La Stampa's veteran war correspondent Domenico Quirico was held hostage in Syria for five months by rebel soldiers. Earlier this week, along with Belgian writer Pierre Piccinin, the 61-year-old was released after what he described as a "very dangerous and complex" captivity. Here is his first account of what happened...
TURIN — We entered Syria on April 6 with the consent of the Free Syrian Army and under their protection, just like we had before. I wanted to get to Damascus to verify in person the updates on what appeared to be a decisive battle in this civil war. But they told us that we would have to wait a few days before being able to reach the Syrian capital and so we decided to accept their proposal to visit a city called Al Qusayr near the Lebanese border — which, at that point, was being besieged by Hezbollah, a loyal ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
We arrived in Al Qusayr with a Free Syrian Army provisions convoy. It was a long, overnight journey through the mountains, with no headlights as the regime controlled the road. We saw bombs from a MiG fighter jet near a Byzantine mill. This stretch of territory along the Orontes River has seen empires rise and fall. The battle between Ramesses II and the Hittites was fought there, and history is all around: in the hills and in the rocks.
But during more recent history, the city had already been destroyed by aerial bombings, and so the following evening we decided to go back to where we started and try to make our journey to Damascus.
We asked to be accompanied by men from the Free Syrian Army, and we left in a car with two people who we had shared our dinner with. We'd thought that they were both trustworthy, but it was probably they who betrayed us. As we left the city we were met by two pick-up trucks, and the men on board had their faces covered. They made us get in the trucks then they took us to a house and beat us, claiming to be policemen of the regime.
Over the next few days, however, we discovered their lie; they were fervent Islamists who prayed to their God five times a day. On the first Friday, they listened to a sermon by a preacher who was backing the jihad against Bashar al-Assad. But the definitive proof came when we were bombed by airplanes: it was clear then that the people keeping us hostage were rebels.
The founder and leader of the group holding us prisoner was a self-proclaimed emir called — or rather, who called himself — Abu Omar. He had formed this contingent by recruiting people from the local area; more bandits than Islamists or revolutionaries. Abu Omar uses an Islamist veil to cover his trafficking and other illicit activities, and he collaborates with the group Al Faruk who we would later be handed over to.
Al Faruk is a very well-known outfit in the Syrian revolution. It is on the Syrian National Council and its representatives have met with European governments. It was created by a rebel general who recruited fighters from the poorest communities in the city of Homs.
The West trusts the group but I have learned, at my own expense, that it is also an organization that exemplifies a new and alarming phenomenon within the revolution: the emergence of proto-bandit groups like in Somalia who take advantage of the Islamist label and the context of the revolution to occupy entire districts, to exact payment from the local population, to kidnap people and to fill their own pockets with money.
Our first prison
Initially we were kept in a house in the countryside on the outskirts of Al Qusayr. We stayed there for twenty-odd days and then we faced the first of the many terrible incidents that make up the rather Russian-doll-like plot of this story: one event inside another, each taking us farther away from the outside world. Hezbollah attacked the rebels positions, and the building where we were being held prisoner became the front line of the battle.
They then took us to another house, inside the city, but it was as if destiny was against us: That house was also attacked, and for a week we were handed over to a unit of Jabat Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. This week, it turned out, was the only time we were treated like human beings, and in some ways they were even kind to us: we ate the same food they did, for example.
In times of war, Al Qaeda militants display a very puritanical lifestyle, and they are fierce warriors — Islamist fanatics who want to build an Islamic state in Syria, and then extend it to the whole Middle East. But when it comes to dealing with their enemies, because as Christians and Westerners we are their enemies, they have a sense of honor and respect. Al Nusra is on the United States’s list of terrorist organizations but they were the only ones who showed us any respect. Then we were handed back to Abu Omar.
Escape from Al Qusayr
Al Qusayr was under siege and getting smaller by the day, being destroyed brick by brick. At the start of June, Hezbollah had effectively won, and the siege was almost over. However, around June 9, the various factions of the rebellion (including Abu Omar’s) decided to break through the enemy line together with the local population to try and escape to other parts of Syria. Incredibly, they — or rather, we — managed to get through. It was an extraordinary and terrible event: men, women, children, the handicapped and the old, all walking for twelve hours a night for two straight nights through the countryside.
