Jerry Levin brings a unique perspective to unrest in the Middle East, as only someone held captive there can.

Words and photos by Karim Shamsi-Basha

When I met Jerry and Sis Levin for the first time, introduced by a mutual friend, two things struck me: Their humility, and the hope that emanates from them. It’s hard to miss. The Levins live here in Birmingham and travel all over the world speaking about peace and the futility of violence. But they weren’t always like this. In 1984, something happened that changed the course of their lives.

Jerry Levin was the CNN Middle East Bureau Chief in Beirut, Lebanon. Things were tense and the American Embassy had evacuated those who wanted to leave. His wife Sis chose to stay on with him.

His office was in a hotel annex about a mile away from his apartment in West Beirut. He had kept his driver up late one night chasing a story, so he elected to walk on this particular day.

“As I turned the corner to walk by the Saudi Arabia embassy, I felt somebody tapping on my shoulder. I turned around and I was looking at a man shorter than me with a gun into my stomach. I was pushed towards the street where a car was waiting and he said, ‘You come, you come.’ In about 15 seconds I was in the car with my head down,” Jerry says.

He was taken to a safe house in the Southern suburbs, deep in extremist territory. His captors interrogated him, claiming he was an Israeli spy and then American CIA.

“They laid me on the ground and wrapped me completely with masking tape, put a gag in my mouth, and slipped me in the false bottom of a truck and drove away. After an hour we made a sharp left which took us on a smoother highway,” Jerry says. “A while later they stopped. I figured we were in or near Baalbeck in Eastern Lebanon. A year later I found out that I was right.”

They hid their captive away in a series of safe houses where he stayed for about a year. He was chained from either a wrist or ankle the entire time. Once he got over the initial shock, he began to think of how to deal with his dilemma, and how he would escape.

“Freedom was never far from my mind. I tried my best to stay in a positive frame of mind. The one thing I needed to do was not to dwell on troublesome episodes in my past, but to only think about the many good things. Especially meeting Sis and falling in love in middle age. It worked,” Jerry says.

One morning after a bathroom break, a guard seemed to forget to put the chain back on Jerry’s ankle. He began formulating an escape plan and covered his legs with a blanket in the hope his forgotten unchained ankle would not be discovered.

“Nobody looked to see if I was chained. I could’ve escaped. I knew I was on the second floor of a building, but as midnight approached, I felt less and less certain about being able to escape, because I didn’t know enough. I wasn’t sure yet where I was or the landscape. It was too dangerous. I thought if the carelessness could happen once, maybe it will happen again. The hardest thing I ever did was put those chains back on,” Jerry says.

Unknown to Jerry, his wife Sis had been working hard to get him released. She met Landrum Bolling, a longtime Quaker Middle East peacemaker who was trusted by and had access to every leader in the region. Feeling he could help, he traveled with her to Damascus, Syria, which at the time was the dominant political force in Lebanon. Even though Syria and the United States were adversaries, it was Bolling’s belief they could convince its leader to do whatever he could to gain Jerry’s freedom.

Over the next three weeks, Jerry studied his surroundings and gained as much information as he could. He could see Mount Lebanon looking down at a large town, and thought it was Baalbeck. There was a balcony with a railing outside his room. He knew if he made it to the road, there were Syrian checkpoints and he would take his chances with them.

His chance came three weeks later when his chain was again left unlocked. He tied blankets together and lowered himself from the balcony outside his room. When he made it down, dogs were barking and he heard voices converging on him from the road. He hid under a truck, but not for long.

“Light shined under the truck and I heard what I thought was the Arabic equivalent of ‘Come out with your hands up,’” Jerry says. “But when I scrambled out from under the truck, I could see the red berets of Syrian soldiers looking absolutely astonished. I was turned over to their commander. They took me to a town named Chtoura where their intelligence headquarters were. They took me to Damascus the next day, where I was turned over to the U.S. ambassador and flown in a plane supplied by CNN boss Ted Turner to a U.S. Air Force hospital in West Germany, where I was reunited with Sis.”

