After being held hostage in Lebanon for 16 months, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, 61, was freed last month by his extremist Shi’ite captors and flown home to a tearful reunion in Norfolk, Va. with wife Carol and their four children. He was released, it appears, to bring a message to the Reagan Administration and the American public: that the six American hostages l” in Lebanon could face execution unless 17 terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait for the 1983 bombing attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait were released. In the furor following that threat, the remarkable story of Weir’s ordeal hi been all but overlooked. Even now he chooses his words carefully, fearing that he might inadvertently endanger the lives of the remaining hostages. Weir, who is fluent in Arabic, went to Lebanon in 1953 as a Presbyterian missionary. He gave this account of what he calls his “Rip Van Winkle” experience to Correspondent Margie Bonnett Sellinger.
On May 8, 1984, Carol and I had just stepped out of our apartment in Beirut when I noticed a car coming up behind us on the narrow street. It slowed down and the door opened. A man stepped out, came toward me and said, “I want you.” Then he held out his hand, so I automatically put out my hand to shake his hand. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me toward the car. Carol started screaming and I started yelling, but he was a lot stronger than I was and pushed me into the car. One man pointed an automatic pistol at my head and said, “Get down.” Then they covered me with something and we were off through the streets.
From the moment I was put on the floor of the car, I had a strong sense that I was in the hands of God. The thought also ran through my mind, in kind of comic form, “Gee, this is a new experience; now I’ll know what it’s like to be kidnapped.”
After a brief drive I was led blindfolded into a building where someone began taping me with white plastic tape from head to foot like a mummy. Several men lifted me in their hands and put me into what seemed like a metal box. I heard a truck motor start up.
The journey was longer this time, an hour and a half over rough roads. Then a man carried me upstairs into a building, took the tape off and chained me by my left leg to a radiator. The door was closed and I was alone. I was moved from location to location over the next 16 months, but I spent almost all that period in solitary confinement.
On a typical day I had the better half of 23 hours to myself. Right from the start I said, “I’m going to beat these guys at this game, whatever it is.” I could see no profit in allowing myself to slip into a depression, so from the first day I tried to organize myself, my time and my thinking. I got into a pattern of trying not to wake up in a hurry but to be in touch with my dreams. I dreamed mostly about people, buffets and parties. In that way I was able to stay in touch with humanity, which was one of my greatest needs. I woke up when I heard the birds twittering outside, always with a sense of thanksgiving that I was alive, that I could pray and commune with God, that I could remember friends and family.
I used to recall as many different hymns as I could, and I found as I struggled that it was like unraveling a sweater—I’d get more and more as I worked at it. So I was able to build up a repertoire of things that were meaningful to me. I set up a calendar in my head, using holes in the wall and, later, ceramic tiles in the floor. I only went astray once by a day. For the first 35 days I had nothing to read until a guard finally brought me a New Testament in Arabic. That was a great, great boon for me. I was very much aware of my new status as a prisoner, but I also had a sense that I knew who I was, that I had my own simple respect and that I was the Lord’s prisoner—to use the New Testament phrase. That gave me a sense of purpose and dignity.
I never saw my captors because I always wore a blindfold in their presence and knew very little about them. They never told me what group they belonged to. On rare occasions one of them would sit in the room and talk a bit, but it was pretty hard to develop a meaningful conversation. On the whole they were respectful and didn’t really give me a bad time.
There was one incident, however, when they said to me, “Don’t think anybody’s going to come and rescue you, because we have put explosives in this building. If anybody approaches we’re going to blow the place up.” I believed them, and the next morning I woke up, and it was very quiet for a long, long time. I think my head started to play tricks on me. I began supposing that perhaps they had booby-trapped the building, and if anyone came in, it would blow up with me in it. So I decided I had better try to do something. I peeled back a plastic covering and was able to open a window. Off in the distance I saw a man, and I started yelling to him. While I was doing that the door opened, and the guard came charging in. He was terribly angry and told me he could very easily shoot me. That night someone else came and told me they had decided not to kill me, but if I ever made a false move in the future, that would be my last.
Christmas came the 2nd of July, 1985, when Father Lawrence Jenco [director of Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, kidnapped Jan. 8, 1985] and I were put together for the first time. A while later, when we realized there were five of us in the same area, we asked for an opportunity to get together to worship. We were permitted to pray with our blindfolds on. On subsequent occasions we were allowed to take our blindfolds off. We would read the Bible, pray and celebrate Mass.
I have no idea how they chose me to be released. It came very suddenly. The leader of the group said he’d like my suggestion on who should relay their demand that the U.S. government enter into negotiations with them. I told him I thought either [Associated Press Beirut Bureau Chief] Terry Anderson or [Director of the American University Hospital] Dave Jacobsen would be the best choice. At the end of the day the leader came in and said, “We’ve decided you’re going to go.” I remember saying to him, “You know as well as I do that Father Jenco has a health problem, and I think he should go.” But he just replied, “You’re it—get ready.”
I feel I have a mission to secure the release of the others. They’re expecting me to do whatever I can. I’ve decided I’m going to keep the beard I grew in captivity for the time being. I’ll be ready to take it off when the other hostages are free.