Sutherland marks 25th anniversary of kidnapping
June 9, 2010
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) – The day likely dawned like most others for Tom Sutherland. He expected to wake up in his Fort Collins home, read the newspaper and chat with his wife, Jean.
But 25 years ago Wednesday, Sutherland’s day took a detour that would forever change his life and transfix the world. Driving along a street in Beirut, Sutherland’s car was forced to stop. Gunmen with the Islamic Jihad plucked him from the car in a hail of gunfire. They then whisked him off into the city. A hostage.
“The car stopped, and they pulled me out of my cramped quarters onto a big slab of concrete in front of one of the 10- to 12-story buildings with a mob of some 30-40 young men milling around and jabbering away excitedly in Arabic – they had, after all, a new trophy. I didn’t have time to more than quickly take in much of the surroundings before one young fellow cried out, ‘The eyes; the eyes. Cover the eyes. …’ He pulled (a hood) over my head for good measure – and though I blessedly didn’t know it then, that was the last time I would see the sun for the next six and a half years.” Those are Tom Sutherland’s words from “At Your Own Risk, an American Chronicle of Crisis and Captivity in the Middle East,” by Tom and Jean Sutherland.
Sutherland was taken captive on June 9, 1985. He was released by his captors 2,354 days later on Nov. 18, 1991. One of his fellow captives was The Associated Press’s chief Mideast correspondent Terry Anderson.
When he was taken, Sutherland was on leave from his job as a professor at Colorado State University and serving a three-year term as dean of faculty of agriculture and food science at American University in Beirut. He had gone to Beirut for the chance to help spread modern farming techniques around the world.
Instead, he became one of several hostages held for years in multiple locations around Lebanon. Sometimes they had radios to listen to. Sometimes, a television.
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“A woman from a Chicago station led us in 30 minutes of calisthenics every day at 12:30 – difficult for us to follow her exactly while chained to the floor. After her came a soap opera, ‘Another Life,’ heavily Christian, which meant there was much less sex, lechery and treachery than in your average American soap. But it was well done, and we found ourselves thoroughly caught up in it and were sad when our ‘thoughtful’ guards would forget to bring in the TV in time for us to watch it.”
Today, Sutherland has a large television in his home. He watches the local news, keeps up on international developments, especially in the Middle East, and serves on the board of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver.
He was actually unaware that Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of his capture.
“My God, 25 years. It doesn’t seem possible,” he said in an interview at his Fort Collins home, the same home he returned to in 1991 to worldwide jubilation. “In many ways, it still feels like yesterday.”
Each year Sutherland, now 79, was held captive, June 9 was the day that his supporters around Fort Collins marked. But upon his release, Nov. 18 became the day to mark, said his wife, Jean.
Jean Sutherland remained in Beirut during her husband’s captivity, trying to negotiate his release, meeting with President Ronald Reagan along the way.
“For so many years, June 9 was the date. There were so many vigils,” she said. “But now we have a new date to celebrate.”