Freed hostage Levin talks about lessons of `an Orwellian year'
Washington — MOST newsmen report the news. For Jeremy Levin, bureau chief of Cable News Network in Beirut, the past 11 months have been spent making news as a pawn in a complex game of Middle East politics. Since March, Mr. Levin had been held captive by a group of Muslim extremists known as the Jihad, or the Islamic ``Holy Struggle,'' in Syrian-held eastern Lebanon. His dramatic escape last Thursday has aroused emotions not felt here since the release of 52 American hostages from Iran in 1981.
In a spacious hotel suite in Washington -- a stark contrast to the spare room where Levin had spent most of the last year -- Levin and his wife, Lucille, known as ``Sis,'' recounted for the Monitor impressions of the ordeal just completed.
``Good newsmen are supposed to tell the story and not become part of the story,'' says Levin, speaking slowly, deliberately, his voice drained of the high-pitched emotion he showed in statements over the weekend in Frankfurt, West Germany, and Washington. ``But I guess reporters get kidnapped just like other people.''
Levin's captivity began on March 7, 1984, when he was abducted from his apartment in Beirut and taken to the second-floor of a house near the town of Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.
What followed, Levin told reporters later, was an ``Orwellian'' year, in which he was held in virtual solitary confinement in a single room with no human contact, save for fleeting conversations when his captors brought him food and water and escorted him to the bathroom. During most of the period he was blindfolded and chained to a radiator. ``Until I saw the faces of the Syrian soldiers on Thursday morning, I saw no human face since March 7th,'' says Levin. Meanwhile, he says, ``I literally sat in dark and gloom.''
In a Cable News Network interview Saturday, Levin said he was treated ``miserably'' by his captors. In his interview with the Monitor, three days later, Levin had a more benign view of his captors, saying they ``could have treated me infinitely worse than they did.''
``For the first month or two,'' Levin says, ``I kept thinking, `When are the beatings going to begin?' I kept steeling myself for them, expecting them every day.'' But after six months, he says, it ``became clear to me that they wanted me alive. No prison is a bed of roses, but they were sensitive to my physical needs. They could have beaten me badly, but they didn't. They could have starved me, like the prisoners in the World War II prison camps, but they didn't. When I was sick, they could have let me stay sick. But they called doctors. They were humane on a basic level,'' Levin says.
On the evening of Feb. 13, Levin was able to slip out of what he described as ``carelessly'' fastened chains. Using a makeshift rope of blankets, he lowered himself from his second-story balcony. After a two-hour walk down the mountain, he reached a Syrian Army post. From there he was taken to Damascus where he was turned over to American officials. Levin was then flown to Frankfurt for an emotional reunion with his wife and family. On Saturday, an elated Jeremy Levin returned to the United States.
In statements last week, the State Department -- in a notable shift in tone -- hinted that the Syrian government may have played a ``positive role'' in Levin's escape. In a meeting with reporters Friday, one senior Department official said that ``Levin may have been allowed to escape,'' adding that ``whatever happens in the Bekaa Valley is related to the Syrian presence.'' At another briefing on Friday, a department spokesman acknowledged that the US was ``very appreciative of the Syrian government's role in the matter.''
Asked about the Syrian role, Levin was reluctant to comment. ``The Syrians played the most important part as far as I'm concerned, which was getting me from the point where I reached the patrol into freedom. If they did negotiating and were part of a planned release, I don't know,'' says Levin.
Many here believe that the administration's warm praise of the Syrians may be designed to facilitate the release of four other Americans held by Muslim extremists, apparently in the same house where Levin was held captive. In a telephone conversation with Levin Tuesday, President Reagan underscored the impression. Mr. Reagan urged Levin to use ``good judgment'' in recounting the details of his captivity to avoid jeopardizing ``even inadvertently . . . those who are still held hostage.''
Asked why he thought he was taken into captivity in the first place, Levin said he was told by one of his captors that he was being held for exchange. ``But for what?'' asks Levin. ``I wasn't exactly a prisoner of war.''
Levin says he thinks his abduction may have had a larger significance. ``Assassinations and kidnappings of Americans are really an anguished cry, an act of frustration on the part of these people, because they are unable to get our attention any other way,'' he says. ``I certainly don't hold any brief for their views. It's a pretty terrible, brutal way of getting our attention. But in one way it says there isn't enough communication going on.'' Levin says his capture needs to be seen as an ``act of people who see no other way to reach the world with their message.''
Levin was satisfied with efforts by the US government to secure his release. ``I never doubted for a moment that everybody in and out of the government did everything possible to help.''
But while grateful for US help, both Levin and his wife were critical of a policy announced recently by Secretary of State George P. Shultz suggesting the need for a more extreme response in dealing with terrorism. In a speech last October, Mr. Shultz said that in some cases fighting terrorism may require ``preemptive or retaliatory action,'' if necessary ``before each and every act is known.'' The Shultz policy, says ``Sis'' Levin, is ``one of the most frightening things to come from the administration.''
``You can't threaten a terrorist,'' says Jeremy Levin. You can't have a policy of retaliation when the need is for reconciliation. Preemptive violence won't work. The only solution to the complex problem,'' Levin says, is to ``try and find as many ways as possible of opening and maintaining lines of communication with people and governments with whom our relations are not the easiest.''
``Dealing with the problem of terrorism is an incredible dilemma,'' he adds. ``There're always going to be competitions and hostilities; we've got to find some ways of working through them. That's an extremely important responsibility of diplomacy now. When things get tough, it's necessary to grit your teeth and don't slam the door. You may never reach an agreement, but you've tried, and perhaps while you've tried, one less person will be kidnapped, one less person will suffer violence, one less bombing will occur.''
Levin says his captivity was a ``real adventure in hope,'' which left no ``malice or bitterness. I don't think I'd have what sanity I have after such an experience if I was still eaten up with bitterness and anger.''