Hi, Daddy!

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

FIVE MONTHS AFTER JESSE TURNER WAS kidnapped, his only child, a daughter, was born. And sometime in the 1,731 days since, after she learned to talk, she began to speak of him almost constantly: "When is Papa Johnny coming home?"

"I tell her, 'Your papa is in Beirut and he cannot come yet, but he loves us and will come as soon as he can,' " says Turner's wife, Badr, in the living room of her cozy Boise, Idaho, duplex. "She has seen pictures of her father, but she wants to touch him. She has never heard his voice."

Now 4-year-old Joanne will finally have the chance. On Oct. 21, her father, a 44-year-old professor of math and computer science, became the fourth Western hostage released in the Middle East since mid-August, after being held captive in Beirut for nearly five years. Buoyed by the gesture, U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar saw the freeing of Turner, who arrived in Damascus escorted by Syrian security men, as a hopeful sign that nine other Western hostages still thought to be held in Beirut might also be released.

But for the time being, at least, world politics was not the issue in Badr Turner's little two-bedroom home. "None of this will seem real until I can touch him and hear his voice," she says, in a corner of the living room decorated with a faded black-and-white wirephoto of her husband and a hand-scrawled sign that reads, "We have not forgotten you, Jesse!"

The Turners had been married only six months when Jesse, a lecturer at Beirut University College, was kidnapped by the pro-Iranian Islamic Holy War for the Liberation of Palestine on Jan. 24, 1987, along with three other teachers. (Mithileshwar Singh was released in 1988; Robert Polhill last year; Alann Steen remains a captive.) The Lebanese-born Badr, 40, who met and fell in love with Jesse while working as a secretary at the college, remained in the Middle East for four years after his capture, desperately seeking clues to his whereabouts. Then, in December 1990, along with 3-year-old Joanne, she flew to Boise to be with her mother-in-law, 70-year-old Estelle Ronneburg.

Ronneburg, a bank account assistant, says that Jesse, who taught at the universities of Hawaii and California and converted to Islam before moving to Beirut in 1985, "was always a caring boy. That's why he wanted to go to Beirut. He wanted to help students who really desired to learn."

Then he was captured. "Over the years, I've become stronger about this," says Ronneburg, not yet used to speaking of her son's ordeal in the past tense. "But there's always an emptiness there."

As with Badr, the emotional toll on Estelle has been enormous. "There are times when she has awakened crying in the night," says her husband, Eugene, 64, a long-haul trucker who became Jesse's stepfather 17 years ago. "There have been many rough nights and equally rough days."

But no sooner had television carried the image of a healthy but exhausted Turner emerging from captivity and had his family begun preparing to meet him at a U.S. military hospital in Weisbaden, Germany, than the reality of homecoming began to sink in. "It will be so nice to look at him, instead of a picture," says Badr, packing a suitcase of her husband's things. "I am thrilled we will be together again. Even now, I cannot believe it.

"Jesse has a new daughter to meet. He has a new life he does not know anything about," says Badr, gently stroking her little girl's ash blond hair. "Joanne has helped me to get through these hard times, and now she will help Jesse."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
CATHY FREE in Boise

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