Blood in the sand;Interview;Sue Mattocks;Survivor's tale

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Four of her travelling companions were slaughtered in the Yemen, but teacher Sue Mattocks took just one day off school after the ordeal. Michael Prestage meets the head of RE who retains her faith ...and her wanderlust

Sue Mattocks loves to travel. She is a determined, independent woman who has always been happy to set off alone, the further off the beaten track the better.

The 44-year-old religious education teacher is fascinated by the way people live and the faiths they embrace, and her pupils at Clarendon House Grammar School in Ramsgate have long reaped the benefits of her wanderlust.

Usually, Sue manages to fit her globetrotting into the school holidays. Last January she was a day late returning to school. But on the second day of term her pupils heard a traveller's tale they will never forget.

It was a tale of merciless desert sun, terrified tourists held hostage, volatile terrorists and blood on the dunes. Their teacher was lucky to be back in the classroom alive.

During the Christmas holidays Sue's pupils and colleagues had learned the astonishing news that "Miss" was one of 16 tourists kidnapped in the Yemen. They and the rest of the country followed the unfolding drama that culminated in a bungled shoot-out between the kidnappers and Yemeni government forces.

For two terrifying hours, Sue was part of a human shield. Bullets missed her by inches. Some of her fellow travellers were not so lucky. Four lay dead in the sand.

Back in Kent, Clarendon pupils then saw their teacher in the glare of the media spotlight, giving interviews first in the Yemen and then back in Britain. Then Sue decided it was time to return to normality, She insisted on going back to her post on the second day of term and took an emotional assembly where 200 girls in Years 7 and 8 observed a minute's silence for the four dead.

"I am happy to be back," she told them, "but you must remember that people have died. Can we sit quietly for a few minutes and remember the families?" Now, two terms after the ordeal, she has spoken to the TES about the lasting effects of the kidnap. Clearly, there is no wish to forget her travels: the walls of her Kent flat are adorned with paintings and photographs from a three-year VSO teaching stint in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. There's evidence too of more than a dozen visits to India. Delhi, she jokes, is her second home.

And the Yemen? How does she feel about the desert now? "I just think it was one of those things. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hope it hasn't changed me as a person, but I do feel more vulnerable and more prone to being lonely."

There's a haunted looked in her eyes which tells you she is clearly still shaken by her experience, The dramatic story she tells of her hours as a hostage is so detailed and vivid (see next page) that it's obvious she is still living the drama. But there's a hint of steel here too, a deep-seated determination which suggests that, after a lifetime's adventures as a woman travelling alone, Sue Mattocks is not about to bolt her doors and meekly stay at home.

Indeed she ventured abroad for a week at Whitsun. And with typical adventurousness - a testing of her nerves, perhaps - the trip was to another desert country, albeit the rather safer shores of Tunisia.

For Sue the Yemen trip was to be the fulfilment of a long-time ambition. "I was fascinated with the idea of taking pictures of the desert scenery and the buildings. I thought that if I was with a group I would be safe."

When she arrived she learnt that kidnapping of foreigners was relatively common, but she and her fellow travellers were not too worried because hostages had always been released unharmed, and the motive for their capture tended to be to persuade the government to provide such things as improved electricity supplies or better roads.

Sue tells me, in calm, measured tones: "We weren't the only foreign tourists out there, and the Foreign Office had said it was OK. We stayed on the well-trodden tourist route. The idea of kidnapping had even become something of a joke among us. Up until the fateful day, the holiday was everything I had hoped for."

And since that "fateful day", says Sue, the support of staff and pupils at Clarendon House has been of enormous help. In her first lesson with a GCSE class the girls clapped as she walked in and gave her a box of chocolates. Her A-level group was demonstrative too: "We're quite close, and some came up to give me a hug. It was very touching."

Others weren't sure how to react. "The younger ones looked at me like I had grown an extra head, while some GCSE pupils were shocked and disturbed by what had happened. For the first couple of weeks, lessons were devoted to what happened. But after that there were exams to prepare for, and getting back to work helped me cope."

There were also funerals to attend. Sue went to the services for Margaret Whitehouse, 52, a primary teacher from Hook in Hampshire, and 60-year-old Dr Peter Rowe, a lecturer at Durham University. The other fatalities were 34-year-old health care consultant Ruth Williamson from Edinburgh and 35-year-old Australian Andrew Thirsk.

Sue has kept in touch with some of the other survivors by phone, but the last six months has mostly been about returning to a normal life. "Getting back into the routine of life wasn't that hard, but I find concentrating difficult." Even now, says Sue, "I can't just read a book or listen to music like I used to. I also need company. I don't like being on my own."

