Former hostage, Terry Waite, visited the last week to speak to Sixth Formers during the day and a packed theatre of parents in the evening. Speaking about his work with Hostage UK and his time as a negotiator, which led to his kidnapping, completely absorbed both audiences. His warmth, resilience and humour shone through during his talk as he described the worst parts of his work and time in captivity, the endless waiting and uncertainty. In between his talks, he kindly gave up more of his time to be interviewed by Portsmouth Point editors Loren Dean, Shree Patel and Ellie Williams-Brown.
When you were initially taken hostage, did you always have hope for your release?
You never know, well of course you hope that you will return home but you never know. And in those situations when you’re taken you think that perhaps, it will be over in a week then the week goes to a month, and a month goes to six months, six months goes to a year and a year goes to two years. And after a while what you do is learn to live for the day. You learn not to think too much about the future and live for now. Because you’ve just got no idea what is going to happen.
Was there ever a point where your hope was diminished or lost?
Not hope diminished, but there was a point where I thought that death would be better than what was becoming a living death. And that was right towards the end when I got a very bad bronchial infection, where previously I had kept as well as possible. It was a viral infection which meant I couldn't lie down, I was sleeping on the floor but I couldn't lie down on the floor, I had to sit up with my back against the wall, day and night. Now I remember thinking then that death would be preferable to what was becoming a living death. Though somehow I felt that I wouldn't and shouldn't give up, and I didn't give up. And I’m glad that I didn't, and kept going.
How did you feel or adapt when you returned home, after so many years in captivity?
Well I was elected to a fellowship in trinity hall Cambridge and I went to Cambridge and I put down on paper the book I’d written in my head previously [in captivity], which was a book called taken on trust. And at the time I didn't think it was a therapeutic exercise, but I think it was. I think by putting down on paper, and managing the experience, was a wise thing to do. You know the old theory is that if you’ve had a traumatic experience and you bury it then it will undoubtedly involuntarily make a reappearance in later period of life and often cause you disturbance and difficulties. If you manage it, I think writing and putting on paper that book id written in my head, ‘taken on trust’, was a way of managing the experience and I did that, as I said before, in Cambridge.
Do you think that doing these talks also act as a therapeutic experience like writing the book did?
Yea, I don’t think as much now. They may well be, but I’ve never consciously thought they were. The reason one is glad to talk is that I think it helps a lot of people in the understanding of people in hostage taking today, and some of the difficulties that can be experienced in trying to negotiate the release of the hostages. But also, the survival in solitude, which is an extreme situation, but as I have often said, from extreme situations you can take understandings that are applicable to normal life for example, anger, you feel anger. Well, everybody feels anger, but somehow, in that situation, you have to be able to control and manage it, rather than be managed by it. Or absence of any external stimulation, well there are people who I think of someone like Tony Judt, a great historian and writer and who developed a motor neurone disease, and right until the end, even though he was paralysed, continued to be creative in his writing. An extreme situation, but I can somehow empathise with that because, having been in a situation where I had nothing, I had to learn how to be creative. So I think you can inspire people to utilise fully their ability to be creative by doing various talks.
Touching upon that anger again, how do you feel towards your captors now and Oliver North as it was that misunderstanding which could be thought to have led to you being taken hostage?
Well, Oliver North wasn’t my captor, he was an instigator in my captivity but I don’t harbour hard feelings. I think the thing is this, that in all these sorts of situations, you may disagree with the way people behave. I mean I disagree profoundly with the way people take hostages. I disagree profoundly with torture and the like. But I think if you can understand why people behave as they behave, that is important. And I think if you do that then at least you can be on the way to forgiving people for some of the things they do. Not agreeing with them by any means but there are people who’ve had extremely deprived backgrounds and who’ve been coerced into activities or who’ve been misled, or captivated by a charismatic leader. If you can understand that then you’re on the way to forgiving others. And also of course, some people have justifiable grievances which have never been met so they’re forced into acts of violence, which are very regrettable in themselves but I think that the answer partly lies with trying to understand why. And I don’t think that we do that enough. The problem partly is shown in our prison system. I mean there are loads of people in prison. If you look at the prison population in this country, you’ll find that something like 64% of all prisoners, suffer from some sort of mental disorder. Well, is prison the place for them? You know, it isn't. It’s a scandal really that they’re put there, but there is nowhere else for them. So again, going back to the point, it’s a question of understanding and trying to understand.
