Kidnapping is booming business in lawless Syria
DAMASCUS - “Hello, As Salam Alaykom. (Peace be Upon You.). Your son is in our hands. If you want him back, prepare a ransom and we’ll call you again later,” the voice says, then abruptly ends the call.
Hundreds of Syrians have received similar telephone calls after a wife, daughter or other relative has gone missing. Kidnappers have thrived in different parts of Syria the past four years as the country slipped into a full-fledged civil war.
In addition to displacement, destruction and death, Syrians have been enduring kidnapping for ransom, as lawlessness and disorder prevail in the country. Kaddour, a resident of Jabla in the countryside of the coastal province of Latakia, who asked not to reveal his first name, recalled the ordeal he went through to secure his kidnapped brother’s release.
He said the family lost contact with his brother on February 8th, after he had left for work in the nearby town of Salnafa. “His mobile phone was shut down for three days. We had looked for him everywhere, in hospitals and police stations, without success,” Kaddour said.
“Finally, we got news about him through an anonymous phone call, which said he was kidnapped and would be released in return for a ransom of 2.5 million Syrian pounds ($8,000).”
Salnafa, in the northern part of Latakia, has been the site of near-continuous battles between government troops and armed opposition groups since 2013, resulting in the destruction of dozens of small villages and kidnapping of hundreds of people whose whereabouts are unknown.
Taking advantage of the growing lawlessness, bandits and kidnapping gangs, who are unaffiliated with the warring parties, thrived in the area.
Kaddour recalled that he was relieved after receiving the call from the kidnappers. “I was assured that my brother was alive, though in the hands of one of those gangs which blackmailed people for money in return for the safety of their sons,” he said.
A second call came about 22 hours later, made from the phone of the kidnapping victim. “Is the money ready?” asked the voice. “We will give you another three days to secure the amount, after which we will send you the severed head of your brother,” Kaddour said he was told.
He sought the help of family and friends to secure the ransom, which he said he was able to reduce to 1.8 million pounds ($6,000) after hard bargaining with the gang.
Following the instructions of the kidnappers, Kaddour went alone to a restaurant in Salfana where a person was waiting to collect the money. “Within half an hour, your brother will be at home in Jabla,” the man said. “Effectively, 40 minutes later my father called to tell me that my brother arrived at home.”
Kaddour never knew who the kidnappers were and has refused to alert the police, preferring to heed the captors’ conditions because he believed he had no other choice. “I was sure that they were ready to kill my brother if I resisted them,” Kaddour said. It was an ordeal that fortunately ended with the return of my brother to his wife and 5-year-old son.”
The kidnapping spree has created an unusual demand for people who work as mediators between the kidnappers and families of victims. These are usually prominent figures or local clerics. One mediator, who asked to be identified by his initials, A.T., said he volunteered to help release hostages after his nephew was kidnapped in 2013 and released in exchange for 6 million Syrian pounds ($20,000).
“After going through the torment of my nephew’s kidnapping, I decided to dedicate my time to resolving hostage issues, and I have effectively succeeded in securing the release of 11 captives, while I failed in three cases,” A.T. said.
“My role consisted of liaising between the kidnappers and the families of the kidnapped. I often receive calls from the kidnappers, some of whom use Turkish mobile numbers, and also from families asking me to intervene to ensure their sons’ release,” he said.
The mediator said families placed the ransom money with him to forward to the kidnappers after their sons were set free. “I sometimes send the money to Turkey through complicated channels. In other instances, masked men would come to my home to collect the money and, in more than one case, I was asked to leave the money in specific places,” he added.
He said kidnappers once asked him to intervene with Syrian authorities to secure the release of three detainees in exchange for a kidnapped woman.
“I refused categorically because I do not want to interfere in politics and the conflict between the government and the opposition,” the mediator noted.
A source at the Ministry of National Reconciliation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ministry receives hundreds of calls from Syrian nationals seeking to know the whereabouts of missing relatives.
“Our role consists only of investigating whether the missing people were detained or arrested by the authorities and if so help speed up their trial and judgment,” the source said.
He said the ministry would coordinate with the Ministry of Interior to step up police patrols in areas reporting kidnapping incidents, noting that the majority of kidnappings were committed by armed groups to swap the hostages with prisoners and detainees held by the government.
Syrian opposition groups have succeeded in forcing two major swap deals under which the regime released more than 2,000 rebel prisoners in exchange for 48 Iranian hostages in January 2013 and 150 female prisoners in return for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns taken hostage from Maaloula convent in March 2014.