By Terry Waite
9th December 2012
The night before my return visit to Beirut last week, I needed to call my bank regarding a transaction on my credit card. When the matter was dealt with, I thought it wise to inform them that for the next few days I would be overseas in Beirut.
There was a pause on the line. “Mr Waite,” said the lady, “I rather wish you hadn’t told me that!”
Her reaction was hardly surprising. For years, Lebanon has been the scene of kidnapping and warfare. In the late 1980s, I languished there for almost five years as a hostage, most of the time chained to a wall and denied many basic creature comforts.
In recent years, the situation in Lebanon has vastly improved, but the name Hizbollah continues to strike terror into the hearts of many. Once wholly identified as a terrorist group, the Iranian-backed Shia militia has since developed into a fully-fledged political party. Now, the country’s fragile peace is threatened by the conflict raging in Syria and the continued turmoil in the Middle East.
I was released from captivity in November 1991, and returned once, several years later, to support some of the development projects being supported by YCare International, an agency I helped found some 30 years ago. But I had not been back since that visit. I was invited to return again last week, in particular to see for myself the plight of the many Christian refugees who are flooding across the Syrian/Lebanese border to escape the horrors of the so-called “Arab Spring”.
To reach the Syrian border, one has to travel through the Bekaa Valley which, since Roman times, has been a prime agricultural region. In recent years, it has developed a less pastoral image as it has become known as an area where terrorism is rife and where many hostages are alleged to have been kept. For most of my captivity, I was held in the southern suburbs of Beirut, although it is just possible that for the final few months the Bekaa was my home. I can’t be sure about that. Each time I was moved, I would be wrapped in masking tape, blindfolded and transported in the boot of a car.
On this visit, I travelled in comfort in the front seat of a four-wheel drive vehicle, although when more people piled in, I did offer to move to the boot!
It was strange to be on a road that perhaps I had travelled along years earlier as a hostage. I remembered lying in the boot, trying to recall every twist and turn of the road and listening intently to the sounds of life outside. I don’t suppose I shall ever know where I spent my days incarcerated and, frankly, I don’t much care.
We arrived at Al Qaa, a dusty, somewhat ramshackle town that has been the scene of numerous border clashes across the years. It is here that many of the Christian families who have escaped from the terrors of warfare in Syria find a temporary home. For generations – almost for 2,000 years – the different ethnic and religious communities have lived side by side in Syria. Christians and Muslims have shared places of worship.
Today, that has changed dramatically. It could be argued that the Arab Spring began in 2011 as a genuine movement seeking greater democratic freedom across the Arab world. It could also be argued with equal force that the uprising has now been hijacked by extreme jihadists and that, for the first time in years, religious persecution is taking place where once there was harmony.
The refugees now seeking shelter in Lebanon have been taken into the homes of other Christian families or are renting properties. The people I met were not, by any stretch of the imagination, well off. I visited a family paying $200 (£125) a month for rent, plus $100 for fuel. The main breadwinner earned between $10 and $15 a day, if he was lucky, as employment did not come his way on a daily basis. He had a wife and several children to support, including one poor little boy suffering from Down’s syndrome who sat huddled in a blanket in the corner of the room where I was received. In the past few weeks, at least 200 Christian families from Syria have come to this village, and thousands more have entered other parts of the country seeking shelter.
Poor little Lebanon, I thought, with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on the one side and now the Syrian horrors on the other. The conflict had become so severe that other families I visited said they had been forced to leave their homes. In one place, there were 15 people living in four small rooms. “The Arab Spring is a joke,” said one of the refugees. “It has become another form of persecution.”
Such disruptions over the border in Syria are bound to impinge on Lebanon in many ways. On our return to Beirut, we learned that on the road to the very town we had visited that afternoon, three men were abducted by an armed gang, probably made up of criminal opportunists. Gradually, the fragile peace that Lebanon currently enjoys is being threatened.
Leaving Al Qaa, I travelled to Zahle, another border town, to talk to John Darwish, the Melkite Archbishop. A mild-mannered and gentle person, he is gravely concerned about the breakdown in relationships in Syria and the number of refugees flocking into Lebanon. It is difficult to get an accurate estimate, but a figure of 250,000 is quoted. It could be more, and is increasing each day.
Apart from the current refugee problems, I also discussed with the Archbishop one of the most remarkable developments in Lebanon in recent years: the agreement, signed in 2006, that effectively brought together a majority of the Christian communities with Hizbollah – Christian and Muslims working together for a united Lebanon.
Cynics might regard this agreement as nothing more than political expediency, and of course the politics of the situation do play heavily in the situation. However, it may well be that it marks the way for the only solution possible for Lebanon, and indeed for the surrounding countries.
