Norman Kember talks about life beyond his Iraq kidnap ordeal

By staff writers
June 7, 2006

Norman Kember talks about life beyond his Iraq kidnap ordeal

-07/06/06

Norman Kember, the 74-year old peace activist whose kidnapping with three colleagues in Baghdad catapulted the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams from obscurity to global media exposure, joined the groupís UK supporters earlier this week to discuss both his experience and the future work of CPT.

Dr Kember, a retired radiation physicist and college professor, attended the second day of a British Christian Peacemaker Teams gathering for members and supporters held at the informal Just Church and Soul Space centre in multi-religious Bradford, northern England, from 4-5 June 2006.

He said that since his release in March 2006, along with Canadians Jim Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, his priority had been to spend time with his wife and family. But he acknowledged the continuing media curiosity, and added that though this sometimes made him uncomfortable, he was trying to balance personal needs with responding to widespread interest in Christian peace work.

He said he was greatly touched that Muslim friends said they would be ìhonouredî by his presence at the forthcoming Islam Expo (6-9 July 2006) at Alexandra Palace, and he expressed gratitude and surprise at the degree of support for the kidnapped CPT workers throughout the Islamic world, and for the work of Muslim Association of Britain envoy Anas Altikriti ñ who he will meet again when he speaks in Scotland.

Describing himself as ìa very atypical Christian Peacemaker Teams personî, because he only made three days of a short exposure trip before he was taken hostage by a militant group outside a Sunni mosque, Dr Kember talked about what had led him to go to Iraq and the experience of captivity and release.

CPT volunteers, who take part in violence reduction activities, accompany civilians in conflict zones, work with local religious groups and NGOs, and engage in human rights monitoring, are recruited at three levels ñ as members of delegations (usually a ten-day exposure visit), reservists (short-term workers) and full-time (long-term) members.

Dr Kember confirmed that he had been asked ìa thousand timesî about hostile media allegations of ingratitude towards the soldiers who released three of the four men from captivity, in the end non-violently. The fourth, American Quaker Tom Fox, had tragically been killed.

He said he thought the misunderstanding had initially arisen because his very first response to an immediate media request for a statement, one approved by a diplomat, had simply been to say that he was well and looking forward to being re-united with his family.

He said: ìI had thanked the men when they freed usÖ. And I had a pleasant journey back on the plane with head of the SAS unit. I had no idea that my very first words would be interpreted this wayÖ for what I had apparently not said.î

He continued: ìWhen I arrived in Britain I made a clear statement of thanks, but some people were still unhappy that I also said this did not mean I thought there was a military solution to Iraq.î

Christian Peacemaker Teams itself made a statement of thanks later on the day of the release, after they had spoken to the men and found out what had happened. But by this time the allegations of ingratitude had been widely circulated, and were stoked by an interview on Channel 4 News the next day with the head of the British Army ñ who was subsequently shown to have been unaware of what had happened.

In a talk full of good humour and self-deprecation in spite of his ordeal, Dr Kember described to Christian Peacemaker Teamsí UK supporters his personal journey as a Christian peacemaker ñ beginning with his conscientious objection to national service in 1948.

He had been influenced a great deal, he said, by Dietrich Bonhoefferís powerful book on the implications of Jesusí Sermon on the Mount, ëThe Cost of Discipleshipí. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian, pastor and teacher who was executed for treason by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.

ìI realised that to call yourself a Christian is setting yourself an impossibly high standardî, he explained ñ saying that his decision to go to Iraq had partly been taken because he felt that in attending demonstrations and writing pamphlets about peace he had ìtaken the easy pathî and needed to explore the practical vocation of peacemaking in the face of conflict.

Dr Kember said that while in Iraq he had visited a power station, had seen the very meagre conditions of a radiotherapy hospital, and had joined a group talking with a local Shia cleric. CPT has sought to encourage disputatious factions to talk with each other, and has also helped set up a Muslim Peacemaker Team.

He explained that since he had returned to Britain he had been introduced to two groups of Iraqis, more than he had managed to meet on the ground before he was snatched from outside a remote mosque, ironically.

Though Christian Peacemaker Teams had prepared the visit well in advance, Dr Kember has publicly said that he thinks it was ìa mistakeî ñ and the events leading up to the kidnap have already played an influential role in CPTís discussion about the future of its work in Iraq.

