It’s strange how you can interact with someone every day and not know anything about them at all. I work in Lebanon much of the year. When I’m there, I stay in the residential Christian neighborhood of Fanar, about 20 minutes outside of Beirut. I see the natour — the superintendent of my building — when I enter or exit. He’s a handsome man in his 30s with a quick, easy smile. I knew he was Syrian, but that was the extent of my knowledge about his life.
About a month ago, we were talking and it came out that he had been seized and detained in Syria by the Muhajadeen Shura Council, one of the jihadi militias that were eventually absorbed into ISIS. He told me he ended up in ISIS’s hands and was held by the group for about five months.
Kidnapping seems to be a key element in ISIS’s strategy to expand their caliphate in the Middle East, both as an intimidation tactic and an important source of revenue. Most of us here in the U.S. are aware of ISIS’s propensity for kidnapping and killing Westerners. But the largest number of hostages — and casualties — have been other Arabs. Although ISIS has shown no hesitation in killing its fellow Muslims, the group’s conviction that they are fighting a war against infidels has led them to aggressively target religious minorities such as Yazidis and Christians. In February, the U.S. condemned the kidnappings of more than 150 Christians near Hasaka. Nineteen of these captives were released earlier this month, but it isn’t clear why they were granted freedom when many others had not been so lucky.
My superintendent is a Christian, and says that was the sole reason he was targeted. He told me his story over the course of hours. I couldn’t independently verify most of his account, but I have some expertise on the subject of hostage-taking in the region, and the events he described — including some specific details he asked me not to publish — match up well with what is known about ISIS’s practices in Syria. This is his account. —Sulome Anderson
On February 28, 2013, I left Lebanon to visit my family in Syria. I had passed maybe 15 Syrian Army checkpoints, and nobody bothered me. But then I came to another one, and men wearing black clothes stopped me and took me aside with another man. I didn’t know this other man, but he was from my area and, like me, was Christian. They looked at my I.D. and said, “Your name is very strange.” So I knew they realized I was Christian. They took us into a building to see a man with a long beard, a Salafi. After about ten minutes, they took us out and handcuffed us and put us in the back of a truck where we couldn’t see anything.
They drove us for about eight hours, and when we stopped, they blindfolded us and chained us to the wall. You hear about hostages, but you have no idea. That night, they talked to the man who was with me and said they were going to kill him. That was it; he was going to die. And they tortured him. They electrocuted him and beat him very badly. They saw something in his mobile phone. I don’t know what it was, but they were very angry.
This group, I learned, called themselves the Mujahideen Shura Council. I don’t want to say exactly where I’m from in Syria because these people have spies all over the country. They told me, “We know everything about you. We know where your family lives, what their names are.”
Anyway, we were blindfolded and chained, and every day they would torture us. They would come in, one at a time, and electrocute us or beat us with anything they could find. But they didn’t kill me because they wanted to ransom me. One time, they made me speak to my family on the phone as they were electrocuting me. Then they made me call a friend, who told them he would pay. On the 8th of April, I think it was, they came in and said, “Your family still hasn’t paid. In two days, if we don’t get the money, we will kill you. But before we do, we will make you call your family and tell them it’s their fault you are going to die.”
That same day, they took the man I was kidnapped with — who at this point had become a close friend — into another room with two other men, and they shot them all. I could hear everything. Then they brought another man into my room and chained him next to me. He was Christian as well, from Aleppo. About another month went by — I don’t know exactly how long. Day, night, morning, evening; we had no idea. Time meant nothing to us. Once a week, we would hear them praying for a long time, and we would know it was Friday.
One time, they didn’t bring us anything to eat for three days. When they did bring food, it was disgusting. Another time, they brought a Syrian Army soldier to the room next to us. They broke his arm and bashed in his head. Then they said, “Haram, the poor man is suffering.” And then we heard them shoot him. Another day, they brought a key to my cellmate’s chains and told him they were going to kill him. But they didn’t.
At some point in the next month, the Mujahideen Shura Council joined daesh — that is, ISIS — and we became their hostages. I had not heard of ISIS at the time. Our new captors came to us and said, “We will take your blindfolds off now” — and they did.
We talked to the ISIS soldiers who kept us. You know what brainwashing is, right? They’re brainwashed. They don’t know anything except that there is a man called an emir, a man who is above them. Not Baghdadi [the ISIS leader]; there are many different levels of emirs. Anything these men say, they believe is true. And there were fighters from everywhere. They were from France, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia — there were so many foreigners. And the emirs would tell them, “God says you have to go out and kill.” Because we were Christian, they would say to me, “You killed Muslims in the Crusades.” Another told me I was from the pope’s army and I had killed Muslims in Spain. We would try to tell them it wasn’t true, that we weren’t like that. We’ve always lived next to Muslims in peace. We work together; we like each other. But these people want the world to be like them, and they kill everyone who isn’t.
My father, who is 65 and sick, went to the ISIS center over 20 times trying to find out where I was. He knew they must be torturing me. And they were. They would come into our rooms and do things you can’t even imagine. They would put a gun to our heads and say they were going to kill us, then pull the trigger, but there wouldn’t be any bullets in the gun, so all we would hear was the noise. One time bombs fell about 100 meters from the building we were in, but our captors managed to get us out.
For a while, I was terrified constantly. More and more, though, I was only afraid of the time passing. I had no idea how long they were going to keep me, and sometimes I wanted to die. They didn’t try to convert me to Islam. They said because we weren’t free, we would have converted out of fear, and it wouldn’t be a genuine conversion. One night, someone came in and put a knife to my throat and told me I had to become Muslim. But the next day, an emir came and told them, “It’s forbidden for you to speak of religion with these prisoners.”
There were many hostages in the center where they kept me — mostly Christians. I think you could safely say over 100 people. Prisoners were being killed all the time, and new ones were always arriving. Then one day, they told me and my friend, the man from Aleppo, that our families had paid and we were to be released. They threw us in the streets of Aleppo, near the Turkish border. My God, it was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever had. There were Free Syrian Army soldiers. We went to them, and they took us to a church. I saw the cross and I thought, I’m alive. Then they let me use the phone, and I called my family. At this point, I thought my father was dead. He had gone to them with the money, and they had kept him for a couple of days. But then he came, and I saw him. My family had to pay about $80,000 to get me out.
It is a hard life, being a hostage. I think they killed 37 people at the center where I was held in just the few months I was there. The first man I was held with, the one that the Shura Council shot, had became like my brother. They treated him so badly.
The only people left in my hometown are women and old people who can’t leave. The men are all gone. It doesn’t seem like this will end. I don’t think Bashar al-Assad is going anywhere. It’s been four years, and he’s still there. I don’t care about Assad. He’s not a good man. But before this happened, Syria was beautiful. You, as a woman, could go across Syria in the day or the night and pass every checkpoint, and no one would bother you. That would never happen now. We have become Iraq. Saddam was not good, but he was better than what came after. And no one can bring Iraq back to what it was. The Syrian people said they wanted freedom. This is not freedom. This is chaos.
Sulome Anderson is a journalist and author based between Beirut and New York City. She’s currently working on a book about the kidnapping of her father, the journalist Terry Anderson, who was held for seven years in Lebanon during the 1980s. (Twitter: @SulomeAnderson)