Article By Mike Thexton
Watching a news interview with Terry Waite about self-isolation reminded me of the day in September 1992 when I shared a platform with him at the Army Staff College. The man gives you a sense of proportion, all right: they gave me a low stool and put me next to him sitting on a proper chair. I felt like a hobbit.
The reason I was on the same bill as Terry Waite was the thing we have in common: we have both been held hostage. For more than thirty years I have been asked by many different audiences – from the SAS in Hereford to the Women’s Institute in Kew, and many points in between – to talk about the day in September 1986 when I boarded a PanAm jumbo jet in Karachi, Pakistan, and ended up at the front of the plane as the next bargaining chip in the terrorists’ negotiations with the authorities.
There are a great many people who have wanted to learn something from my experience – cabin crew, police negotiators, commandos, security policy advisors. I have told the story hundreds of times, and it is a good one – there are heroines (the cabin crew) and villains, and for me, but not for everyone, a happy ending. I have had thirty-three years (and counting) that, on that day, I did not expect to see.
I have shared my experience in the hope that it might help someone, somewhere, in a way that I cannot foresee, to deal with a situation they find themselves in. The day after the hijack, I determined that I would do whatever I could, for as long as it takes, to help anyone else in that kind of trouble. What I didn’t expect was the amount I would learn from all the people I would meet along the way.
I was held hostage for the inside of a day. For sure, I expected to be shot: whatever the terrorists were demanding (they never told us), I didn’t think that they would get much change out of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or General Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan at the time. And I was sure that was right – they should not get what they wanted, or someone else would be in the same place as me the next week. But Terry Waite was held for four and a half years, much of it in solitary confinement. Longer than the First World War. And yet, as he answered questions from the audience in September 1992, it was clear that he had retained his faith, his optimism, his kindness, his sense of humour. On the television last week, he was far too gentle to point out that there is really no comparison between what he went through then and what we all are asked to go through now. Maybe he is so gentle that it didn’t even occur to him.
Instead, he said some things that, surprisingly, I recognised from my own much shorter hostage experience. He referred to the importance of keeping control of what you can control, and accepting what you cannot: I would add, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous ‘Serenity Prayer’, it is important also to have the wisdom to know the difference.
In my case, I determined that I would not let the terrorists change me. I was sure that they would kill me, but they would not make me hate them; I refused to die afraid of them. I said my prayers and I made my peace. Once I had done that, I was able to wait calmly for what the day would bring. To my great surprise, it eventually brought the opportunity to escape, unharmed, by jumping off the wing in the dark after the terrorists had opened fire and passengers had opened the emergency exits.
There isn’t an exact parallel in Coronavirus lockdown: you can’t hate a virus in quite the same way that you can hate a gunman. Maybe it would be easier if you could. It’s so impersonal, so implacable. But accepting what cannot be changed is still vital: there is no point wishing that things were different, because of that very implacability. There is no negotiation here.
Controlling what can be controlled is also important. I have met other hostages who have told me the same thing: time can get on top of you, if you let it. Again, that was not such a problem for me, a captive for only about 16 hours. Sir Geoffrey Jackson, the British Ambassador to Uruguay who was held hostage for nine months in 1970, told me that he scratched his count of days in the wall of his underground cell, even though he had no means of telling the time or even knowing if it was night or day. When his captors objected to him keeping a calendar, he told them it was a medical record. A man of very regular bodily habits, he was only half a day out when he was released. He had to do nothing much for nine months. We have so many things we can do.
As for the wisdom to know the difference: one of the things on the borderline between what we can control and what we can’t is – will I catch the virus? And if I do, how bad will it be? A friend of mine believes that I am a hypochondriac. I disagree – rather, I am paranoid. It’s not just about illnesses. The terrorists could have picked any passport, but they picked mine. So I expect that at some point I will catch this virus. But I find that it is in the category of things I can’t control so I will be serene about it, while doing everything that I am told to do to make it less likely.
I have learned so much from telling my story, even though it is quite a short one in comparison to those of people I have met along the way – Trevor Lock, the policeman caught up in the Iranian Embassy siege; Laurence Whitehouse, kidnapped in the Yemen, whose wife was killed in the gunfire when the authorities mounted a rescue; firefighters, cabin crew, soldiers. But one of the most memorable lessons came when an old family friend, the headmaster of a prep school, asked me to tell my story to some of his pupils. I wasn’t sure that it was appropriate – too scary for innocent 12-year olds – but my friend said he wanted to teach them about resilience. So I explained to a small group that this was very rare, and airport security is much better now, and it absolutely wouldn’t happen to them, but this is how it happened to me in Pakistan in 1986. They did some creative writing, putting themselves in the shoes of people involved at the scene, or waiting at home for people who didn’t come back. Never mind resilience, they showed enough empathy to make me cry. At the end of the lesson, the head expressed the hope that they wouldn’t have nightmares, and asked if anyone had any worries about what they had heard. One girl put up her hand, and offered, ‘Actually, I feel better about things now, because I can see that bad things happen, but people survive.’
Bad things happen, but people survive. Six words that put so beautifully and succinctly what we had been aiming to get across, rather better than we could have explained it. I carry it with me everywhere.
(Mike’s book about his experiences – “What Happened to the Hippy Man” – is available via firstname.lastname@example.org . He’s also a novelist. Mike’s illustrated Xessus series – “The Magistrate’s Son”, “The Warning”, “The Westwall Guard,” plus forthcoming “Fire and Water” have been launched locally at The Shoe Station. They’re available (with fewer illustrations) on Kindle.