As they walked across the pebbles, this throng of five or six thousand people made a dull murmuring noise, as though it was a single body moving. When the regime soldiers launched rockets to illuminate the scene and allow the artillery and machine gunners to aim, the countryside would be dazzled with light and all these thousands of people would suddenly throw themselves to the ground in incredible silence. As soon as the rockets, which fall slowly, reached the ground and went out, the crowd would get straight back up and start walking again, leaving behind a chain of the dead.
From the highlands, we descended towards Homs. We were walking towards this great big city; the city where the revolution started. Part of the city had already been destroyed by bombing, and it was all but empty. The other part, however, was still lived in as fighting continued. Because of a strange and quite incredible optical effect, the great expanse of these white houses was projected upwards towards the night’s sky. The destroyed areas were as still and silent as a cemetery. The rest was all light: explosions, rockets and noise. I thought I must have been dreaming, it couldn’t possibly be real.
We walked across the Homs plain in the middle of two columns of fire, surrounded by shadows. The guns were aimed at the height of humans, so people ran low, tripping over the dead, until we finally arrived in a little cement city, one of the many horrible little cities in Syria, rough and badly built.
After that night, they took us back to the city where our trip started and sold us to Al Faruk. They told us that in two days time they would take us to the north, near the border with Turkey, and set us free. We spent two nights travelling along mountain roads in pick-up trucks. The drivers would stop and look through infrared telescopes every so often to see if the military was preparing an ambush further down the road. After the second night of travelling in the back of the truck, we arrived in Idlib province, covered in dust, and they kept us there for three or four more weeks in a military base.
The phone call
After the first day of walking, Abu Omar was sitting like a lord under a tree, surrounded by his little court of warriors. He called me over to sit next to him; he wanted to pretend that he was our friend to mislead the others who were wondering who these two badly-dressed, exhausted Westerners were. We had been imprisoned for two months at this point. I asked him for his phone to call home, saying that my family probably thought I was dead and that he was destroying my life and my family. He laughed. He showed me his mobile phone, and lied to me, saying that there was no signal so it was impossible to call. It wasn’t true.
Then a soldier with an injured leg from the Free Syrian Army pulled out a phone from the pocket of his trousers and gave it to me in front of Abu Omar. I managed to phone home for 20 seconds, but after the desperate scream I heard at the other end of the phone, the line dropped. That was the only true gesture of kindness I received in those 152 days. No one showed any sign of what we would call pity, mercy or compassion. Even the old and the young tried to hurt us. Perhaps I am expressing it in terms that are slightly too ethical, but in Syria, I discovered the Land of Evil.
They kept us like animals, confined to little rooms with the windows closed despite the terrible heat, sprawled on straw mattresses. They gave us their leftovers to eat. In my entire life, I have never experienced the humiliation that comes from simple things like not being able to go to the toilet, having to ask for everything and always being told "No." I think that there was a certain satisfaction for them in seeing the rich Westerner being treated like a beggar.
Attempts at escape
The first time we tried, our guard had probably fallen asleep. We left the house and headed towards the lights that we thought were Al Qusayr. We were just 200 meters away from the house when they recaptured us.
During the last few weeks of our incarceration we tried again. We took advantage of the four guys who, in the evening, often didn’t keep an eye on their things. Their jackets with cartriges and Kalashnikovs were abandoned near our room. We took two grenades, planning to use them to open the room. I hid them under a destroyed sofa. We wanted to surprise them, take their telephones, and phone home to ask for help in our escape attempt.
Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately, because I think such an attempt would have caused me enormous moral problems — this wasn’t successful. But one evening they didn’t fasten the door of the house with the chain and, taking two Kalashnikovs with us, we left. We escaped towards the Turkish border crossing at Bab al Hawa.
