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”.