Government tanks were pounding away at a road block up ahead when Austin Tice finally decided he needed some rest. The 31-year-old journalist had been hard at work for more than 24 hours covering the rebel campaign to liberate Idlib, in eastern Syria, as fighting raged there this summer. So he lay right down in the dirt, some 50 yards from the battle lines, and went to sleep, remembers his friend and translator, Mahmoud Sheikh al-Zour.
Zour wondered how anyone could sleep through such mayhem. But Tice seemed right at home. “Man, the only thing that was bothering me was the fucking fly that kept landing on my nose,” he told Zour after he awoke.
Tice, a former Marine, had just finished a semester at Georgetown law when he decided to try his hand as a journalist embedded in Syria’s increasingly bloody war. When he’d met Zour in a city near the Turkish border, looking to be smuggled into Syria, he’d never been published before—but soon he was writing articles from the front lines for the McClatchy news service and The Washington Post. And he was received warmly by the residents in the Idlib towns he and Zour used as a base. “Everybody knew him. They called him Austus and Ashton,” Zour says. “I was so proud.”
Zour kept in contact with Tice by Facebook as he moved on from Idlib, eventually making his way to the outskirts of Damascus, whose suffocating security presence makes it one of the most dangerous places to be for journalists in Syria. Then, in mid-August, the messages stopped.
“Hope you’re well man. I’m outside Damascus. Government is jamming the Internet for most of the day,” read one of his last messages to Zour, on Aug. 11. “Today’s my birthday. I had a pool party with the [rebels]. No joke.”
Tice’s last known communication came two days later. U.S. authorities, along with Tice’s friends and family, have since been struggling to piece together where he went. The State Department has said it believes the government of President Bashar al-Assad is holding Tice. The Assad government, meanwhile, has not acknowledged that it has him. As the conflict Tice threw himself into covering plays out in brutal fashion in newspapers and on TV screens, his friends and family have been left to wait for news of his fate.
So when a video emerged in the international media on Monday showing a blindfolded Tice being held captive by armed men who are presented as jihadists, it was greeted with a mix of relief and despair—relief at being given a sign that Tice, at least at one point after going missing, was still alive, and despair that the circumstances surrounding his disappearance remain just as murky as before.
In the video, the blindfolded Tice, his hair overgrown and face unshaven, is shown being led down a hillside path by masked men wearing traditional Afghan dress. He is forced to kneel, muttering, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus” in a frightened voice before resting his head on the arm of one of his captors as the video comes to an end.
Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice of Houston, have confirmed that it is him in the video. “Though it is difficult to see our eldest son in such a setting and situation as that depicted in the video, it is reassuring that he appears to be unharmed,” they said in a statement.
“I’m living, in a place, at a time and with a people where life means more than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
Little else seems certain about the video, though. Analysts have cast doubt on many of the elements meant to portray it as the work of jihadists—the style of dress, for example, has not been reported in Syria before, while even the chants of “Allahu Akbar” seem off the mark. Instead of being claimed by a known jihadist group or posted to the Web through commonly used jihadist channels, the video was uploaded anonymously on YouTube.
And it was first promoted by a Facebook page that supports Assad, whose government from the start has sought to portray the uprising as the work of Islamic extremists.
A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, addressed the video by pointing out that it could have been staged. “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility,” she said in a statement. “[T]o the best of our knowledge, we think [Tice] is in Syrian government custody.”
Michael Weiss, the research director at London’s Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank, came to consider Tice a friend over the course of their frequent online correspondence about Syria. After connecting Tice with Mahmoud, who first brought him across the border, Weiss says, he remembers watching in admiration as he took quickly to his new line of work. “I put him in touch with my friend, and he gets into Syria and is writing top-shelf war correspondence,” Weiss says. “He has this in his blood.”
Tice’s time in the military, where he served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines, apparently served him well on the job. Weiss recounts one instance in which Tice observed that Syrian troops were operating tanks and helicopters in ways that seemed to be deliberately ineffective—as if to safely follow orders without doing their countrymen any harm. That reporting resulted in a thoughtful article for McClatchy titled, “Some rebels wonder if Syrian troops’ poor use of tanks, helicopters is intentional.”
Weiss says Tice had a soldier’s camaraderie with the rebels. “Some journalists see the rebels as just a means to a good story. And with Austin, he never did,” Weiss says. “He saw them as people fighting for their lives.”
There were times when Tice’s lack of experience shone through. Weiss often chided Tice for addressing a freelance proposal to Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, with the salutation “Dear Mrs. Hounshell”—pointing out that a good freelancer should make sure at least to get the editor’s gender right.
Tice knew things were dangerous in and around Damascus, and he expressed frustration at not being able to move on from one neighborhood on the outskirts where he’d been based as quickly as he’d hoped. “It’s a fucked-up place,” he wrote to Weiss over Gmail chat. “Nobody is really in control. I don’t really want to stay here any longer than I have to.”
Even in the dicey situation, though, he kept his sense of humor. Chatting with Weiss about a girl who’d caught his eye while waiting things out with members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, he joked that “the FSA ruthlessly cockblocked me. It was pretty hilarious.”
In another conversation, he wrote: “During your brief foray [into Syria], were you able to experience the exquisite pleasure that is three men on one motorcycle?”
At the same time, Tice wrote at length about the risks he faced, addressing one often-cited Facebook post to friends and family who were flooding him with requests to keep out of harm’s way. “People keep telling me to be safe (as if that’s an option), keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing, keep asking what’s wrong with me for coming here. So listen,” he wrote. “No, I don’t have a death wish—I have a life wish. So I’m living, in a place, at a time, and with a people where life means more than anywhere I’ve ever been—because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest feeling of my life.”
Zour, Tice’s friend and translator, remembers one particularly harrowing experience from their time together in Idlib. Driving in a pickup truck down an abandoned street, they were suddenly targeted by a helicopter—and as they sped to avoid the hail of bullets from above, drove right into the path of a government tank. The two were separated as they fled from the truck, only finding each other again some five hours later. “Mahmoud, if we were to tell people what happened to us today,” Zour remembers Tice saying, “do you think they would believe us?”