Tuesday 23 July 2019

Flashback 1990: Release of Brian Keenan

This weekend 25 years ago, Brian Keenan was released from captivity after a four-year kidnap ordeal in the hands of Islamic Jihad

Brian Keenan is handed over to Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerry Collins in Damascus, Syria
Brian Keenan is handed over to Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerry Collins in Damascus, Syria

Ger Siggins

It was 25 years ago this weekend that a Belfast man called Brian Keenan blinked in the glare of the camera flashes and made his first steps on Irish soil after four-and-a-half years being held captive by Islamic zealots in Beirut.

Keenan was one of 13 Western hostages being held at that time, and one of 96 held at various times in Lebanon from 1982-1992. At least eight of those died in captivity.

Keenan was born in east Belfast in 1950 and by the mid-1980s was lecturing in English in the American University in Beirut. A violent civil war was raging in Lebanon at the time, and Islamic extremists were also active.

He was caught up in this dangerous situation and on April 11, 1986 was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad, linked to Hezbollah. Six days later, a British TV reporter covering his kidnap, John McCarthy, was also taken. Three fellow employees of AUB were kidnapped and their bodies dumped just after Keenan was snatched.

Keenan was kept on his own for two months before he started sharing a cell with McCarthy. He was moved 15 times in all, to always unpleasant quarters with sparse rations and no protection from heat or cold.

As Keenan held both Irish and UK passports, the Dublin government was active in seeking his release, pursuing links via Iran and diplomatic channels. Keenan also had the benefit of a campaign by his sisters, Brenda Gillham and Elaine Spence, who doggedly insisted on keeping his name in the media and lobbying politicians.

Their efforts eventually bore fruit in August 1990 when Keenan was released.

"When the kidnappers came and took me out of that room with John and told me, 'You're going home,' I didn't believe them at first", he recalled. "And then, when I was finally convinced I was going home, that terrible dilemma. You can't go home because your mate's still locked up in there. And you can't not go home because your family's waiting for you."

Keenan was released into the custody of Syrian officials on August 24, and driven the two hours from Beirut to Damascus. He was questioned by Syrian intelligence for two days before Irish officials flew out to take him home. "When I got to the Dutch embassy when I was finally released, Irish officials and everyone were saying: 'Do you want anything?'" Keenan recalled. "And I'd heard these words so many times from my guards - 'Do you want anything?' And I said: 'Yes. An Irish coffee, a piece of chocolate cake and an ice cream.' I think I got the ice cream."

At 11.12pm on Saturday, August 25, Keenan landed in Dublin to be greeted by his sisters and a phalanx of politicians including Taoiseach Charles Haughey. He thanked them all in a brief news conference but asked reporters to save their questions for another day. "It's an understatement to say I'm glad to be home. It's where the heart is."

He was taken to the Mater Private where he found his weight had dropped by four stones. His mother Minnie visited him there but he soon discharged himself and refused psychiatric help. "If I have to find out something about myself, I'm going to be the one to do it," he said.

McCarthy was released a year later and the friends wrote a book together in 2000. Keenan is now married with two sons and is a full-time writer.

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