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 – a checkpoint manned by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Or ISIS. Or the latest and most feared incarnation of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Since I arrived in Aleppo, ISIS have taken control of every road back to Turkey. Numerous groups have disappeared on this route lately, but I'm left with no choice but to chance it.
They motion for us to stop.
A niqab covers my face. I'm now regretting losing my veil late one night in Aleppo. I hope that my blue eyes won't give me away, looking down in a bid to save me from 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.
Kidnapping has become rife over the last few months in the north of Syria. Journalists – both Western and local – are no longer most at risk from shelling or sniper fire, despite the constant sound of artillery and plumes of smoke across the north of the country, some of which are visible beyond the border into Turkey. Incidental disappearances have turned into an epidemic.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) currently reports 15 journalists missing in the country – incorporating international aid workers, Syrian activists and fixers would see this number rise rapidly.
Those still covering the war are united by a sense of duty to report what is happening in the country. But this is now under threat. 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.
As lawlessness has taken hold in the fractured country, a pattern of kidnapping has developed across Syria. According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, “It started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo, and has developed and grown since then into a broader trend across many parts of Syria."
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 collection of a ransom. For example, 34-year-old French photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie had his release secured last month by a large ransom payment. 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 effective rise in influence of ISIS across the north of the country since May this year. They’re often blamed for the kidnappings, frequently without hard evidence. Lister won't be drawn into a conclusion about the motivation behind the spike, but says, “If indeed ISIS is culpable, this would suggest a systematic strategy of neutralising moderate figures in northern Syria who are publicly willing to express opposition to localised ISIS rule.”
The blanket threat of kidnapping evokes a kind of terror that snipers and mortars cannot muster. And, of course, that’s the goal.
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 building blocks for a terrifying mental prison. During my last night, 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”, saying that terror in its truest form – rather than the amorphous War on Terror version – “really is the most effective tool an enemy can put into you”.
For those covering Syria, that terror is compounded as sobering anniversaries begin to pass. Last month marked one year with no sign 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 kidnap, ransom and extraction security specialist who has worked on several kidnapping cases in Syria. “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.”
Insight can be gathered in the small number of cases with a resolution. In January of this year, journalist Balint Szlanko was abducted in Aleppo along with two colleagues. He explained his ordeal to the Daily Beast, saying, “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 and why they were let go. “Perhaps they realised they had taken the wrong guys. Or perhaps they released us because they changed their minds, because people had been looking for us,” said Szlanko.
In many cases, the disappearance of journalists is kept under wraps. Yet once you've told members of the press about abductions to help them with their own safety and planning, it's difficult to then ask them not to pass on that information. Clearly, it goes against a journalistic instinct to report the news. In the case of Richard Engel, the NBC correspondent who was abducted in Syria last December, Gawker writer John Cook broke a news blackout with a post announcing Engel's disappearance. He later justified his actions in a statement, saying, “No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel's safety.”
Author of the Somalia Report and vocal opponent of media blackouts, Robert Young Pelton, supported the decision. In Cook's piece, he says, “There exists no proof that censorship helps expedite a safe release, and there is no proof that accurate information about a victim harms him,” suggesting the practice is to benefit employers, 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.” Continuing, he said, “Claiming that there is no evidence that harm would be done by publicising a case is not an argument in favour of publicity.”
Given the widespread use of blackouts, it’s reasonable to assume that the 15 cases reported by CPJ belie a much larger problem.
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 journalists assess what this new threat means for their coverage of Syria – and local activists find ways of making their voices heard while staying alive – all are clamouring to verify footage emerging from Damascus of an alleged chemical attack.
It is impossible to see the frothing mouths of dying children and feel comfortable that this kind of suffering may go unreported. The point where we believe our coverage might serve to 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 honour the innocents caught up in what we see.
If Assad really feels he can attack civilians with chemical weapons with impunity, under the noses of the very branch of the UN charged with holding him to account; and if, indeed, recent disappearances in the north are part of a strategic attempt to remove critical analysis of the behaviour of certain rebel groups, then we must find a way out of the current predicament. Though it has brought on-the-ground reporting in Syria to a stand-still, we must redouble our efforts to report on this bloody and seemingly endless war.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals
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