So on that idea of understanding; did you ever understand why the people captured you?
Oh yes, I do. It was because they felt, wrongly, that I was an agent of a foreign power. Which I wasn’t, and they eventually they came to that agreement themselves. So from that point of view it was a misunderstanding on their part which lead to me being taken hostage. That is something I can understand, I dont think that it excuses things but I can understand it.
Did you have any sort of relationship with the people that captured you, in particular any guards?
No, not really as they were not allowed to talk to me. I never saw them at all in all those years, I had to be blindfolded when they came in the room, so I never saw them, and so there was no relationship.
What was the worst aspect of being in solitary confinement for almost 5 years?
I think the worst was physical deterioration, then the illness at the end. None of it was particularly pleasant. But the worst period was definitely when you begin to see your body giving up, and you wonder if you're going to die. That was probably the hardest most difficult point.
Do you think solitary confinement can ever be justified?
Generally speaking today, no I don’t think so. I think segregation can be. I mean, I’ve written about it in a book about solitude. If we take an example like Myra Hindley. I knew her, I met her in prison on a number of occasions and I’ve written about her in the book. She committed the most dreadful crimes; I think she was genuinely remorseful in later life. But having said that, she was kept in segregation in prison. Segregation in prison means you are put in a special wing, that is dedicated to people that are considered to be vulnerable are placed. She was considered to be vulnerable because if she had been in with normal prisoners then they would have attacked her and killed her. And also if she had been released then the chances are that she would have been attacked. But segregation doenst mean to say that uoure totally isolated. You have prison staff to whom you can speak, you have books, you can write, you have the TV and radio. Strict solitary confinement, you have none of that. Well, it is outlawed by international convention, and generally considered to be totally outside the pail so to speak. But segregation is considered to be a sensible move for certain people, such as Myra Hindley.
During your time in solidary condiment how did your concept of time change and adapt?
It was difficult. If you are in the complete dark then you become very easily disorientated. And I think that when you are in the complete dark you cannot distinguish day from night. One of the things you need to do in normal life, and often we take it for granted in normal life is to have a structure. The year itself, is an example of a structure: the months, the weeks, the hours, which all mean that your day is structured. Where you lose that structure it is very easy to become disorientated. Now I only was able to cope with that when at times I was moved to be near a mosque, and from a mosque you would hear a call for morning, noon and night. Therefore that gave me three pointers in the day to structure my day. But where there was nothing, you quickly begin to lose track of yourself.
Did you try to keep track?
Yes, and you can’t do it. Especially in the dark. You think it’s time to wake up, in the middle of the night and at the same time it could be the middle of the day. Therefore you can’t form a structure for the day. It is very difficult. They would tell me from time to time, what day it was. It was difficult in the in between periods.
How did you keep yourself sane, in a way, as many other people would have been driven to despair if faced with the same situation?
Well, your question is based upon the assumption that I am sane. So I’ll accept that assumption. By keeping my brain alive, by keeping mentally alive. You have to keep yourself going mentally, I did it by writing. And also by keeping my brain moving. I’ve never been very good at maths for example, but I did lots of, as best I could, maths in my head. It was simple stuff like very long complicated multiplications, trying to get an answer and then trying to get back to it another way. That sort of thing. Mental arithmetic really. That was another way of keeping your mind active and moving. At one point, eventually when we were together [with other hostages] for the last few weeks, we didn’t have anything but we tried to play chess in our heads. So if you were my opponent, I would make a move and tell you what it was then you would have to remember it and make a move back. Well, if you can do that for long, it’s difficult. But it does keep you concentrating. You have to be aware of where the other person has moved and which pieces to stop you mind deteriorating. I think that the brain has greater control over the body than often I think we all recognise. Where people who’ve lead fairly active lives, when they retire for some reason or other don’t use their brain in the same way as before. They often very quickly go downhill, both mentally and physically. You often see people who continue to use their brain, are much better off later in life. So I think that’s part of the answer.
