Captive of conscience
You are in:surefish > culture > Greenbelt 06
Date: August, 2006


Norman Kember

Photo: Stefan Metzler

 


Suzanne Elvidge listened to peace activist turned hostage Norman Kember at the Greenbelt festival.

In the huge venue of Centaur, Norman Kember (interviewed by Lucy Winkett) was a small but determined figure on the stage.

In November 2005, Norman Kember was kidnapped in Iraq with three other peace activists and held for 118 days, until he was rescued by the SAS.

Background

Norman Kember is a lifelong pacifist, and was a conscientious objector in 1952 for his National Service. He became involved in Christian peacemaker groups, including writing literature, focusing on making it readable and accessible. He is a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a peacemaking organization focused on reducing violence and protecting human rights in conflict zones.

He explained that being a Christian and a pacifist have both given him very high standards, and this meant that he had to do something. After hearing peacemaker teams, he investigated their work and decided to go to Iraq. This was to see how peacemaker groups worked, and to speak with Iraqis, but he did admit that it had a little to do with proving that in his seventies he wasn't past it!

Confinement

Once in Iraq, a trip supposed to last ten days, he visited an isolated mosque, and was forced out of the car at gunpoint, with his American colleague Tom Fox, and Canadians Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden.

He was driven to 'house 1' and then moved to 'house 2' with Tom Fox, where he was told that the Canadians would be released first, with their release after a week. However, the Canadians were then brought to house 2. During this period of captivity, they were told that they would be released one at a time, and Tom Fox was taken.

The remaining captives were later told that this was to put pressure on the government, and that he remained fine.

In house 2, the four men spent most of their time in a windowed room 10 by 15 feet, with a row of patio chairs against the wall and a box over the light, along a pale blue Armitage Shanks toilet and washbasin and with bizarre oddments such as a football, a hostess trolley and a sweet tin.

They spent around 12 hours a day sitting, handcuffed and chained, and were 'put to bed' on futons at 10 pm, still chained.

They named their four captors 'Medicine Man', who would interpret, 'Uncle', Nephew' and 'Junior'.

Coping strategies

The four men were allowed twenty minutes exercise a day and spent time in daily worship and bible study, despite having no bible.

Having to create their own entertainment, they played noughts and crosses on cardboard using socks, and played patience with home-made cards, made from the inserts from the packaging of their Christmas gifts from their captors (underpants, sock, a jacket and jogging trousers — Norman has kept his as a macabre souvenir).

They also created a snakes and ladders game incorporating things that happened in captivity — ladders included shaving, a Christmas cake, killing mosquitoes, snakes included times without electricity. They were also given films to watch, from Zorro to a two-DVD set of the life of Jesus.

However, the nights were the hardest, and despair crept in, and the men coped by living just from day to day. One of Mr Kember's coping strategies was to 'switch off', not speaking until midday.

Release

Woken by banging on the door, Norman Kember and two of his colleagues were dramatically rescued by the SAS. In the hour-long presentation, this was the one time that Mr Kember's voice broke.

He was taken in a Humvee to the green zone where he was checked out and taken to the British Embassy. There was a lot of media coverage about the the pacifist rescued by the SAS — Mr Kember recognizes the irony of this but said 'that is the way that life is'. There were also criticisms that he hadn't said 'thank you' but this has been refuted.

At home

Arrival back in the UK was very emotional for him, especially as he only found out on his release that Tom Fox had been murdered. His rescuers wanted him to go for trauma counseling but he felt that would be too traumatic!

He read a statement on his arrival at Heathrow. Initially, the press was kept away, but when he arrived home the road was crammed with TV cameras.

Norman Kember was criticized about putting others' lives at risk. Was it worth it? He says that they made some great links with people in Iraq. CPT has repeatedly said that it does not want violence used to release captives.

So would he go again — yes, if his wife will let him! In some ways, he feels that the ordeal was harder for her than for him.

Greenbelt index