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Terry Waite: "I’ve had mock executions, been tortured, but I came through it"

The hostage release negotiator reflects on his incarceration in Letter To My Younger Self

I was the son of a policeman in a very small village in Cheshire so I could never get away with anything. I was always pointed out. It was a very small community but a very good community. We didn’t have much money – policemen weren’t paid very much in those days. So I always knew that if I wanted anything I had to work for it. I delivered newspapers, worked in market gardens, did everything I could to buy my first bike.

I felt strongly as a teenager that I really wanted to escape the confines of my small village. In those days you could hitchhike anywhere. My first trip was up to John O’Groats. Then when I was about 16 I went as far as Vienna. I think that adventurous spirit was always just part of me. It was probably encouraged by listening to the radio and being a great reader. I often went to second-hand book stalls and came home with armfuls of books about life in foreign climes. And that gave me ideas about places I’d like to visit.

Terry Waite Getty
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Terry Waite walks on the Beirut seafront with armed guards shortly before he was kidnapped in January 1987

Being marked out as the policeman’s son did probably mean I wasn’t as much a part of the local groups of friends as I might have been. That could well be why I liked going off on my own to places where I wasn’t known. I remember my school was arranging a visit to France. It cost £15 and we didn’t have the money. I sat in the classroom on a sunny afternoon, with one or two others, watching everyone else getting on that coach to France. And I thought, oh my goodness, I’ve lost my chance, I shall never see anything outside of England now. But that thought was followed up by me telling myself, right, come on, if you can’t do it with them you’d better do it on the cheap by yourself. So I started going on these excursions. I must have been more confident than I realised to do that.

My father was a very, very good man. But I think he was affected by being brought up during the depression after World War I. His father’s business failed and that caused a lot of trouble for the family. At one point he had to leave home to find work and he became homeless. I didn’t know this until much later on in life. I think he was difficult to get to know because he was quite insecure himself and he wanted his children to feel secure. I finally got to know him when he was dying of cancer. I asked the surgeon if he’d told my father he was dying and he said, no, I’ll leave that to you. So I had to debate whether to tell him or not and it was a very emotional moment when I did eventually tell him. I said, I think your days are numbered now, it’s coming to the end. From that day on we had a much closer relationship. It taught me that in many cases it’s better to share the truth. He accepted the situation, put his affairs in order, and died at home and at peace.

In 1955, the year Terry Waite turns 16… 

  • Kermit the Frog makes his debut on US TV
  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill resigns
  • Cardiff is declared capital of Wales

I didn’t have the faintest clue what I wanted to do with my life. I just had a vague idea that I wanted to do something that would be of help to people. I grew up in a police house and we constantly had people coming to us who were in some kind of trouble. I think that gave me an idea that it would be nice to do something that might alleviate the troubles of the world. It was often suggested to me that I might become a clergyman. I did study theology, but as a layman. I never wanted to be ordained. Then when I came out of college, one of the first places I worked was a church-run homeless hostel in Middlesbrough.

I never really expected to be thrown into the negotiating role. I think my father would be totally surprised that I ended up doing that. I did a lot of work with the Church of England education board after college and I eventually went to live and work in Africa [Uganda] with my family. One of the first things I did was negotiate with Idi Amin to release people from jail.

I think when you’re talking to people like that [he also negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi], the secret is to try to understand why they behave the way they do. With the vast majority of people, there are ways to get on their wavelength. Amin, for instance – he got caught up in a very complex business of tribalism and his personal desire for power. That kind of obsession with power can make you blind to the feelings of others and to the consequences of your actions.

Terry Waite Getty
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Terry Waite returns to the UK in November 1991 after his five-year imprisonment in Lebanon

My wife has always been very supportive of my work. She never said, don’t do these things. She said, you’ve got to make your own decisions and do what you ought to do. She’s been very good like that. I’m very fortunate in her. And fortunate that I haven’t lost my life. I’ve had mock executions and I’ve been tortured and so on, but I’ve come through it. I’m 80 next year and I’m still working.

The stories I had in my head due to being a reader helped me through my time in solitary confinement.[Waite was kidnapped by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1987 and held alone in an underground cell for almost five years]. I had no pencil and paper, but I could write in my head. I wrote my first book, Taken on Trust, in my head. I was chained up for 23 hours and 50 minutes a day. I had no books or papers and no companionship. I slept on the floor. The only way I could survive was to keep myself mentally alive. I didn’t ever feel the close presence of God. I felt alone. But I could say, in the face of my captors, you have the power to break my body by beating me, you have the power to bend my mind by interrogating me, but my soul is not yours to possess. That lies in the hand of God and can’t be taken by others. That belief helped me maintain hope. I knew I might die, but I kept telling myself, don’t give way to morbid thoughts. You still have life today.

When I came out I was very lucky – I got to go to a Cambridge college and study and get back into normal life slowly. I lived there during the week and went home to my family at weekends. I went back to family life gently, gently, step by step.

When you’re captured you get very angry. Anger is a very human emotion and understandable. But if you let it consume you it does you more harm than anyone else. I think I came out of the experience a better person. We live in a world of suffering and there isn’t a soul who doesn’t suffer in some way. But many of the great works of art have come from people who have suffered terrible things. I really believe out of suffering something creative can emerge.

Terry Waite CBE is celebrating his 20th anniversary as president of Emmaus UK; emmaus.org.uk

Images: Getty

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