Personal Column: Prisoner with a conscience

A year after his dramatic release from captivity in Baghdad, Norman Kember relives the experience, and explains why he still has no regrets

Interview,Joanna Moorhead
Sunday 18 March 2007 01:00

It's almost a year since the day I woke up in chains, and went to bed in the luxury of an ambassador's residence. That day my three months as a Baghdad hostage ended, and I found myself on the front pages of newspapers around the world as the granddad who'd forgotten to say thank you to the soldiers who risked their lives to free me.

I'd gone to Iraq in November 2005 as an ambassador for something I've believed in all my life - non-violence. I decided to join a Christian Peacemaker Team so I could convert that belief into action. I had three ambitions for Iraq: to meet ordinary people and assure them that not everyone in the west was in favour of the war; to find out more about CPTs; and to prove that - at 74 - I was not past having an adventure! I can honestly say I fulfilled the last of these.

We'd been in Iraq four days when we were seized - me, Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, and American Tom Fox, all from CPT. We were in a car on our way back from a meeting at a mosque when two cars cut in on us, and armed men threw out our driver and interpreter and sped us off.

The early days and weeks are just a blur. I remember thinking: can this be happening? Is this what kidnap is like? Oddly, I felt curious rather than frightened: a strange, disembodied state which was, perhaps, due to shock. I spent three months chained to the other kidnapped men, in two houses - we were transferred in the boot of a car. When I think back over the hundreds of hours we spent together I sometimes think there was very little laughter and very few jokes. We did talk a lot: about our lives and our beliefs, our families and our jobs.

I was the oldest by many years, but I'm not sure being older helps as a hostage. I think it's about personality. You need to concentrate on the here and now - I didn't let myself spend too much time dwelling on home. We had a time known as check-in each evening, when each of us would tell the others how we were feeling, but I had never shared my inner thoughts in this way and tended to say little.

At one stage I was in real despair, and contemplated suicide, though I didn't share that thought with the others. I thought, I'm 74 and I've had a great life: is it worth going on now, under these conditions? But there was always the problem of how to do it - I wasn't convinced I'd succeed. And then, one day, I found myself saying the words "when I get back to Pinner..." in my head: and I realised I still had hope, and something to hold on to.

The stress, for all of us, was enormous, but on the whole we held it together pretty well. We worked out little routines, partly centred around trips to the bathroom, or hammam as it's called there. We had regular worship sessions. We wrote in our notebooks and played games. We were kept in a small room with a curtain at the window and we only occasionally glimpsed the sun. During the day we sat on a row of plastic chairs, and if that sounds boring, let me tell you: it was. Nights were difficult, because we were chained together: if you wanted to change your position, or use the hammam bottle, you'd have to disturb the others.

Of course we got on one another's nerves from time to time. It wasn't even bad things: Harmeet was so incredibly nice I used to find myself thinking sometimes: why can't he be unpleasant, just for a change? Our captors were always a bit of a mystery to us. We gave them nicknames: there was Uncle, and Nephew, and Medicine Man, who seemed like he was pretty high up in the organisation that was holding us. We tried to talk to them: one, Junior, seemed to want to be a suicide bomber, and Jim spent a lot of time trying to dissuade him. But I wouldn't say we developed a real relationship, or bond, with them, although we were always fairly decently treated, all things considered.

Our captors were always telling us we were about to be freed, so after a while we didn't believe it any more. One day, though, they took Tom away, and they told me I was about to be moved as well: but they never did take me, and they never brought Tom back. We found out after our release that he'd been shot and dumped by a roadside. I often remember Tom: he was a very thoughtful man, discussions with him tended to be profound and leave you with lots to think about. He reminded us that, whatever deprivations we were suffering, the people around us in Iraq were suffering the same, and worse.

Release came out of the blue. We heard an armoured convoy outside and guessed the security forces had found us, but we were afraid our captors would shoot us rather than hand us over. Jim called to me to lie down, but I was already on my feet looking through a gap in the door. I saw soldiers; there was the noise of broken glass and heavy boots, and the next thing men piled into the room, and a very British voice called out: "Is Mr Kember here?"

My wife Pat and I were reunited at Heathrow Airport: I can't remember what the first words I said to her were, but I was very aware of what I'd put her through. People ask me if I regret what I did, and the answer is that my only regret is for Pat - I feel it was unfair to put so much stress and worry on her. For the rest of it I have no regrets. The money and time spent on getting us out of Baghdad was minuscule compared with the huge amounts that have been spent on the war. Would I go back? Yes, definitely, if there was peace. I'd like to meet lots more Iraqis, and I'd like to see the country properly. But I don't see that coming in a hurry.

Adjusting to being home has not been at all difficult. I think if you've a home and a partner to come back to, it's not hard. Jim and Harmeet have perhaps found it more difficult. We email one another, and occasionally we do a group session on Skype. I think about them a lot: and of course there are days when I look at the blue sky or at the garden and think, I'm lucky to be seeing this. I go for long walks on my own and they mean more to me than they did before.

After my release I was invited to speak to some civil servants at the Foreign Office, and I said to them: you could have tried harder with Iraq, you know. You could have been more imaginative. There was another way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. You didn't have to take the path you took. It's a pity you did.

When I talk to people about my time in Iraq, there's one thing I always say at the beginning. That I'm a fraud. You're listening to the wrong man: you're reading the words of the wrong man right now. The person you should be listening to is the ordinary Iraqi. I only glimpsed what he was having to put up with, but I heard the bombing at night, and I know a tiny bit about what it's like for ordinary people in Iraq. There's a whole generation out there, a whole nation, whose lives have been wrecked, are still being wrecked. Compared with what they're going through, what happened to me was barely a blip.

'Hostage in Iraq', by Norman Kember, is published on Fridayby Darton, Longman and Todd; price £14.95

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