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Through a victim’s eyes: Interview with Terry Waite, humanitarian and former hostage

Humanitarian Principles / Interviews / Religion 12 mins read

Hostage-taking, torture and other forms of ill-treatment continue to put a tremendous strain on victims and their families. In this interview, Terry Waite reflects on the causes fueling ever greater violence, the needs of the families at home and the consequences for humanitarian organizations protecting and assisting people affected by armed conflict and violence.  

For much of his life Terry Waite has worked in conflict zones around the world. Whilst in Uganda as advisor to the Anglican Archbishop from 1969, he operated in several Eastern African countries. After the coup which brought General Idi Amin Dada to power two years later, Waite was taken hostage for the first time, along with his wife and young children. During the 1980’s he would go on to support the freeing of hostages in Iran, Libya and Lebanon. It was in the latter country that he was himself captured by an Islamic militia group and spent almost five years in solitary confinement. Waite is the author of several books ranging from an account of his years in captivity to a comic novel. Since his release he founded the NGO Hostage UK and co-founded Y Care International, for which he acts as President. This interview was conducted in the context of the ICRC conference “Solitary confinement: How to preserve humanity in high security settings”, on 27 June 2016 in Geneva.

On 28 June was the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. What significance does this day have for you?

Torture is brutal and is horrible. And I have been a victim of, I would say, a mild form of torture. There were two types of torture which I have experienced. On the one hand there was the torture which comes about being in total isolation from other human beings for a period of almost five years. I have been chained by the wall… by having no books or papers, by living much of the time in the dark, by sleeping on the floor, for all those years. This could be seen as a form of mental torture.

Physical torture – I was beaten on the soles of the feet with cables so that I could not walk for a long time. And I have been through a mock execution. Many people have suffered far, far worse than that. When I was experiencing physical torture, I simply remember thinking: how can you – the person committing that act – how can you do that? You probably go home to a wife and family and lead a seemingly normal life. Yet you come here and behave in this way. I puzzled about that: why it is that people can do that? And then further I realized that torture is not confined to any one particular group of people. Any ethnic or religious or whatever group. It can be practiced by the most civilized people (or nations that seemed to be civilized) – I think of the torture which was sanctioned by America in Guantanamo, when it was said that waterboarding was not torture. All I can respond to that is: then perhaps if you say that, why not experiencing for yourself first of all and see whether it’s torture or not, and I think it will change your mind.

But I quote the example of Guantanamo simply to make the point that where this type of act is committed and has sort of a legal sanction – the sanction of a larger body like the State or the sanction of a group such as a terrorist group – then individuals can behave with impunity and engage in it with a clear conscience. What has to be pointed out constantly, is that this form of behavior is totally wrong. By the State, if it’s committed by the State or by a group, if it’s committed by a group. It is against all that is decent and right. Also, it is ineffective: it does not necessarily get information in the way that people think it does sometimes. So I am very much against the use of torture.

You have remained very engaged in many social causes, including work for hostages and their families. Notably, you founded the NGO Hostage UK. Can you tell us more about Hostage UK’s work with families of hostages?

Many years ago I came out of captivity. And when I began to return to normal life, many people approached me, particularly families whose friend or husband, son, had been taken hostage and they say: can you help us? They wanted help on a number of fronts: how to deal with the press? Sometimes they had the press camping on their doorstep – how to deal with that? How to deal with quasi-legal problems. For instance, insurance companies would not pay up until they had the signature of the husband. The husband was in captivity, how could he possibly give a signature? Therefore the insurance company said we can’t pay out. All these problems, as well as the psychological problems of worry and separation and so on – I did my best to help them and was able to support a number of people.

There is also the government. The government in those days, in the United Kingdom, was not particularly good at what one might term pastoral relations with families. They would keep them informed but they would not go beyond that. They have changed measurably I must say; they are much better now. And then after a number of years I recognized that this work I was doing better be institutionalized because it should not just center around me. And if it was going to have any continuity at all, it ought to go into an organization. And so Hostage UK was formed. Principally to give support to hostage families and to also disseminate information amongst people who are concerned with negotiations or with all aspects of hostage work and provide a forum for them. So we have conferences from time to time in London for that purpose.

