Forgiveness and freedom: Terry Waite

Former hostage discusses empathy and understanding on new podcast

Terry Waite, Martyn Pearce, Sharon Bessell


Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

23 February 2018

Terry Waite was a global story when he was held captive for five years, during which he was held in solitary confinement and subjected to brutal treatment. In the new Policy Forum Pod, he talks about his experience and how being held captive has freed him to see the world in a new way.

If you were taken hostage for five years, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to mock executions, could you ever forgive your captors? This is one of the big questions tackled in the new Policy Forum Pod with Terry Waite CBE. Listen to the podcast here:

Terry Waite is the co-founder of Hostage UK, an organisation that provides support to those taken hostage and their families. But Waite is perhaps better known for his own, terrible, experience being taken hostage.

In 1987, while working as a hostage negotiator for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Waite travelled to Lebanon to negotiate the release of hostages there. While in Beirut, he was captured himself and spent almost five years in captivity, four of which were in solitary confinement.

During his incarceration, he was blindfolded, beaten, and subjected to mock executions. He lived much of the time chained to a wall in a room without natural light. He was finally released in 1991.

When asked whether he can now forgive those people who took him captive, Waite is unequivocal.

“You can forgive, of course, and I do forgive – of course I do.

“That doesn’t mean to say you agree with what was done. That’s a different matter altogether. I disagree with the tactics that were adopted, but of course I understand.”

He added that his time in captivity gave him a different perspective on those who take others hostage.

“Prior to captivity…I always had sympathy for those who found themselves on the margins of life. Sympathy is to feel sorry for. I think captivity changed it for me, so that sympathy was converted into empathy. Empathy means not just to feel sorry for, but to know actually how someone feels, who is kicked around, who has no status in life, who is deprived.

“I’ve been through that. I know what it is to be at the bottom of the heap. I know what it is to be deprived. I know what it is to be kicked around. I know what it is never to know whether you’re going to see the end of the day or not.

“There are thousands of people like that in the world, who are not necessarily imprisoned but are living in that situation. I’m grateful for captivity for that, for enabling me to say, “Well, I know, I understand how you feel”, and not just feel sorry for you.”

Since being released Waite has written a number of books, including Taken on Trust, his account of his captivity. He says that in the years that have passed since that time, he’s tried to use his experience in a positive way.

“I’ve tried to take the experience of being captured and tried to take it creatively and make something from it,” he said.

“Everybody in the world suffers to a greater or lesser extent, and some people suffer more than others – often through no fault of their own. The suffering is never easy to face. It’s always difficult, but often something creative can emerge from suffering if you work for it.

“Prior to captivity, I would never ever have had the courage to give up a salary, particularly when you’ve got a mortgage to pay. But captivity said, “well, if you can go through five years with nothing, you can surely manage to paddle your own boat when you get out.” And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 26 years.”

Terry Waite was in conversation with Associate Professor Sharon Bessell and Martyn Pearce. A warning: some of the issues and recollections discussed on the podcast could be confronting for some listeners.

To find out more about Hostage UK visit:

To read Helen Sullivan’s piece on empathy in public policy discussed in this podcast, go to: 

To listen to Terry Waite’s public talk at the ANU Crawford School: 

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