In 1987 Terry Waite travelled to Lebanon on a mission to free hostages. Through a contact’s betrayal, Terry himself was taken hostage and held in solitary confinement for nearly five years. While his family agonised, Terry received what news he could through fellow hostages tapping in code through his cell wall.
Terry’s release from his Islamic Jihad captors made international news in 1991. How did he survive the mental torment of solitary confinement? What resources did his faith provide during the ordeal? Who has he become in the years since? Those are some of the questions I put to Terry, and the unfolding story proved riveting.
Describe that day in 1987 when you, as the Church of England’s envoy, were taken hostage. It must be indelibly locked in your mind.
I remember the day very well. I went back into Beirut at a time of extreme difficulty. I still remember that I thought my chances of being captured, or even being killed, were very high. But I went back for very clear reasons. I had been a victim of political duplicity and I wasn’t going to fall victim to that, if I could help it, any further. Secondly, the hostages that I knew were extremely distressed and I felt that there was just a chance that something might be done.
I went back. I was promised safe conduct by the captors of the hostages and they broke their promise. I spent about four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement and another six months in the company of other hostages.
Describe that sense of betrayal by your captors.
At the time I was very angry. When I found myself in an underground tiled cell, I really was angry with them for breaking their word, and I did what many prisoners do when they are first incarcerated—demonstrate that I still had a measure of freedom. So I refused all food for a week. At the end of the first week they said that if I didn’t eat they’d make me eat. So I ate. My anger had dissipated. I think anger is a normal human emotion; we all have it. It is important to be able to control it, obviously, but it is even more important not to allow it to turn into bitterness, because bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul—it does more harm to those who hold it than against those whom it is held.
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As the years go by I can understand why my kidnappers behaved as they did. I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with kidnapping, with taking innocent people. But I can see that when some people have always been at the bottom of the heap politically, economically and socially, when they have always been pushed against the wall, when they have been ignored, when they have seen nothing but warfare, when they feel that they have been totally exploited, I can see why they turn to desperate measures.
“Bitterness is like a cancer that enters the soul — it does more harm to those who hold it than against those whom it is held.”
And that leads me to say something about the way in which we deal with so-called terrorism today. Terrorism, including kidnapping and all those sort of things, is really a symptom of a much deeper disorder. The more I think about it, the more I am able to recognise that these are symptoms, and we have to deal with the fundamental problems rather than just dealing with the symptoms.
How long did you initially think you would be held for?
Like most people who are captured, you feel as though this will be over in twenty-four hours. When twenty-four hours have passed you say, well, it can’t be longer than a few days. Then the first week goes by, then a month, then two months, six months and then twelve months go by. In my case I had interrogation for the first year; they were trying to see if I knew anything about what became the Iran-Contra affair. Mercifully I knew nothing about that, and at the end of the first year they were convinced I had been a victim of political duplicities and they were going to release me. They put me in good accommodation for a week, and then some event took place, I wasn’t released, and I went back into normal hostage accommodation.
Again I thought, well, it won’t be long. But it just goes on and on. After that you learn to live a day at a time, and you never believe anything until it has actually happened. I was told several times that I’d be released in the next few days, but then the days would go by. So you live each day as it comes.
Firm Faith Through Solitary Confinement
So here you are in solitary confinement for nearly five years. How on earth do you cope for that amount of time?
It’s an extreme situation. It can be depressing, because you see your skin go white because you have no natural light. You lose muscle tone because there is no exercise other than what you can do on the end of a chain—you were chained twenty-four hours a day to the wall. You’re sitting on the floor in a dark room with no books and papers for a long, long time and no communication with anyone or with the outside world. I remember seeing my beard grow long and turning white; it had been black. I felt I was getting old before my time.
When you see your physical body beginning to deteriorate, you have to learn to live within. You become afraid that you might also deteriorate rather more quickly than you would want to, both mentally and spiritually.
Your mind must start to play games on you.
