Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Keenan: I’d meet maniac kidnappers

How former hostage Brian would ‘have coffee’ with thugs if he came across them in Beirut

Gail Henderson from the Sunday Life talks to Brian Keenan who was held hostage in Beirut for 4 years
Gail Henderson from the Sunday Life talks to Brian Keenan who was held hostage in Beirut for 4 years

By Gail Henderson

Belfast author Brian Keenan has said he is willing to meet the men who held him captive in Beirut. The former teacher first returned to the country two years ago to make a BBC documentary and is planning another trip in the coming weeks.



But while he was there he sensed he was being watched.

“There are some spooky moments walking down the streets,” he said.

“It’s obvious you are a foreigner and people are watching you — it’s the silence and the ‘burningness’ of their eyes.

He added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of them in Beirut knew me and they might come over and and say ‘Mr Brian... I am Abed’.

“Sometimes the way people watch you makes you think does he really know me?”

Brian said he has thought about what would happen if he met the men who guarded him for four and a half years.

“I would take that cup of coffee with them,” he said.

If face to face with his most brutal captor, he knows exactly how he would begin.

He said: “If it was Sayeed, whom I hated, I would say ‘there are no frigging chains on me now — have you got a pair of boxing gloves?’

“It would be as a joke to off-load that anger about how he treated people. He was a very brutal man although I came to a kind of understanding about him.

“He clearly was insane — a very confused man mentally. He would be very brutal one day and come in the next day and kiss you on the top of the head.

“Whatever insanity I was going through that made it worse.”

Despite suffering at their hands Brian says he wishes them no harm.

“I genuinely feel no malice. I have no interest in vengeance

and I don’t wish the guys dead or anything bad on them — I don’t wish them anything.”

Brian, who was kidnapped in April 1986 and released in August 1990, also revealed:

l how he battled insanity;

l how during his imprisonment he regretted that he hadn’t become a father;

l the first time he got angry since his kidnapping was when he returned to the university campus where he taught; and

l he’s still fascinated by Lebanon and is currently writing a book about it.

Brian’s experience, which he told in his classic memoir An Evil Cradling, is well known.

His nightmare began on the morning of April 11 when he was bundled into a car as he walked to work at the American University of Beirut.

What followed was four and half years of brutality at the hands of his Islamic Jihad captors who chained, beat and blindfolded him.

The only escape from the horror was in his imagination.

He explained his way of dealing with the situation was “to go more insane that my mind was making me”.

But he fought to claw his way back to sanity.

“Sometimes I went so far it was difficult to get back. I had to put my hands out and touch the walls and feel the concrete and say to myself ‘this is where you are so forget about all this’.

“You have to come back to where you are or else your insanity is complete and you won’t ever come back.”

After the murders of his colleagues Peter Padfield and Leigh Douglas, who were kidnapped shortly before him, he constantly feared for his life.

“I heard them being executed and it wasn’t pleasant,” he said.

“There was always the question: who’s next?”

While living in captivity Brian was suddenly struck with regret that he didn’t have children.

“It was very strange for me because that was not on my agenda,” he said.

“I suddenly thought what if they shoot me? I was overwhelmed with this regret that I didn’t have kids and I thought I wouldn’t have them.”

Even after his release, mar

riage and children were not part of his plan and Brian initially lived alone in the west of Ireland as he became accustomed to a life of freedom.

“I just went out as a teacher and came back something else — the hero thing disturbs me still,” he said.

In 1993 he married Audrey Doyle, a physiotherapist who had helped nurse him.

They now live outside Dublin and have two sons, Jack, 11, and Cal, nine.

“I had taken the phone numbers and addresses of the nursing staff and doctors to send them a thank you card,” he recalled.

“I phoned Audrey up months and months after I was home. I was meeting friends and asked her if she wanted to come with

us — I needed the company of others on this first date!”

Audrey and the boys joined Brian in Lebanon while he was making the documentary Back to Beirut.

“I wanted the boys to play with Lebanese kids and swim in the sea and eat Lebanese food and understand that no place in itself is intrinsically evil,” he said.

The film, which showed Brian returning to the AUB campus and the Turkish villa where he lived, has just been nominated for an award at this year’s Beirut Film Festival.

“When I walked back on campus it was the first time I felt angry about what happened. I realised how much I enjoyed teaching there,” he said.

“I felt like going in and saying any chance of getting a job?”

Brian was surprised by the anger but it subsided when he visited his former home.

“I went back to the old Turkish villa where I had lived on Rue d’Amerique and I felt really sad about what had happened to me because that had been stolen away,” he sad.

“I could have had a happy time there.”

Brian retains a strong connection with the country and is currently writing a book about it.

“People suspect I go back to exorcise ghosts — I don’t,” he said.

“The writer Elias Khoury said there are stories littering the streets of Beirut if people care to pick them up.

“I thought ‘I wonder if I could do that?’.”

He’s also written a childhood memoir called “I’ll Tell Me Ma’ which has been described by one critic as ‘spirited and thoughtful, sensitive and robust’.

As well as having explored his past, Brian is hopeful for the future.

“I am anxious for my children as most people are but I have the ultimate faith that humanity will endure. It is always the best that endures.

“Jack and Cal have a sense of caring and a sense of justice and that makes me hopeful.”

I’ll Tell Me Ma: A Belfast Memoir by Brian Keenan is|published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99.

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