He good-humouredly remarked that ìI went because of the nine incident-free delegations to Iraq since 2002î and stressed that he continued to support the work of CPT ñ staying on in Bradford to participate in two strategy sessions for the UK network.

He said that UNHCR and Red Cross staff had acknowledged the significance of the work of CPT, one of the only groups to operate outside the safe ëgreen zoneí in Baghdad as the insurgency and sectarian violence has worsened following the 2003 US-led invasion.

Dr Kember commented that he had since spoken to one man, imprisoned by the brutal Saddam Hussein dictatorship, who regretfully told him that life was now more dangerous and difficult in Iraq.

At present Christian Peacemaker Teams has two people inside the country, whose whereabouts are confidential for security reasons. It hopes to maintain work in the country, but says that Baghdad is not an appropriate venue at the moment ñ not least because of the recent publicity.

Norman Kember showed the CPT UK group a drawing of the room the men were held in. Bizarrely it featured a ëhostess trolleyí, and appeared to have been a hospitality residence at some point, though it had become run down.

Like Jim Loney recently, he talked of the ìsmall kindnessesî that accompanied routine deprivations and being chained up for 12 hours each day. These included a Christmas cake, toothbrushes (after weeks of not having them), a two-part video of the life of Jesus, and the film Zorro (which he found ìvery violentî).

Though his reading glasses were taken away from him, Dr Kember, like his compatriots, was given a notebook ñ and while Loney and Sooden made detailed notes of what happened in captivity, he chose to use a ësnakes and laddersí drawing as a coded way of recalling the highs and lows, plus a map of France to recall positive memories from the past.

Speaking of Tom Fox, who was the one of the four CPT volunteers killed ñ in circumstances which are still not clear ñ Norman Kember told Ekklesia that he thought the kidnappers ìnever got [understood] himî. This was perhaps because he was American and also ex-military. Indeed Fox was carrying his old army identity papers when he was kidnapped. This had helped him in the past, ìbut not nowî.

Dr Kember said that although there were moments when he considered whether he might end his life if he had the chance, he actually retained a belief that he would be freed.

In terms of personal survival, he joked that ìBaptist spirituality, with its [exuberant] songs, isnít very appropriate for a kidnap situationî, and though the men reflected on the Bible from memory he confessed that as a form of devotion he was ìnot good at meditation, and [I] didnít improve during those four months.î

But Kember said he was very moved by the enormous amount of prayer and goodwill that had been shared by those working for his release. And he was pleased to have been able to write private thank-you notes to the ìexcellentî diplomatic staff and the SAS.

Dr Kember is currently writing up his experience in a form which may see the light of day in book form. But he is also doing some public speaking. He was interviewed again by Premier Christian Radio in May, following a high profile BBC programme with Fergal Keane. He is also talking at the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival and has been invited to speak at the Alexandra Palace 2006 Muslim Expo.

Simon Barrow for Ekklesia.

[Also on Ekklesia: UK Christian Peacemaker Teams meet to plan future 06/06/06; Christian Peacemaker Teams remain in Iraq with new plan; Briefing on Christian Peacemaker Teams; Christian peacemaker Norman Kember to give first major interview to the BBC ; Christian peacemakers can make a difference, Vatican Radio told; Briefing on media accusations against Christian Peacemaker Teams; Archive of comment and features on Christian Peacemaking; Christian peacemaker Tom Fox killed in Iraq; Iraqi, Muslim and Palestinian support for peace hostages; Getting in the Way: Stories From Christian Peacemaker Teams; Christian peacemakers report killings of women and children by US; Joy as Christian Peacemakers are freed in Iraq; Baghdad demo planned for Christian peacemaker hostages; Christians defend Iraq non-violence tactics against critics; Peace workers hold a key to Iraq solution, says think-tank; ëPeacenikí initiative will fund peacemakers to enter hotspots; Colonel Collins' attack on Kember misplaced, say Christian peacemakers;Churches urged to consider more radical peacemaking following Iraq; Kember still evaluating Christian peacemakers' role in Iraq; Peacemaker vigils in Washington and Toronto focus on Iraq policy; Clarification sought from army chief on false Kember snub allegation; Religious leaders call for end to detention without trial in Iraq; Military expert says peacemakers didnít imperil soldiers; What Norman said - from Iraq captive Kember's BBC interview; Al-Jazeera releases film of Iraq peace hostages; Think-tank questions 'ungrateful peacemakers' media allegations; The Simon Barrow column; Press briefing on released Christian Peacemakers; Christian peacemakers demand entry to Guantanamo Bay]

Norman Kember talks about life beyond his Iraq kidnap ordeal

-07/06/06

Norman Kember, the 74-year old peace activist whose kidnapping with three colleagues in Baghdad catapulted the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams from obscurity to global media exposure, joined the groupís UK supporters earlier this week to discuss both his experience and the future work of CPT.

