THERE WERE nearly 100 chilren among the 380 passengers on the TWA, BOAC and Swissair jets that were hijacked and diverted to a desolate area northeast of Amman, Jordan, in September, 1970, by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. More than 40 of these children were traveling without their parents. Most of them developed innovative ways of coping with their fears and discomforts in captivity.
So says Sylvia Jacobson, an associate professor of social welfare at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who was among the passengers on the TWA Boeing 707. She observed the children on her plane and then did followup interviews over the next four years.
The preteens were actually quite ready to talk. They complained to Jacobson that, after their rescue, they had trouble relating the experience to adults, who tendded to put words into the youngersters' mouths: "What an awful experience you had. I guess you want to forget all about it." Thus, they failed to hear not only of the children's traumas but about the compensations they had found.
As armed guards patrolled the planes, food became scarce, toilets overflowed and negotiations for their release dragged on, the children found comfort in humor, fantasy and personal interactions. The children aboard the BOAC plane called an especially arrogant, threatening female guard Bombshell Bessie. Other guards were dubbed Flea Brain and Goggle Eyes. Even helpers were not exempt from name calling. When the International Red Cross representative came on board wearing an immaculate white uniform and cap, the grimy youngsters hissed, "Mr. Clean!"
Adolescents and preteens on the TWA plane made up new words to popular tunes, desensitizing themselves to their own fears and anxieties in the process. They sang:
We're living on a jet plane!
Don't know when we'll be back again.
One hundred years I've worn my clothes.
Can't you tell,
By the way they smell, They've been through Hell?
One 12-year-old girl kept visualizing her mother at home in the kitchen stirring hot soup on the stove until she "could almost smell it." A number of boys on the TWA and BOAC planes spent time in fantasied plans to overcome the guards, seize the guns and escape. A small boy on the BOAC plane slipped his penknife to the stewardess, urging her to "stick it in the guerrilla's ribs so we can get away."
JACOBSON reports that "adolescents on the TWA flight quickly formed a subgroup of their own to divert themselves from their own anxieties." They aided in food and water distribution and in the unenviable effort to collect refuse and keep a modicum of order. Girls gathered the smaller children toward the rear of the plane where they set up school with games, lessons and songs for as long as they were allowed to by the hijackers.
Not all youngsters were successful in projecting their dependency needs. Fearful and preoccupied with concerns about food, elimination and sleep, the younger children expected to be comforted and cared for by adults.
As their week of captivity dragged by, Cathy, 13, and Martha, 11, waited patiently for the grownups to "stop their quarreling and look after us." By midweek Martha became depressed and refused to eat, and Cathy began to lose her faith in God. At his point an Arab physician called in by the PFLP held Martha and fed her baby food from a spoon. He spoke soothingly to both girls. "He was a real father figure to us," said Cathy.
In a quarter of the families contacted by Jacobson later, parents reported that younger children had episodes of sleeplessness, nigh terrors, bedwetting and clinging for several months after returning home. Some youngsters temporarily forgot the most painful incidents of their capture.
By the time of their followup interview, Martha and Cathy had converted one of their terrifying experiences into an anecdote told with great hilarity. News photographers had besieged the passengers at the Amman airport as they finally boarded a plane to Cyprus: "Smile! You've just been rescued. Move apart so we can shoot you better." The girls recounted with humorous indignation: "There we were, tired, dirty, carrying our own baggage, trying to get up those steps and onto a plane that was going to take us to Cyprus, not even home yet, and over their heads we could still see silent Arabs surrounding us and the plane and still holding their guns at us - and they say, 'We want to shoot you better.' How could they!"
This article is reprinted with permission from Human Behavior magazine.