Terry Waite: a man in the firing line

meets the man who was at the centre of a media and political storm when he was held hostage in Lebanon between 1987 and 1991

“Lebanon holds no ghosts or horrors for me …” Terry Waite, taken hostage in Lebanon and held for 1,760 days before being released in 1991, pauses before continuing: “We live in a world full of suffering. There are many people who have suffered more than I have. Suffering needn’t be totally destructive; it can always be turned around and something constructive can emerge from it.”

Waite, 71, worked as a Church of England envoy when he was captured on a  hostage negotiation mission to Lebanon in 1987. He had been strongly advised against the operation after his public use of an American helicopter and appearance with Colonel Oliver North (who was embroiled in the Iran-Contra Affair) compromised his position as an impartial figure.

Waite is an inexplicably tranquil figure. His movements and speech are slow, his huge hands clasp together in a picture of equanimity; yet his very presence puts you on edge. He presents a mass of contradictions; he is so genuine and open, yet complex and difficult to read.

I ask Waite how he can be so accepting of the fate he has endured; so certain that something positive must arise from his calamity of suffering. He does not directly answer my question. He has a knack of deflecting difficult issues with such subtlety that you don’t quite realise what he has done.

“Who knows how their life is going to unfold,” he says. “You make choices and choices are made for you and sometimes you have no choice.” His deep voice has a lullaby quality that both excites and depresses in one damning move.

I was interrogated during the first year of my captivity, and if I had been involved in Iran-Contra, you wouldn’t be speaking to me now; I’d be dead

The key to eradicating ‘ghosts and horrors’, he says, is forgiveness. “You can forgive people when you can understand their motives. While I don’t agree with the methods that my captors used – violence to achieve political ends – I do understand their motives.”

He continues: “Hostages were seen as a symbol of the West which they blamed for a number of their problems.”

Waite’s ability to forgive is admirable, but I wonder if this is merely a sign of a desperation to see good in everything and everyone.

When I suggest that his determination to complete the Lebanon mission despite adverse warnings was a sign of naivety, I receive a categorical denial.

At the time, he says, he believed there was only a “very, very slim chance” of anything going wrong because of his compromised position. “I was determined,” he says quietly. “I knew nothing about the Iran-Contra affair [as his Islamic kidnappers believed]. I was not afraid to stand on the truth, so I went back.”

“I was interrogated during the first year of my captivity and if I had been involved in Iran-Contra, you wouldn’t be speaking to me now; I’d be dead. I don’t think it was naïve. I was not afraid to stand by the hostages I was negotiating for.”

Prior to his work as a hostage negotiator, Waite, along with his wife, Helen, and four children, travelled extensively with his various Church of England roles, narrowly escaping death of several occasions. Firstly through Uganda, where they witnessed the Idi Amin coup, then Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe.

Before me sits one of the most peaceful men I have ever met, yet this is a man who has lived on the edge of disaster for most of his adult life.

I ask him whether he always knew that his time was short, knew that his every move constituted nothing more than small and conscious steps towards devastation.

He almost smiles when I put this question to him and for the first time I detect a small change in his tone. “I can answer that very clearly,” he says.

“When I went on hostage missions I always used to wear a clockwork watch. I knew if I was ever captured, that a battery would wind down and I wouldn’t know the time. So, yes, I was very aware of the dangers.”

He makes this concession so easily that he may as well be talking about the weather. Whether Waite is indeed too naïve or too forgiving, as so many have suggested, this remains a damning acknowledgement.

Indeed, this is a man who, despite spending four years tied to a radiator in solitary confinement, volunteered his negotiation skills once again when the group of British sailors were captured in Iranian waters and held hostage in 2008.

I want to ask Waite if he regrets going to Lebanon against advice, and whether he would make the same choice if presented with the situation once again.

“I don’t regret what happened or my actions that led to it. I didn’t enjoy it and I wouldn’t wish to go through it again, obviously not, but I don’t look back and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’.” He pauses, “I would hope that for a just cause I would again have the courage or ability to stand for justice.”

According to Waite, the underground stone cell he called home for over 1,000 days was just ten feet wide and seven feet long. He knows this because he is six feet, seven inches tall.

I want to know how he kept his mind through four years of his solitary captivity. I know he communicated with fellow prisoners by tapping on his cell wall using a laborious sort or Morse code, yet this alone can’t have facilitated his continuing sanity.

“Hope,” he says simply. “When you’re in solitary confinement like that, you live for each day and maintain hope.”

Since his release, Waite has had a drastic career change. He moved away from the Church of England, devoting his life to charity work, whilst writing to earn a living. When I ask him why, the answer is again “hope.”

“It’s important now for me to be involved with charity organisations which enable people here to have some hope in life and get back into life. It’s all about maintaining hope.”

Indeed, I have met Waite at an industrial warehouse where he is present to support a charity fundraiser in aid of the homeless charity, Emmaus UK, of which he is President. “I’ve met at least five people today,” he says, “who’ve been through Emmaus – got back into life, got flats or apartments of their own.”

I ask him if charity work is more important than working with the Church. “Charity work sends a very powerful message.” He pauses and almost smiles for a second time: “It’s better than standing up in a pulpit mouthing a few words, and equally significant in my mind, to any papal business.”

For Waite, hope and forgiveness seem to form a sort of timeline, or perhaps a vague guide as to how to live one’s life. Hope for the future, forgiveness for the past.

But I want to know if his forgiveness has any boundaries. Indeed, Waite is one of the many in avid public opposition to the Iraq war and the infamous man who led us into it.

When speaking of his captors earlier, Waite said: “You can forgive the methods if you can understand the motives.” I ask him if he can understand Blair’s motives? Yes, he concedes, he can understand Blair’s desire to unseat Saddam Hussein. Therefore shouldn’t he – and the largely disdainful British public – forgive Blair for the violent methods he used in Iraq?

He pauses, visibly uncomfortable. “I think we should probably forgive him as a person,” he says eventually, “but on the other hand, from his point of view he would say that there is nothing to be forgiven, so …”

Wouldn’t your captors say the same? I ask.

Again, a tense pause. “Erm, they might say the same. I’m trying to think about the answer to that because I think it’s a good question … You could forgive him as a person but he’s got to live with the consequences of his actions. He’s committed criminal acts and shouldn’t evade justice.” He continues: “I think he believes he was right and he will have to answer for that in the end …”

So, there are some things that actually can’t be forgiven? Has he really completely forgiven his captors?

Waite becomes suddenly self-conscious and I feel as though I am eventually breaking through his placid, calm composure. It seems he sees forgiveness on different levels; in different categories.

“Complete forgiveness demands a contractual relationship where the perpetrators will say ‘I genuinely have made a mistake and I am sorry’ and [the victim] will forgive.”

“Yes, I can forgive my captors,” he says, “but to make it complete it needs to be a contractual relationship.”

Suddenly Waite seems more human to me. None of the respect I previously felt has gone. In fact, nothing has changed. If anything, this concession that complete forgiveness with his captors is impossible has added to his immense and immeasurable humanity.

Finally, I ask Waite if he has a motto for life, or something that helped him through his captivity and the proceeding 20 years.

His deeply profound face smiles. “Of course,” he answers: “No sentimentality, no self-pity and no regrets.”

To donate to one of Terry Waite’s charities, Y-Care International, please donate online at www.ycareinternational.org or at your local building society. Please send any donations for the homeless charity, Emmaus, to: Emmaus St Albans, Hill End Lane, St Albans, Herts, AL4 OFE.

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