I remember: Terry Waite

Suchandrika Chakrabarti

Humanitarian Terry Waite (79) attracted the world’s attention through his work as a hostage negotiator—work that led to his capture by Hezbollah and subsequent five-year imprisonment

…Growing up in a village where the industry had shut down.

I was born in Cheshire and spent most of my formative years in Styal, a village which was built around a spinning mill. A pioneer of the factory system in the early Industrial Revolution, Samuel Greg, developed a rural industrial community with cottages, a school, a chapel, but it was already pretty derelict when I was a boy and I remember seeing the last workers go to that mill. Now it’s one of the leading industrial museums in the UK. It attracts an enormous number of people, and is largely owned by the National Trust.

 

…Being the son of the local policeman taught me how to negotiate. We lived in the police house, which was fairly large and had a garden. They gave policemen gardens in those days of some considerable size, to make up for the small salary. We had very little money, but we grew our own fruit and vegetables. My father was there to keep the peace and to maintain some degree of order and stability in the community. He did on occasion, of course, have to prosecute people, too, but mostly he was a sort of a conciliatory figure in the community.

Terry’s father in his uniform

 

…I got my urge to help people from my father.

I’ve often wondered where that came from. I don’t think I knew at the time, but reflecting back on my life now, I think it was because of my father. He was a young man at the time of the Great Depression. His father’s business failed, and he left home to try and seek his fortune. For some time, he was actually homeless. I didn’t know all this until later on in life. I learned a few years ago, that he had really quite a hard time until he eventually joined the police force in Chester and that became his lifelong occupation.

He was highly intelligent, should have gone on to high school, and if he’d had the opportunity, to university, but all that was denied because there wasn’t any money in the family. Subconsciously, I think that built sympathy within me for those who find life difficult, or end up on the margins of life for one reason or another, either in prison or on the streets, or in distress overseas. So I think my father’s struggle was a prompting factor for that.

Terry's parents on their wedding day in 193

 

…My grandmother developed my love for music, which has lasted for life.

I would cycle to see my grandparents who lived in Staffordshire, some 20 or 30 miles away, where my grandmother was a music teacher. They had a piano and she often said she’d like me to learn how to play, but we couldn’t afford a piano. I never did learn. After my grandfather’s business failed during the years of the Depression, my grandmother had to go out to work. She used to play in the local cinema for the silent movies.

Terry’s grandparents and their children—his father is seated

 

…I’ve always had a deep desire to travel, but as we were poor when I was young, I thought I’d never realise it. How mistaken can you be? I remember one occasion when the school sent my class on a trip to Paris, and the cost—I can still remember it—was £15. We didn’t have that spare, so I couldn’t go. I remember sitting in the classroom, seeing the coach pull up outside and watching those who were lucky enough to go off to Paris. I thought to myself then, There goes my chance, I shall never see the world now.

 

…After school, I moved to London for college, and met my wife, Frances.

I had an apartment in London, where I lived on the top floor, and she lived on the ground floor. We just met on the stairs, and that was it for me. We’ve been married since 1964, and have three daughters and one son.

 

…We moved to Uganda in 1969, and witnessed the Idi Amin coup.

It was my first experience of violence and having near-death experiences. I went over to Uganda to help with some adult leadership courses for the church, not realising the volatile situation we were walking into. I had my real first experience of absolute brutality, misery, and getting people out of difficulty. I had to negotiate with the gentleman who had locked up people from the church unwarranted.

Meeting George Bush Snr in the White House prior to captivity in Beruit

 

…My trip to Uganda opened my eyes to suffering outside of the UK.

I learned one very important lesson from that: when law and order in any community breaks down, all hell breaks loose. I’m glad to have gone back to Uganda several times, and still have friends there. However, when there are no consequences, some people behave in the most appalling ways. Minority groups come under attack. The Asian community in Uganda were treated terribly, and then expelled from the country.

 

…We could’ve easily died in Uganda.

My wife and I were held up twice by arm gangs, one holding machine guns. I remember one person I knew in Uganda who said, “Oh, if I was held up, I wouldn’t give them the keys to my car, I would throw the keys in the bush.”

I said, “You mustn’t do that. You must give them the keys.” One day, this person was held up, and did throw the keys into the bush. He was immediately shot dead. Whereas on the two occasions that we were held up, I handed the keys over, and lost two vehicles. Another time, a random young man walking past a village was murdered, because he’d been mistaken for a thief. They tied him to a tree and beat him to death with sticks.

With wife Frances

 

…Back in London, I was recruited by Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury.

I became his advisor on international affairs for the Anglican Communion. This meant that we would be travelling the globe together. It’s the period of time covered in my re-released book, Travels with a Primate: Around the World with Robert Runcie, 1979-1987. Runcie, his chaplain and myself had a lot of adventures together.

 

…I’ve learned how to negotiate with dictators. I’ve dealt with Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Revolutionary Guards in Iran, with the Islamic Jihad Organisation in Beirut, who ended up kidnapping me. What I’ve tried to do more in all these situations, is understand what’s motivating people. To ask myself the question, …I’ve learned how to negotiate with dictators. I’ve dealt with Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Revolutionary Guards in Iran, with the Islamic Jihad Organisation in Beirut, who ended up kidnapping me. What I’ve tried to do more in all these situations, is understand what’s motivating people. To ask myself the question, Why is it that they’re behaving as they’re behaving? What are the reasons for that? To find a common humanity and the source of the fear, because there’s always fear there.

Meeting Colonel Gaddafi in his low-hung tent

 

…Those years of travelling with Runcie kept my mind alive in captivity.

For those five years of captivity I was in strict solitary confinement most of the time, without books and papers. I had to put a blindfold over my eyes when anyone came into the room. So for five years, sitting on the floor, I had to try and keep mentally alive. I wrote my first book in my head there because I never had pencil and paper, apart from two occasions when I thought I was going to die. They were actually just mock executions. They gave me pencil and paper then, but otherwise I just didn’t have it.

 

…During my years held hostage in Beirut, I tried to see the funny side of life.

Oddly, in those years, I didn’t have bad dreams. Sometimes I would wake up and I’d be laughing because my dreams were quite funny, and I think they were compensating in some ways for my daily existence. I would wake up from a dream and it felt so real—then I’d remember, Oh, no, I’m still here.

 

…What I developed in those years was inner conversation.

We all talk to ourselves. I extended mine to having conversations with other people in my imagination. Something creative can emerge from suffering; one only has to look at the great works of art. It can be utilised.

Wearing the robes of one of the many doctorates he’s been awarded over the years

 

…When I was released, there were hundreds and hundreds of press people.

An absolutely remarkable number of people showed up for me as I came out, having been all those years alone. Before I was released, I thought, Well, people will have totally forgotten about this. I took the advice that I should give one main interview, and then withdraw for a long period of time, not to give any more interviews, or not to do anything in public for at least a year.

Meeting with the Pope in the Vatican following the release of Father Lawrence Jenco

 

…I’ve always had faith, but it’s changed over the years.

When I was young, I had too much of a closed mind believing that I had the claim on truth. My thinking on it now is that God remains a great mystery, which we can never fully comprehend. The various religions are like handrails, to guide us toward that mystery. The difficulty between religions is that people spend their time arguing and disputing about the handrails.

 

Terry Waite’s book,Travels with a Primate: Around the World with Robert Runcie has been re-published by SPCK Publishing, £9.99