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Why Are Americans Still There?

March 01, 1987|David DeVoss \f7

MORE THAN 1,000 AMERICAN citizens continue to live in Beirut despite threats from Muslim terrorists and the advice of their own State Department. They cower behind barricades, zealously guard their identities and seldom walk in the sunshine. For them survival means going to work at a different time each day and never returning home by the same route. Why do they stay in a country where anarchy is so prevalent that even President Amin Gemayel is afraid to travel?

"Because Lebanon has become home for many Americans," says Father Lawrence Jenco, the Catholic Relief Services director who was released last October after 19 months of captivity. "Many have heroic motives for staying; a few consider themselves ambassadors of good will."

For many Americans, the decision to leave comes too late. Jenco had a ticket for Rome and was on his way to the airport when he was kidnaped. Others, like Alann Steen, one of four American University Beirut professors kidnaped in February, simply fell in love with the country and trusted to the statistical improbability of being the next victim. "Alann wasn't there for the bucks," says Steen's brother Bruce. "He loved his students and their thirst for education. When Alann was home last summer, he said the only way he'd ever leave Beirut was to be dragged out."

Until two years ago, terrorist targets tended to be political or military. Though terrible in its savagery, the war still exuded some romance and intrigue. For dozens of Americans affiliated with the university and hospital, these attractions obscured the anarchy looming on the horizon. "With a little bit of luck and some street savvy, the average American who knew the rules thought he could survive," says Carlton Knight, who left Beirut last summer after eight years in AUB's department of education. But gradually the rules began to disappear. Random kidnapings replaced those of prominent Americans. The AUB campus, once a sanctuary, came under attack. Are Americans now ready to leave? Knight is doubtful.

"Americans in Beirut have built careers, developed friendships and established a home," he explains. "Washington may order them out, but where can they go? How do you support yourself? What happens to your friends? The price of severing ties with Lebanon is one many Americans won't be willing to pay."

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