By Sami Shahrour
Damascus, Syria, May,2015 (Amman Net) – The explosive crisis in Syria was a turning point in Ali’s life. Ali F., in his 30s, with no permanent job until now, has become a well-known figure not just in his area, but also in Homs and Hama.
From being an owner of a small kiosk, selling cigarettes and coffee, he became a wealthy man with millions of Syrian Liras. He made his fortune as a result of ransom money. He became the most well-known kidnapper.
Salah A. and Musyab S. are also kidnappers. The three share power in the same area where Ali operates. They couldn’t care less about the authorities who say they are e adamant to combat this phenomenon, to prosecute those involved and to question them before terrorism courts established in 2013.
So far, the authorities have failed to deal with this issue. And the number of kidnapping cases is on the rise with tens of cases registered each month. The government unable to stop this trend in a country where 220.000 people have been killed in the ongoing crisis. The random kidnapping that took place early on, at the beginning of the crisis in March 2011 has gradually turned into a “business” undertaken by individuals and organized gangsters belonging to different sects. They made use of the lack of security and the fact that a number of villages remain closed to the outside world. In addition, there was no central inspection power, not to mention the growing number of weapons owned by civilians as documented during this three-year investigation. The journalist and his assistants documented the involvement of members of the security in the process of kidnapping, be it for financial gains or to humiliate citizens they suspect of being anti-regime.
Omar Ousi, President of Parliament’s Reconciliation Committee, threatens those involved as well as the agents who made their wealth from kidnappings. The Minister of National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, places the blame on a multitude of authorities dealing with these crimes, with no effort to liaise among each other. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice confirms the urgency given to this issue by the government. For example, terrorist courts have been established and kidnappers have been questioned. The local opposition criticizes the authorities. They claim that the authorities are not taking this matter seriously enough. They see that rejecting the principle both of negotiation and exchanging detainees for hostages, makes the situation worse.
An Active Stock Exchange
There are no accurate figures as far as hostages in Syria are concerned. Ali Haidar says: “There are approximately 16,000 missing individuals who have been reported by their families across Syria”. This figure does not include the detained, kidnapped or even people who may have died during the crisis without registering their death.
The President of the Reconciliation Committee estimates the number of hostages to be between 10,000 and 15,000, pointing out that the majority are in Doma in the suburbs of Damascus, the base of “Islamic Army” headed by Zahran Alloush.
Ousi believes that they are held at Touba, the largest prison in the city where 2,000 detainees are kept. However, sources from within Doma (defected armed personnel who no longer belong to the “Islamic Army” and who have joined the Syrian army) believe there are 4000 hostages, 1,000 of whom are women. The majority come from Amra district which was seized by Islamic militias in late 2013. The Ministry of Reconciliation, established in 2012, registered approximately 5,700 abduction cases. According to Minister Haidar, around 1,025 have been freed.
Haider explains the disparity in the number of abduction cases saying the latter are “ like the stock market, some get released, but then more are taken hostage or detained”. A large number of them are simply unknown, as some cases are resolved by the relatives of the hostages or by counter kidnappings. Here is where see the gap between the total number of hostages and the registered numbers comes and those cases should be addressed by the ministry.”
On the eve of Sunday 2/11/2014, Dr. Hosam al-Tarsha, obstetrician and gynecologist, was released after being held for four months. The 50-yar-old recalls: “On my way to my clinic in Homs at around 8:10 a.m. on 3/7/2014, at “Naqeera” intersection, a car and a van blocked my way. Four armed men dressed in military attire and affiliated to the “National Guard” (forces supporting Syrian Arab Army) blind-folded me, took me to an unfamiliar place where they locked me up in a room for four months. The kidnappers asked his family for $2 million in ransom. Later on, he discovered that a security informant had reported to the kidnappers that the gynecologist is treating the wives of the armed forces for which he earns a lot of money, which he keeps in foreign banks. He was accused of being sympathetic and supportive of the army. This is the accusation that has been used with a number of abduction cases carried out by “troubled factions”, as referred to by government officials like Minister of Justice, Nijm al-Ahmad and the Haidar of the National Reconciliation. These include factions of the “National Defense” as well as “Popular Committee” members whose responsibility is to protect the various neighbourhoods against armed attacks.
