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Back to Beirut to Resume the Story

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Terry Anderson sits chain-smoking in a hangout near Columbia University. That’s where he’s teaching journalism these days, something he knows quite a bit about, having been an Associated Press reporter in the Middle East for years. Students come for his expertise, certainly, but also to be near the man who was held hostage longer than any other in Lebanon, whose very existence became a negotiating tool.

After almost seven years in captivity, Anderson was finally released by his Shiite Muslim captors in 1991. He wrote a book about his experience but only now has he returned to that country to see how it has changed and to ensure that he has as well. “Lebanon: A Return to the Lion’s Den,” an hourlong documentary about his two-week trip back, will be seen Sunday on CNN.

“I wanted to be sure it was a story about Lebanon and not about me,” says Anderson, who makes very clear this is not a soapy saga of a man revisiting the old cells and guards that made his life miserable while, outside, the Berlin Wall was coming down, Nelson Mandela was coming into power and Anderson’s own daughter was coming into life. (She was born three months after he was taken into captivity. She’s now 11.)

His idea was simply to take viewers along with him as he explored how Lebanon is doing five years after its long civil war ended.

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“Most Americans have a simple, outdated idea of Lebanon,” says Anderson, 49. “The idea of the documentary was [that] we were going in with questions, not answers. There were no rehearsals, no repeats. The viewers are discovering things along with me as I draw my conclusions.”

Those conclusions are mostly optimistic, though not quixotic, ones.

“First, I was amazed at these people’s ability to live with one another, Christians and Muslims who were killing each other last time I was there,” Anderson said. “And after a 17-year war, they really don’t want another one.

“They still have problems--rebuilding Beirut, the gap between rich and poor, Israel’s occasional presence--but now you see people strolling, roller-blading, and everyone has a mobile phone. Overall, it’s a very civil society, virtually no crime. The whole time I covered Lebanon, I never saw it at peace, but now I have gotten a taste of what it could be like.”

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Since his release, Anderson has done a variety of things, starting with a three-month stay in Antigua, where he, his wife and daughter started to put life back together. (“We are still working at it,” he says.)

“Busy has not been a problem,” he says. “I still have the travel but I don’t have to file!”

A news junkie all his life, he stopped reading or watching the news when he first returned from captivity. Even getting through the huge pile of books friends had saved for him was nearly impossible at first. “I would start reading and then look outside and crave the space and air.” But now he’s back to four or five newspapers a day. “I’m hooked again,” he says with a grin.

He looks back with great pride on his years as a foreign correspondent and laments that foreign news coverage fed to Americans is still mostly lacking. “If there’s no blood, there’s no news,” he says.

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He still keeps in close contact with other former hostages and believes he has mostly gotten his life back on track. But physically making the journey to Lebanon was an important piece of the closure process.

“I felt ready but the first time there had to be a reason,” he says. “Thus was born this documentary. Now we can go back wherever we want and our daughter, who is half Lebanese, may go back for the summers. We want her to have more connection to her heritage.

“I never had a grudge against Lebanon for what happened to me. But this documentary is a sort of completion for me, and it’s lifted what was an emotional restriction on my life.”

Now he can even laugh a bit about those years in captivity, one of which was in solitary. Or at least he can appreciate the irony. For example, when returning to Lebanon, he discovered that some tourist maps to the country are sold with special black dots indicating where the hostages were held at different times.

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“The guy selling them asked if I wanted one,” Anderson says. “I said no thanks--been there, done that.”

* “Lebanon: A Return to the Lion’s Den” airs at 6 and 9 p.m. Sunday on CNN.


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