The Plight of the Remaining Hostages Revives the Fear and Pain of a Former Captive's Wife

updated 07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 01:00AM

While the nation cheers the return of the 39 hostages, other voices are venting anger and frustration. These belong to some of the families of the seven Americans who were kidnapped in Lebanon during the past 16 months and who are still missing, excluded from the deal struck by President Reagan, Syrian President Hafez Assad and Shi'ite leader Nabih Berri of Lebanon. One of those trying to establish a dialogue among all the factions is Lucille "Sis" Levin. Her husband, Jeremy Levin, was Beirut bureau chief of Ted Turner's Cable News Network when on March 7, 1984 he was abducted by Shi'ite gunmen. After 11½ months, during which Levin was kept chained to a radiator, he escaped and found refuge with Syrian forces. Both Sis Levin and her husband believe his escape was arranged after she spent months talking with anyone she thought could help—from our State Department to Arab political leaders.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Sis, 53, is the mother of five children from a previous marriage. She wed Jerry, 53, father of one son, in 1978. Sis spoke with Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford about the ordeal of a hostage's wife.

I knew within four hours that Jerry had been kidnapped. It was Ash Wednesday, and I had gone to the CNN bureau to see if he had time to go to church with me. When I was told he had never arrived at work, I knew something horrible had happened. Television men are never late.

The first thing I did was go to our friend Nabih Berri. He said, "Jerry has been kidnapped and I abhor it." I went to the hospitals and police stations anyway, but I believed Nabih. I think he tried to help, but later Jerry was moved to the Bekaa Valley, which is under Syrian control.

After 10 days of seeking help from Sunni Muslims and various other factions, I went to Cyprus to meet my brother. We spent a week there, and then we realized we had to come back to the States and put pressure on the government from here.

Back in Washington, I started out at the State Department. All they ever told me was, "We believe he is alive and well." I was warned that if I went to the media, I might get Jerry killed. I was frightened and believed them. So I begged Jerry's colleagues, who did not agree with the State Department philosophy, not to do any stories.

There is this mistaken belief that people in trouble shouldn't be bothered. Don't ever tell people not to go to someone in trouble. They need support, comfort and advice. Luckily I knew Penne Laingen, wife of former Iranian hostage Bruce Laingen, from college, and she helped me through this ordeal. I don't know what I would have done without her support. There is a State Department handbook on hostage taking that gives practical suggestions to the families. To complement it, Penne wrote a book for State on the care and feeding of the families of hostages. Neither of these books was passed on to me. It was as though they did not exist. When I finally got hold of one much later, I read that appointing a media liaison to issue updates is recommended. But the media were never issued anything about Jerry: The whole effort was to keep it quiet.

My brother, who is an Alabama lawyer, devoted 24 hours a day for six months to helping me. We set up a hot line and calls began coming in at 4 every morning from Arab friends in Lebanon. CNN never stopped paying Jerry's salary, but I had other money problems. When our mail finally started coming through from Beirut, I learned that Jerry's life insurance had been cut off. My brother eventually got it reinstated, but because I had not paid my bills immediately, both American Express and MasterCard canceled me. I called and tried to straighten it but. The woman at American Express burst into tears and said, "God bless you, we will reinstate you, I love you"—but the computer did not. The next time I tried to pay for dinner, the waitress tore up the card and made a public scene. I kept trying to explain that my husband had been kidnapped, but no matter how often I tried to straighten things out, I just kept coming up with a bad credit rating. There is no computer slot for "kidnapping."

In July 1984 Jerry's captors demanded that, in return for his release, he record a message asking the U.S. to request the release of 17 Shi'ites being held by the Kuwaiti government. A cassette addressed to Ted Turner was sent to State in July. Ted did not receive it until I demanded that State forward it. When I visited him that September, Ted said to me, "What do you want me to do? People get killed in this business every day." Ted cared, but I think he was very frightened. I think he was told to be quiet, and he was.

I can't tell you why, but the Administration and corporate America decided it was best to shut the case up. The Shi'ites had captured Jerry because they wanted their story told. But the media were told not to publicize it. That way the Administration didn't have to deal with it because the public didn't know about it. Call it quiet diplomacy.

In September, against the advice of everyone, including my brother, I decided to go public with the facts. 60 Minutes producer Chuck Lewis had contacted me the first day and had been very supportive, so I agreed to be interviewed. They taped for hours and spent a lot of money, but the piece was never shown. The next invitation I got was from the Today show. That was very important, because immediately afterward I heard from the other hostage families—at that point there were only three hostages being held—and we began to develop a network. Until then the other families didn't know how to reach one another, although they requested that information. The State Department hadn't told them, but it is my feeling that State should help us network.

In November I decided to travel to Syria with Dr. Landrum Boiling, a Quaker and longtime friend of President Hafez Assad. Just before I left, I was conned out of $10,000 by a man who alleged he was a cousin of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. He said that for $10,000 Jumblatt could arrange Jerry's release. When I got to Syria, Jumblatt, who was a great help to me, said he had no kinship with the man and warned me that he couldn't be trusted. I'd been had.

President Assad assigned his Foreign Minister, Farouk Shareh, to Dr. Boiling and me, and he met with us often. Jerry later told me that after my visit to Syria his captors started feeding him better. Until then he had been on a subsistence diet of flat bread and cheese, but afterward they began giving him rice, eggs and chicken.

Christmas was the first time I heard from President Reagan. I got a telegram from him telling me that the hostages were a top priority. Carol Weir, wife of the Rev. Benjamin Weir, who was kidnapped two months after Jerry, only got a card. That kind of thing was bound to make the families of the forgotten hostages bitter when they saw the President meeting with the families of the men from Flight 847.

On February 14 the phone call came from a friend in Lebanon saying that Jerry had escaped. Everyone has to decide for himself what really happened, but I believe they released him Jerry hopes they released him, and the Arabs say they released him. I flew to West Germany on Air Force Two with a State Department representative. Seeing Jerry after 11½ months was unreal. I wanted to take all his clothes off, just like with a newborn baby, and be sure that he was okay. Our pillow talk has been incredible. The memories that he used to help him get through are the same memories I clung to.

Jerry and I have become like one giant family with the families of the remaining hostages. Our phone rings all the time because they need counseling and encouragement. Jerry is the one that got out, and they need to touch him and hug him.

We haven't gotten back to normal yet. Since the TWA hijacking, Jerry has been giving nearly an interview a day. We are also busy writing a book together. The end product is not going to please everyone. The good and the bad will all be in it. We think people need to know.

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