Terry Waite: Lebanon holds no horrors for me

The former hostage is visiting camps for a charity he helped found. Paul Vallely asks if there is more to his trip than he admits
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Under cover of darkness last night Terry Waite was due to touch down in Beirut, the city which he left 12 years ago, in the boot of a car, after being held captive by Islamic kidnappers for 1,763 days.

"Lebanon holds no ghosts or horrors for me," he said in his customary bluff manner, as he prepared to leave his home near Bury St Edmunds. But if he was being honest with himself it cannot have been a journey on which he could embark without a certain apprehension. Somewhere in that city - even today no one in the West knows quite where - he was held for almost five years, the first four of them in solitary confinement. He was taken hostage while trying to negotiate the freedom of 10 other Westerners being held prisoner by various Islamic factions in Lebanon's long and complicated civil war.

Until now Mr Waite has always said he would not return. His fellow hostage Brian Keenan - with whom he communicated through the cell wall by a laborious system of coded taps - has never been back, while John McCarthy returned last month for the first time.

"People have said to me in the past: 'Why don't you go back and make a film?'," the churchman said before he left Heathrow last night. "But I have never desired to go back to lay ghosts to rest - there are no ghosts to lay."

Rather he always said he would not return without a "significantly good reason".

Now there was one. He is going to visit projects in the Palestinian refugee camps in north Lebanon which are being funded by Y-Care International, the development agency of the YMCA movement which Mr Waite helped found 20 years ago. Later he will travel to east Jerusalem and visit rehabilitation and training centres in the occupied territories.

There are workers there, he said, "who are every day facing danger in the camps and are suffering restriction of movement and harassment and, indeed, in some cases death. The least we can do is show solidarity with them." Of his time as a hostage he added: "My sufferings pale into insignificance compared to the suffering of many people in that region."

No doubt the visit will be great PR for his charity, but there are those who wonder whether there is more to it than Mr Waite is prepared to admit. Self-knowledge has never been, even his friends acknowledge, his greatest virtue. He went to Lebanon in 1987, the year he was kidnapped, as the envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury after successfully negotiating the release of British hostages in Iran and Libya. At the time he naively believed, to the alarm of some colleagues in Lambeth Palace, that his status as church representative would keep him safe.

But Mr Waite had allowed himself to become too closely associated with Colonel Oliver North, the maverick American soldier behind plans secretly to arm anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and divert some of the weapons to Iran, despite a US trade and arms embargo. Islamic militants decided that Mr Waite was double-crossing them.

Twelve years on, Beirut, then a city in ruins, is a different place. But Mr Waite will not revisit the Shia part of the city where he was held. Nor does he expect to meet his captors. "I wouldn't mind meeting them," he laughed. "It would be very interesting to see where they are all these years later.

"But I think it is highly unlikely because I understand the Americans put a $1m ransom on their heads."

Even so the road from the airport to the city will rekindle potent memories. "I remember that airport road well," he said. "I used to be picked up by the militia and then whisked into town by fellows with automatics sticking out of the window."

Certainly Beirut has left its mark physically on Terry Waite. He now drives an automatic car because he finds that easier, his secretary has revealed. Assessing the psychological burden is more tricky.

On his return to England he was made a Fellow Commoner of Trinity Hall in Cambridge. It was there that he wrote the account of his ordeal, Taken on Trust. In that, and in various interviews over the years, he has given some clues as to his coping strategy.

Asked if he had forgiven his captors, he has said: "I was angry at the time I was taken, but I can genuinely say that I never let that anger turn to bitterness ... Certainly I have forgiven them. I don't agree with what they did, but I understand why they behaved by using such methods. Hostages were seen as symbols of the West, which they blame for a number of their problems."

That is evident today in Iraq. "I do see a parallel between what was happening in Lebanon years ago and what is happening in Iraq," Mr Waite said yesterday. The war against Saddam Hussein was "a mistake" because "a dictator holds down the disparate groups in the country by force [and] if you remove him suddenly, the disparate groups spring up and inevitably you get conflict, as we are seeing".

He believes the war in Iraq, the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the Palestinian conflict have created another generation of terrorists even more extreme than those who took him hostage.

What is striking is his determination to see things from the viewpoint of the other side. Speaking of his captors' betrayal of his trust in them he has said: "I recognised then that no one in this world is immune from experiencing difficulty at certain times. When difficulty occurs one has to meet it and attempt to deal with it positively."

Accentuating the affirmative has been the hallmark of Terry Waite's post-imprisonment strategy. "What I have tried to do is take the positive side of the experience [of being a hostage] and build on it," he has said. "When I came out of captivity, my job had been held for me at Lambeth. But I needed time to get back into life. I had been thinking about what I wanted to do, having always been employed by other people. I decided that I would earn what I needed by writing and lecturing, and that I would give away the rest of my time.

"I would never have had the courage to do that before, but it has worked out very well and I am now able to give more and more time."

He divides his time between charity work, writing and giving lectures relating his experiences as a negotiator and as a hostage to the pressures faced by businessmen, which is his financial mainstay.

"I remember saying three things to myself after I was taken hostage which somehow stood me in good stead," he has said. "No regrets - you haven't done everything correctly, you're bound to have made mistakes, but stick by what you've done. No self pity - don't begin to feel sorry for yourself, there are loads of people who are in worse situations than yourself.

"And no over-sentimentality - don't look back and say, 'If only I'd spent more time with the family and had longer holidays' - life has been lived, you cannot re-live it."

The range of his charitable work is revealing. In addition to Y-Care, for which he has made trips to India and Colombia, there is the Freeplay Foundation, an international charity working to provide "green" technology solutions, like wind-up radios, in the developing world. Back home there is Emmaus, a self-help charity for UK homeless people of which he is also president.

Then there is his work with prisoners. He is a trustee of the Butler Trust, a charity that campaigns for effective care of inmates in British jails. He has spoken out against the detention of al-Qa'ida suspects by American forces at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He works informally to help those detained abroad; on Christmas Eve a Briton detained in China received a call from Mr Waite. He is also a member of the advisory council of Victim Support.

There are, in other words, a lot of worthwhile things he could have done without, at the age of 64, deciding to return to the scene of his life's greatest ordeal, Beirut.

"It doesn't hold any problems for me as far as I can see," he said on the eve of his departure. But perhaps, as his fellow hostage Brian Keenan so poignantly concluded, freedom comes slowly. More slowly than even Terry Waite has realised.