Do you think we can ever stop terrorism and people being taken hostage if the motives for doing so are constantly changing?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you can have a completely removed warfare. I think we should always try and hopefully we should be striving for greater harmony and peace in the world, definitely. But theres something about human nature which is, whether you express it in religious terms or light and dark, good or evil, or whatever way you express it, there’s something there. There’s a very destructive streak within the human species and it is present in every generation and I think we should try and deal with that. I don’t think that any era, any generation has effectively dealt with it. We think we live in terrible times and we look at some of the dreadful things that have happened, for example, with ISIS and the beheading and torture of people. But, you go back a couple of hundred years in this country, when Catholics and Protestants were behaving in the most appalling way one to another; disemboweling, beheading or hanged, drawn and quartered. I mean, human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed and I think one of the positive and good influences of religion is that it actually does point to a certain truth about human nature. Whether you accept the religious precepts or not is another matter, but it does point to that truth that men and women are human species and have light and dark characters. Somehow, we have to try and deal with that. Every generation has to deal with it, not always very successfully.
After you came home from being held hostage, how did you adapt?
I think that my great adaptation period was going to Trinity Hall, Cambridge and, as I’ve often used as an example, you come out of it with an experience of trauma, it’s like you coming up from the sea bed. Come up too quickly, you get ‘The Bends’ and you get nitrogen in the blood and you fall very ill, even die. Like coming out of a traumatic experience, you come out of gently, one step at a time, so to speak, not trying to rush things. Chances are, you’ll be alright, provided you come to terms with it. You know, the whole theory about stress and trauma is that if you’ve had, as I mentioned earlier, a traumatic experience and suppress it, push it down into the subconscious, then it will involuntarily make its appearance in middle life, in dreams or nightmares. If you deal with it shortly after the event by telling your story to a trained listener, by coming to terms with it or by writing, then the chances are you won’t be negatively affected by it. And also, everybody in life has some negative experience, of one kind or another, through broken relationships, disappointments and failures in examinations or school, whatever they may be. But, you often find in each case, there is a real possibility of something creative coming from them, even though it doesn’t look like it at the time, what might appear to be totally bleak and black. I didn’t think anything creative would come from the experience of captivity, but a lot of creative things have come from it. I’ve written books and lectured. That would not have happened had it been for, what appears to be, a totally negative experience. It wasn’t totally negative, but seemed so at the time. I think that’s a good understanding for normal life. You know, people can be bitterly disappointed at school and say ‘Ah, I just didn’t do well’, you know how people feel when they don’t come up to their expectations in examinations or something, bitterly fed up and disappointed. But it needn’t necessarily be a negative, it can be turned around, and something creative can emerge from it, even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time. That’s a reasonable philosophy to take. Doesn’t mean to say you look for disappointments, you’ll find plenty of them around, at any time.
What would you say the biggest change that you went through after coming back into reality, in terms of beliefs or lifestyle?
I’ve always had a salary job, prior to captivity, but I would never have had the courage to give up that. When I came out, I said ‘I’m not going to go back to my old job; I’m not going to take a regular salary. I’m going to earn my living by writing and lecturing. I’m going to give my time away to the various organisations that either I’ve set up myself, or have supported.’ So I set up HostageUK, for the development of young people around the world with the homeless. I don’t take a penny from them, because I think if the people are giving to charity, the money should go straight to the charity, and I’ve earned my living independently of them. I don’t think I would have had the courage to give up a salary occupation if I hadn’t been through this experience, but once I had been through that, you say ‘Well, you’ve done that, why not have a go at something else?’ I think that was the biggest thing.
In terms of your religious faith, was it part blessing, part curse, when you were in solitary? Did it give you some hope and comfort, but on the other hand, did you curse God and question your faith?
