12/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Terry Anderson is insistent. "I'm not a hero," he declares. "I'm just someone who got caught." Yet hero is the only word that seems adequate to describe the Associated Press's courageous chief Mideast correspondent who survived 2,455 days of captivity in the chaos of Lebanon to emerge smiling, vibrant and utterly unbroken. The images are indelible: Anderson, in Damascus, falling in love at first sight with his 6-year-old daughter, Sulome, and, a day later in Wiesbaden, dashing to embrace his crusading sister, Peggy Say.
Through the years of his captivity, he came to stand for so many emotions. He embodied the frustration Americans felt over their government's inability to save its own citizens. He represented their haunting sense of helplessness—as well as their anger—as they saw his gaunt, compelling image fill their television screens. And on a more personal level, he was the ache in the heart of a sister yearning for the kid brother she had lost—and was determined to save.
Anderson's captivity had been horrendous. When his kidnappers refused to allow him to send home a Christmas message in 1987, he sank into despair, beating his head against a wall till it bled. Already his captors had a set plan for the journalist who had evoked global sympathy. They said, "He will probably be the last one out."
And so he was. But by then, Anderson, 44, had risen above the hopelessness that threatened to destroy him. Those freed before him agreed: Terry Anderson was the backbone of their resistance to the kidnappers. When hostage Thomas Sutherland was being interrogated in a filthy horse stall, Anderson volunteered to spend 24 hours in the cell next to him, recalls ex-hostage David Jacobsen, "so Tom wouldn't have to go through it alone."
For Anderson, coming back to the world means catching up with changes trivial and profound, with the demise of vinyl records, with the end of the Cold War, with the imminent retirement of Johnny Carson. But that is the easy part. Anderson's family life has been in suspended animation since he was kidnapped in Beirut on March 16, 1985. At the time, he was in the midst of an amicable divorce from his Japanese wife, Mihoko, whom he had nicknamed Mickey. She and their daughter, Gabrielle, 15, have lived in obscurity in Tokyo while Sulome and her mother, Anderson's Lebanese fiancée, Madeleine Bassil, have received most of the public's sympathy. In November 1985, Anderson wrote his sister Peggy, "I'm sorry I left such a mess."
Even as the ending to that private story is being plotted, the country draws strength from the unfolding details of Anderson's lost years. Throughout the ordeal, Anderson always believed he would go free. Says Jacobsen: "He never saw himself as a victim, never put a thumb in his mouth, curled up in a fetal position and gave up. Now," adds Jacobsen, "we're all free."