Ten years after Iraq: Norman Kember reflects

By Norman Kember
March 25, 2016

Ten years ago, Norman Kember,  the peace activist taken hostage in Iraq, returned home after being freed by SAS troops.  We are very grateful to Norman for providing us with his reflections on his experiences.

I had originally considered entitling this piece of writing ‘Je ne regrette rien’ but then some regrets came pushing their way into my mind.

It is 10 years since I went to Iraq on a short visit with the Christian Peacemaker Teams to discover how they operated in a conflict area. The 10 day visit increased to three months when I was kidnapped by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. They gave me plenty of time to learn about the operations of CPT in discussion with fellow kidnappees Jim Loney and Tom Fox who as full CPT members had ample experience of work with CPT  

First let me deal with the regrets:

I do regret the time of anguish that this four month absence gave my wife, who, in spite of assurances from the Foreign Office  and the ministrations of officers of the police family  support team, did not know if I was alive or dead. Perhaps I have not shown sufficient gratitude to the family and friends who came to stand by her and shield her from the worst images that were broadcast by my captors. Then there are the hundreds of unanswered letters and cards of support that the family received during my captivity while the storms of prayers in churches of all denominations are another cause for thankfulness. I did acknowledge these prayers on all occasions when I spoke at churches but was embarrassed  by those who found my release an instant example of the effectiveness of prayer. I had to remind them of the death of Tom Fox who was also the object of world-wide petitions.

I also regret that I did not make more of the opportunities that I had to make closer contacts with Muslim communities in London and in my home area of Harrow. I was invited to visit and speak at some Muslim occasions but it was more comfortable to meet and talk in church premises. However I fear that the majority of Christians are shy of making approaches that would establish common ground in faith, practice and ethics. I have now retired to Weymouth in Dorset where there are no interfaith connections although I share the outlook of Rabbi Abraham Heschel  (1907-1972)  "In this aeon, diversity of religions is the will of God."

Two people were very helpful in my absence. My son-in-law spent much time looking for clues on the internet and the minister of my church, the Rev Robert Gardiner, who organised the church in prayer and acted as liaison between the family, the Foreign Office and the media who threatened to invade the family home. He says that he never had such a clear vision of mission.

Although the CPT advised me on release to travel to their base in Chicago for trauma counselling, I feel that I have coped well without that exercise, probably because of my advanced years and strong family and church support. While writing this, I have lain awake one night recalling some of the discomforts and depressions of those months, particularly when I feared that the two others were to be released and I left alone. But then I also recall the exhilarating moments of release and the return to family and home. I do not feel that there is a black, Iraq-shaped hole in my psyche.

The benefit I obtained was in meeting people, first the caring staff of the Embassies in Baghdad and Kuwait and then opportunities to talk about Christian Peacemaking. I was not media-savvy enough to make full use of some of the interviews. I recall a Hard Talk programme when I did not challenge the interrogator’s claim that nonviolence as a peacemaking  technique was of negligible political significance. Perhaps the book I wrote  about my experience influenced a few readers apart from those who share my ethical viewpoint (although it has certainly done little for my  bank balance since I have yet to reach sales that match the publishers advance).

I have tried to keep in touch with Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden with whom I spent thise four months, while I took an opportunity to remember Tom Fox by contributing plants to a peace garden.  I learn that a Canadian company plan to include our story in a TV series about kidnapping so that we are not altogether forgotten.

While I was very busy for about one year after my misadventure – engaged in writing and giving talks – I now feel a little flat because for family reasons I have had to withdraw from active peace work. My conviction, commitment to the rightness of nonviolent peacemaking  is my raison d’etre - although I have to live with having been compromised by going to Iraq as a peacenik and coming out with the SAS. Although I continue to be grateful to the SAS for that rescue, I have been troubled to learn a little of the methods used to extract information from suspects. That information led to the storming of our urban fortress early that March morning.

However, I do not regret my decision to go with the CPT to Baghdad.

I am filled with sadness as I try to follow the subsequent story of the people of Iraq.

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© Norman Kember is a retired biophysicist and peace activist. He travelled to Iraq in November 2005 as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team. He and three others, James Loney, Harmeet Sooden, and Tom Fox were kidnapped by a militia group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade on November 26th 2005.  Tom Fox was killed on March 9th 2006, but the remaining hostages were rescued by the SAS on March 23rd 2006.

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