Given the ethnic and religious mix in Lebanon, the only sensible solution is for the different communities to respect each other and live and work together for the good of the country. The Archbishop strongly backed the new relationship and firmly believed that Hizbollah had grown and matured over the years, and was indeed working for the best interests of all the people of Lebanon. He believed that this act of reconciliation was a positive step forward.
The next morning, I decided it was time to make my own move towards reconciliation, believing as I do that political agreements have to be accompanied by individuals stretching out their hand to those with whom they have previously disagreed. With this in mind, I took steps to make contact with senior figures in Hizbollah with a view to having a face-to-face meeting before I left the country.
The first step was to track down one of my contacts from 25 years ago, Dr Adnan Mrouea. Dr Mrouea, who later became minister of health, was the person in whose apartment I first met the kidnappers of the Western hostages, and where I was promised safe conduct to visit them when they were allegedly sick and one, so it was said, was about to die. This promise was broken, not by the doctor, and I was taken hostage myself.
Eventually, I found his mobile phone number and called him out of the blue.
“Hello, Adnan,” I said. “This is Terry, Terry Waite.”
Clearly, he was surprised at hearing me after so long. I asked him if we could meet sometime that day as I would be glad to see him again after so many years.
It didn’t surprise me when he said that he was out of town and engaged throughout the day. I was sorry but not surprised. I could tell from his tone of voice that he was not comfortable, and I did my best to put him at ease by saying that the past was the past and whatever had happened all those years ago, I felt no bitterness towards him.
To this day, I don’t know how much he knew about my impending kidnap, but it was over and forgotten as far as I was concerned. I wished him well for the future and concluded by saying that I hoped one day we might meet face to face.
Later in the day, I drove to his apartment, the very place where, years ago, I had walked down the marble steps, climbed into a waiting car and had been driven not to see ailing hostages as I hoped but to be confined to an underground cell.
My mind went back across the years to a dark, rainy night when I left my car and driver at the end of the street and walked the final 500 yards to the doctor’s apartment. Then there was little or no traffic on the streets as civil war was raging and it was dangerous to be out after dark. It was exactly as I remembered it.
Throughout the day, using various contacts, I attempted to get an invitation to visit Hizbollah. Dusk fell and there was nothing. Although I was beginning to wonder if I would get to see them before leaving the next morning, I was not entirely without hope as I knew that they often chose to meet under the cover of darkness, deep within their own territory.
Beirut, situated as it is on the Mediterranean, has some of the most wonderful sunsets, and I sat for a while taking in the natural beauty and thinking how sad it was that this whole region had suffered so much across the years. The Lebanese were kindly and hospitable people at heart who had so frequently been pushed and pulled in all directions by political and religious forces. Would their turmoil never end?
Then the call came. “You have a meeting with a senior official from Hizbollah at 10.30 tonight.” I had something light to eat and then prepared for the drive down to the southern suburbs.
Hizbollah’s former administrative headquarters had been razed to the ground some years ago in an Israeli attack, and now they had wisely distributed their offices in different locations. We drove into a small compound and eventually a young man came to raise a barrier to allow us to drive in.
I squeezed into a small lift and ascended several floors. I was guided along a small corridor and into a meeting room where it was indicated that I should sit. I didn’t feel at all nervous.
My encounters in the past had long lost any negative power they had over me, and I was determined to do what I could to make an individual act of reconciliation. As I said earlier, reconciliation between larger groups has to be made up of a thousand smaller acts of reconciliation.
After a few moments, Ammar Moussawi came into the room dressed neatly in a brown jacket, brown trousers and shoes. He was walking with a slight limp. I learned later that he had been wounded in one of the many conflicts that have been part of Lebanon’s heritage.
Although I felt perfectly at ease, I could see that he was, quite understandably, a little anxious. No doubt he was curious at what I was going to say.
I spoke without notes and started by saying that there were three points I wanted to make. First, that the past was the past. Although I had had my difficulties with Hizbollah, I had no hard feelings. Second, my sufferings were nothing compared to the sufferings so many people from all communities in Lebanon had suffered in the past, and thirdly I believed that reconciliation between all groups within the country was the only way forward.
I applauded the new spirit of co-operation that existed between the majority of Christian communities and Hizbollah, and I said that I would like to see that co-operation extended to encompass all people throughout the country. I further said that Hizbollah continued to have a very negative image in the West, and I hoped this would improve. For my part I would do what I could to change attitudes.
