In the company of Terry Waite

Those of us with memories stretching back to the 1980s vividly remember the day that Terry Waite was kidnapped. In Beirut, attempting to negotiate the release of British and American hostages, he was betrayed by one of the negotiating parties – and spent the next five years in captivity.

An unimaginable experience for most of us – and one which Waite brought vividly to life at tonight’s talk. In the tranquil surroundings of Southwark Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s former envoy spoke to us of his experiences of negotiating, his time in captivity and how he adjusted to life once back home. It was a compelling talk and I’m going to share some of it with you, in the hope that you’ll be as engrossed as I was.

To understand those fateful days in 1987, which led to Waite’s imprisonment, we need to travel back to the early 1970s, which found Waite living with his family in Uganda, working as a negotiator. These were turbulent times for the country, as Idi Amin seized power and “caused havoc”. Never before, Waite recalled, had he seen so much bloodshed – including the murder of his friends in front of him; Waite himself was twice held up at gunpoint.

A frequent visitor to the prisons in Kampala, where a number of his church colleagues had been imprisoned without charge, this is where Waite had his first experience of negotiating at a senior level; he met Idi Amin several times and managed to achieve some successes. Above all, Waite says, he came to see that when law and order breaks down in society, all hell breaks loose: people can and will behave accordingly.

Having worked in “most of the world’s conflict zones”, Waite joined Robert Runcie’s staff in 1980 and spent time in Iran and Libya, negotiating with the likes of Colonel Gaddafi and “trying to listen and to understand why people were behaving as they did”. But how did this experienced negotiator and humanitarian come to be captured?

He hadn’t, Waite told us, originally intended to travel to Beirut. However, relatives of some of the hostages approached Southwark diocese, asking for help – and Waite agreed to do what he could, travelling to the Lebanese capital and establishing face-to- face contact with the hostage takers.

Politics, as always, interfered and the hostage takers found it difficult to believe that Waite’s motives were purely altruistic. Nonetheless, the discussions continued – until, one day, Waite was told that one of the hostages was close to death and asked whether he would like to see him. “They gave me their word that they wouldn’t imprison me, so I asked for 24 hours to think over their offer”.

Uncertain what to do, Waite was given conflicting advice by his colleagues. In the end, his conscience told him that he needed to spend time with this dying prisoner – and the die was cast.

Taken to a hotel, Waite spent five days on his own before being driven, blindfolded, to an underground car park. Told to jump out of the car, Waite found himself falling through a trapdoor. When he took off his blindfold, he found himself in a tiled cell. “My blood ran cold”, he told us. “Former prisoners had told me of their cells being tiled to make it easier to clean away the blood”.

And Terry Waite would soon experience for himself what those prisoners had been through. During his first year of captivity, he was beaten regularly, as his captors tried to establish whether he was the agent of a foreign power.

The mental torture was equally horrendous, if not worse. Waite was kept in solitary confinement permanently. Chained to a radiator, he was blindfolded and allowed just one bathroom visit per day. There was no natural light, and he had to eat and sleep on the floor. Nor was he allowed access to pens, paper or radio – or contact with his family. Sitting in his cell, he watched his skin turn white due to lack of sunlight – and his muscle tone disappear. “I felt age catching up with me very quickly”, Waite recalled.

His first reaction to being captured was anger: both at himself, and at his captors. Completely understandable: I’m sure we would have all experienced the same emotion. Yet, he told us, anger is a normal human emotion, “but you can’t let it get the better of you, or it’ll do you more harm than those who caused it”.

Waite maintains that he understood the risks inherent to his role: “If you work with dangerous people, you put yourself at risk”. He always, he says, knew there was a chance he could be captured or killed: “I would never blame others for my captivity. If things go wrong, bear the responsibility yourself”.

Rather than letting anger fester, Waite realised that he needed to remain mentally and spiritually alive. Aware that he had been placed in “an extreme situation” (an understatement if ever I’ve heard one), Waite compared himself with someone who’d been suddenly struck down by a chronic illness. To fill the time, he began to “write” in his head; a necessity, given that he was allowed a pen & paper only twice in his captivity – once, in advance of a mock execution, when he’d been told that he had just five hours to live and that he should write a farewell letter to his family.

What of Terry Waite’s faith, and the role it played in sustaining him through those long, dark years? Interestingly, Waite says that he never felt the close presence of God. “It’s dangerous”, he reflected, “to put too much emphasis on feelings where faith is concerned”. That said, he told his captors that they might possess his body and mind – but that they would never possess his soul, “which lies in the hands of God”.

Where his faith also helped him was in the power of language, which had been embedded in his mind since childhood. Every morning, he said the Communion Service to himself: Anglican psalms and prayers. Doing that, he says, made him feel part of a community around the world.

Amidst the pain and the bleakness there were, thankfully, some humorous moments. Desperately missing books, Waite begged his captors to bring him something to read. They refused – but eventually, he forged a friendship with one of them, through sign language (neither being able to understand the other’s language). His new friend communicated with a “chain” of people, through whom a book was passed along. “When it arrived, I ripped off my blindfold”, recalled Waite, “only to let out an enormous snort of laughter. The title of the book was ‘Great Escapes’”.

You couldn’t make it up, could you? More hilarity was to come when a manual on the subject of breast-feeding arrived in Waite’s cell. When it was followed by Dr Spock’s guide to child-rearing, Waite realised he would have to be more proactive. For the second and final time, he was given a pen and paper – and drew a penguin. It worked. One week later, he was presented with Laurie Lee’s ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ – and a succession of Penguin paperbacks followed.

Solitude, this inspirational human being told us, was both the breaking and the making of him – and, indeed, the title of one of Waite’s books. “I believe you should enjoy – and profit from – solitude”, he mulled – explaining that, whilst in solitary confinement, he was keenly aware that he was living close to death. Solitude can be “invigorating”, is his argument; a whole inner world is opened to you which you can turn into something creative.

