One evening in early October, I heard the hatch in my cell door clang open. “Snell!” a guard yelled, “Avukat!”
“Avukat?” I asked, confused. It was after 6:00 p.m. They never let lawyers come to the prison this late. The guard sighed and motioned for me to come to the door. I shuffled down the hall in my prison slippers and spotted one of my lawyers sitting in a visitation room.
I sat down across from her. Beaming, she handed me a piece of paper. There was half a page written, but I couldn’t read past the first lines. “Greetings, Lindsey! You have been released!”
This was the latest twist in what had become an odyssey through war, terror, confusion and cynicism.
Months earlier, while working as a journalist in Syria, I’d been kidnapped by the local al-Qaeda affiliate. After escaping captivity and crossing the border to Turkey, I was arrested and accused of being a CIA agent by the Turkish government.
Earlier that week, the U.S. consulate and my lawyers told me that my case was moving more slowly than they’d expected—after more than two months in prison, the Turkish government had yet to formally indict me—so my release came as a total surprise.
A portly man in civilian clothes awaited me. He introduced himself as a high-ranking official in the Turkish gendarmerie. He peppered me with questions as we waited for my paperwork to be processed. “Why would you go to Syria? You must be very brave.”
“Or stupid,” I said. He chuckled.
“You said it, not me.” He lit a cigarette and offered one to me. “You know, I feel you were held to teach America a lesson,” he said. “You were a victim of the political environment. Sorry!”
I forced a laugh and let him light my cigarette. He was referring to the turmoil caused by the events of July 15, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces revolted and attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“How was it in there, anyway?” he asked.
“It was prison,” I said.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t like ‘Midnight Express,’ was it? Have you seen that movie?”
I hadn’t seen the movie, but I understood the reference. Any mention of Turkish prison will elicit comparisons to the iconic 70’s film about an American citizen rotting in one. I’m sure as hell not going to watch it now.
Briefly this is the background to my personal “Midnight Express”:
It was in July that I made the fateful decision to make a journalistic trip to opposition-held Syria. I planned to spend a week filming stories with a trusted fixer, a local translator/facilitator employed by foreign journalists, especially in conflict areas. I’d made six prior trips to the war-torn country and published more than 30 stories with seven different outlets.
Opposition-held Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. It’s also the most dangerous place in the world for civilians. I’d gone to great lengths to cover the conflict. The outlet I worked for in 2014 and 2015 didn’t want to be liable for me in Syria, so I took vacation time to make trips there. They were certainly amenable to purchasing my footage when I returned, though.
Before coming to Syria, my fixer got permission from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) for me to film in the Aleppo and Idlib countrysides. In spite of this, a few days into my trip, JFS arrested my fixer. And then, they came to arrest me.
After being held for two weeks in three different locations in the Idlib countryside, I was able to get my hands on a phone. I engineered a plan to escape using contacts on the ground in Syria. At the same time, I communicated with my husband in New York, who was working with the FBI to attempt to help me. The U.S. government informed the Turkish government of my situation and they were coordinating with the FBI and U.S. Special Forces.
I ultimately got away with the help of a Syrian man from Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist faction of the opposition. He hid me in his home for two days, and while I hid, I was in constant communication with my husband and the FBI.
I learned that the American government sent two helicopters to an area near Gaziantep, Turkey to prepare for a possible extraction attempt. They asked me to ask the man harboring me to help find a place to land. My hiding place was still very much in JFS territory, and we’d heard they were conducting a large-scale search for me. It didn’t seem safe.
When the man hiding me caught wind of their plan, he rose, grabbed his AK-47, and walked outside. “I will wait America,” he said, grinning. He would shoot at them if they came.
I relayed this to the FBI. “You need to be realistic. This man hates America. He isn’t going to help me find a place for a fucking American helicopter to land, as doing so would be a probable death sentence for him and his wife. And wandering into the Idlib countryside alone, with tons of JFS out looking for me, is not a feasible option. Just let me get myself to the border.”
An agent briefly took over my husband’s WhatsApp to speak to me directly. I could get myself to the border, but I really needed to use their assistance to cross to Turkey, she said. She assured me that American officials on the Turkish border received permission from Turkey for me to cross, and that State Department personnel were with the Turks to ensure I wouldn’t be arrested. She put me in touch with a man I presume was from U.S. Special Forces who was waiting for me in Turkey, and we discussed where I would cross out.
A smuggler took me to an area near the border. I set out alone on foot to the frontier at the point the Americans specified. After I’d been standing in a clearing on the Syrian side of the Syrian/Turkish border for more than an hour, a Turkish soldier stuck his head through a thick cluster of brush and peered at me. “Tyler?” he asked. “Is that you?”
Tyler is my middle name.
“Close enough,” I said.
“Come with me, Tyler. Your friends are waiting for you on the other side.”
We walked quickly across the border into Turkey. The soldier pointed at two men in jeans standing next to an SUV. “Your American friends,” he said. I assumed they were U.S. Special Forces. After introductory pleasantries, the men asked me to sit in the back of their SUV. The moment I did, a Turkish officer rushed over.
“She must ride in our truck,” he told the Americans. I got out of the SUV and my heart began to pound.
“They’re just processing you,” one of the Americans called to me.
“Really? Because it seems like I’m being arrested,” I said.
“You’re not,” he replied. “And we’ll be with you the whole time.”