When they took Jerry to the Air Force hospital, the doctors figured he had eaten only about 500 calories a day. He had lost so much weight and resembled a starvation victim. Jerry didn’t care. He was happy the ordeal was over. “Although we may never know for certain if my chains were left unlocked by mistake or not,” Jerry says, “it’s clear to me that Sis’ and Landrum Bolling’s trip to Damascus was instrumental.”

Levin deems the kidnapping one of the things affecting him the most about his thoughts on violence. “I had a year with nothing to do but think of me in relation to the universe and especially my fellow human beings. I thought of things like assumptions I have made on how to live with others, spirituality and faith, and my views of violence. Day and night I would ponder why I was here, and why I was a kidnapping victim.

“I concluded my predicament was not just because of the violence of the so-called bad guys but so-called good guys too. The whole ordeal convinced me that violence doesn’t work. I call it the futility of violence,” Jerry says.

Sis agrees. “No one has any right to make a judgment unless they have seen it. I was always told Muslim women are put down, but it’s simply not true. They were so embarrassed because Islamic extremists say they’re Muslim. I told them not to be, the KKK say they are Christian. There are good and bad people in all three faiths. Christian, Muslims, and Jews should be a family.”

Jerry and Sis now share their story all over the country and the world. They are huge proponents of what they call nonviolent peace, the only true peace.

“I was going to be an Episcopal priest,” Sis says, “but after the kidnapping and the negotiation among the intercultural entities, I wanted to be part of the effort of cultural understanding. So I got my Doctorate in Peace Education from Colombia University. I work on and teach the ‘how to’ in peace studies; Jerry is more inclined to the ‘why’.”

While Jerry was in captivity, he was struck by the clear connection between the counter-cultural teaching ‘love your enemy’ and his insight as to the futility of violence. Now he has dedicated his life to spreading those connected concepts. “Being kidnapped is something I don’t want to repeat, but because of what I discerned in captivity, I don’t regret it. I am a different person.

“I don’t know if we will ever have peace in the Middle East,” he continues. “Humans use violence as a tool to dominate. It’s a behavior they use to coerce others to do what they want,” Jerry says. “And it’s being practiced everywhere in the region, in all the preferential Islamic States and in the preferential Jewish State of Israel where one ethnic or religious group in each seeks to dominate and diminish all others. There are no true democracies in the Middle East. Period! In addition, the waters there are being mudied by nations outside the region—these days, the U.S. and Russia—intervening violently.”

After 9/11, the Levins spent most of the decade of the new millennium working with Christian Peacemaker Teams (a violence prevention organization) in the West Bank and Gaza, and were in Baghdad acting as human shields at the outbreak of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their work on behalf of nonviolence and educating for nonviolence was recognized by the Dali Lama, who awarded them his Wisdom in Action: Heroes of Compassion Award in 2009.

Sis created the Community Nonviolence Resource Center in Pasadena, California, and has taught Introduction to Peace Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She loves to work with students.

“Young people get it. There’s nothing new about the struggle between Israel and Palestine, except now we have nuclear weapons. Peace works. We have to get to the young ones. Martin Luther King said to start in kindergarten. If you can infuse peace into classrooms at an early age, we might have a chance,” Sis says.

I left the Levins thinking peace could happen, with the energy they put into spreading it all over the world. I also thought how appropriate it seemed that their peace came with humility and with hope. 

2 Responses to “HOSTAGE”

  1. Thank you for telling the incredible story of our friends! Jerry and Sis Levin are a treasure to our community and to our Greater Birmingham Chapter of the United Nations Association – USA, we greatly value their unparalleled voice of experience and very intentional work of teaching peace through non-violent conflict resolution. They are changemakers – leading by example!

  2. Jerry was a classmate of mine in high school and I only learned of his ordeal in the Parade section of the D.C. Post. In telephoning him, I was rewarded by meeting Sis, renewing Jerry’s friendship and travelling together. I feel priviledged to have them as friends and know they are indeed trying to make a difference. Thank you for the article. Prayers for Sis’s recovery.

Leave a Reply