My Harrowing Kidnapping Ordeal in Syria
Balint Szlanko on what it was like being kidnapped in Syria.
I had arrived in Syria only a few days before, from Turkey, through a rebel-controlled border crossing. I thought I knew what to expect: I had visited Aleppo many times before and knew that the focus of the fighting had recently moved, away from the city, to the airfields and army bases surrounding the city. This had made Aleppo much safer: shelling had waned and people had started to move back.
But the city felt tense, on edge: there were too many random gunmen, and many streets had blankets hung across them to shield them from government snipers. There was rubble, half-collapsed houses, and mountains of rubbish everywhere. And then there was the nightly shelling. The shells, coming in at a rate of perhaps one every five to ten minutes, exploded with sharp, sickening cracks, their echoes rumbling through the empty, darkened buildings.
On the morning of Jan. 22, I set off with Témoris Grecko, a Mexican journalist, Andoni Lubaki, a Basque photographer, as well as a local driver-translator and a gunman, to get a closer look at the Ezaa frontline where clashes had been reported the previous night. We had been to the area before and knew the local rebel groups, so there was no special cause for concern. We drove through the still-populated areas, sped up a hill to avoid a sniper’s position, then pulled over as we discussed what to do. A well-known rebel guard post had been abandoned.
We were just about to get out of the car when, suddenly, a man wearing a balaclava appeared, shouting loudly and thrusting his AK-47 rifle into our driver’s face. The next moments felt like a sick joke, some kind of misunderstanding. They must have mistaken us for someone else, I thought vaguely, as perhaps a dozen armed men, all wearing masks, surrounded the car; for half a second I almost even burst out laughing: they looked so bizarre, as if they’d just appeared from a Monty Python sketch.
They hadn’t, of course. The abduction was quick and professional. In a few seconds we were dragged out of our car, our hands were cuffed behind our backs, we were blindfolded and thrust into two cars. Andoni and our driver were punched a few times. The whole thing felt surreal and scary: I instantly thought of my missing colleagues who had not been heard from for months. Had we somehow strayed across the lines? Were these the shabiha, the feared pro-government militia? Because then we would be done for. As the car sped down the hill, I was focused on one thing: at the end of the street, would we turn right, towards the rebel areas, or left, toward that held by the government? As I felt the car swinging right, I felt a small surge of relief.
The car sped through the city, honking all the while, while the man on the passenger seat kept shouting numbers into his walkie-talkie. I couldn’t tell where we were going. At one point, the car stopped, our driver was removed, then we sped on. After perhaps five minutes, it stopped again, we were taken from the car—with considerably less aggression than earlier—then led through a courtyard, where I could heard the voices of people, including children, into a building, down some stairs into the basement and put up against the wall.
I thought perhaps they were about to perform a mock execution like assailants had done when they kidnapped Richard Engel, the NBC correspondent and his crew. I thought I needed to keep calm. But when I heard someone cock his rifle, I felt my innards dissolve. The familiar click, however, was followed by a smaller one, that of a bullet dropping onto the floor. Relieved, I understood that the gunman had only emptied his rifle.
We were carefully searched and had all our things, including my belt and Témoris’ glasses, removed. There was no more aggression, and I even heard one of the men, in poor English, say soothingly that we were safe. Other small signs began to suggest to me that we weren’t dealing with government militia.
I was strengthened in my optimism when we were led into a cell and had our blindfolds and handcuffs removed. The room, perhaps 10 by 25 feet, seemed like a prison cell: blankets on the floors, a bottle of water, a Quran on the radiator. Everything pointed to a jail; perhaps Amr al Thaura, the rebel security force, had captured us, I told myself.
We spent the whole day in the cell. Sometimes people came in, usually the same two men—one of them wearing a long tunic and a beard in the conservative Islamic style—and asked if we needed something. We were given food twice and we could even go to the bathroom once, though the method—blindfolded, holding one another’s shoulders—was distinctly depressing. One of the guards said once that the commander would come and see us “perhaps tomorrow.” This didn’t help much: the Arabic expression bukra inshallah can also mean: “when pigs fly.”
Témoris sat, stoic, on a blanket but Andoni and I paced the cell restlessly. He was singing Ain’t no sunshine, I was trying to recall Beatles songs to keep my mind occupied.
It was little use. Before long, I started to feel that we were in big trouble no matter what. Most rebel groups, including the Islamist Jabhat al Nusra, declared a terrorist organization by the State Department, tend to behave in a relatively civilized manner, certainly towards foreign journalists. But there are strange groups operating under the cover of war, and the truth was, even if these were the rebel police, it wasn’t necessarily good news: what if they thought we were spies?
Darkness fell and I tried to sleep. But my mind was constantly whirring and I could hear Andoni and Témoris turning restlessly too. Sometimes people came in and flashed their lights in our face. I had the feeling they were trying to determine whether they’d nabbed the right people.
And then everything ended as suddenly as it had begun. In the middle of the night, people came in, blindfolded us and led us out of the building and into a car. One of them said we were now going home; and something like they had “made a mistake.” This was reassuring, though the fact that guns were pointed at the back of our heads was less so. The car sped through the night and then came to a halt. They had us remove our shoes and then made us get out of the car—a terrifying moment of uncertainty—and then our abductors jumped back in and drove away.
Relieved, we looked around. The area was dark, abandoned and unknown to all of us. It seemed the safest bet to walk in the direction of the departing car, since, we figured, that was the direction of rebel-held areas. We set off at a brisk pace, in our socks, though poor, glasses-less Témoris had to be led by hand. After a few hundred yards, we found a house with the lights on. We knocked on the door and a young man came out. We explained to him what had happened, and though he initially appeared skeptical, he eventually led us to a nearby building where four gunmen were sitting in a heated room.
For a second, I felt panic surge through my body. These men could easily be pro-government forces. But then one of the men spoke—telling us he would take us to the headquarters of the Tawheed Brigade, one of the main rebel groups in Aleppo.
Back on safer ground we were greeted by people we knew, including a photographer friend. It turned out that everybody had been looking for us—the activists, other journalists, and even many rebels. It also turned out that our driver had also been freed.
We still don’t know who took us or why we were released. Perhaps they realized they had taken the wrong guys. Or perhaps they released us because they changed their minds, because people had been looking for us. We got out, unharmed. Not everyone has been that lucky.