Yes, indeed. And you have got to be able to discipline your mind, because everything is lived from within. There is no external stimulation. There is no books, no one to speak with, no one to feed your identity back to you.
“There is a relationship between identity, language and prayer; somehow they help you hold together at your centre.”
I was fortunate, firstly, because through life I had been an avid reader and therefore I had built up a store of books, poetry and prose in my memory. Secondly, I’d been brought up as an Anglican—I’m an Anglican Christian—and had been brought up with the Book of Common Prayer. The language of that was very, very helpful. I had unconsciously memorised it as a choir boy. If I can just give you an example of what I mean from one of the great old collects of the prayer book:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night . . .
That is very, very meaningful when you’re sitting in darkness. That collect not only has meaning, but it also has poetry and rhythm. There is a relationship between identity, language and prayer; somehow they help you hold together at your centre.
Some people may find this strange, but I never engaged in what is called extemporary prayer during that time. I felt that if I did I would be begin to, sort of, go down a one-way track, reveal my own psychological vulnerability and just get into the business of saying, ‘Oh God, get me out of here’—which isn’t prayer at all. That’s just being like a child. So by falling back on that which I knew, the Prayer Book and the balance of that, I was able to keep a bit more balance in my mind and also maintain some degree of inner balance.
Terry, I don’t want to leave the whole question of faith yet, because I think it’s a fascinating aspect of your story. You said you weren’t blaming God, but was there ever a moment when you felt your faith challenged? Often that’s when our faith is really put to the test.
I have to say I never felt that. What I did feel was this: religion is a remarkable phenomenon because it attracts all sorts of encumbrances around it, many of which are just sheer nonsense in my view. But when you are out on a limb, when you are at the extremities, somehow you try and get to the real heart of the matter, try and cut through the nonsense and get to the real essence of belief and being.
If I can put it very, very simply—and this may seem too simple for some—I could say this in the face of my captors: you have the power to break my body, and you have tried; you have the power to bend my mind, and you have tried; but my soul is not yours to possess. There was that essential belief that my soul lay in the hands of God and couldn’t be taken by others.
Now, we can argue till the cows come home, as people have done across the generations, about what the soul is. For me it is the sum-total of me—my identity, my essential being, which lay in the hands of God and couldn’t be taken by others. And that very, very simple belief was enough to enable me to retain hope.
“…my soul is not yours to possess. There was that essential belief that my soul lay in the hands of God and couldn’t be taken by others.”
If anybody listening to this is in a situation of real unpleasantness, difficulty, sickness or whatever, realise that you are not going to be destroyed. If you face suffering it will be very difficult; there may be no relief from the suffering. But if you can have hope behind it you will not be destroyed.
Two Thousand Miles Of Distance
During your captivity, what is your family going through? I believe they didn’t even know whether you were alive or dead.
Someone who came back from Beirut or came out of Beirut, I don’t quite know what, told my wife, ‘Your husband is dead.’ She asked how they knew and they said, ‘We’ve seen his grave.’ She said, ‘Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.’ She never believed that I was dead, and the family held on.
I have great admiration for my wife. We have four children, grown up now, and grandchildren. She had to keep the children and the family together and see them through school and halfway through university. It was very difficult for them. In some ways it is more difficult for families than it is for the hostage, because they just don’t know, and they go on not knowing, and have to live normal life with all the pressures.
But we came through it and I think in fact it has done us good. It sounds absolutely silly to say that. Perhaps a better way to put it is that we’ve refused to allow it to do us harm. Again, I think this is the business of taking events as far as you can in your own hands. I said a moment ago that suffering is always difficult, and it is. I’m the last one to underplay it and the last one to treat it lightly. But it needn’t destroy. Very often it can be turned around so that you can make something creative of it. If you look back into history you will find that many great acts of creativity came out of suffering. And, of course, the central symbol of the Christian faith is a symbol of suffering—the cross. But beyond that lies the symbol of hope—the resurrection.
