Terry Waite: ‘I spent five years as a hostage in Beirut – but I never cried’
The Telegraph, by Peter Stanford
Terry Waite, a former envoy to the Archishop of Canterbury, was captured by Hezbollah in 1987 and imprisoned for five years. He is now a writer and humanitarian
Terry Waite sits back for a moment to reflect in a sturdy leather armchair in central London’s Travellers’ Club – an appropriate venue to meet a man whose adult life has been travelling the world, including a spell in the mid-1980s as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s international envoy.
We are talking about the quarter-century that has now passed since he was released in 1991 after 1,763 days of captivity in Beirut. He had gone to Lebanon to negotiate the release of Western hostages but ended up a hostage himself, spending most of his time in solitary confinement. I ask him if that ordeal has left any lasting scars.
His whole demeanour makes it obvious that he is now searching for an honest answer. There is no more side about Waite the man than there is about his sonorous Northern accent. “Well, it shapes life,” he finally replies, “but carry it with me? I don’t think so.
His thick hair and trademark beard are a little greyer now that he is 77 than when he was on every front page, but his face is no less striking, with its large furrowed forehead and gentle eyes. “I never have been haunted by the past. I don’t have dreams or flashbacks or memories that have caused me to have real terror.”
To mark the 25th anniversary of his release, Waite is republishing his best-selling autobiography, Taken on Trust, first written in the aftermath of his return home. He has added a new chapter, bringing his story up to date, and reflecting briefly on the current state of the Middle East, where he believes a “Third World War” is now in progress.
Many who have been through equivalent experiences struggle ever after to lead a normal life. By his own account, Waite is not among them, though he does concede it took time.
“Someone once said to me, if you come out of a traumatic experience, don’t try rush everything. Come up as if you are coming up from diving on the seabed. If you come up too quickly, you get the bends. Do it gently and you’ll be alright.”
It’s advice that he routinely passes on as one of the founders of Hostage UK, an international organisation supporting the families of those taken captive in global hotspots. It is one of several charities he supports.
In his own case, he recalls, there were certainly obstacles to overcome. After spending five years apart from his wife, Frances, and their four children, then in their teens and early twenties, he was initially unable even to sit down and share a meal with them.
“I had been so alone for so long that I found the emotional exchange too much. I used to get up in the middle of the night and have a meal by myself. I had a room by myself. That is what I wanted at the time.”
In those long, lonely years of captivity, often chained to a wall, blindfolded and tortured, he had, he says, pushed away all thoughts of his family. “I found it too emotionally upsetting. I’d begin to speculate and my imagination would run riot: are they well, has one of them died or fallen into deep illness? It was speculation because I had no information at all for all those years. So it was useless. Therefore, I said to myself, ‘keep away from that subject’.”
The re-adjustment period
He pays repeated tribute in the book to his wife, Frances, with whom he now lives in Blackheath, south London, and in rural Suffolk, as “gentle, determined, deeply sensitive, probably the most loyal and trustworthy person I have known”. Once he was able to sit around the family meal table, she allowed him space away from home as part of his process of reintegration.
“I was elected to a fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. I lived in college for the middle part of the week and went home for the weekends. The coming back into life was not necessarily an easy process, but it wasn’t disastrous.”
Though unmistakably a serious-minded man (for example, he favours a limited use of force by the West in Syria “to protect the innocent”), Waite is also surprisingly full of humour. Indeed, he appears more comfortable recalling the amusingly odd moments of his captivity.
He describes how he maintained an inner dialogue with himself throughout his time as a hostage as a way of holding on to his sanity. “I made up imaginary characters in my head and spoke to them, or I’d compose poetry. I wasn’t allowed to speak aloud, but on one occasion a new guard came into my cell. I never saw them, of course, because I remained blindfolded, but I’d never heard his voice before. And he said: ‘Will you sing for me?’ ”
Across the corridor at the time was another hostage, but Waite had no idea who it was. “So I thought, here’s a chance to get across to him who I am, and that I am alive. To identify myself, I sang first ‘God Save the Queen’.
“Then I thought, I must get across that I am an envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. So I sang ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’.” He breaks into the first couple of lines of this stirring hymn in a deep bass, and then gives a huge guffaw. “The guard couldn’t make head nor tail of it.”
An ‘ordinary sort of person’
Waite makes a convincing show of being, as he puts it himself, “an ordinary sort of person”. It is one of the extraordinary things about him. Spending five years held captive and fearing for your life, in the basements and bombed-out apartment blocks of war-torn Beirut, doesn’t leave you ordinary.
“I was determined as much as I could not to take the experience as a negative, but as an opportunity to get to know myself better. It was almost a form of self-analysis. You inevitably discover both sides of personality – the light and the dark. And I can see why people say, if you do enter into analysis, which I have never been in, that it is wise to do it in company with a therapist, because when you come across the dark side, it is quite capable of swallowing you.”
It is a rare reference to the worst of what he was forced to confront. “I don’t remember crying,” he muses. “No, I don’t remember that. I remember being pretty upset. Maybe I did.”
Waite’s remarkable recovery hasn’t just happened. He set out deliberately on release to reshape his professional life, turning down a return to his role at Lambeth Palace, and rejecting approaches about other “international jobs”. “Another positive side of my experience was that it gave me the courage to give up a salaried job when I had a wife and four children and a mortgage, and earn my living by writing.”
His work for the Archbishop of Canterbury, freeing hostages, I suggest, is hardly most people’s idea of a salaried job. “Well, there you are,” he replies. “That’s how I felt. Perhaps it’s quite nutty.”
Return to Beirut
Which is how some might also regard his decision in 2004 to go back to Beirut. “I don’t think I had any ghost to lay,” he insists, “but if I am going to say to anyone, as I do, ‘sit down with someone with whom you disagree, put the past in the past, build a new future together’, then I have to do it myself. I don’t believe you should say anything for others unless you are prepared to do it yourself. It would be totally ridiculous.”
There is an enviable directness, strength and even holiness about Terry Waite. Part of it comes from his reluctance to accept that he is in any way special. “When I came out of captivity, I slipped into my pocket my blindfold and a small piece of magnifying glass which had been given to me so I can read when eventually I was allowed books. They’d been the only possessions I had.”
He put them on his desk at Trinity Hall as he wrote the first version of Taken on Trust. “When it was completed, I placed the two items in an envelope and handed them over to the college. They are now on permanent display as relics, though they haven’t yet proved to be holy relics.” He laughs out loud at the very thought.