The Department Of Hostage Return is encamped here. It consists of doctors and dentists and psychologists and psychiatrists and spokesmen and briefers and debriefers and someone who briefs the person who once a days briefs the press to deny, more or less that the former hostages are now being held hostages by the bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, that is what has happened. They are being seen by doctors and dentists. Shrinks drop by to ask them how they feel. Their blood is taken, their hair cut, their temperatures measured and their stories, often gruesome, recorded.

The apparatus is immense. The press of the world has laid siege to the hospital, Big Bertha cameras trained on the third floor where the 52 returnees are quartered. Network trailers line the curb, reporters wait at the gate and television studios have been set up in Frankfurt. If need be, the city will be bought.

The real thing -- a hostage -- is almost never seen. Occasionally one comes to the window to wave. Occasionally, they are seen on their way to a dentist's appointment. They wear blue hospital pajamas and Air Force parkas and are accompanied by what appear to be medical aides. They wave, 100 cameras click and then they walk away. It is like there are no hostages here.

There is something else missing. Germans. They are not in the crowd at the gate and they are not driving by in their cars to rubberneck and their kids skipping by do not stop anymore to see what all the commotion is about.

Some of this has to do with the fact that this is not a German story but an American one. But some of it undoubtedly has to do with the fact that it is being acted out here, here in central Europe, here where horror knew no bounds, where killing was done on an immense scale. It has been bombed and its people jailed -- sometimes by their own people, sometimes by others -- but so frequently and under such conditions that former hostages who can walk and smile and whose government certifies their health are mere asterisks to the story of what man can do to man.

This is true the world over. Cambodians slaughter Cambodians and Indians poke out the eyes of their countrymen and the people of Africa starve to death. In central America, men come in the night and kill and in Afghanistan, we are told, the Soviets bomb villages.

This does not mean that the hostages have not suffered. This does not mean that they were not mistreated, maybe tortured, made to suffer in captivity -- maybe made to suffer forever. It is just that they did -- thank God -- survive their experience. Now we are told that they want to go shopping.

Somehow the hostages have become lost in all this. We are told they suffered, but we don't see the ones who did the suffering. We are told they were beaten, but we don't see the ones who were beaten. We are told they spent time in solitary, were chained to a chair, had to drink rancid milk and eat spoiled food, yet we are also told that they could not be in better health.

Of course, it's all true -- the good news and the bad news. It's possible to have been beaten and then to have healed, to have been starved and then fed, to have been tortured and then pampered. But at the moment, we see only one side of that question -- the stories of mistreatment. The hostages themselves are out of sight.

The upshot of the situation is that the bad news in running away with the good news, that the hostages have disappeared as individuals and have become, instead, symbols. They have become a cause or a lesson, something to be studied and probed, a vindication to some people, a lesson to others.

It is rumored the hostages will go home Saturday. It is also rumored they will go home Tuesday. Foreign newsmen have taken to asking about this "Super Bowl." It appears to be a deadline of sorts. One wire service got someone from the Air Force to interview the hostages and then interviewed the interviewer. A network has brought its own psychiatrist and sometimes, when a hostage is spotted, an appeal is made on the basis of his home town.

"Hey Jones," a reporter yelled to Charles Jones Jr. of Detroit, "this is TV2, Detroit." Jones just smiled and walked away. Maybe he watches Channel 4.

In the night, reporters watch the hospital windows for a friendly wave. During the day, the briefer briefs. All the time, the Department of Hostage Return goes about its business, which is, for good or for bad, holding the hostages hostage some more.