Dr Kember, a retired radiation physicist and college professor, attended the second day of a British Christian Peacemaker Teams gathering for members and supporters held at the informal Just Church and Soul Space centre in multi-religious Bradford, northern England, from 4-5 June 2006.

He said that since his release in March 2006, along with Canadians Jim Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, his priority had been to spend time with his wife and family. But he acknowledged the continuing media curiosity, and added that though this sometimes made him uncomfortable, he was trying to balance personal needs with responding to widespread interest in Christian peace work.

He said he was greatly touched that Muslim friends said they would be ìhonouredî by his presence at the forthcoming Islam Expo (6-9 July 2006) at Alexandra Palace, and he expressed gratitude and surprise at the degree of support for the kidnapped CPT workers throughout the Islamic world, and for the work of Muslim Association of Britain envoy Anas Altikriti ñ who he will meet again when he speaks in Scotland.

Describing himself as ìa very atypical Christian Peacemaker Teams personî, because he only made three days of a short exposure trip before he was taken hostage by a militant group outside a Sunni mosque, Dr Kember talked about what had led him to go to Iraq and the experience of captivity and release.

CPT volunteers, who take part in violence reduction activities, accompany civilians in conflict zones, work with local religious groups and NGOs, and engage in human rights monitoring, are recruited at three levels ñ as members of delegations (usually a ten-day exposure visit), reservists (short-term workers) and full-time (long-term) members.

Dr Kember confirmed that he had been asked ìa thousand timesî about hostile media allegations of ingratitude towards the soldiers who released three of the four men from captivity, in the end non-violently. The fourth, American Quaker Tom Fox, had tragically been killed.

He said he thought the misunderstanding had initially arisen because his very first response to an immediate media request for a statement, one approved by a diplomat, had simply been to say that he was well and looking forward to being re-united with his family.

He said: ìI had thanked the men when they freed usÖ. And I had a pleasant journey back on the plane with head of the SAS unit. I had no idea that my very first words would be interpreted this wayÖ for what I had apparently not said.î

He continued: ìWhen I arrived in Britain I made a clear statement of thanks, but some people were still unhappy that I also said this did not mean I thought there was a military solution to Iraq.î

Christian Peacemaker Teams itself made a statement of thanks later on the day of the release, after they had spoken to the men and found out what had happened. But by this time the allegations of ingratitude had been widely circulated, and were stoked by an interview on Channel 4 News the next day with the head of the British Army ñ who was subsequently shown to have been unaware of what had happened.

In a talk full of good humour and self-deprecation in spite of his ordeal, Dr Kember described to Christian Peacemaker Teamsí UK supporters his personal journey as a Christian peacemaker ñ beginning with his conscientious objection to national service in 1948.

He had been influenced a great deal, he said, by Dietrich Bonhoefferís powerful book on the implications of Jesusí Sermon on the Mount, ëThe Cost of Discipleshipí. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian, pastor and teacher who was executed for treason by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.

ìI realised that to call yourself a Christian is setting yourself an impossibly high standardî, he explained ñ saying that his decision to go to Iraq had partly been taken because he felt that in attending demonstrations and writing pamphlets about peace he had ìtaken the easy pathî and needed to explore the practical vocation of peacemaking in the face of conflict.

Dr Kember said that while in Iraq he had visited a power station, had seen the very meagre conditions of a radiotherapy hospital, and had joined a group talking with a local Shia cleric. CPT has sought to encourage disputatious factions to talk with each other, and has also helped set up a Muslim Peacemaker Team.

He explained that since he had returned to Britain he had been introduced to two groups of Iraqis, more than he had managed to meet on the ground before he was snatched from outside a remote mosque, ironically.

Though Christian Peacemaker Teams had prepared the visit well in advance, Dr Kember has publicly said that he thinks it was ìa mistakeî ñ and the events leading up to the kidnap have already played an influential role in CPTís discussion about the future of its work in Iraq.

He good-humouredly remarked that ìI went because of the nine incident-free delegations to Iraq since 2002î and stressed that he continued to support the work of CPT ñ staying on in Bradford to participate in two strategy sessions for the UK network.