Reduced to merchandise
We hid in a sort of ruin in the countryside. We tried to cross the border at night, but we discovered that the area was mined and when we reached the barbed wire fence we had to go back. We stopped a car with the Kalasknikov, told the driver to take us to a nearby village but we were stopped at a checkpoint. They shot at us, seized us and took us back to the house where they were holding us before. They shut us in a sort of storage room with our hands tied behind our backs and left us there for three days as punishment.
The only value we had was how much money they could get for us. Merchandise cannot be destroyed or else you risk not getting the price you want. They can beat you up, but they can’t come too close to killing you because if they break you too badly or definitively, they can’t sell you any more. That’s the paradox that rules the life of a hostage.
The simple things in life
For five months the rising and setting of the sun became the rhythm of my life. It was impossible to do all those things that make up normal life — walk, move around, meet other people, write, read, look at the landscape, dream of things that maybe you’ll never do — and this meant that I learned to appreciate simple things, like a glass of cold water, or walking and talking with someone who wasn’t my unfortunate "travel" companion [Belgian writer and teacher Pierre Piccinin]. But I was very lucky to have him there, because otherwise I would have gone crazy.
They were from a group which claims to be Islamist, but in reality it was formed of young futureless people running wild. The had gotten involved in the revolution because the revolution now belongs to those who stand halfway between banditism and fanaticism. They follow anyone who can promise them a future, give them weapons and therefore power, and offer them money to buy phones, computers and clothes.
Adidas is extremely popular in Syria — everyone has Adidas T-shirts and shoes. They look like they have some sort of sponsorship deal with the company. These kids live a life dominated by men. There are no girls. They do nothing in their communities, except lie around on their mattresses drinking mate. I thought that was a South American drink, but it is actually very widespread in some areas of Syria. And they smoke original American Marlboros bought in Turkey. I seemed more Islamist than many of them because I don’t smoke or drink!
They also watched television, but the news was the last thing that interested them. Instead they watched vaguely racy short films on Qatari channels, or old sentimental Egyptian films from the 1950s in black and white. Even American wrestling …
Twice they pretended to stand me against a wall. We were near Al Qusayr. One man came over to me with his gun and showed me it was loaded, then told me to put my head against the wall and put the gun to my temple. Those moments last forever and you are ashamed … You get angry with yourself for being so scared. You hear the breath of your would-be executioner. He emanates a sort of pleasure of having your life in his hands and feeling your fear. It is a little bit like when children, who can often be terribly cruel, pull off a lizard’s tail or an ant’s legs. It is the same awful ferocity.
For a laugh at our expense, our jailors would tell us every so often, “In two or three days, a week, you’ll be free and back in Italy.” And then they would enjoy our despair later on. They would add a word — Insha'Allah [God willing] – which was their way of leading us on without having to feel like they were lying to us. They continually told us bukrah [tomorrow], but then the next day no-one ever left. A very cruel game, but towards the end, when they said that to us, we would say “Insha'Allah” back to them to let them know that we had understood.
Finally, one day, a Sunday, would turn out to be different. We crossed almost the whole country. Maybe it was to hide our tracks, because we stopped in a city whose name I don’t know, and then we turned back along the same road. And then we were freed. This was for real. They made us get out the car on the other side of the border and told us to walk. I confess that I thought they were going to shoot us in the back. It was dark, a Sunday after sundown. I remember thinking that if I heard the click of the magazine I would throw myself to the ground. I was sure that they would eliminate us. We had seen their faces, we knew their names. And yet no-one loaded a Kalashnikov. And then I heard Italian voices. Insha'Allah, this time it was the real thing.
God was very present throughout this whole experience. Pierre Piccinin is a believer, and so am I. My faith is very simple. Simple but profound. My faith is about giving. I don’t believe that God is a supermarket. You don’t go to the discount store to ask for grace, forgiveness of favors. This faith helped me to endure. I also had my notebook and each day I wrote down what happened. I had almost finished it. I had two pages left. On the last day they took it off me. It helped me, above all, to keep track of the days and months. Losing sense of time would have pushed me down a deep well from which I might not have ever escaped.