The Turks were, in fact, arresting me. And that was the last I saw of the U.S. Special Forces.
I climbed onto the back of the truck and sat on a bench next to a soldier. The truck drove to a base near the border, and I was taken into an office to wait. After about an hour, two English-speaking Turkish officials entered.
They asked me a bit about my time in Syria, but seemed much more interested in what America had done in an effort to help me.
“We know the Americans brought helicopters for you,” one of them said with a glare. I nodded. He held the glare for several awkward seconds and then tapped his desk lightly with his fist. “Ok, no problem,” he said. “We will deport you to America soon. First, the Jandarma will question you, just like we did. But there is no problem.”
I was driven to a compound nearby and told to sit on a bench outside among falling autumn leaves. On the other side of the property there were tents, bathrooms, and dozens of refugees. At one point during my wait, two officers brought a group of male refugees to the area in front of my bench. “Git!” one bellowed. Go! In an instant, the refugees scrambled to pick the fallen leaves off of the grass with their bare hands.
After several hours of waiting, a bald man in a suit approached me, grinning. He held his iPhone in front of my face and showed me a scanned document from the U.S. government. I skimmed it and saw it was a formal request from America to Turkey to allow me to cross the border.
“You?” he asked. I nodded. “Come.”
I followed him to a table in the middle of the grass. Several other officers sat around it, drinking tea, smoking, and staring at me.
None spoke English. The bald man made a couple stabs at forming a sentence, then dug in his pockets for a business card and handed it to me. It was the card of a woman from the American consulate. He called her and handed his phone to me.
“Hello, Lindsey,” the woman said. “Are you ok?”
“Hello,” I replied. “What’s happening here? I’ve been waiting for hours, and no one is telling me anything.”
“I’m not sure,” she said, “but I think they will take you to the immigration center to process your deportation. That’s usually how this goes.”
Typically, American journalists caught crossing illegally to Turkey are almost immediately deported. I had no reason to believe my case would be any different, especially considering the ordeal I’d just survived in Syria.
But in the weeks following the July 15, the widely held belief in Turkey was that America was behind the coup attempt. After all, Fethullah Gülen, the cleric suspected of leading the factions of Turkish Armed Forces that launched the uprising, lived in Pennsylvania.
I’d been a prisoner of al Qaeda as this narrative unfolded in the press, so I didn’t have a clear sense of just how much animosity the Turkish government harbored towards America. Now I was learning quickly.
I was ushered into the back of a minivan with armed soldiers on either side of me. We drove to a municipal building in Antakya and were taken into the office of a uniformed military official. I asked his name and rank and he shook his head at me. “Not important,” he said. A translator arrived shortly after.
“Lindsey,” the translator began, “First, he wants to know why you are a Muslim? You are American. Your parents are not Muslim, are they?”
“No, they aren’t. My husband is an Afghan living in New York City. I converted to Islam when I married him in Kabul a year and a half ago.“
The official nodded and gave the translator his next question. “He does not understand how you could escape from al Qaeda. It must have been very difficult. Very dangerous. Why have other journalists not escaped them?”
I threw my hands up. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ve explained to the other officials how I escaped. Should I have stayed with al Qaeda? I had an opportunity to run away. I took it.”
The official moved on to his final question. “Why America would send these helicopters for you? If you were really just a journalist, they would not do these things for you.” I denied this, but my protests fell on deaf ears.
I am, in fact, just a journalist. The American government would have done what they did for me for any American captive in Syria. I do not now, nor have I ever had, any affiliation with an intelligence agency.
When the officer was finished questioning me, he took us to another municipal building to speak with the public prosecutor. He asked me the same questions I’d already answered several times, and then opened Google on his phone.
“If I type in your name, will it show that you are a journalist?” he asked. After he’d typed in “Lindsey Snell,” “Lindsey Snell journalist” was the top suggested search phrase. (As an aside, one of the top search suggestions now is “Lindsey Snell CIA,” which is a crowning irony.) The prosecutor shrugged and set his phone down. “It still does not explain why America did so much for you. You will meet the judge soon.”
Before I was taken to the judge, a female guard arrived and took me into a bathroom to strip search me. Guards came to the prosecutor’s office and went through my belongings. They started to catalog my camera equipment, hard drives, and memory cards—materials I’d been absolutely elated to recover and smuggle out of Syria—piece by piece.
Eventually, I was taken downstairs to the court. A judge sat behind a desk, and a stenographer sat in front of him. A middle-aged man came in the room and stood next to me. “He is your lawyer,” the translator explained.
“No, he isn’t my lawyer,” I said. “I want to hire my own lawyer…and I want to speak to my consulate.”
The translator shrugged. “He is your lawyer today. And you can’t speak with your government now.”
The judge spoke with one of the officers, not bothering to address me. When he was finished, he told the translator to give me a message. “The judge says he understands your situation. He is recommending that you be taken to prison. Your charge is crossing the border illegally into a forbidden military zone.” I was dumbfounded.
“But the Turkish government made an agreement with America to let me cross safely! They told me to cross where I did!” The translator shrugged again, and then relayed my message to the judge. The judge responded to him and abruptly left the courtroom. The translator turned to me.
“The judge said to tell you that really, this is all your government’s fault.” The courtroom door swung open, and a guard approached me with a set of handcuffs.
Tomorrow: In For a Dollar