August 22, 2004

By David Raab

After 34 years, I was standing once again at the house in Amman where, as a 17-year-old, I was held hostage by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, 1970 , the P.F.L.P. tried the first quadruple hijacking in history, commandeering planes headed to the United States from Europe . One carrier, a Pan Am 747, was diverted to Cairo and blown up in protest only moments after passengers cleared its wings. Another attempt was foiled when the pilot threw his El Al airliner into a nose dive, giving sky marshals the chance to subdue the hijackers. The two other planes -- a T.W.A. 707 and a Swissair DC-8 -- with 310 crew members and passengers landed in the desert northeast of Amman . My mother, my four siblings and I were aboard the T.W.A. plane, heading home to Trenton after a summer in Israel .

The next day, the P.F.L.P. moved about 125 passengers to Amman , but kept American, Israeli, Swiss and West German citizens on the planes. The hijackers sought freedom for their jailed compatriots and threatened to blow up the planes with us in them. For a week, we sat in the desert, in our metal containers, enduring 120-degree days, 40-degree nights and no functioning toilets. Our captors provided minimal water and food. We were put on display for the bandoleered, machine-gun-toting guerrillas who traipsed through the plane. Fear was ever-present, but there was no panic: a P.F.L.P. doctor doled out tranquilizers. Having netted few Israelis, the P.F.L.P. interrogated Jewish passengers, including my mother, in order to find more.

At 2:30 a.m. on Friday, as I slept soundly for the first time, I was tapped by the co-pilot, who said, ''They want you up front for questioning.'' As I got up, I began shaking uncontrollably. My mother, sitting behind me, heard the rustling and quickly followed. She was warned at gunpoint to sit down.

I descended into the darkness on a rickety ladder that had been placed against the plane. Nine others were herded with me into a minivan; all of us sure we were being taken to be killed. Instead, we were driven to Wahdat, a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman . For two days we stayed in a bare room with only a tiny window, sweating, fretting, praying and tracking the rays of the sun as they made their way against the wall. On Sunday, Sept. 13, a week after the hijackings, we learned that the P.F.L.P. had sent almost all of the other hostages home. I was comforted that at least my family had made it out alive.

The following Wednesday, the P.F.L.P. shuffled its 54 remaining hostages. I found myself with 31 other Americans in a three-room apartment on Ashrafiyeh, one of Amman 's hills and a Palestinian stronghold. Our reunion was joyful, but at daybreak, war broke out in Amman . The hijackings were the last straw for King Hussein, who was now determined to retake control of his country. Over the past two years, Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian resistance movement, with Hussein's reluctant submission, had turned Jordan into a militarized jungle.

We were in the middle of the shelling, since Ashrafiyeh was among the Jordanian Army's primary targets. Electricity was cut off, and again we had little food or water. Friday afternoon, we heard the metal tracks of a tank clanking on the pavement. We were quickly herded into one room, and the guerrillas threw open the doors to make the building appear abandoned so it wouldn't attract fire. Suddenly, the shelling stopped.

Sarah Malka was our heroine. A Jewish-American, she was born in the Sudan and spoke Arabic. Not only did she cook for us (while keeping kosher herself); she also conveyed our requests to our captors and brought us tidbits of information. We worried every time she left to speak with them. Finally, on the 26th, after three weeks of captivity, the 32 of us were released.

I returned to Amman last month to better understand the events of Black September, during which at least 2,000 people died and which led to the P.L.O.'s expulsion from Jordan . It was my captor, Bassam Abu Sharif, who told me the street where I was held. We met this May after I learned that he lives in Ramallah and claims to have recanted his extremist views.

When I arrived at Barto Street , some locals remembered the former P.F.L.P. house. One led me there. It looked familiar. The building to the right had a chiseled-stone exterior, just as I remembered seeing it from my window. The stone buildings huddled on the adjacent hill had been my view from the other window. But I still wasn't sure. The top of the building my guide brought me to had since been demolished, and the surviving below-street-level apartment was different. As I wandered about, a curious crowd gathered. An older man, who had been sitting a few doors down, walked over and said: ''Yes, this is where you were held. There was a Jewish girl there too, who came out every once in a while and spoke Arabic. Sarah.''

David Raab is a management consultant. He is writing a book about the events of September 1970.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company
Sunday, August 22, 2004


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