Journalist kept hostage for five years tells remarkable life story at Peterborough Cathedral

The talk at the cathedral
The talk at the cathedral
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The Annual Nave Dinner for charity took place at Peterborough Cathedral on Friday with diners enjoying fine summer weather after all the rain of previous days, excellent food and wine, and all set in the sumptuous surroundings of the 900-year old centrepiece of the city.

Guest speaker for the evening was John McCarthy, the journalist who, in April 1986, aged 29, was abducted while reporting on the war in Beirut, Lebanon, and kept prisoner by Islamic Jihad for five years, before eventually being released in August 1991.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

Addressing the Bishop of Peterborough, Donald Allister, and The Very Reverend Christopher Dalliston, Dean of Peterborough, as well as their assembled dinner guests, Mr McCarthy enthralled his audience with the story of his exploits.

“The irony was that I’d actually been on my way to Beirut airport to leave on the day when I was captured,” he explained. “Several other foreign journalists had been snatched over the previous weeks, and my boss had said to me ‘John, I think it’s time we got you out of here’.

“I was sitting in the car thinking about getting back to England, seeing my girlfriend, phoning my mum and dad, when suddenly another car raced past us, slammed on its brakes and screeched to a halt, completely blocking the road.

“I can remember being in the front passenger seat with a couple of colleagues in the back and none of us said a word, we just sat there watching as the doors of this car opened and a very big, tall, young guy with a big bushy beard got out; and then I saw the machine gun.

“Initially I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me, but as it dawned on me that this was for real the sheer terror of not knowing what they would do with me was very frightening indeed.

“I was hooded and then driven across the city, before being hauled out and dragged down into what I thought was a cellar.

“I was chained up and always blindfolded whenever any of the guards came in. I literally had no idea what was going to happen to me – and being their ‘pawn’ for the next five years as it turned out meant that very often you had to live literally minute by minute.

“The extraordinary thing of it was the terrible tedium, interspersed with crazy moments when they came rushing in the cell, shouting, screaming at each other and at me, and all the time I had no idea if each moment would be my last."

After months spent in dark, sweltering, solitary confinement, John was joined by fellow writer Brian Keenan.

“After Brian joined me in the cell things did become much more tolerable, although we knew virtually nothing of our captors, only that they were called Islamic Jihad, nor did we know why they had kept us or what they intended to eventually do with us.

“With each passing event in the outside world – of which we knew nothing of course – our captors would panic again, there would be a lot of shouting and we were moved several times, always blindfolded, to other locations.

“A person can very easily lose all sense of perspective under such circumstances, but luckily Brian and I were together for the next four years so we literally told each other everything that had happened to us in our lives, and then, when we ran out of stories from the real world we would amuse ourselves by making stories up.

“That was what kept us sane. Sometimes we would get books – but not very often – so would simply talk, and talk and talk, making up silly games to try to keep the fear, the uncertainty and the boredom at bay.”

During the time that John and Brian were captured John’s then girlfriend Jill Morell kept a tireless and effective campaign going for his release.

In 1987 the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie sent his envoy, Terry Waite, to Lebanon in the hope that he might be able to negotiate a release of John, Brian and two other captives.

Unfortunately, Terry was captured himself, and he too was held by Islamic Jihad from 1987 until 1991.

“I never gave up hope”, John added. “I think there were times when each of us had moments where we were down, there were dark moments of frustration like you get when your computer crashes and you need to get something done – it’s that sort of a feeling of momentary, temporary hopelessness.

“You just go into a ‘blue-black-funk’ and close down literally, and when you’re like that the others captured with you leave you alone for a couple of days and give you the space that you need to drag yourself back out of it again.

“Somehow I always seemed to find the energy and the optimism to get going again, but of course it was the company of each other that really kept us all from losing it completely.

“There most definitely was a sense of responsibility to the others who were there in this with you, but also a very genuine sense of responsibility to the people who we’d all left back at home.”

Brian was eventually released in August 1990. Another year passed, by which time John had been held captive for five years; then in the summer of 1991 he heard that the group were intending to release an American and a British hostage.

“We expected American Terry Anderson to be released as he’d been held the longest, and a 77-year old former RAF Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot called Jackie Mann to also go, if for no other reason than on humanitarian grounds because he was old.” John explained.

“Suddenly, one of the guards came in and started to undo my leg chains, and Terry gave me a hug because he’d twigged it was me that they were letting go.

“We said our 'good lucks', 'hope to see you soon’ and passed on love to families and friends, and before I knew what was happening I was being driven back to Beirut.

“I was put into an apartment for two days, given clothes, shoes, a watch, a wash and a shave – it was all very surreal and quite weird to be honest. And all the time I was endlessly thinking it could all go so horribly wrong and I would be back there in the cell with Terry and the others.

“It was there that I met Terry Waite and we were taken to see the leaders of Islamic Jihad who explained to me that I had been chosen as their ‘envoy’ to take a message personally to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Pérez de Cuéllar.

“The day after that I was released, handed over to the Syrian officials who passed me onto the British military intelligence people at the Consulate in Damascus for a de-briefing, with a mission and indeed a letter to take to the UN.

“I remember it all being such a mad day. I was driven to Damascus by this general in his car, and having been herded around, terrified and uncomfortable for years in the boots of cars, to suddenly sit in the front seat of his open-top Mercedes sports car was very surreal for me.

“And then, when I got there, my dad and my brother who had flown in with the RAF were there to meet me with my boss from London for this rather remarkable reunion in the garden of the British ambassador’s residence, before flying back to England.”

John has forgiven his captors, and even returned to war-free Lebanon many times picking up his career as a journalist and working to produce several documentaries about the country and the people he now feels he has a unique insight into.

On one such trip in 2004, however, he had an uncomfortable reminder of his past: “I was in Baalbek, Lebanon, interviewing a local journalist who was talking about the time of war there, and we were strolling through the city pointing out certain buildings and sites.

“As we crossed onto a roundabout I noticed that these three cars, a jeep and a Mercedes and another car, were circling the roundabout not once, twice but three times, round and around they went.

“Each time they circled us they got slower and slower until on the third circuit they finally stopped 100m or so away from where we were filming.

“All the cars had blacked-out windows. When they stopped the windows on the Mercedes slowly started to open and come down, and so I said to my journalist friend who I was interviewing ‘have you noticed those three cars over there?’

“He looked over and said slowly ‘yes, I think those are your friends come to have a look at you’, and I said ‘what!’, and he said ‘it’s okay, we’re fine, they just want to see how you are doing after all this time!’.

“Apparently the producers had already contacted the leaders of Hezbollah, and as it turned out we were not only fine but this time actually under their protection ironically.

“Inside the darkened car I could see a few hidden faces, and then the windows went back up and they drove off – but it was a hair-raising moment for a few seconds to say the very least.”

john spoke for a little over half an hour and then guests were given a chance to win exclusive prizes at an auction hosted by celebrity auctioneer David Palmer.

All the money raised from the Annual Nave Dinner at Peterborough Cathedral goes towards the upkeep of the building for repairs and essential maintenance, but also towards learning and education exhibitions such as the forthcoming ‘Gaia’ experience - a touring artwork of a 7m diameter Earth lit from the inside which will be on show from August 19 to September 15,