Advertisement
Culture

My Search for the Islamist Terrorists Who Kidnapped My Dad

Months before I was born, my father was kidnapped at gunpoint in Beirut.

by Sulome Anderson
28 September 2016, 4:00am

Former hostage Terry Anderson, smiling behind his six-year-old daughter Sulome—the author—reaches out to shake hands upon his arrival at the Associated Press headquarters in New York on Wednesday, December 10, 1991. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Former hostage Terry Anderson, smiling behind his six-year-old daughter Sulome—the author—reaches out to shake hands upon his arrival at the Associated Press headquarters in New York on Wednesday, December 10, 1991. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

From the forthcoming book The Hostage's Daughter: A Story of Family, Madness and the Middle East by Sulome Anderson. Copyright © 2016 by Sulome Anderson.

I actually remember the moment I met my father in startling detail.

Exhausted, I had fallen asleep on a couch in a waiting room at the American embassy in Damascus, Syria. A thin, pale man in thick glasses woke me. He was smiling. Mama was sobbing. He hugged me and my mother hugged him. Dazed, I held on to his hand as we walked outside into a sea of people, all cheering and shouting their congratulations.

The cameras flashed constantly, hurting my eyes. I noticed that despite his smile, my new father flinched at the noise and the lights. I wondered at his hand shaking in mine.

Over two decades later, a man I dated for a bit slept over at my house. Forgetting he was there, I began counting out the handful of pills I take every night before bed. He saw what I was doing and asked what medication I was on. Thinking an abbreviated version of the truth would suffice at that stage in our relationship, I told him I was on antidepressants.

"Wow," he exclaimed, only half joking. "Baggage."

I looked at the picture hanging on my wall of the night I met my father. He's beaming in it, clutching an enormous bouquet of flowers in one arm. I'm attached to his other hand, wearing a little red coat and a confused smile. It's a famous, almost iconic image of the 1980s Lebanese hostage crisis—the man, the flowers, the little girl.

I wanted to put my hand to that child's cheek, wrap my arms around her, and never let go.

Former hostage Terry Anderson grins with the author, six-year-old Sulome, as they leave the US Ambassador's residence in Damascus early Thursday, December 4, 1991, to board a plane to Germany. (AP Photo/Santiago Lyon)

The day my father was kidnapped began with the best of intentions.

"The night before, we were all at your dad's house," Don Mell, a former Associated Press photographer in Beirut, tells me. "We were all drinking, and at some point we realized we weren't getting enough exercise. So tennis was kind of our thing, and you could play tennis for free at that little court by the lighthouse. We agreed to play and your dad picked me up at about seven the next morning."

Mell was almost a little brother to my dad, who was the AP bureau chief in Beirut at the time. They got close covering the daily violence of Lebanon's civil war together. I've known him practically my whole life, but this is the first time I've seen him in years. He's just the same as I remember him: round, with a wry smile and a caustic sense of humor.

My dad and Don share a bond that's as unique as any I can imagine: He was in the car with my father when Dad was taken, and although I know he's told the story countless times, he agrees to take me back to the morning he saw one of his best friends kidnapped in front of him.

"When we parked at the courts, I saw the car that would turn out to be the kidnap car drive by us, but I didn't really register it," he recounts. "I mean, three creepy guys in a car in Beirut during the war, you know. We played tennis for about an hour... then we get in the car and I see them again, and I thought to myself, 'If I see them a third time I'm going to say something.' But I let my guard down."

After making a stop at my dad's building, they eventually pulled up in front of Don's apartment. I imagine it was probably starting to bustle in that part of Beirut at 8:15 AM. The city would have just been waking up.

"I looked out of the front window and that car is sitting there in front of us," Mell says. "And I said, 'Holy shit,' and got out of our car. I told Terry to get the hell out of here, because I thought they were after me. You've got to realize, all this happened in the space of 20 seconds.

"Your father is trying to get the car in gear, but he starts to panic, he can't do it," Mell continues tonelessly, a faraway look in his eyes. Even after all these years, it can't be fun to relive this kind of event. "One guy went across the street and he had a Kalashnikov—he was just there to make sure that nobody interfered. There was a little taxi stand and they all—everybody knew what was happening. And then another guy, a really big guy, came and literally reached in and grabbed your dad in a sort of bear hug."

"And Dad's not a small man either," I murmur.

Cover photo courtesy Dey Street Books/Harper Collins

I'm trying to put myself in that car with them, imagining the Ain el-Mreisseh neighborhood on a March morning, the quiet of the street shattered. The exhilaration of an early-morning tennis game devolving into panic. What must have been going through their heads? Utter helplessness, I suppose—the impotence of knowing nothing you do or say will stop what's happening. The knowledge that someone else holds your life interlaced between their fingers, and they can snap it like a rubber band whenever they choose. The violation of having your body, your fate, belong to someone else. It's a feeling I'm not entirely unfamiliar with, but I know my experiences can't compare to what they went through that day.

