At Long Last, Freedom!
12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
THE FIRST SIGN THAT SOMETHING WAS AFOOT came early Sunday morning, when a State Department official phoned Kit Sutherland at the family home in Fort Collins, Colo. "This really could be it," he told her. A newspaper in Tehran had just published a story saying that her father, Thomas Sutherland, who had been held by Muslim fundamentalists in Beirut for more than six years, and Terry Waite, the British church envoy who had been held for nearly five years, would soon be freed. After so long, Kit and the rest of her family didn't dare get too excited. But less than 24 hours later, both Waite and Sutherland were safe, and remarkably sound in Damascus, and on their way home.
Between them, Waite and Sutherland had spent 4,110 days in captivity. But none of this was evident at a mobbed press conference in Damascus, where both appeared composed, even jovial. Though thinner, with more gray in his beard, the 6'7" Waite, 52, still spoke confidently and commandingly with reporters. "You paint this picture in your head of them coming out looking haggard and dazed and disheveled and not able to speak," marveled Terry's cousin, John, a BBC radio broadcaster, who watched the scene on television, "and here he was, the old Terry, the master of the press conference." Sutherland, 60, the former acting dean of agriculture at American University in Beirut, whom daughter Kit describes as "gregarious, a crazy goof-off, the life of the party," easily lived up to his billing. Looking almost astonishingly fit and jaunty, he cracked jokes and bantered easily. "I'm an old college prof from way back, and when I get up to speak I generally get 50 minutes," he quipped at one point, "which is about five times longer than I've had to go to the bathroom every day for the last seven years."
Indeed, the two men's years in captivity were spent under the most trying conditions. For more than three years after his capture, Sutherland had been held in a mosquito-infested room, where he was beaten by his guards and fed only cheese and spaghetti. Likewise, Waite, who was abducted when he traveled to Beirut in January 1987 to seek the release of Sutherland and other Western hostages, had been kept alone in a dark, window-less cell, chained to a wall, for the first four years of his captivity. Both men were unmanacled only for a single, 10-minute trip to the bathroom each day. To while away the time, Sutherland lectured his fellow hostages on favorite subjects ranging from animal husbandry to anatomy to the methods for restoring old Volvos. For the past year, Waite and Sutherland shared the same cell with Terry Anderson. I lie Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press, who has been held for six years and eight months. Shackled at all times, they could relieve the tedium only by listening to a short-wave radio they tuned to the BBC.
Back home, their respective families had coped in vastly different ways. After a few tentative efforts at dealing with the press, Waite's wife, Frances, 50, became a virtual recluse. Reticent by nature, she never spoke out publicly about her husband's plight; nor did the couple's children—twins Ruth and Clare, 26, Gillian, 25, and Mark, 20—campaign for their father's release, though Terry's brother David and cousin John did become highly vocal spokesmen. The Sutherlands, by contrast, never hid from the attention. To be near her husband, Jean. 58, who taught English in a program affiliated with American University, spent the past six years in Beirut, pressing for her husband's release. Meanwhile, daughters Ann, 32, Kit, 31, and Joan. 28, remained in the U.S. and became active in the unofficial support network for the hostage families. "To take yourself out of your crisis and look at someone else's diminishes your captivity," says Kit, who last Monday flew to Wiesbaden, Germany, where her father was taken, for a family reunion. "When you look outside of yourself, it gives you more strength."
Somewhere along the line her father obviously learned that lesson as well. Born in Scotland, he studied agriculture there before immigrating to the United States in 1954 and ending up at Colorado State University, where he taught courses on livestock. In the mid-'70s he and Jean went to Ethiopia to help boost meat production. Eight years ago he took a leave of absence from Colorado to teach at the American University. A year later the murder of the school's president, Malcolm Kerr, sent a clear signal of the dangers of staying. Even so, Sutherland, then the second-ranking official at the university, elected to continue teaching.
Sutherland returns to some major changes in his family. He has never met daughter Ann's husband, Ray Keller, who has been caring for the 1966 Volvo that Sutherland lovingly rebuilt and repainted. Nor has he seen their daughter, Simone, now 4, his first grandchild. What's more, Ann is now nine months pregnant with her second child. Given to a strong dislike of motorcycles on safety grounds, he may be horrified to discover that Ann and Ray now own 16 motorcycles, while Kit and boyfriend Scott Kintz have four. The one thing Kit is sure of is that despite the personal changes her parents may have undergone during the years of separation, the experience will in no way have weakened the bond between them. "Mother has become very, very independent, very, very strong, pragmatic and sometimes harder to deal with," she says. "Nothing—nothing—could change the complete depth to their love.
To those who know him best, Waite's great strength stems from spiritual conviction. His lather was a policeman, and Waite left school at 16 to join the Grenadier Guards. It turned out, though, that he was allergic to the dye used in khaki army uniforms. A deeply religious man, he chose instead to become a lay church worker, serving first in Uganda. In the early 1980s Waite began earning a reputation as an effective hostage negotiator, when, in quick succession, he bargained for the release of three British missionaries held prisoner in Iran for "spying" and four British men detained in Libya. In 1986 he helped win the release of American hospital administrator David Jacobsen, who had spent 17 months of captivity in Beirut. Later Jacobsen flew to Britain to thank Waite personally on behalf of all the hostages. "We just love the guy," he said.
Waite's secret was to style himself as an honest broker and use his combination of humor and quiet resolve to win the confidence of both kidnappers and government officials. In the end. though, he may have been playing this most dangerous game too close to the edge. In the month before he was kidnapped, there were reports in the Western press that he had established close ties with U.S. officials, including Col. Oliver North, which may have raised serious questions in the minds of the kidnappers about his impartiality. After his capture, there were reports in Arab newspapers that he had been outfitted with a homing device to help Western intelligence agents track him. Friends and church officials vehemently denied these allegations.
Preliminary medical examinations last week found that neither Waite nor Sutherland has any serious health problems. Sutherland, who tried to exercise as much as possible during his years in chains, was pronounced "in very good condition" by doctors in Wiesbaden. As for Waite, who at one time during his captivity was widely rumored to have died of a heart attack, doctors found him suffering from nothing worse than a touch of asthma and some muscle deterioration that caused him to walk rather gingerly. During his flight home, alter a heart) breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage, Waite had insisted on tiding in the cockpit of the plane so that he could catch the first possible glimpse of the English coastline. Even landing in a torrential rainstorm didn't dampen his spirits. Reunited at an air base in Wiltshire with his wife and children, he told a throng of wellwishers, "From the bottom of my heart, thank you for turning out on such an awful day—but a typically English day."
VICKIE BANE in Denver, DIRK MATHISON in San Francisco, TERRY SMITH in London