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Beirut hostages turn the page on their experience before captive audience

Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Anderson discuss their ordeal in 1980s Lebanon at the inaugural Rostrevor Literary Festival. By Denis Tuohy

Published 29/11/2016

From left, Brian Keenan, Terry Anderson and John McCarthy speaking to the audience about their captivity in Beirut
From left, Brian Keenan, Terry Anderson and John McCarthy speaking to the audience about their captivity in Beirut

They sat together on stage in Kilbroney Integrated School, three men whose linked histories would launch Rostrevor's first Literary Festival, men from widely different backgrounds who had first come to know each other in a much darker place, in the depths of prison cells in Lebanon, where they were held for years as hostages in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

Brian Keenan is Belfast-born and raised, John McCarthy is from the English Home Counties, Terry Anderson is from the United States. Each of them has written a bestselling account of their hostage years - Brian Keenan's An Evil Cradling, John McCarthy's Some Other Rainbow, co-written with Jill Morrell, Terry Anderson's Den of Lions.

They were in Rostrevor at a sell-out event, reunited after 20 years, to remember and reflect on what had happened to them, prompted by musician and writer Tommy Sands and myself, a television reporter who covered events in the Middle East during the years when they were being held.

Brian Keenan was asked how growing up in east Belfast might have prepared him for what was to come. He talked of meeting a friend at a bus-stop and telling him he was going to buy some shirts for a trip he was about to make.

"Where are ye goin' to?"

"Beirut."

"Beirut? Sure, what you'll need for that place is a couple o' body bags."

John McCarthy, by contrast, had spent a comfortable English middle-class childhood, including years as a boarder at Haileybury.

However, he told us at the festival of his father's comment on his eventual release from captivity. "I'm sure public school must have prepared you for being locked up."

Brian Keenan, who had been teaching in Beirut, was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad on April 11, 1986. John McCarthy, who as a journalist was working there on a story about Keenan, was himself kidnapped a week later.

In his research he had come across a photo of Keenan and agreed with a colleague that "this hairy, wild-eyed fellow would probably be best avoided on a dark night, or in a small room".

When eventually they did meet up in grim circumstances, after a spell in solitary, there were adjustments that needed to be made in the cause of vital comradeship.

"At the start," said McCarthy, "I couldn't understand a word he said. Eventually, I asked if he could stop sounding like Gerry Adams, or Ian Paisley. Okay, he said, as long as you stop sounding like effing Prince Charles."

Tommy Sands reminded them and the audience of the concern for their well-being back in Belfast and of concerts to demonstrate support.

Dee McElroy came on stage to sing the song he'd written at the time, including the lines:

"When I dream, I'm free ...

My body's bound, but my soul is free."

Keenan told the audience he knew nothing of this support, living in what they called "limbo land", cut off from outside news. In their shared cell, they had to learn to respect different ways in which each of them chose to deal with the their fears, their depression, their resentment at being held.

Brian Keenan displayed anger and defiance which risked and often resulted in physical beatings.

As he put it, "we were not going to disappear from the world in a whisper, not for that bunch". In the words of the American hostage Terry Anderson, "Brian's message was 'I hate you', which of course got him special treatment from time to time. Still, my approach was to try and negotiate conditions - and that got me nowhere at all."

There was much talk about the captors, who were their only contacts with the system which was depriving them of their freedom. They gave them nicknames, names which offer clues as to their attitudes and behaviour. "The Grim Reaper, Joker, Jeeves, the Brothers Kalashnikov."

They described them to us as young men of limited education, whose worldview was conditioned by religious and political leaders. "They had been suddenly empowered in that dark hole in the ground and they could get very nasty."

And yet, as months and years went by, "they began," said John McCarthy, "to identify with us. Our refusal to be humiliated began to penetrate them."

There was an extraordinary story of their response to the hostages' request to be unshackled from the chains that linked them to their cell's wall. They told the hostages that the chains were "for their security".

"For our security. How?"

"Because without chains you would try to escape. Then we would have to shoot you. But if you are chained, you are safe, you are secure."

Terry Anderson spoke of having to deal with a kind of fatalism, "an inability to effect any kind of change", which he compared with that of a powerless three-year-old child.

But none of them was alone. John McCarthy spoke of being awake once watching his fellow prisoners sleep, thinking, as cockroaches crawled around him, "of each one's utter frailty and how we needed to face it together".

They were not to be released together. Brian Keenan was first, in 1990, John McCarthy and Terry Anderson the following year. But they were reunited last weekend by the creator of Rostrevor's first Literary Festival, William Graham, a former political correspondent.

An absorbed audience laughed at their jokes, many of them black humour, listened in concentrated silence to some of the grimmer details of their suffering, applauded their accounts of how they refused to give in.

At the end, 200 people rose as one for a standing ovation. On stage, the three former hostages, who had been reliving the darkest years of their lives, and had done so together for the first time in decades, turned to each other and locked themselves in an embrace.

It looked like confirmation of something Brian Keenan had said earlier.

"I came home with more than they took from me."

  • Denis Tuohy is a former BBC journalist

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