1987 -1991, The Four Year Lenten Exile
Last summer our garage was converted into a study for my private use. As I was wading through dog-eared pages of poems I have written down the years I came across one poem which drew my attention: The Waiting, (ref: Parish News, February 2016) which was written at the mid-point of Terry Waite’s disappearance in Lebanon.
If memory serves correct, two years following Waite’s ‘exile’ from the war-scarred streets of Beirut, no concrete evidence about him had yet surfaced in spite of the best probing efforts of Lambeth Palace, the Government and Media. But most of us assumed that Terry Waite had been taken hostage by Islamic Jihadists. Ironically he had become, as expressed in the poem, a victim ‘Of hostaged time and shrivelled space.’
I remember Terry Waite and other hostages being prayed for daily in our churches during those turbulent ‘80s years. The Church Army, of whom he was a member, poignantly wore a simple badge with the letter H on it, to remind people that one of their own was still a hostage and was being supported in daily prayer by them and others. I had asked the hopeful question: ‘Did our prayers like Christ’s kind ghost/hoard a lambent candle in your head?’
The irony was that in his role as an envoy for the Church of England Waite had travelled to Beirut to negotiate for the release of four hostages, including the English journalist John McCarthy and Terry Anderson, the American writer. Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Foreign Office had strongly urged Terry Waite not to travel to Lebanon at that time in January 1987. Colonel Oliver North, one of President Reagan’s operatives, had controversially been implicated in the Irangate Scandal and alleged arms trade with Islamic Groups against United Nations policy. The tangible fear was that Waite, who had used an American helicopter, been witnessed working alongside North in Middle East hostage negotiations, might wrongly be deemed to be his ally, or even as some CIA agent!
Waite admitted in his autobiography, Taken In Trust, that he had been disturbed and shocked by the inflammable crisis ignited by North, whom he had never fully trusted. He knew all too well the dangers of re-entering the dark labyrinth of Beirut, the distress this would cause to his wife and family. In his book Waite questions himself. Had his prior success led to arrogance and complacency? Was he, as one female friend had suggested, trying to attain his own (spiritual) liberation in negotiating the freedom of others? Was he even now in mid-life, still trying to receive the elusive praise and approval of his stern ex-policeman father?
On the other hand Terry Waite knew that, in a humble sense, he was at that time most probably the only person in British political life capable of achieving success in the murky intricate world of Middle East hostage negotiations. Seven years earlier he had managed to ensure the release of several hostages in Iran. In 1984 Waite negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi for the release of four remaining British hostages held in the Libyan Hostage situation. One year later Waite secured the release of Father Lawrence Jenco from Lebanon. Waite had learnt much about living and working in a violent, unstable environment in the late 1960s when he lived with his family in Uganda witnessing the Idi Amin coup. They narrowly escaped death on several occasions.
On 20th January 1987 Terry Waite agreed to meet the captors of the hostages as he was promised safe passage on Muslim oath. Instead he was bound, crammed into a car boot, and taken to an underground room in a concrete building. Waite was chained to a radiator for most of the time. He had to wear a blindfold whenever a captor entered his room. In the early months he was subjected to aggressive interrogation and torture. His health inevitably suffered; he was hampered by a bronchial condition which grew progressively worse during the 1,763 days of captivity. For the first four years he lived in solitary confinement, unlike the other hostages, who at least had each other’s company.
In my poem I had lamented: ‘For you there was no white redeemer….you were nailed to the cross of desolate time.’ Waite had no radio or books, was deliberately denied access to the outside world. He tried to do daily exercise and prayed the Eucharist Liturgy service which he knew by heart. Eventually books of a non-political nature were passed into his cell. Even a dictionary or encyclopaedia gave him solace in spite of deteriorating eyesight.
Waite reflected on his own hubris, his selfish sense of mission which now meant that his family were deprived of a father and husband. Amazingly one day a guard passed him a postcard from Amnesty International. The writer gave no name but offered words of comfort, prayer and hope. The picture showed John Bunyan writing Pilgrim’s Progress from his prison room. A shaft of sunlight beamed down from the high casement window. Waite smiled as he reflected that he himself had no window, no glimpse of sunlight, no pen or paper to set down his thoughts, narrate his stories which he treasured in his secret inner imagination. In his book Waite urged people to keep writing anonymous letters of hope to prisoners of conscience in the world.
Waite came to see his predicament as a prolonged Christian Lenten penitence, a test of faith. Waiting and merely trying to survive were his key goals as he hoped for the elusive day when he would once again walk as a liberated man, free to breathe in fresh, sun-dappled air in an English woodland.
In his final months the rules were more relaxed. He was allowed a cheap medium wave pocket radio. At last he could hear the news on the World Service waveband. He learnt that it was internationally acknowledged, probably from Brian Keenan, the Irish teacher recently released, that Terry Waite was alive and being kept as a hostage. One day he found comfort in the Evensong service in which prayers for him and other hostages were being given.
In the last few months of captivity Waite was taken to a dwelling in the country where he was at last united with Terry Anderson, John McCarthy and the two other hostages. The sudden need to interact socially after so many years held in isolation presented its challenges although he did find Terry Anderson to be a brave, compassionate man.
Finally Terry Waite was released on 19th November 1991. The RAF took care of his safe passage and provided him with clothes. However like me he is 6’ 7” tall and finding a pair of size 14 shoes required Naval assistance!
Terry Waite shone with his un-breakable Christian faith in bearing no ill will towards his guards. In 2012 he returned to Beirut to reconcile with his captors and lay to rest the ghosts of the past. He was acutely aware that many of them had known even worse sufferings. He maintains an on-going interest in humanitarian and political affairs to this day and is in constant demand as a lecturer, writer and broadcaster.
Terry WaiteIn his emotive autobiography, which I strongly recommend for Lent reading Waite concludes with these lines, written on a cellar wall by a victim of Hitler’s persecution:
‘I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
I believe in love where feeling is not.
I believe in God even if he is silent.’