NBC’s Richard Engel emerged safe on Tuesday after a five-day kidnapping ordeal in Syria in which he never knew whether he was about to be shot to death.
The chilling details serve as a stark reminder that western journalists who operate in war zones, especially in the Middle East, are risking their lives.
"We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed," Engel told the Today show from Turkey.
"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times.” Ghazi Balkiz is an NBC producer.
Their cameraman, John Kooistra, said he had “made good with my maker” and had been “prepared to die many times.”
Engel, 39, and his team disappeared on Thursday and NBC was unable to contact them. They were traveling with a group of Syrian rebels battling the Assad regime when a group of about 15 gunmen “jumped out of trees and bushes” and seized them. The captors spoke openly of their allegiance to Bashir Assad’s government, and Engel said their plan was to trade him and his colleagues for other captives held by the rebels. The three journalists were blindfolded and bound but not physically hurt, NBC says.
On Monday, Engel’s team was being driven to a new location when the kidnappers reached a checkpoint manned by members of the Syrian rebel group known as the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. A firefight broke out and two of the kidnappers were killed, while others escaped, the network says.
NBC has asked news organization not to report on Engel’s disappearance after a Turkish media outlet mentioned it. Most complied, but a few websites, notably Gawker, did not.
Some journalists return to dangerous war zones again and again despite the risks. CBS’s Lara Logan was sexually assaulted last year by a mob in Egypt.
Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, is fluent in Arabic and has been covering the Middle East for 15 years, from Iraq to Afghanistan to last year’s uprising in Egypt. This is hardly his first brush with danger. He was once grabbed by gun-wielding carjackers in Iraq.
Editors, Engel once told me, send mixed messages: "Don't do anything that would put you in danger. So, what have you got for me today? What's your next story?"