Sutherland Tells of Captivity Without Bitterness : Hostage crisis: He says he was kept in chains and beaten once. But his spirit was never broken.
Once, his captors prayed for forgiveness. Then they whipped Thomas M. Sutherland until he screamed in agony. He did not cry. He forgave them.
And as he told the heart-wrenching story Wednesday of his 2,347 days in chains, it was clear that the Muslim extremists who took away his freedom, his sunlight and even his faith in God were unable to imprison something else: his spirit.
At a two-hour press conference the day before flying home at last, Sutherland--the 60-year-old college professor and recently released hostage--spoke without a trace of bitterness and even expressed a desire to return to Beirut, where he and his wife taught before his abduction in June, 1985.
“I wouldn’t mind, if it proves possible to go back to help with the rebuilding process,” Sutherland said. His wife, Jean, nodded.
He blamed himself for his kidnaping, saying he believed that, as a dedicated educator, he was somehow immune to the violence in Beirut.
“I knew it was dangerous,” he said. “The U.S. Embassy was advising us to leave. If I’d been smart, I would’ve gone home. It was dumb, but I thought the (Shiite Muslims) wouldn’t kidnap me because I was doing my best to help the Shia community. I thought the message would get through to Islamic Jihad. . . . “
Instead, on the day he returned to Beirut from his daughter’s graduation in Colorado, he refused the three armed guards a friend had arranged for him at the airport and set off with his usual driver.
“Bingo!” Sutherland said. “A half-mile down the road, they bumped into us with a truck. I thought it was a bad dream. A bad dream that lasted until a few days ago.”
His captors told him they had intended to take the university president but grabbed him by mistake.
Over the years, he said, he was moved 16 times, always kept in cells or rooms with the windows blacked out and chained to the wall for all but 10 minutes each day. “Sometimes the chains were big, heavy ones,” he said, adding that the longest was 6 feet, the shortest just 2 feet. “You couldn’t quite do somersaults,” he joked.
When he sank into the king-size bed at his hospital room here on his first night of freedom, Sutherland moved his legs and woke up bewildered. “I kept thinking, where’s that chain?”
He expressed pity for his captors but deplored their methods, saying “violence begets violence.”
He said he was beaten once for disobeying rules not to remove his blindfold when a captor was in the room: “Belted on the soles of the foot till I couldn’t take it any longer and started to scream, then they moved on to the rest of my body.”
“That was the only time they mistreated me. But they prayed ahead of it so they were already forgiven before they did it,” he added wryly. “You can’t help but feel sorry. In many cases, they were rather nice young men.
“In the last two years, and especially the last year,” he added, “we had consistent respect from them. They really tried to make things as good as possible for us.”
He said that once, he, Terry A. Anderson and Frank H. Reed--an American educator since freed--were chained to the wall in a cold, dirt-floor cell. Their captors came bearing a tray of candies and coffee, causing Anderson to burst out laughing later at the irony.
Sutherland said Anderson’s intellect challenged and sustained him through the intense boredom.
“I learned a great deal of tolerance,” he said. “I learned an enormous amount of patience. I had never spent three hours sitting on my duff, staring at the wall waiting for the next move.”
He said Anderson persuaded their captors to provide books and, in the last two years, a radio.
Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, composed poetry in his head and memorized the Bible.
Sutherland, in turn, would often recite his favorite poet, Robert Burns, as he did Wednesday for reporters. In the lilting burr of his native Scotland, he quoted Burns’ “To a Mouse,” on the futility of “the best-laid schemes of mice and men.”
Sutherland, a lapsed Presbyterian before his abduction, said he lost his faith entirely during his captivity.
“God, I prayed so many times and prayed so hard--so hard!--and nothing happened,” he said, adding that, “After thinking about it deeply, I’m not so sure there is a God.”
Sutherland said he was unaware of the outpouring of public support for the hostages, although he heard the Voice of America broadcast his alma mater’s carillon ringing 72 times to mark the sixth anniversary of his abduction.
“But I never felt abandoned by my country. I felt that all diplomatic efforts were probably being pursued,” Sutherland said, adding that President Bush had telephoned him at the U.S. hospital here after his arrival Tuesday.
Sutherland said he never feared for his life, since dead hostages would be of little use to his captors, who told him they were demanding the release of 17 comrades jailed in Kuwait. The 17 were released when the Gulf War broke out.
Sutherland said he succumbed to tears only twice during his ordeal. The first time was when the British Broadcasting Corp. played songs with a dedication from his wife over the radio.
“I was moved and touched and I love you for it,” he said, leaning over to kiss his wife.
The second time he cried, Sutherland said, was when he heard a news broadcast and learned that his school, the American University in Beirut, had been heavily damaged by a bomb, and that Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball star Magic Johnson was infected with the AIDS virus.
“I just lay there and cried,” he said. “I’m a great fan of Magic Johnson. . . .”
Once home, Sutherland will meet his first grandchild, Simone, 4, and welcome a brand-new grandson.
He’ll catch up on the local news he hungered for from Ft. Collins, Colo. And then he plans to “get the skis out and waxed and see how much lift tickets cost now.”
The Sutherlands planned to leave today for Iowa, where the family will gather to bury his father-in-law, who died two days before Sutherland’s release.
“We’re not going back to mourn a loss,” Sutherland said, “but to celebrate a great life.”