Held hostage in the Middle East: the Maurice Graham story

At 4:45 a.m. in Kuwait City the sounds of gunfire began rattling through the streets outside the apartment where Maurice Graham and his family lived. It was August 2, 1990, and Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, had ordered an invasion of Kuwait.

The Grahams had moved to Kuwait that summer so that Maurice could serve as a pastor at a large Christian church in the capital. Their apartment was located on the church grounds; and unfortunately for them, the church was across the street from the parliament building, which was a central target during the attack.

There was nothing the Grahams could do. They had been instructed that, in the event of a conflict, they should shelter in place. Attempting to escape in the midst of a firefight was more dangerous than running the risk of being attacked in your home.

The sun came up and the shooting continued but Maurice remained calm, even when Iraqi soldiers kicked the door open and interrogated him. He assured the soldiers he was just an American pastor without any connections to the Kuwaiti government, hoping that would eliminate any of their interest in him. In little time, he would realize that his hopes were misguided.

Later that morning, another group of soldiers burst into the apartment, but this time, one of them pointed a machine gun at Maurice’s chest. Maurice’s heart was pounding as the soldier interrogated him and Maurice wondered if he was about to be killed. But his greatest concern was Laurie and the boys, who were upstairs huddled with five church custodians.

One of the two soldiers who went upstairs followed Laurie to a back room where the boys were. The soldier grabbed Laurie and began touching her inappropriately while Maurice’s son Aaron looked on, crying and praying that God would rescue them.

Laurie pleaded with the soldier to stop, pointed to Aaron crying, and made it clear that the boy was her son. To Laurie’s relief, the man backed away and went downstairs to join the other soldiers, who all left without doing further harm.

Maurice and Laurie didn’t have time to talk about what had happened. They had to figure out what to do next, which led to a heated discussion over whether to stay in place or flee in their car. After about ten minutes of arguing, they decided to go to the home of a diplomat who had urged them to come to his house.

When they stepped onto the driveway of their apartment, they discovered that two of the passenger windows of their car had been shot out. They also noticed that a bullet had gone into a hubcap but, to their amazement, the bullet only made it far enough through to press against the rubber of the tire without piercing it.

The Grahams managed to pack nine people (their family and the five church custodians) into their compact Mitsubishi Gallant and crept onto the street, where they immediately saw heavily armed Iraqi soldiers. They kept moving past soldiers, dead bodies, and abandoned cars, praying they wouldn’t be stopped.

Maurice describes the drive in his book, Prayers from the Desert: “Even though I looked right at them, they didn’t look at me. Miraculously, the soldiers didn’t pay any attention to us. It was as if they didn’t see us moving through the streets.” Or as Maurice put it when I talked to him, “God blinded the soldiers until we could get to the diplomat’s house.”

With the help of their diplomat friend, the Grahams found shelter behind the walls of the embassy along with 154 other people. It would’ve normally been a luxury to spend the night at the embassy; but under the circumstances, it was more like a glorified campground in a 130-degree desert with soldiers waiting outside to shoot if someone tried to leave.

People were eating rations of tuna, soup, rice, and turkey. The sleeping accommodations were, for the Grahams, sleeping side to side on the floor of a tiny office space. And there were dozens of children swarming around out of control, creating a low-grade feeling of chaos. None of the discomfort was helped by the gunfire nearby and the very real possibility that the Iraqis might break into the compound.

One night before bed, Aaron asked, “Dad, what would happen if the Iraqis came over the wall? What would we do?”

“There’s nothing Dad or anyone else can do,” Maurice said. “If they want to come across the wall, they can come across the wall. We’ll have to trust in the Lord that he will take care of us and give us safety.”

Maurice wasn’t just offering comfort and pastoral care to his family. In the midst of the tension, he and Laurie gathered believers for Bible studies and prayer meetings in the Ambassador’s residence, where there was a piano. Although they were grateful for the space, the informal services were oppressively hot, sweaty gatherings — a result of the Iraqis cutting off the electricity.

