9th December 2012
Twenty five years after he was kidnapped, Waite was once again being driven in the dead of night through Beirut’s southern suburbs; this time for his first ever meeting with the terrorist organisation responsible for holding him hostage.
It had taken days of delicate negotiation but finally – just a few hours before we were due to leave Lebanon – the message came through that Hizbollah’s leadership had agreed to see him. The location was kept from us. A Mercedes driven by our go-between would pick us up from our hotel and take us to the rendezvous for 10.30pm.
The car arrived on time and Waite clambered into the front seat with The Sunday Telegraph reporter and photographer in the back, for the drive across the city. Waite is a huge man – 6ft 7in tall – and his knees pressed hard against the glove compartment. “Are you OK?” I inquired. “Don’t worry about me,” replied Waite, “I was expecting to ride in the boot.
“One time towards the end of my captivity, I was tied with masking tape and thrown in a boot. I got the tape off my mouth and I said there isn’t much room in here. And this voice said ‘there was until you got in’. That was John McCarthy.”
Our car stopped outside a row of anonymous apartment blocks, each about 15 storeys high, in the heart of Hizbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold. The city was dark and it would be impossible for strangers like us to know precisely where we were.
But it was in this neighbourhood in 1987 that Waite, now aged 73, was held, chained to a radiator for more than 23 hours a day with one visit a day to the bathroom. For the first year he was subjected to frequent beatings and a mock execution. He was moved occasionally, blindfolded and bound in tape, until his eventual release, to the relief of the watching world, at the end of 1991. For vast majority of his time in captivity, he was held in solitary confinement.
He had travelled to Lebanon 25 years ago to secure the release of McCarthy and other Western hostages. But accused of being a CIA agent, Waite, the then envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had found himself a hostage too.
His meeting with Hizbollah would be a remarkable moment; a personal reconciliation a quarter of a century on from a terrible betrayal.
Forty eight hours prior to Monday’s meeting, Waite had arrived in Lebanon to highlight the plight of Christian refugees, fleeing Syria in their droves.
The taxi driver at the airport asked him if he knew the country. “A little,” he replied wrily. He turned to us and said: “I was very fortunate to come out alive. Now I want to see how things are 20 years after and to understand the complexity of the situation. All the refugees coming in to the country from Syria is putting another burden on Lebanon. I want to see what can be written to help explain the situation of this country.
“As far as the past goes I hold no grudges. I am not a vindictive person. If I was I wouldn’t have come back. I come in the spirit of open friendship. I always say it is one thing to concentrate on me but there are thousands of Lebanese people who suffered far worse. Everybody concentrates on the Westerners; but nobody thinks of the thousands of Lebanese murdered.”
After spending two days which included meetings with Christian communities in the Bekaa Valley and on the Syrian border, we drove to southern Beirut, dominated by the Shia Muslims to make contact with the group.
Bullet holes riddled concrete apartment buildings while images of Hizbollah’s heroes – like the Ayatollah Khomeini – were commonplace. We spent hours waiting for the Hizbollah call and as the clock ticked by, we became less confident the meeting would take place.
Then at 6pm came a text message explaining a Hizbollah official would meet us at an undisclosed location at 10.30pm. Waite showed no apprehension.
The apartment block was anonymous; a little smarter than most in southern Beirut but featureless. Hizbollah situate their offices in residential blocks to deter Israel from bombing them. Critics believe it an act of cowardice to use civilian shields as cover for the organisation’s activities. Hizbollah see it as a practical necessity.
Although Hizbollah’s military wing is proscribed by the British government and outlawed as a terrorist organisation, its political wing in theory at least can enter dialogue with the British government. In reality, British diplomats are banned from speaking to Hizbollah’s political wing too.
We rode in a tiny lift to the seventh floor, which is home to Hizbollah’s international relations department. The apartment inside was sparse. There was nothing on the walls except for two framed inscriptions and at the end of a room about 20ft long two flags — one the Lebanese flag, the other the Hizbollah flag with a Kalashnikov rifle adorned upon it.
Hizbollah’s most senior foreign affairs official Ammar Moussawi sat in one chair, while Waite sat beside him. Burly men, with scowls on their faces, hovered.
Moussawi was at first deeply suspicious and insisted the meeting must remain off the record and not be reported. He went away and made a phone call and when he returned – it was now about 11pm – he smiled and his interpreter explained that Hizbollah has decided that the meeting can be reported after all.
Waite turned to Moussawi and looked him in the eye. This is a senior figure — Moussawi sits on Hizbollah’s executive committee — in the organisation that arranged his kidnapping and torture.
Waite took a deep breath. “I am now getting to be an old man. I am now almost 74 years of age and I have had my difficulties in the past,” he said, “Throughout my life I have tried to work for peace and reconciliation. I have not always done everything that is right but I have tried and, sometimes like all people who work for peace, we experience difficulties. In the past I have had my difficulties with Hizbollah but I want to put that in the past; I want you to know particularly now as I am getting older why I have no hard feelings.
The past is the past.
“I also know that any small difficulty or suffering I experienced is nothing compared to what people in Lebanon have suffered from all groupings in society. I had difficulty for a few years; some people here had difficulty for their whole life. And it looks as though that difficulty could — if things go the wrong way — continue.
“My first reason for the visit is to say the past is the past. Let us leave it.
“I believe that reconciliation between larger groups, political groups, has to begin here with our own personal reconciliation.” Waite said Hizbollah had developed into a party of ‘stature’ but that the West’s view of the party “is very negative for many reasons”.
Waite told Moussawi: “It is seen quite wrongly as a group of terrorists. Now that is not a good impression and does not convey what Hizbollah is today… Now people in England will say Terry waite speaks in favour of Hizbollah? They will say is the man crazy and I will say we all must move forward. We must grow. The only way to reconciliation is to grow and not to look back but look to the future.” He went on to highlight the plight of Christians and asked for Hizbollah’s help in the run up to Christmas.
“I have only been here two days,” he said, “I have been to see on the border some of the Christian refugees who have been forced out of Syria by fighting by the so called Arab Spring which is becoming a force of oppression not of freedom.
“It is my view that Hizbollah can do itself a great deal of good at Christmas, the Christian festival, by perhaps doing something to give some support to the refugees who are in this country.
“When it does the message will carry beyond the border of Lebanon. We all know of course of the complex political difficulties that face us all in this region. They cannot be underestimated. But neither must we be deterred by them. If we believe reconciliation and peace is possible we must risk our lives for it. And I am willing to do that.” Mr Moussawi looked at Waite and smiled.
“I want to underline that we as Hizbollah were not responsible for the tragedy that you have undergone and we regret that you have gone through it — that time you were suffering. It was an unnecessary suffering but you have kindly said that your suffering was not to be measured in comparison with the great suffering that Lebanon was undergoing.
“If the past means anything to us we should learn our lessons from the past.” Moussawi added: “The difficult times need great men… If you consider the fact that you come as a purpose to demolish this wall that means you are a great man.” Terry Waite, he said, was “welcome at any time”.
With the meeting ended the two men shook hands then embraced and kissed on the cheek. It was by now 12.30am. The goons on the door ushered us back out to the lift. Moussawi smiled; Waite waved goodbye and descended in the tightly packed lift. We sped into the night and back to the safety of our hotel. “It went well,” said Waite, half asking for affirmation of what had just taken place.
The last time he had been driven out of the southern suburbs he was tied up, and blindfolded in the boot of a car. This time he was in the passenger seat, safe and well, and on his way home. We were all of us relieved at that.
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