I can’t imagine the feelings that must’ve been flowing through you when you saw your wife and kids for the first time after five years of solitary confinement.
I didn’t know my son. I mean, my son was a young lad when I was taken and he was now a mature teenager. He’s now a school master actually; he’s head of sixth form these days with children of his own. But I wouldn’t have recognised him.
It took time. It took time to get together again. If anybody is listening to this who has been through a long period of separation or trauma, don’t imagine that you are going to rush back and everything is going to be wonderful. It may be, and that would be fortunate. But take time. Someone said to me, ‘When you come out after an experience like that, take it as though you are coming up from the sea bed. If you come up too quickly you get the bends; if you take it gently you will be fine.’ That was good advice.
How were you finally released? What was the turning point?
Simply the end of the political saga in the Middle East. They simply came into the room, gave me some clothes which didn’t fit—I’m six foot seven—so, you know, I looked like I was wearing Boy Scout trousers . . .
Ready for the cameras rolling as you leave . . .
They probably said, ‘There’s Waite again, looking elegant as usual!’
I looked like a scarecrow. I looked dreadful.
I bet your kids were saying, ‘Oh Dad, come on!’
Yeah, ‘Come on, get yourself a suit.’ Well, what do you mean? This is my best suit! In Australia they all dress like this!
Helping Hostages Everywhere
Let’s talk about the Terry Waite of today. You’ve founded a group called Hostage UK to support families who experience what you and your family experienced.
I’d been working as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury and I had had a salaried job. When I came out of captivity I thought, I’m not going to go back into a salaried job. What I am going to do is earn my own living by writing and lecturing, and then give the rest of the time away. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that before the captivity. You become dependent on a monthly salary. But I thought, I can manage this. I’ve faced that sort of a risk, I can face this one. And Hostage UK is one of the organisations I founded.
How many hostages are taken around the world each year?
I don’t know how many but it’s an enormous number, it really is. Often families are bewildered, wondering how to behave, what to do, how far to trust the Government, what provisions should be made, should we go out there, etc. There’s nothing like someone who has been through the experience, either as a family member or as a hostage themselves, being able to go and sit with a family and really relate to the real issues that they face.
“Don’t expect God to get you out of a hole in the way that you expect. But if you have faith, you will not be destroyed, and you will find that you can live in hope.”
You may have heard of the hostage Ken Bigly, who was one of those brutally beheaded in Iraq. I went and sat with his mother, an old lady in Liverpool. I sat on the end of her bed. She was in her eighties, the news had come through that Ken, her son, had been beheaded, and she said to me, ‘There is nothing that can describe how I feel as a mother at this time.’ Then she went on, ‘But my suffering is no greater than the suffering of a mother in Iraq who has just lost her child.’ I thought, how remarkable. That lady is going through all that at this moment and is able to extend her compassion to someone whom she has never met. It was a remarkable thing to be able to say.
Wrapping up, what have you learned through your ordeal? What are the great life lessons you’ve taken out of your hostage experience?
Some people have said that I was a fool to trust people so much. Well, I trusted in a number of instances, and the result was that innocent people came home. I trusted in this instance in Beirut and I was captured. There are no guarantees. But I’d rather have a trusting nature than be suspicious of everybody. That doesn’t mean that you’re naïve, but I think it’s better to have a trusting nature than to be closed up and think everybody’s against you. That is one thing.
Secondly, suffering needn’t destroy. I believe that very, very implicitly.
Thirdly, keep a few simple goals in life and don’t be deterred when things go wrong. Things will go wrong. You can’t, and shouldn’t, have it all your own way. But don’t be deterred. Keep going.
And as for questions of faith, which I think are important—when you are at the extremities it is quite simple: don’t expect God to get you out of a hole in the way that you expect. But if you have faith, you will not be destroyed, and you will find that you can live in hope; not just for this life, but for dimensions that lie way beyond this life.
This transcript and audio is from an old interview between Sheridan Voysey and Terry Waite for Open House in April 2013.