The way forward was clearly not their way of violence, but of peace and reconciliation. The so-called Arab Spring had become a force of oppression not of freedom, and one now saw chaos in Egypt, Libya and Syria. That chaos must not extend to Lebanon, for if it did, that would bring disaster to the whole region.
Hizbollah had a vital role in working for and holding the peace. I expressed my concern for the Christian groups who were leaving Syria and asked if Hizbollah would make a gesture towards helping them, especially at Christmas. I said that a positive gesture from Hizbollah would be one step in cementing the agreement and a step toward changing the negative image of Hizbollah that existed in many parts of the world.
When Mr Moussawi replied, he was in a more relaxed frame of mind. First, he denied that Hizbollah was responsible for my suffering. I did not challenge this as I felt it would lead to a pointless argument, and the kidnapping was far in the past now.
All I could say was that Hizbollah, like so many other groups of its kind, had grown and developed tremendously in the years since my captivity, and that we must look forward, not backwards.
He said that Hizbollah would not take up arms except to defend itself, especially against Israel. As for the Christian refugees, he asked me to let him have a proposal and he would see if something could be done.
By now, almost two hours had passed, and the atmosphere had relaxed considerably. He invited me to return to Lebanon when I would be able to meet other people from Hizbollah, an invitation I said that I would be happy to accept. I left Lebanon early the next morning for London, having,
I felt, taken a few steps forward, both personally and on behalf of others.
Lebanon is once again standing on the brink. The waters of conflict lap closer and closer, and it is vital for the country and for the whole region to hold together in peace. Old grudges and conflicts need to be confined to the past, and all groups within the country need to be encouraged and supported to move forward together.
From the Christian perspective, Lebanon is rapidly becoming the only country in the entire Middle East where there remains a significant Christian presence.
It was the late Pope John Paul II who said: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
All men and women can pray that will be true but it requires more than prayer. It requires a change of heart, a change of attitude and political courage. I wonder if we shall be able to rise to the challenge.
The making of Hizbollah
Hizbollah, meaning the Party of God, was formed in 1982 as a resistance movement when Israel invaded Lebanon. It
began as a small, paramilitary group of Shia Muslims, but has since grown into a mainstream political party, led for the last 20 years by Hassan Nasrallah, who is rarely seen in public for fear of assassination.
Its heartland is the Shia communities of southern Lebanon, but its headquarters is an undisclosed location in southern Beirut. Hizbollah is backed and armed by Iran, and publicly declares its devotion to Ayatollah Khomeini (right).
The party’s military arm is listed as a terrorist organisation by the UK and several other countries. The US says its political wing is also a terrorist organisation.
Hizbollah was implicated in the 1983 suicide bombing of an American Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 American military personnel.
In 2005, the then Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut, which was widely blamed on Syria’s Assad regime using Hizbollah to carry out its orders.
However, its political wing still went on to form an unusual alliance that year, joining Christian and secular parties to form a grouping that,
in 2011, formed a coalition government. Hizbollah currently holds 12 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament, as well as having two ministers in the cabinet.
Its place in government has not stopped its hatred of Israel or gained it the one thing it apparently hankers after – full recognition as a political party that would grant dialogue with countries including Britain.
Lebanon’s timeline of kidnapped Westerners
Between 1982 and 1992, nowhere was more notorious for kidnappings than Lebanon.
» In all, 96 Westerners were kidnapped by groups, including the Islamic Jihad Organisation and Hizbollah, angry at the involvement of foreign forces in Lebanon; Israel had invaded in 1982, and before the 1983 bombing of US barracks, there was a substantial American peacekeeping operation.
» Among the most infamous kidnappings was that of William Buckley, the CIA bureau chief in Beirut. He was snatched on his way to work in an attack Washington blamed on Hizbollah. Buckley was tortured for 15 months before being killed in 1985.
» The longest-held was American Terry Anderson of the Associated Press news agency. He was captured either by Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad in March 1985 and not released until December 1991.
» Britons in particular were a high-profile and high-value target for Hizbollah, including John McCarthy, the journalist, seized in April 1986. He spent five years in captivity, sharing his cell with Belfast-born Brian Keenan, who was working as a teacher in Beirut when he was bundled into the back of a car by armed gunmen.
» The spate of abductions brought Terry Waite to Beirut, working as special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury to secure the release of kidnap victims.
» There was international opprobrium when he himself was kidnapped in 1987. Waite spent almost five years in captivity, mostly in solitary confinement. He was chained, regularly beaten and subjected to a mock execution. He was released as the hostage crisis slowly was drawing to an end. McCarthy and Keenan were already free when, on November 18, 1991, Waite arrived, safe, thin and grey but otherwise physically well, in Damascus.
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