Driving through the streets of Aleppo.
My heart is in my throat. I haven't taken a full breath for 24 hours. On the horizon is the sight I'd been hoping to avoid: black flags and men in smocks with AK-47s slung casually over their shoulders—which means a checkpoint manned by jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. the latest and most feared incarnation of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Since I arrived in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo, ISIS has taken control of every road back to Turkey. Numerous people have disappeared on this route lately, but I'm left with no choice but to chance it.
The men motion for us to stop.
A niqab covers my face. I'm now regretting losing my veil late one night not too long ago. I hope my blue eyes won't give me away as I look down in a bid to avoid becoming the latest abductee to disappear in Syria.
A man leans into the car. Time stands still. We're waved on.
I exhale loudly, much to the amusement of my AK-47-wielding friends. The commander turns around, laughing. “Don't worry,” he says, “the Islamists won't slit your throat—I have a grenade,” while miming throwing a very real grenade out of the passenger window. So I guess that's alright then.
As lawlessness has taken hold of the fractured country, kidnapping has become more and more common, especially in the north. The biggest threat to journalists is no longer shelling or sniper fire, despite the constant sound of artillery and plumes of smoke that are sometimes visible from across the Turkish border—the thing we are most afraid of is that we will disappear. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 15 journalists are currently missing in the country, and if that number included international aid workers, Syrian activists, and fixers, it would be much larger.
According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, “[Kidnapping] started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo, and has developed and grown since then into a broader trend across many parts of Syria."
Those still covering the civil war are united by a sense of duty to report on what is happening in the country. But given the risk of abduction and the prospect of drawn-out rescue operations that drain resources from our colleagues and endanger our fixers and friends, we are being forced to reassess the way we cover the ongoing conflict.
Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist rebel group thought to be responsible for a number of kidnappings. Photo by Benjamin Hiller
Early cases of kidnapping were undertaken by the regime or motivated by the prospect of a ransom. For example, 34-year-old French photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie had his release secured last month by a large payment from a Syrian businessman. Recent kidnappings, however, do not appear to be as transactional.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, closely follows events in Syria and has noticed a significant change in the environment. “Recent weeks have seen a discernible spike in reported kidnappings in northern Syria, particularly of local activists and opposition journalists,” he said.
The trend coincides with the fast and extraordinarily rise in influence of ISIS across the north of the country since May. They’re often blamed for the kidnappings, frequently without hard evidence. Lister won't be drawn into making conclusions about the reasons behind the spike, but said, “If indeed ISIS is culpable, this would suggest a systematic strategy of neutralizing moderate figures in northern Syria who are publicly willing to express opposition to localized ISIS rule.”
In other words, the threat of kidnapping evokes a kind of terror that snipers and mortars cannot.
Every day in Aleppo I received word of another colleague, friend, or activist being abducted, and eventually a crippling sense of panic set in. The idea that I could be taken at any minute became the foundation for a terrifying mental prison. During my last night in town, I sat chain smoking, scared into silence—the power of this weapon against those living in its sights.
Andy Cottom, a British trauma therapist who focuses on the effects of conflict, told me that the aim of kidnapping in war is to “instil terror,” adding that terror in its truest form (as opposed to the amorphous war on terror version) “really is the most effective tool an enemy can put into you.”
Austin Tice, an American journalist who has been missing for over a year.
For those covering Syria, that terror is compounded as sobering anniversaries begin to pass. Last month marked one year since the kidnapping of Austin Tice, a 32-year-old American journalist who disappeared in Daraya, near Damascus, and is thought to be in the custody of the Syrian government. His colleague and friend Christy Wilcox, who has herself covered the conflict in Syria, says locating him has been difficult. "Lack of information is an ongoing theme in Syria,” she told me. “And it makes it hard to get to the point where anyone can negotiate or help get the person home safely.”
This view is supported by a kidnapping, ransom, and extraction security specialist who has worked on several cases in Syria and wished to remain anonymous. “I wouldn't say it's like finding a needle in a haystack,” he told me. “It's more like finding the right needle in the right haystack. We don't even know which haystack to look in.”
The only way to gain insight into the sometimes seemingly arbitrary way people are kidnapped is to examine the few cases that have been resolved. In January of this year, journalist Balint Szlanko was abducted in Aleppo along with two colleagues. He explained his ordeal in the Daily Beast, writing, “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... The whole thing felt surreal and scary.”
After 12 hours, the trio were released as quickly as they had been taken, and months later still have no idea who took them or why they were let go. “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,” wrote Szlanko.
In many cases, the disappearance of journalists is kept under wraps for their safety. Yet once you've told members of the press about abductions to help them avoid a similar fate, it's difficult to then ask them not to pass on that information, as it goes against a journalistic instinct to report the news. Notably, the kidnapping of Richard Engel, an NBC correspondent who was abducted in Syria last December, was kept fairly quiet until Gawker's John Cook wrote a post announcing Engel's disappearance. He was criticized by many journalists and later justified his actions in an update to the original post. “No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel's safety,” he wrote.
Robert Young Pelton, author of the Somalia Report and vocal opponent of media blackouts, came out in support of Cook's supported the decision. In a follow-up piece on Gawker, he wrote, “There exists no proof that censorship helps expedite a safe release, and there is no proof that accurate information about a victim harms him... Censorship historically has only covered up a host of corporate incompetence and handwringing.” He suggested that blackouts benefit employers trying to keep such incidents quiet, not kidnappees.
CPJ’s journalist security advisor, Frank Smyth, takes a more measured view of blackouts. “There is no single template showing how to handle such cases, as each deserves its own careful examination,” he said, “Claiming that there is no evidence that harm would be done by publicizing a case is not an argument in favour of publicity.”
In any case, g iven the widespread use of blackouts, it’s reasonable to assume that the 15 cases reported by CPJ are just the tip of the iceberg.
So what does this mean for journalists covering the war? For Szlanko, “It all adds up to what I'm doing now, which is not going there.” Wilcox, however, believes that “reporting on the conflict in Syria is still important. However, when colleagues and other people go missing, it just adds to the already insurmountable issues.”
While individual reporters weight the risks in staying in a country that has become even more dangerous for them, all agree that stories from the war are important—especially in light of the alleged chemical attack perpetrated by the regime that now has the US ready to intervene.
It is impossible to see the frothing mouths of dying children and feel comfortable that this kind of suffering may go unreported. But the time when we believed our coverage might change the course of the war has passed. Instead, many of us have invested ourselves in this complex and frustrating story in the hope that, in some small way, the ritual of documentation will honor the innocents victimized by this ongoing disaster. The risks have brought on-the-ground reporting in Syria to a standstill, but that only means we must redouble our efforts to report on this bloody and seemingly endless war.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals
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