Norman Kember (Iraq)

“I worry that in my case forgiveness was too easy because it didn’t cost me anything”

Photography by Brian Moody

In November 2005, Norman Kember (then aged 74) travelled to Iraq with the international peace organisation, Christian Peacemaker Teams. Within days he had been taken hostage along with three other members of the group. By the time the SAS rescued them 117 days later, one member of their group, Tom Fox, had been murdered. Norman Kember lives in London and has since published a book about his experiences called ‘Hostage in Iraq.’

In 2005, as a life-long pacifist, I felt my peace-making was too easy, so I took up the challenge of going to Iraq and explaining to the Iraqi people I might meet that not everyone in the UK was their enemy. It never occurred to me that we’d be taken hostage because we were there in support of the Iraqi people but our kidnap was financially and politically motivated, and so unfortunately our pacifist position was of no interest to the kidnap group.

Even though the four men who minded us had guns and hand grenades, and kept us handcuffed day and night, we were never abused by them and came to appreciate that they had all suffered terribly due to the invasion of Iraq. A reluctant minder was, I’m sure, just doing it to earn money for his family. The only man who spoke English appeared once a fortnight with some blood pressure medicine for me – we called him Medicine Man. The most volatile of them we called Junior and he’d yell at me if I was too slow. They all got especially annoyed with Tom Fox because he seemed very withdrawn. When they took Tom away we were unaware until after our release that they’d murdered him . Tom Fox was a Quaker and probably killed because he was an American.

We also experienced small acts of kindness from our captors. After a month we were given toothbrushes, and then a notebook and pen. Just after at Christmas we were shown a DVD of the Life of Jesus in Arabic, and one of them brought us a fragrant rose from the garden. There was no way of telling how or when the ordeal would end so I kept sane by shutting my mind down. Each day I’d refuse to talk until noon and only after that we’d do some attempts at Bible study, say some prayers and tell each other our life stories.

People say I was compromised as a pacifist because I was rescued by the armed forces, and I do feel compromised but, then, I wasn’t going to sit in that kidnap room and say ‘I won’t come until you put your guns away’. I was very relieved to be released by the SAS even though the captain tore us off a strip for putting his men’s lives in danger. The big mistake I made was not to thank the SAS strongly enough in public. When I made my statement at the airport I said I hadn’t changed my belief that armed force was ineffective in the long-run but nevertheless I thanked the men who had rescued us. Perhaps not surprisingly, that was taken as a half-hearted thank you.

The people who had supported me and campaigned for my release were astounded at how quickly the media turned from having been generally supportive to being quite aggressive. Mostly I think the public thought we were idiots to go to Iraq in the first place and perhaps they were right. Certainly you could argue that the idea of having a national defence system based on non-violent peace-making is naïve and foolish. However, Christianity does have a long tradition of idiots – such as fools for Christ – and I’m not ashamed to be part of that tradition.

I’ve spoken about forgiveness often since my kidnap and many people rubbish the whole idea. I think the press particularly expect people like me to be angry and unforgiving but the truth is I have never felt any animosity towards my captors and have always found it far harder to forgive Blair and Bush because they had been warned of the consequences of a war on Iraq and have never repented.

I worry that in my case forgiveness is too easy because it hasn’t cost me anything. I think forgiveness should cost. For forgiveness to be really effective it requires some response on the part of the forgiven. If I were brave I’d fly to Baghdad and try and meet Medicine Man who I’ve been told is now in captivity. I’d want to tell him that I forgave him and I’d hope to hear that he was now prepared to do something for the greater good of Iraq.