"Right, he's not," Mell answers with a brief grin that dies almost immediately. "So anyway, this big guy pulls him out of the car. The third guy came up to me directly, and he had a Beretta. He puts it to my forehead and I am thinking, you know, one of two things is going to happen here. I'm getting in that car or I am dead. But they threw your dad in the back of the car. And then the other guy with the Kalashnikov jumps back into the car—he was the driver. The guy who was with me, he starts to back up with the gun pointed at me. He backed up about three or four feet and then I took a step forward toward him, and another step, and he just looked at me and waved the gun." Mell mimes a dismissal at me.

"Like, get out of here."

"Right. None of them said a word, they didn't say anything to each other or me, he just went like, scoot. And then he got in the car and took off. I realized our car is still running, so I threw my stuff in the backseat and I got in."

"You actually drove after them?" I ask in disbelief. That must have taken some serious balls.

"I drove after them about three or four blocks and we kept going toward the old Jewish court. We got past the Mirror Tower, and there was starting to be traffic. I mean it was Saturday, but the traffic was starting and I caught up to them. I saw the guy looking out of the window at me. And I thought, 'What the fuck am I doing?' I mean, all I had was a tennis racket in my hand. I was hoping to get to a checkpoint and then go around them, but they obviously had their escape route, and you know they had a safe house. So I just drove to the office and that was that."

"And then you told everyone?"

"Right. Of course, everybody in the office was hungover. I said, 'Terry has been kidnapped,' and they asked how I knew and I said,

'Because I was there.'"

Terry Anderson carries the author, 11, as they leave Beirut airport following their arrival in 1996 for his first trip back after being kidnapped. (AP Photo/Saleh Rifai)

Dad was well aware of the dangers he faced before he was taken. But until my father was kidnapped, journalists in conflict zones hadn't become the walking bullseyes they are today. There was an implicit understanding that parties on all sides should avoid targeting reporters, who were, ostensibly anyway, neutral witnesses.

I still have an AP t-shirt my father gave my mother before he was taken. I often sleep in it, as it reminds me of a different time in journalism, one I fear will never return. On the back, it reads PRESS, DON'T SHOOT in five different languages. The idea of wearing such a t-shirt in most wars these days is ludicrous. Advertising oneself as a member of the press basically means issuing an invitation to every asshole with a longing for ransom money or a hankering to televise the gruesome death of a Westerner.

So maybe it was that Dad felt a false sense of safety as a reporter documenting the atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War, many of which were being committed against Muslims, both Shia and Sunni. Or perhaps it was just the arrogance and delusion of invincibility that plague so many of us, not only journalists. Either way, while most Americans in Lebanon listened to their government and left the country, my father stayed put. I wonder if he would take that back now. If he were given a ride in a time-traveling car, Back to the Future style, would he return to 1985 and abandon the innocent people dying, starving, and suffering—the ones he felt such a calling to tell the world about? I'm not sure. Knowing my dad as I do, there's a good chance he still wouldn't have left Beirut, even if he had known what was in store for him. My father is a reporter to the core. He considered it his life's work to tell the truth about war—no matter the price.

I remember how my mother's face would tighten and turn ash gray sometimes when I was very small.

All of Dad's circle of friends were reporters. They had their own sources, and after he was abducted, they worked their connections as hard as they could, trying to find information on his whereabouts and condition. In a Skype conversation, Scheherazade Faramarzi—another colleague of my dad's whom everyone called Shazi—tells about how she and fellow journalist Robert Fisk began their quest to find my father.

"I had a very good source in Tehran," she begins. "We used to call him Annie so that nobody would know who we were talking about, but it was a man. Anyway, this guy used to be part of the Iranian regime, but at the time when I got in touch with him, he had left his job and was doing business. I called him in Tehran and I said, 'Can you do something? What can you do?' He said, 'Let me find out.' After a few exchanges, he told me he had talked to the Iranian regime and they wanted to know what happened to four Iranians who had disappeared."

Shazi and Fisk made some inquiries into the whereabouts of the missing Iranians. Most of their sources seemed to think the men were dead, and they relayed this to Annie. But their dialogue with him continued.

"I put Fisk in charge of contact with this guy, but of course we kept your mother informed, and she became very dependent on Annie," Shazi murmurs softly. "I think she was clinging to him, to his information. It made her keep going."

This hurts my heart a little. I remember how my mother's face would tighten and turn ash gray sometimes when I was very small. Sometimes, I can still hear her sobbing behind a closed door.

"This guy started coming into Cyprus to talk with us, because it was very dangerous to talk over the phone," Shazi tells me. "We [Shazi and Fisk] went one night to a pub, because it was dark and noisy. We didn't want anybody to hear us. It was like a James Bond movie. He wrote down—and I still have this piece of paper; it's become yellow now—he wrote down the name Imad Mughniyeh."

Mughniyeh would soon become the primary suspect in the US government's hunt for the terrorist mastermind who was engineering the kidnappings. But at the time, he was little more than a rumor—just the faint outline of a boogeyman in the dark.

"We had never heard of him," Shazi says. "He didn't even want to utter his name."

Preorder a copy of The Hostage's Daughter, to be published on October 4 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, here. Reprinted by permission. Follow Sulome Anderson on Twitter.