ON THIS DAY    Witness      Graphics version >>   BBC News >>
Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
1987: 'Vanished off the face of the earth'

BBC Radio 4 presenter John Waite is the cousin of Terry Waite, who was held captive for almost five years in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

He became the family spokesman after Terry's kidnap in January 1987.

Things were very dicey just before Terry went back for his last trip.

I think no one was in any doubt that he was in danger, and there was a lot of pressure on Terry - not least from members of his own family.

But Terry is an honourable man. He told me he felt he could make a difference and help release hostages - so he had to go back.

He ignored the personal dangers.

'Worst imaginings'

I didn't even argue with him because I knew his sense of conscience was greater than any sense of danger I could try and impart to him.

After he disappeared, it gradually emerged wherever he'd gone he was not going to come back for a while.

That's when I started to get really worried about where he was, whether he was still alive and what conditions he was in.

Into that void you put your worst imaginings, because what else can you do?


"How could someone like this vanish off the face of the earth?"

It really was like torture, those first few weeks and months. Terry was a headline-hitter all around the world - he was constantly on TV, radio and in newspapers.

How could someone like this vanish off the face of the earth?

All sorts of ugly rumours started to spring up because nobody really knew.

His family - particularly his wife and children - had to hold onto their strong Christian faith that Terry was alive and sooner or later we would find out what had happened to him.

I started to meet some of the prominent figures from Beirut and the Middle East who came over to London.

I remember talking to Walid Jumblatt [the Druze warlord leader whose group had guaranteed Terry Waite's safety].


"We truly didn't believe anyone who dealt with Terry could think of murdering him"

He said Terry was found to have hidden microphones in his scalp and arms in his belt - all sorts of nonsense.

Against this background you had to think that if anyone believed this, he could well be dead.

There was also a particularly distressing occasion when a group of journalists was actually taken to a spot - a pile of stones in Beirut - where it was said he had been buried.

We had to consider that was a reality, but we truly didn't believe anyone who dealt with Terry could think of murdering him.

World Service

You fall under his spell very soon indeed. I thought even the most fanatic captor might hold him as an example of the imperial West, but they wouldn't actually kill him.

I was occasionally presenting a very well-known programme on the BBC World Service called Outlook, which had a huge audience and which I knew was particular favourite of Terry's.

Outlook had made a running story of what had happened to the hostages, so as they came out we interviewed them to find out the latest.

Brian Keenan told us that Terry had turned up in the same cell complex as he and John McCarthy and had been provided with a radio, so we knew Terry would listen to his beloved World Service.

Reassurance

We did a half-hour Outlook Special for Terry. It was generally about the hostage situation, but we included messages from his family and some of his favourite music.

We really believed that this thing would get through to him and reassure him.

And it did. He heard it - the only time he was able to hear directly from his family in all those five years.

I remember exactly when he was released - I could hardly believe it.

I needed to see those TV pictures coming over from Syria before I actually believed he'd got his freedom again.

There was a new play opening in London about the hostage situation and the World Service arts programme Meridian asked if I would go along to see this play.

We did the recording - I made my comments and the programme was broadcast.

When a couple of days later I was speaking to Terry he said he had been listening to that review - to my voice - of this play on the World Service as the cell door opened and his guard said:

"Get your clothes and shoes on, you're leaving."

The very last thing he heard was a programme about himself.

He and I could not believe that two days later we were talking about it - and he was free.

You can read Terry Waite's own account of his capture and the day he was set free by clicking on the links in the right hand column.

In Context
John Waite joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1974.

He has presented Radio 4's You and Yours and Face the Facts programmes since 1986.

He has won three Sony awards as either Reporter or Broadcaster of the year.


Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
^^ Back to top |