Volume 4 Number 10
Held Hostage No More
01 November 1991

On the day that her husband was taken hostage in Beirut, Sis Levin went into action. Her 11-month struggle for his release plunged her into controversy. She talks to Mike Brown.

When the bureau chief of the American CNN television network, Jerry Levin, was kidnapped by a radical Shiite group in Beirut in March 1984, his wife, Sis, lost no time. That same day she found her way to the headquarters of Nabih Berri, leader of the Muslim faction whose militia dominated West Beirut. Berri's right-hand man treated her with respect and sympathy, and tried - without success - to recover Levin before he was smuggled out of Beirut.

For Sis Levin, a `Southern belle' from Alabama, it was an act of desperation as much as courage. The story of her struggle to free her husband was the subject of the film Held Hostage, first screened by ABC television last January, two days before the deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Its message was both wonderful and worrying: wonderful, because she eventually succeeded, despite tremendous odds, and worrying, because of the questions it raised about the West's approach to the Middle East.

Jerry Levin was sent to Beirut in December 1983, to cover the withdrawal of US Marines from Lebanon after the failure of the UN peace-keeping force and the abandonment of American neutrality. During the previous 15 months Lebanese Christian Phalangists had massacred Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla, the US Embassy in West Beirut had been destroyed with serious casualties and 241 Marines and French paratroopers had died in car-bombings.

Sis followed Jerry to Beirut in time to witness the `last word' of the American withdrawal, the devastating bombardment of Muslim and Druze positions by the 16-inch guns of the USS New Jersey. In retaliation, members of the radical Hizbollah Shiite faction began taking hostages. Levin was the first. `We have nothing against you,' one of his captors told him. `We hate the New Jersey; we hate the Americans who killed our families.'

Sis Levin's visit to Berri's headquarters plunged her immediately into controversy and suspicion. Her action was in direct conflict with official US policy of `not talking to terrorists'. Nabih Berri was a `Muslim warlord', she was told, and dealing with him could cause retaliation from rival `terrorist factions'.

She returned to Washington DC and, on State Department advice, avoided publicity, accepting that it could further endanger Jerry and other hostages. The weeks of waiting became oppressive as `quiet diplomacy' achieved nothing. An Amal militia raid on a West Beirut home, orchestrated by independent Lebanese friends, CNN and Sis's brother, won release for two hostages. But neither, to her bitter disappointment, was Jerry.

She turned to CNN's management, who had put up $5 million for Jerry's release. They too abided by the official silence - a betrayal, she felt, of CNN's own motto, `You have a right to know'.

When a CNN executive accused Sis of being `un-American' for suggesting they go outside official diplomacy, she decided it was time to break the silence. Nothing was happening, and the hostages were being forgotten, ignored, even by Jerry's media colleagues. `If a philosophy that differs in any way from that of those in power is un-American, then God help America,' she said defiantly.

Media interviews, television appearances and public meetings put Levin further off-side with US officialdom. ABC's dramatization made much of these confrontations, painting caricatures of State Department officers. She was regarded at times as `pushy' and even `hysterical'. Yet one State Department contact, Terry Arnold, was both helpful and understanding. And Jerry later paid particular tribute to the efforts of his government in assisting his release. Perhaps it was easier for Sis to vent her bitterness on American officials and CNN executives than to hate kidnappers she could not identify.

The burst of publicity generated some movement. A diverse team of people emerged to assist her - Jesse Jackson, Texan billionaire Ross Perot, a Lebanese Christian, a Muslim diplomat, the ex-wife of Jordan's King Hussein, and an independent Quaker peacemaker, Landrum Bolling. Bolling was well-versed in the Middle East and it was on his advice that, eight months after Jerry was taken hostage, Sis flew to Syria.

Bolling linked her up with a Syrian woman who put her under the care of a convent in Damascus. She began meeting people of influence with President Assad's government. Once her Syrian mentor arrived at the convent in a chauffeur-driven car to take Sis for an `urgent important meeting'. On the way she cross examined Sis about her attitudes and why she had come to Syria. Then Sis found herself delivered back to the convent. `Where's the meeting?' she asked. `You've just had it,' was the reply. It dawned on Sis that the stranger driving the car had been listening to all she had said, and had kept glancing at her in his rear-vision mirror.