Over the next six weeks, the stress mounted as hostage negotiations resulted in some people being released while the Graham family and others were left behind. The Grahams accepted the fact that this could be home for the foreseeable future; but finally, after six weeks, they got the news that Laurie and the boys were being released. Maurice and a couple dozen others would stay behind.

When it came time for Maurice to say goodbye to his family, there was no time to properly hug each other and pray together. “In what seemed like an instant,” Maurice writes, “I was watching Laurie and the boys get into a van and then disappear down the road.” And while Maurice felt grateful, there was also a sense of abandonment and loneliness, which only grew in the weeks to come.

With each day, Maurice increasingly struggled with depression as it sunk in that this was indefinitely his home. The boredom was mind-numbing, and even when he received messages from Laurie through State Department cables, it wore on him. He says that when he read her upbeat notes “[i]t seemed like her life was going on, and I was just stuck in limbo at the compound.”

The most exciting things to happen were usually horrible ones: the periodic quake of bombs going off and the sounds of gunfire, especially when the gunfire involved people being executed. Otherwise, life was a cycle of sitting around, trying to stay occupied, killing time with his fellow hostages (this included fly killing competitions). It was also day after day after day of tuna and rice.

There were efforts to secure the release of the hostages, and President George H.W. Bush vowed that he would not allow Iraq to starve the Americans out of the embassy. But nothing concrete was materializing and Maurice was having to face the reality that they might end up dead from a bomb or an invasion before help came. He never imagined that an evacuation of biblical proportions was about to happen.

According to U.S. intelligence, Saddam Hussein was plagued by strange dreams, which Maurice learned about in conversations with a top official at the embassy. On December 7, 1990, three months after Maurice first came to the embassy, the official approached Maurice and handed him a piece of paper that had only one sentence on it: “Last night, Saddam Hussein had a dream. God troubled his spirit and he is going to release all the hostages.”

Maurice didn’t know what to think of it. U.S. officials had been trying for weeks to secure their release. It was hard to imagine a troubling dream would be any more successful than the efforts that were already being made. And yet, the next morning, the State Department confirmed it: Hussein had agreed to allow the hostages to be evacuated.

Maurice was shocked. The news harkened to another king — Nebuchadnezzar — who ruled over the same region 2,500 years before. That king had been troubled in a dream by God as well, and the interpretation provoked him to declare to the prophet Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). Maurice was in awe of God’s intervention and declared the same thing.

There are times where God intervenes in a heart-stopping, epic moment that stands as a testimony for years to come. But it’s often in the doldrums — the in-between times — where God does His deepest work. Surviving those seasons requires a different kind of faith. It’s the faith that clings to Jesus during drawn-out, torturous waiting when you don’t know if it’s ever going to end.

People suffer through years of health problems, live in anguish over a wayward child, or wrestle through the insecurity that comes with months of unemployment. There are broken marriages (or an unmet desire for marriage), fractured relationships, miscarriages, and financial crises. But as Maurice says, “God is the central character in the story, not me.” He is the Author who is writing a beautiful resolution to the painful narratives that leave us feeling abandoned and far from home.

The hope for the believer, Maurice says, is that this world is not the end. Those who are in Christ are headed for a homecoming.

Maurice says he caught a glimpse of his arrival in glory when he finally landed in the United States and got off the plane. Members of the media were snapping pictures of the newly released hostages, but Maurice didn’t care about media attention. He wanted to see his family.

Maurice got into a police car and an officer drove him to a private area at the edge of the tarmac. As he drew closer, he could make out the silhouettes of his wife, brother, and two boys jumping up and down. When the officer stopped the car, Maurice got out, ran over to his family, and wrapped his arms around them as the tears streamed down. It was a surreal moment after spending those aimless months wondering if he’d ever see them again.

After Maurice shared the story of reuniting with his family on the tarmac, he reflected on the moment and said, “It’s a powerful image of the moment when I’ll step into eternity. I’ll see all those friends and family, jumping up and down, rejoicing that I’ve arrived. And I’ll finally be home.”

Maurice Graham’s book, Prayers From the Desert: Living Out the Pastoral Call As a Hostage in Kuwait, is available at Amazon. You can subscribe to a spam-free update on my latest articles and blog posts by clicking here.