Now Hostage UK has developed. We have just set up in the United States, in Italy, and other parts of the world, under an umbrella organization “Hostage International” where the individual units belong to the umbrella body. And it has proved to be an extremely valuable service, and a rather specialized one too. Because we do know intimately the problem that face hostages and returning hostages. We have a team of psychiatrists and psychologists and others who are on those services for a pro bono basis. For families and returning hostages. We have lawyers who would do the same, and we have good contacts in the insurance world and good contacts in the newspaper world, so we can help families when they want to say something to the press or whether they don’t want to say something to the press – we can act as an intermediary. We can also act as an intermediary between themselves and the government, because some families simply don’t trust governments. They think the government will play political tricks on them. But they know they can trust us because we keep our work entirely confidential, we don’t have a great deal of publicity. When people are taken hostage, they will immediately be informed that we exist. And if they wish – it is their wish – we are there to help and support them for as long as necessary. Sometimes many years after a hostage comes home or after hostage unfortunately has been killed, we will remain with the family until such time as they say, “Well that’s fine now”.

What factors fuel the trend of hostage-taking, detention, torture and other forms of ill treatment today?

What has happened is that the whole shape of the world has been changed, with this vast migration of largely innocent people who have nowhere to go. Their homes have been devastated by warfare. If you take it further back into history and look at the dictators in these countries, these countries were formed by the colonial powers. We put together people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds and encompassed them in a nation state. The only way, perhaps, in which these States may be held together was by a strong central State and a dictator. One might hope for benevolent dictator but you rarely find them. Going back to the famous dictum of Lord Acton, when he said “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and this of course has happened. But we are resolving it by removing them by force, by creating so much disturbance that this has created an even worse situation.

I think the situation will eventually be resolved in that region not necessarily by external powers, but by the people in the region themselves. But we also have to look at the underlying motives. Why did we act in that way? There are those who argue – and there might be validity in their argument – that it was done primarily for economic reasons: for oil, to gain control of oil. Well, what has happened? How many people have paid the price for that and where are we with the world at the moment? In a disastrous position.

How has this trend influenced the work of humanitarian organizations who protect and assist people affected by armed conflict and violence?

I think today the work of humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross has been made so much more difficult. At one time, not too long ago, they were genuinely immune from being captured or killed. The Red Cross or the Red Crescent was a symbol that said, “OK, hands off, this is a genuinely impartial body working for humanitarian purposes, hands off them”. That seems to have gone. Now they are ‘fair game’. I think the pressure on people and the difficulties under which people have to work now to fulfill the original objectives are very, very difficult indeed. I don’t know if we’re ever going to restore the situation whereby there was this degree of immunity that was enjoyed until quite recent times. There is a possibility that it may have gone forever. It is a very sad day for humanity.

But it doesn’t mean to say that the organizations are finished. The work of humanitarian organizations who are genuinely impartial, free of government pressure, is vital and I would encourage people to support it; and while there are difficult and dangerous situations, to recognize that but to give maximum support to people who bravely engage in this work which is a work of peacemaking, peacebuilding and belief for people in need.

Throughout your life and career you have maintained a positive outlook, which must require a remarkable amount of perseverance. What did you draw your strength from in order to survive and to remain optimistic?

I suppose my life has been one of involvement in very difficult situations. My first experience as a young man was in Uganda. I went there with my wife and young children to work in a program of leadership development for people across the country, and came across the Amin crew, when General Idi Amin came to power.

Many of my colleagues were imprisoned. Many were murdered. For the first time in my life I witnessed people being killed in front of my eyes and some terrible brutalities. Now I am not saying for one moment that the whole of Uganda is like that. I mean Ugandans are delightful people in the main. But what I saw there was what can happen to any society when law and order breaks down completely, or is broken down. Then you might say, when all hell breaks loose – and it did there. Subsequent to that, I worked in pretty much all the warzones of the world, largely working for reconciliation.

You ask me the question: what gives you any strength you have? I do not think I am necessarily particularly strong. I am very vulnerable. But I think one thing really stands out more than anything else. Someone said to me once: Do you ever wonder why most of your life has been spent working for reconciliation? And I thought about it. And then I came with the answer: it is probably because I tried to be reconciled within. I had to do something with myself as well as trying to do something for others. And I think over the years, probably one has achieved a little bit more in terms of internal reconciliation – somehow bringing yourself together a little more completely – which when you can do that, it actually does give you a strength.


As told to Ellen Policinski.


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