Today marks 25 years since Terry Waite’s release from captivity in Beirut. MICHAEL STEWARD spoke to him at Broxted Church about that day, criticism he faced and how he got through it all.

East Anglian Daily Times: Terry Waite (centre) at Broxted Church with vicar Tim Goodbody (right) and churchwarden Terry ReedTerry Waite (centre) at Broxted Church with vicar Tim Goodbody (right) and churchwarden Terry Reed (Image: Archant)

Although he says he can never remember the date, the events of November 18, 1991, are forever etched on Terry Waite’s mind.

After 1,763 days in captivity in Beirut – most of it in solitary confinement – he touched down at RAF Lyneham, in Wiltshire, to meet a large waiting press pack.

His thoughts on the plane journey back had been of using the day to draw a line under the whole experience. But he had given little thought, he says, to his words when faced with the cameras for the first time.

“I came back on the flight to Lyneham and it was a grey, rainy day,” he recalls. “I was totally amazed by the number of press people there, there were hundreds. I had no idea that there would be so many.

East Anglian Daily Times: The stained glass windows in Broxted Church, which commemorate the captivity and release of the Beirut hostagesThe stained glass windows in Broxted Church, which commemorate the captivity and release of the Beirut hostages (Image: Archant)

“I was determined to use that day as a signing off and I made an address, which I had hastily put together on a piece of paper on the plane, so it wasn’t really pre-thought out.

“I remember giving that speech and thinking, ‘right that’s my signing off and I’m going to do the best I can to get back into normal life’.”

Nearly five years previously, in January 1987, the church envoy had gone to Lebanon to negotiate the release of Western hostages, including the journalist John McCarthy, and ended up being captured himself.

He had accepted what he describes as a “very dodgy invitation” to meet hostages who, he was told, were ill.

Those 1,763 days that followed were mostly spent blindfolded and chained to a wall and, understandably, he says acclimatising back into “normal” life with his wife, Frances, and four children took time.

“It did take a while to adjust,” he says thoughtfully.

“But I was able to tell my story to my family first, before trained listeners, and objectify it, rather than be dominated by it.

“I was then elected to a fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and I was able to put down on paper the book I had written in my head in those years – Taken on Trust. That also, looking back, was a therapeutic exercise for me.”

No sooner had he touched down on British soil than questions began to be asked about his involvement in the American arms for hostages scandal, Iran-Contra. Waite, 77, who lives in Blackheath, south London and Hartest, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said the tabloid allegations took their toll following the trauma of captivity.

He said: “I convinced my captors that I was a humanitarian and then accusations came up in the press that I had been engaged in arms dealing and so on. It was total nonsense.

“If you’re a humanitarian/negotiator-type person as I was, and you happen to be able to talk to the key people in Iran, Libya and Beirut, you can guarantee that every intelligence agency in the world, who’s got an interest in that region, will want to know you.

“Now I’d known Oliver North (US Marines Lt Col), but I didn’t share everything with him, and he certainly didn’t share everything with me. I had no idea about Iran-Contra and I can say that with complete honesty.

“When I came out, the press resurrected the story and put two and two together and made six.

“It was wrong. It’s no longer an issue, because it’s quite clear now but it was an issue at the time and it was difficult to face.”

Waite had previously negotiated the successful release of hostages in Iran in 1980 and Libya in 1984, but his decision to go back into dangerous territory was also met with criticism in Britain.

It was a decision he takes full responsibility for, and despite the harrowing manner of his imprisonment, he says he holds no bitterness.

“People can argue saying I was reckless, but I went back knowing the risks and I believe that if things go wrong then you don’t blame other people, you take your own responsibility for it.

“I wasn’t pleased about it, I was angry, but I don’t hold grudges. That was my responsibility and I’m willing to take it.

“I don’t have any bitterness towards Hezbollah, I don’t agree with what they did and I certainly don’t agree with all the things that ISIS do today.

“I can understand though, in Hezbollah’s case, why they did what they did.

“When you’ve got a group of youngsters who are bottom of the pile economically, politically, religiously, who fall under the spell of someone with charisma who says, ‘Join our group and fight and you’ll get what you want. You’ll get a better world’.

“And of course they do, and once they’re in that organisation, they’re caught and there’s no way out.”

The complexity of the problems in the Middle East is a subject Waite is well-versed in, and he believes that a greater understanding of the region holds the key to peace.

He said: “The answer is not necessarily warfare. Warfare up to a certain point, in order to protect the innocent, but if we are going to solve the problems, we really need to understand the dynamics of that region.

“Why is it that people are behaving as they are behaving? What are the roots of these issues and how can we deal with that?

“Because at the end of the day, the problems will be resolved by talking and reconciliation, that’s where we should be putting our main energy.”

It seems appropriate that we speak in the pews of St Mary’s Church in Broxted, where two commemorative stained glass windows mark the captivity and eventual release of the Beirut hostages – Waite, McCarthy and Brian Keeler.

McCarthy’s mother, Sheila, who died while he was still a hostage, lived next door to the church, and it became a place of prayer and vigil during their captivity.

So reflecting some 25 years later, is he able to explain just how he made it through the ordeal?

“It was a determination not to be beaten, and a determination to keep hope alive. It was also a conviction that what I had done had been the right thing.

“It doesn’t seem like 25 years but it’s funny I look back now and think how on earth did I do it?

“But there are many people who have suffered far more than me, and still do. So I’ve learned to take each day as it comes and get on with it.”

Out of the Silence: Memories, poems, reflections by Terry Waite is released on November 18. £9.99. Taken on Trust – 25th anniversary edition with new chapter out now. £9.99.