He said that UNHCR and Red Cross staff had acknowledged the significance of the work of CPT, one of the only groups to operate outside the safe ëgreen zoneí in Baghdad as the insurgency and sectarian violence has worsened following the 2003 US-led invasion.

Dr Kember commented that he had since spoken to one man, imprisoned by the brutal Saddam Hussein dictatorship, who regretfully told him that life was now more dangerous and difficult in Iraq.

At present Christian Peacemaker Teams has two people inside the country, whose whereabouts are confidential for security reasons. It hopes to maintain work in the country, but says that Baghdad is not an appropriate venue at the moment ñ not least because of the recent publicity.

Norman Kember showed the CPT UK group a drawing of the room the men were held in. Bizarrely it featured a ëhostess trolleyí, and appeared to have been a hospitality residence at some point, though it had become run down.

Like Jim Loney recently, he talked of the ìsmall kindnessesî that accompanied routine deprivations and being chained up for 12 hours each day. These included a Christmas cake, toothbrushes (after weeks of not having them), a two-part video of the life of Jesus, and the film Zorro (which he found ìvery violentî).

Though his reading glasses were taken away from him, Dr Kember, like his compatriots, was given a notebook ñ and while Loney and Sooden made detailed notes of what happened in captivity, he chose to use a ësnakes and laddersí drawing as a coded way of recalling the highs and lows, plus a map of France to recall positive memories from the past.

Speaking of Tom Fox, who was the one of the four CPT volunteers killed ñ in circumstances which are still not clear ñ Norman Kember told Ekklesia that he thought the kidnappers ìnever got [understood] himî. This was perhaps because he was American and also ex-military. Indeed Fox was carrying his old army identity papers when he was kidnapped. This had helped him in the past, ìbut not nowî.

Dr Kember said that although there were moments when he considered whether he might end his life if he had the chance, he actually retained a belief that he would be freed.

In terms of personal survival, he joked that ìBaptist spirituality, with its [exuberant] songs, isnít very appropriate for a kidnap situationî, and though the men reflected on the Bible from memory he confessed that as a form of devotion he was ìnot good at meditation, and [I] didnít improve during those four months.î

But Kember said he was very moved by the enormous amount of prayer and goodwill that had been shared by those working for his release. And he was pleased to have been able to write private thank-you notes to the ìexcellentî diplomatic staff and the SAS.

Dr Kember is currently writing up his experience in a form which may see the light of day in book form. But he is also doing some public speaking. He was interviewed again by Premier Christian Radio in May, following a high profile BBC programme with Fergal Keane. He is also talking at the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival and has been invited to speak at the Alexandra Palace 2006 Muslim Expo.

Simon Barrow for Ekklesia.

[Also on Ekklesia: UK Christian Peacemaker Teams meet to plan future 06/06/06; Christian Peacemaker Teams remain in Iraq with new plan; Briefing on Christian Peacemaker Teams; Christian peacemaker Norman Kember to give first major interview to the BBC ; Christian peacemakers can make a difference, Vatican Radio told; Briefing on media accusations against Christian Peacemaker Teams; Archive of comment and features on Christian Peacemaking; Christian peacemaker Tom Fox killed in Iraq; Iraqi, Muslim and Palestinian support for peace hostages; Getting in the Way: Stories From Christian Peacemaker Teams; Christian peacemakers report killings of women and children by US; Joy as Christian Peacemakers are freed in Iraq; Baghdad demo planned for Christian peacemaker hostages; Christians defend Iraq non-violence tactics against critics; Peace workers hold a key to Iraq solution, says think-tank; ëPeacenikí initiative will fund peacemakers to enter hotspots; Colonel Collins' attack on Kember misplaced, say Christian peacemakers;Churches urged to consider more radical peacemaking following Iraq; Kember still evaluating Christian peacemakers' role in Iraq; Peacemaker vigils in Washington and Toronto focus on Iraq policy; Clarification sought from army chief on false Kember snub allegation; Religious leaders call for end to detention without trial in Iraq; Military expert says peacemakers didnít imperil soldiers; What Norman said - from Iraq captive Kember's BBC interview; Al-Jazeera releases film of Iraq peace hostages; Think-tank questions 'ungrateful peacemakers' media allegations; The Simon Barrow column; Press briefing on released Christian Peacemakers; Christian peacemakers demand entry to Guantanamo Bay]

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