Barely 30 miles away, in the Bekaa Valley, Jerry Levin was still held captive, chained to a radiator. For long excruciating months, he was kept blindfold in solitary confinement. Then his treatment improved. He was given two more blankets and on Christmas Eve 1984 was presented with a full meal instead of rations. `Your wife has been in Syria talking about new ways to achieve peace,' said one of his captors.

In February, without warning, Levin's guard left his chain loosely shackled, allowing him to slip it off his wrist. That night, scared out of his wits, he lowered himself from the window by his blankets knotted together and stumbled down the road until he was picked up by a friendly Syrian patrol.

Next morning - a man speaking Arabic phoned Associated Press in Beirut: `We released... Levin after many approaches by some brotherly and effective sides' - a reference to the influence of Syria in the Bekaa Valley.

Jerry Levin, grandson of a Rabbi, had been freed by his Muslim captors. As he was welcomed home by a crowd of wellwishers and newspeople, he made an emotional plea for `a change in the political climate between our peoples so as to put an end to the violence between us... Neither terror nor silence is the solution to the problem.' Then he appealed to the captors of other hostages in Lebanon, `In the name of our common Lord - God and Allah - please let them go! I want you to know I am not angry. I am not bitter.'

Sis was staggered to hear such language from her atheist husband, who had always argued against the very notion of God. The months of isolation and silence had forced him to reflect as never before. He had fought the temptation of talking to himself. Yet in one desperate moment he had cried out to God and found himself praying for his captors.

`I forgave them as I began to see how bitter and desperate they were,' he told Sis after release. `Here I was an obvious pawn in the hands of angry extremists. I had to forgive them because my captivity had forced me to take this spiritual journey. And in forgiving my captors I could proceed, free of the baggage of hate, resentment, fear and revenge.'

`If that was God's reason for putting me in solitary confinement, I thank him,' he told the welcoming crowd. `And I thank him for my Jewish parents, my Christian wife and family, and my Muslim friends. The prayers of friends from all three faiths sustained me.'

Sis Levin, too, had to wrestle with intense feelings. In her book, Beirut Diary, she describes `the awful tinny taste' of hate. `I hated more thoroughly and more deeply than I ever hated before.' It was not, she writes, a hatred of `terrorists' whom she had never met, but a hatred for things she could do nothing about. `Your helplessness to change what is grinds slowly through your whole system, leaving you feeling weak and victimized.'

Release, she found, could only come through experiencing the pain of the people who hurt you. `My pain is intertwined with the pain of so many other people, and I can't begin to ease my pain until I've begun to understand theirs,' she says in the TV dramatization. She remembers asking Jerry's driver, Fahd, to show her his home. Reluctantly he agreed, and drove her to a burnt-out shell. `Who did this?' she asked. `All of them: Muslims, Christians, militias, the PLO, the Israelis: all killing, all fighting,' he replied.

The Levins' struggle will continue, even after the remaining hostages on all sides are released. At one level, the issue is how to bring justice and peace, healing and sanity amidst the internecine hatreds and power conflicts of the Middle East. At another level, most intensely felt by the Levins, it is how to liberate their own people and government from the distortions and lack of understanding which, they maintain, make the operation of American policy loaded with problems.

What will bring a breakthrough where decades of diplomatic, economic and military pressure have failed?

The determination to listen to and try to understand even, as Sis put it, `those who loathe you' was crucial in getting Jerry's release. That remains a challenge for peacemakers and protagonists alike. But, in the Levins' experience, listening was just a beginning; the struggle for faith amidst despair and forgiveness amidst hostility was sometimes the only way forward. And one other quality was necessary. As Fahd, their driver, advised Sis when she could do no more in Lebanon, `You must make a friend of time.'

With candour, Sis admits the turmoil she sometimes still feels when taking Communion, knowing she must be freed from any shadow of resentment. `Forgiveness is not some sticky sentimental thing,' she says. `It's very pragmatic. I never said it was easy, but nothing else works.'