What of Waite’s integration back at home: how on earth did he adjust to “normal living”? It took him, he says, around one year – and even now, there are elements of that year of which he has no memory, including a family holiday which took place shortly after his release: “It’s as though he I was walking in a trance”.

And has he been able to forgive his captors? Amazingly, Waite returned to Lebanon some years ago and met with members of Hezbollah, who were “surprised” to see him (another understatement, surely). Together, they agreed that they should put the past behind them.

Of Britain’s current state, Waite laments the ignorance shown over recent years in respect of foreign policy and believes that we need mature statesmen and leaders. But where, he asked, are they to be found? (The audience had no idea, either). We’re still coming to terms, he believes, with the fact that we’re no longer a global power, whilst behaving as though we still have an empire. Britain is yet to discover her new role in the world.

And yet, Waite remains hopeful for the future. Now 79 years old, he comes across as someone at peace with himself and the imperfect world around him. I was both impressed and moved by him and will leave you with a comment he made that we would all do well to remember:

“Suffering is no respecter of persons. But it need not destroy”.


    • The same here, Anabel: I’ve read both Brian Keenan and John McCarthy’s accounts of their captivity, but for some reason have never read any of Terry Waite’s work. I shall have to put that right, as I found him to be an enthralling speaker and feel certain I would learn a lot from his writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Such an awful, horrifying ordeal. I can understand his anger when it first happened, too. It’s incredible he’s able to recount the humorous elements and see a little light from his experiences. Being given a book called ‘Great Escapes’ is pretty damn ironic, not sure if I would have laughed at the time or not though! Thanks for sharing this, it made for fascinating reading as I only really know the basics of his story.xx

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Caz – and I agree, it’s incredible that Terry Waite is able to talk about such a horrific experience with humour – and forgiveness. He’s an example to all of us of how to forgive and move forward: thankfully, most of us will never be tested in that way.

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    • Thank you, Jane: I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I was hugely inspired by Terry Waite and it was a privilege listening to him talk about the horrendous ordeal he endured and how he has come to terms with it and moved on. He’s an inspiration to us all.

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  2. Fascinating post as usual and as a car enthusiast it reminded me of the story of his MGB and his return home, I will post it here as a little addition to his story, I hope you don’t mind.

    JUNE 12, 1992
    Freedom is an MGB. Initially, it sounds like a cliched advertising slogan thought up in days of yore, when the sports car was a symbol of wind in the hair and the type of freedom that comes from driving along country lanes with the hood down.

    However, freedom, in this instance, stands for something very different and is coined by one of the few men who would know the true meaning of the word, Terry Waite. The slogan isn’t part of some new campaign for the relaunch of the MGB, but part of a scheme to raise money (or and promote the work “Y” Care International, the world relief and development agency of the YMCA in Britain and Ireland. Terry founded ‘Y’ care in 1984 to raise money to fund community based projects run by local YMCAs in developing countries.

    Why use an MGB to promote the project? The idea came as the result of a letter sent to Terry at RAF Lyneham on his return to England. Bryan Howells, MG Car Club Director, suggested as a gesture to welcome Terry home, that the Car Club should offer to get Terry’s by now famous MGB, back into running order after being off the road for so long. Lyn Jeffrey, Club Secretary, ensured that the letter wouldn’t get lost in the many sackfuls of post arriving daily at the base. There was pandemonium in the club office two days later when Terry phoned to accept the offer.

    Will Corry, Club Chairman set about the project of putting Terry’s MGB back on the road. One of his first jobs was to make a hit list of contributors. Mansell McCarthy Motorsport was enlisted to carry out the work and set about recovering the vehicle from its long hibernation. Apart from a seized handbrake from being left so long.

    (Terry later explained, “Well, I only in tended lo be away for a week!”), there were no real problems. A thorough examination revealed sound body work, but extensive corrosion to the brakes, suspension, steering and fuel systems.

    Some new parts would be needed and naturally the Club turned to the advertisers in their own magazine Safety Fast for free contributions. When Pete Buckles at Moss Europe was first approached, he, like all of the other MG specialists the Club contacted, was more than willing to offer any parts and support that was needed.

    While the car was stripped as necessary and rebuilt with new parts, it was not totally restored, as the objective was to reunite Terry with his old familiar MGB. The MG Car Club planned to hand over the keys of the car at a presentation ceremony at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden. However, with the care and consideration of the man ever present, the Waite family suggested that a promotion of the event should be used not only to celebrate his freedom but also to benefit a worthy cause. The slogan ‘Freedom is an MGB’ was quickly endorsed by Terry and he decided to dedicate the promotion to “Y” Care. The MG Car Club agreed to promote the campaign and that “Y” Care would benefit from the proceeds.

    The day of the presentation was thankfully clear and sunny. Adam Blackaby, Group Marketing Manager and Mike Standring, Group Sales Manager, attended the event on behalf of Moss Europe. The shining and polished Midnight Blue MGB was initially hidden away in the Transport Museum, where it was unveiled in front of a gaggle of press and television crews. Terry then drove the car outside into the sunshine for further photo opportunities. He looked very proud of the car, his famous bearded grin offered to the many calls of “Terry, this way!”, “Terry, over here!” as the press clamored for just the right publicity shot. Terry didn’t seem to mind, alter all it was all in good cause and he did have his MGB back. Freedom at last!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is such a fabulous article: many thanks for sharing it. I love the idea of like-minded car enthusiasts coming together to restore Terry’s MGB and present it to him. I can imagine that was an incredibly emotional experience for everyone involved, all the more so as the presentation was used to raise money for the charity he founded.

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