Her faith has remained. Though she asks not to be described as a Buddhist, she says the teachings of the Buddha make sense to her and she likes travelling to Buddhist countries. "One of the wonderful things about working in Bhutan was being able to visit the monastery and talk to the monks." Since the kidnapping she say she has felt no anger towards the mujahidin bandits responsible or the government troops who attempted the bloody rescue.

After the drama Sue was one of the hostages deputed to handle the media. The first instalment came in the Yemen, where they had to stay for a couple of days to be questioned by government officials, the FBI and Scotland Yard officers. When she returned to Britain there was two weeks of constant press attention. She was undaunted. "I found being in the public spotlight very interesting. I wasn't dazed by it. I enjoyed seeing how it all works."

What did upset her was that after an appearance on television's Richard and Judy show she was sent material from a Christian fundamentalist group, warning her that Hell awaited those with no faith. "That made me so angry. Every other letter and phone call had been supportive. I had been asked on the show about whether my faith had helped me through the ordeal. They no doubt thought that if I was an RE teacher I must be a Christian."

Her half-term trip to Tunisia was the final act of recovery. "Once or twice, driving on the coach, the rocky desert scenery reminded me of the Yemen. The experiences of last Christmas flashed through my mind. I had expected that and it wasn't a problem." She is delighted her passion for travelling has not been lost. A trip to the Baltic republics is planned for this summer. She has learned to exercise caution though -- she was planning a solo expedition to Ethiopia but this has been shelved, at least for the present.

There remains one travel ambition which some might find hard to understand. It is perhaps typical of a woman who likes to face the facts without flinching. Yet she is unsure whether she will have the courage to fulfil it.

"Part of me," she says, "would like to go back to the Yemen and see the site where it all happened."


The convoy of five Range Rovers had just left a small village and was heading for Aden when a pick-up truck slewed across the road, forcing four of the vehicles to stop. The nightmare for Sue Mattocks and the other hostages had begun.

Sue takes up the story: "Four or five guys, heavily armed and with ammunition wrapped round them, jumped out, flung open the door to our vehicle and cracked the Yemeni driver with the butt of a pistol.

"I sat there in disbelief and shock. There was a lot of shouting. I wondered whether the others in the three vehicles behind had got away but didn't dare look around."

The convoy was forced to drive into the rocky desert. They stopped an hour later and one of the terrorists demanded to know everyone's nationality. But he reassured them: "don't be scared".

Later they were ordered out of the trucks, and Sue warned the others against taking food and water because it was Ramadan. But others asked permission, and there was no problem. The hostages sat on blankets under a tree while their luggage was pillaged.

That night the hostages were not harmed. One even enjoyed a long conversation with his captors about Northern Ireland. All were scared, but still hopeful of being released.

The next day, from the hot mountain plateau, Sue saw metal glinting in the distance. Was it more terrorists... or rescuers?

"The kidnappers were in high spirits. They gave us biscuits and fruit juice and asked if we wanted anything from the market. Minutes later we heard the first shots in the distance."

Four of the group were sent off with a group of terrorists. These included Andrew Thirsk and Margaret Whitehouse, who were to die in the ensuing gun battle. Sue would not see the survivors until they met at a hotel in Aden.

As the sounds of battle got closer and closer, the terrorists guarding the 12 remaining hostages became agitated. They seized sandbags and forced the hostages into a human shield.

"They made us stand in a line on the sandbags with our hands up and facing the firing while they stood behind us, firing at the soldiers.

"Then one shouted at us to turn around and we saw he was on his own - the others were firing from behind the vehicles. He was wearing a Yemeni conical straw hat that I had bought earlier in the trip.

"He saw me noticing the hat and gave it to me to keep the sun off. It was bizarre. He was using me as a human shield in a gun battle yet took the trouble to make sure I didn't get sunstroke."

The hostages were ordered to move forward five metres. They could hear the bullets whizzing around them. Sue shouted to everybody to get down. Their captors ordered them back on their feet.

As the soldiers closed in, the bandits put guns to the heads of hostages. Then the man holding American Mary Quinn was shot. She kicked the wounded man in the face and ran to freedom.

Sue shouted again to the others on the sandbags to get down. In that split second, Peter Rowe was shot and killed. Despite orders to stand up, the others stayed down as the firing continued.

"There was firing and firing, and somebody shouted to me 'for f**k's sake keep your head down'. Then suddenly it went very quiet and we heard voices. I thought it was the terrorists and they would kill us all. But when I raised my head it was a soldier looking down."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today