Former Hezbollah hostage Terry Waite sent emails of hope to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Interview: Waite tells 'The National' the aid worker needs to gently assimilate back into life 'as though rising from the seabed' after being detained for 2,173 days

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A few days ago, while Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was still under house arrest at her parents' home in Tehran, an email landed in her inbox in which the sender expressed a sentiment along the lines of the Persian adage: “This too will pass.”

It was from Terry Waite in response to the weariness that the detained British-Iranian dual citizen was feeling at her unendurable predicament and longing to see her husband, Richard, and 7-year-old daughter, Gabriella.

The English humanitarian has endeavoured to bolster the spirits of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe many times in the past year via a digital communication medium that barely existed when he himself was taken hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1987 while trying to secure the release of four western detainees.

“We were in touch by email, we were in touch by the internet, I think it was Skype,” Mr Waite, now 83, tells The National from his home in the Suffolk countryside.

“One could just, you know, listen to her, understand how she was getting along, and maybe enable her to maintain hope by telling her: ‘There are thousands of people all over the world and in this particular country who, although you may not know all of them, are with you, who are supporting you.’ It's a question of constantly giving moral support, and enabling people to maintain hope.”

The aid worker’s ordeal came to an end, as Mr Waite assured her it would in that message, on Wednesday after 2,173 days of detention on charges of “attempting to topple the Iranian regime” and propaganda.

Terry Waite arrives at RAF Lyneham after being freed by his captors in Beirut, in November 1991.

She and fellow former detainee Anoosheh Ashoori landed on Thursday at RAF Brize Norton six years to the day that she left the UK to visit family for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, with her 22-month-old daughter.

Since then, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, has, Mr Waite says, shown enormous courage, resilience and determination despite often being held in inhumane conditions, in tiny cells without windows, natural air or light, under pressures that have had a severe impact on her mental and physical health.

Waite has personal experience of what being a hostage can do to the human condition. He was a captive for 1,763 days, much of which was spent blindfolded and chained to a radiator in solitary confinement, with regular interrogations, beatings and mock executions. He learnt to live a day at a time and as fully as he was able amid the uncertainty.

It is one thing, he says, to have sympathy for people who are in distress but quite another to have gone through the same sort of distress and “to be able to feel it in your bones”.

“Captivity enabled me to develop empathy for others. I actually know what it's like to be kicked around, to have nothing.

“Empathy, I think, is something that I rather value as a gift that came to me from captivity really.”

Having also been inside the notorious Evin prison – not, he hastens to add, as an inmate but a hostage negotiator – Mr Waite understands that it’s "a not very nice place where anybody who’s detained there will be glad to be out of it, put it that way”.

His relief at hearing that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had arrived at Imam Khomeini Airport was tempered by a deep apprehension until he saw the smiling photograph of her on board the flight en route to Oman.

He, too, found himself at that airport three years ago with several freed hostages. They made it through all the checks and were about to file on to the waiting plane, when they were turned away.

“Things can be so, so difficult at the last moment,” Mr Waite says. “However, she’s back.”

Nothing, though, can bring back all those years, he says, even if he believes it is possible to make up in some way for lost time.

Among their many exchanges, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had spoken to him about the particular difficulties of missing out on her daughter growing up.

Her MP Tulip Siddiq gave an insight into that pain at the start of the pandemic on spotting Gabriella dressed in a Mary Poppins costume for World Book Day while driving through her Kilburn and Hampstead constituency. “All I could think about,” Ms Siddiq said, “was that her mum’s not here to witness this. For a woman who hadn’t done anything wrong, she has now been kept away from her family for nearly four years for a crime she didn’t commit.”

On Mr Waite’s landing at RAF Lyneham after his release in 1991, the teenage son he had not seen for nearly five years was almost unrecognisable as a young man. But he has often wondered whether the technology that enabled the Ratcliffe family to speak to and see each other was a mixed blessing.

“It’s difficult for anybody to understand who hasn’t been through that experience because you think you’d want to see them all the time, but it somehow can increase the emotions. If you’re not careful, you could lose control over them,” he says of the frustration at being able to see but not actually hold or hug loved ones.

His advice to anyone readjusting to assimilation after long isolation is to take it gently, make one statement to the media and retreat for a while to “process their experience, deal with it, put it in place, and get on with life”.

“It’s a very confusing time because so much has changed,” he says. “So many events have taken place. And, of course, she’s coming out when the whole world is in terrible crisis. It’s a remarkable time so it’s a very good thing to have some good news when there’s so much bad news around.

I think we’ve got to somehow turn our anger to almost give us a passion
Terry Waite

“There’s bound to be ups and downs. It will require patience on behalf of Nazanin and on behalf of Richard because you’ve got to begin to rebuild a family. That’s not always easy, but it will be possible.

“I’ve often used the analogy of taking it just as though you’re coming up off the seabed,” Mr Waite says. “If you come up too quickly, you get nitrogen in the blood, you get the bends. So you need to come out gently and you’ll be fine.”

Perhaps one of the most important things, he says, is to not give way to negative emotions. Mr Waite co-founded Hostage International, an organisation that gives support to the families of detainees, in 2004, the same year that he returned to Beirut to meet his Islamic fundamentalist captors as part of his own healing process and to make progress on peacebuilding.

At the time, as now, he argued that people who hold on to anger and bitterness do more harm to themselves than they do to those against whom the feelings are held.

“I think we’ve got to somehow turn our anger to almost give us a passion. To say: ‘We’re going to try and make a different world. I’m going to do my part in that.’”

It is hard to see now how Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe might ever safely return to Tehran to meet those responsible for her incarceration but Mr Waite’s is an inspiring example of emerging with a new destiny out of deprivation and the depths of despair.

Within these dark places, he grasped the seeds of creativity and opportunity that he maintains are often there for those who can find them.

“Suffering,” Mr Waite says, “need not destroy.”

Updated: March 18, 2022, 10:57 AM