Oh no, no! I would never curse, or even thought badly, but I don’t believe that God is someone who dictates to you and tells you this, that and the other. If there’s an understanding, as I think is fundamental, it’s the understanding that human beings are called to be co-creators. To be a co-creator, I think, means that you are an essential part of, and responsible for, the creation of which we are a part. And in a sense, we are intimately linked with our environment, with the world and our creation. Now, the atoms which constitute out body will, when we die, be reconstituted in another form. We are in an intimate part of the world which places us different to the animal kingdom. We have this ability to be conscious, to make decisions, to be creative or destructive, that is a choice that comes to us, to be a co-creator in other words. Often, people choose the selfish, destructive route, but there are also lots of people who don’t, and go down the creative route. I think that is partly of a religious philosophy. Also, the other one is that God is a great mystery and that no matter what people say, I don’t think with our human understanding we can fully comprehend that mystery. Certainly, if we were to fully comprehend it, then it wouldn’t be a mystery anymore. So I think that part of the purpose of the ‘Great Religions’, a term I use deliberately, not just Christianity but the ‘Great Religions’ of the world, is to provide us with a handrail to guide us towards a deeper understanding of that mystery which lies beyond ourselves and within ourselves, the mystery that is of God. The handrail that presents us with stories and pictures, some of which are true, some of which are fables, you don’t have to necessarily have to take them to be literal truths, but you take them as truths which have a profound spiritual significance. They can lead you on to an appreciation of that greater mystery within and beyond. When I was in captivity, I could say to the face of my captors ‘You have the power to break my body, which you tried, the power to bend my mind, which you tried, but my soul is not yours to possess’, soul, again, being something which is exceptionally difficult to define, even definable at all. In my context, I meant the total person which I am, which lay in the hand of God and could not be taken by other people. So that is where religious faith enables you to give hope. It doesn’t necessarily protect you from the ups and downs of life just because you are a believer, or you have the belief I have just expressed. This doesn’t mean to say you won’t be suffering or have difficulty but it does mean to say that there is a possibility of having your sources to face that difficulty, to turn it around and to make it creative. If you look at life and look at history, you’ll find that many of the great creative acts, works of art and events in life emerge from situations of great suffering; Painting, writing. And, the Christian faith, with its central symbol of the cross is the symbol of suffering but beyond the cross, whether you actually believe, literally, the story of the cross and the resurrection, if you do, fine. If you don’t, I don’t think it particularly matters because the truth is there, that beyond the cross lies resurrection, new life and hope. That’s the fundamental truth which, if you can hold onto that rather than getting caught up with ‘did this happen, did that happen…’ Look beyond the language, look beyond the truth. Look at the story, that’s the way I would interpret it. But it might be hypothetical!
So do you think your religion was a key component of how you kept yourself centered?
Religion isn’t just a compartment. It’s part of who you are and what you believe and part of your whole process and your being. Insofar as, when you are in a situation like that, you try and utilise the resources you have. It’s a resource. It’s there. Part of the process of living is to try and be an integrated person, which we never fully achieve, but at least you can try, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. That is part of the process of living. Not only to integrate within ourselves, but in society and community. We often fail pretty miserably at that but it’s not a bad goal.
Didn’t you find the language of the church very helpful? A couple of the collects?
That is true, yes. Language, as I said in the lecture, like good music has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul. I was glad that I had been brought up with the regular use of language in the prayer book. It gave certain structure and identity. I was very glad of that.
The watch, the gift from Gaddafi, why did you keep it?
Why did I keep it? Because he gave it to me! It’s an interested memento. He gave me that and he gave me a carpet, too. I might have just kept it. I don’t normally wear it, just because my old one broke and this one was in a drawer. Just things one collects across life, really. There’s no other significance other than that. It is a curious piece because people like to see it. It has probably become more curious now considering the fact he isn’t around any longer, and suffered a horrible death, sadly. I mean, one wouldn’t wish it on anybody, even on your worst enemy.