappearance, marked birthdays and childhoods milestones with her father imprisoned a world away. Her mother Madeleine Bassil, Mr. Anderson’s fiancée at the time of the abduction, raised Sulome alone in the anguished hope her husband might return.

Other Westerners like Rev. Lawrence Jenco and the Anglican Church’s Terry Waite were also seized by Shiite militants brandishing demands for prisoner releases. But Mr. Anderson’s ordeal dragged on the longest of the captives, its dehumanizing psychological toll compounded by each passing year of isolation and uncertainty over his fate.

“The word ‘hero’ gets tossed around a lot but applying it to Terry Anderson just enhances it,” said Louis D. Boccardi, the AP’s president at the time. “His six-and-a-half-year ordeal as a hostage of terrorists was as unimaginable as it was real.”

When Mr. Anderson resurfaced in Syrian custody in December 1991 after 2,455 days in captivity, he was a shell-shocked shadow of his former self, his hair grayed and body withered. The hardships he endured would scar him indelibly.

While colleagues rejoiced at the AP offices, Mr. Anderson faced new torments assimilating to freedom after being so severed from normal society for the bulk of his adult life. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he sought counseling to relearn basic social skills.

“I did not recognize sufficiently the damage that had been done,” Mr. Anderson acknowledged later. “When people ask me, ‘Are you over it?’ Well, I don’t know. No, not really. It’s there.”

The 1990s saw him feted then forgotten in cycles as his complex odyssey migrated to the nation’s periphery. He published a best-selling memoir “Den of Lions,” was awarded substantial damages from Iran’s government over its role in his captivity, and pieced together professorships teaching journalism at elite universities.

But the investments he made with the legal windfall proved disastrous, and Mr. Anderson filed for bankruptcy in 2009, watching his financial security vanish. His trauma also strained relationships, as he spent years estranged from the daughter who had grown up without him before reconciling.

In his twilight decades, Mr. Anderson appeared to find a measure of peace and stability long denied to him. He settled into bucolic solitude operating a small horse farm in rural Virginia after retiring from teaching, trading the cacophonies of war for the quiet life he had craved.

“I live in the country and it’s reasonably good weather and quiet out here and a nice place, so I’m doing all right,” the eldery Mr. Anderson mused with hard-earned contentment during an interview just a few years ago.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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