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Captivity brought creativity

Former hostage Terry Waite tells Claire Brine what he learnt about life during his years of solitary confinement 

My time as a hostage made me appreciate solitude more

TERRY WAITE knows more about suffering and solitude than most. In 1987, while working as a special envoy for the Church of England, he travelled to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. But negotiations didn’t go according to plan. When he arrived in Beirut, Terry was abducted by the militant group Hezbollah. He was blindfolded, beaten and locked in a cell for a total of 1,763 days. For the first four years of his captivity, he was placed in solitary confinement.

On 18 November 1991, Terry was released. He flew back to the UK where press photographers lined the runway at RAF Lyneham, ready to capture the moment he stepped off the plane. His freedom made headline news.

Though 30 years have passed since the day Terry was taken hostage, the experience remains vivid in his mind. Perhaps surprisingly, he seems happy to keep talking – and writing – about it. Speaking over the phone from his home in Suffolk, he tells me why.

‘Suffering is a common human experience,’ he explains. ‘At one time or another, we all face it. But I’m of the belief that suffering can be changed so that something creative can come out of it. Look at the Christian faith. At its centre is the symbol of the cross, which is a symbol of suffering. But beyond the cross lies the Resurrection – the symbol of something positive and new coming.

‘I choose to speak about my experience of suffering because I want to show people that it was possible to take something creative from it all. Though I didn’t think so at the time, in my years of captivity I learnt a great deal about myself and how to find creativity in a situation where there was virtually none.’

Shortly after his release, Terry put on paper the book he had created in his mind during his years of captivity. His personal hostage story Taken on Trust was published in 1993. Nearly 25 years later, he is still looking for ways to cultivate creativity in bleak circumstances. In his latest book, Solitude, Terry explores how other people have lived in isolation through choice or enforcement.

 ‘In the first instance, Solitude is about ordinary people who live in different parts of the world,’ explains Terry. ‘I begin by taking the reader on a journey to Australia, to some of the most remote places, where residents haven’t been into a town for the past ten years. If they can’t get to a church, they hold a service at home, which is sometimes led by a visiting clergyman, or they hold it by themselves.

‘Then I look at some of the big cities, where it’s a common experience for individuals to feel alone and frightened, even though they might be surrounded by millions of people.

‘I also explore the idea that some people have solitude forced upon them as a result of their past. For example, in one chapter I focus on Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of the Soviet leader. Years ago, she came to the UK and stayed with my family. It was January, and one day she expressed a desire to go to church because it was Christmas according to the Orthodox Church’s calendar. I volunteered to go to the service with her, but Svetlana then explained that she couldn’t attend. She said: “I can’t go, because people will recognise me, and the majority of them will have been exiled by my father.” So, in a sense, Svetlana experienced solitude as a result of her father’s actions.’

Another character who features in Terry’s book is the child murderer Myra Hindley. Terry tells me that he visited her in prison many times.

‘She talked to me about her past and her remorse – and I truly believe that she was very remorseful,’ he says. ‘I’m convinced that as a young woman, she fell under the spell of Ian Brady, a psychopath who murdered children. It’s a common phenomenon to see a young girl become willing to do almost anything for someone who has complete control over her. And Brady had complete control.

‘I’m not saying that Hindley didn’t commit terrible crimes – she absolutely did. She admitted that. But she was sorry, and in prison had come to a faith of sorts. We spoke about it. Again, here was a person who suffered solitude as a result of misdeeds.’

Terry explains that the final chapter of his book features his conversation with a matron of a hospice, who ‘has been with some 1,700 people as they enter their final solitary journey from this life into the beyond’.

He says: ‘Through my examination of all kinds of solitude, I’ve tried to invite the reader to consider how they might face it for themselves. I also hope they will see that it’s possible to approach solitude creatively.’

 

Although Terry has relayed his story of captivity countless times, I still want to steer our conversation towards it.

When he set off for Lebanon in 1987 as a hostage negotiator, did he have any idea of the danger that lay ahead of him?

‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘I’d been in that situation many times. My first experience of negotiating was with General Lamin, back in Uganda. It was the time of the Amin coup, and I helped some people get out of difficulties there. Also, I negotiated the release of several hostages in Iran, including Canon John Coleman and his wife, and I brought them all home.

‘In each of those situations, I recognised that my life was on the line. If you’re a hostage negotiator and something goes wrong, you can be captured or killed. And if you’re not willing to take that risk, then you shouldn’t do the work. But if you do have a particular skill in a certain field and people need your help, then I think you should offer it. So that’s what I did.

‘When I went to Beirut, I knew that the risks were high. But I was given false information. I was told that I was allowed to visit one of the hostages who was about to die and I wouldn’t be captured. But then Hezbollah broke their word.’

Immediately, Terry knew he was in serious trouble.

‘I was put in an underground cell. I was tortured. I was given a mock execution. I was chained to a wall for 23 hours and 50 minutes every day. I didn’t see the sun or sky for nearly five years. When anyone came into the cell to give me food, I had to be blindfolded. So I didn’t see a single soul until the last few weeks of my captivity, when I was put in a cell with other hostages. I had no books and no paper. I had no companionship.

 ‘When my captors came in to see me, I wouldn’t let them off the hook. I said: “Doesn’t it say in your faith that you mustn’t steal? So why have you stolen me?” They said they would put my question to their chief, and then when they returned, they said to me: “The chief says we mustn’t talk to you any more.”

‘So after that, I had no conversation at all. All of my conversation had to be interior. But one thing I did say to them was: “You have the power to break my body, and you’ve tried. You have the power to bend my mind, and you’ve tried. But my soul is not yours to possess.”

‘I knew that my soul was in the hands of God, and whatever my captors did to me, they couldn’t touch that. Having that simple belief enabled me to maintain hope.’

But it wasn’t easy. Though Terry tried to remain positive – by keeping his brain creative, writing poetry and books in his head – some days were a living hell.

‘I couldn’t afford to think too much about my family because I became too worried, so I had to put them to the back of my mind a bit,’ he explains. ‘That sounds callous, but it was a way of coping.

‘One day, I had a mock execution. I was taken out of my chains, blindfolded, questioned under pressure and then a gun was pressed to my forehead. I could feel the cold metal. But then the gun was dropped and the captor said: “Another time.”

‘But my absolute lowest point of all was towards the end of my confinement, when I developed a very bad bronchial infection. I almost died because I couldn’t breathe. My lungs were congested. I was so ill that I thought death would be preferable. But somehow I said to myself: Don’t give in. Keep going.’

One of the things that helped Terry to keep going was prayer. He believed that keeping his brain and soul active was beneficial to his physical health.

‘I didn’t enter into extempore prayer, because I thought that naturally I’d start pleading with God,’ he explains. ‘And I felt that if my prayer became a one-way plea to get out of there, then it would reduce my humanity. So I used the familiar prayers of the Church, praying: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”

‘I had to recognise that God had not put me in my situation, so I couldn’t – and don’t – blame him. I had chosen to be there. And because I had faith, God gave me the resources to cope.

‘One of the methods I used was to focus on the present moment. I think it’s one of the greatest secrets of living. These days we think so much about the future, but this moment now is life. So in my cell, while I was afraid, I tried to say to myself: Now is the day, now I have life, let me be glad of it and get on with it.’

On a drizzly day in November 1991, Terry finally came home. His captivity was over. But after five years of minimal human contact, normal life took some getting used to. He adjusted by living alone in Trinity Hall, Cambridge, during the week, where he wrote Taken on Trust, then at weekends he went home to see his family.

‘My time as a hostage had made me appreciate solitude much more,’ he reflects. ‘I began to appreciate the importance of being able to take responsibility for my own actions, and I valued the fact that God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

‘When I look back on my five years in captivity, it doesn’t seem that long a sentence now. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I certainly don’t regret it. I was given a unique insight into suffering and vulnerability, which has given me the gift of empathy, a rare privilege.’

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