In Homs, 160 km. from Damascus, the first kidnapping was recorded one week after the demonstrations broke out on 15 March 2011 as documented by this reporter.
This investigation has focused on the kidnapping cases in the third largest city in Syria, known for its various sects.
Initially, people in Homs did not give much concern to those random cases. However, soon this situation became a phenomenon that divided people of Homs according to the factions they belong to. This is according to Haidar Razouq, correspondent for a local broadcast station, who received tens of complaints about kidnappings. Sharing the same views as Haidar are Sheikh Nawwaf Tarrad al-Mulhim Head of “The People’s Party”, established after the uprising in Syria, and a well-known figure working with extensive knowledge on the issues of kidnapping and reconciliation.
In Homs alone, 2,700 kidnapping cases are recorded as per official figures, which the reporter had got hold of, having compiled a number of statistics (police records, lists of reconciliation committees and hospital reports). Of those, 500 abducted individuals were set free, 700 cases were settled and until now 1,500 have not been resolved. The reporter and his team documented tens of cases and witnesses of abductions that took place. Some of them were freed and others have not been rescued so far.
Among the 700 kidnapped cases whose names were registered at the police station before 2013, 102 were documented, 55 were found dead, others were nowhere to be found. However, people suspect that they may be held in old Homs.
We discovered none of those kidnapped were alive. This was at the time of the reconciliation agreement and the departure of the armed personnel from old Homs on May 7, 2014 when it returned to government control under a UN agreement, says Minister Haidar.
Dr. Mohammad Shaheen confirms: out of 23 bodies that have been dug out of the land beind the Party building in Hameediyya (Old Homs), only one body was recognized by his wife. In addition, they were not buried in mass graves found in old Hums after the departure of the armed personnel. The mass graves were allocated to the armed personnel and their relatives.
The first registered kidnapping case has been recorded at Hums police station on 22/3/2011. The police had got hold of 129 cases of kidnapping.
Suzan Dayoub, born in 1988, disappeared with no information about her case. Four cases were registered in April; five in May; and 64 in November. The average kidnapping ranged between 30 – 60 cases. This was up until March 2012.
|| تشرين ثاني
|| No. of kidnapped
|Umm al Amad village
In Homs citizens as well as local security and authorities are new in dealing with the situation of chaos and confusion hovering over their city. People thought the police could rescue a kidnapped relative or family member. However, nothing was done more other than register the date and sequence of events of the given case.
Homs was the first city to experience kidnappings, in neighbourhoods such as: Baba Amer, al-Qrabees, Bab al-Sabba’, Bab Tadmor, and al-Khalediyya. The authority of the state had weakened or even disappeared. Mr. Ali Haidar, Minister of National Reconciliation, refuted accusations dealing with the government’s lack of accountability and inability to help those who were kidnapped. He explains: “There are areas that are not under the control of the government, where it is impossible to operate. Dealing with kidnapping cases is like dealing with a ghost. If there’s no demand money, ransom or names to be released, it’s like waiting for an answer from nowhere. You don’t know when or how it will happen. One of the kidnappers has been negotiating with the family of the abducted person, using a home landline, belonging to someone in a region over which the government has no control.
To the Rescue …
With people losing hope of a drastic solution, relatives of the kidnapped, whose words have been recorded by the reporters working on this investigation, agreed collectively that police and security authorities gave the impression that their solution is to kidnap relatives of the kidnappers is by counter-kidnapping. They had found this to be the sole solution.
Mohammad B. is a father of two – a boy and a girl – who have been kidnapped. He says: “I have tried all possible means; seeking help form police, security authority, well-known figures and agents. Finally, the one solution left was counter kidnapping, in order to have a speedy exchange with another kidnapping in the same area where my children were kidnapped. I was advised to kidnap someone who is a relative of the kidnappers for speedy and guaranteed results”. He has had no success so far as the two remain kidnapped. Minister Haider says: “A general had advised me that the only way to bring back those kidnapped is to do the same with the kidnappers. In other words, kidnap someone related to them. I said that they will revolt”, He was referring to members of the popular committees and the national defense who are accused of the abductions and who might strike a deal with armed personnel against us when we try to get hold of those rebels.
Throughout this crisis, some officers became well known either as kidnappers, supporters of those who perform the abduction or are beneficiaries. Minister Haider refused to talk about certain names, saying that he works on the system as a whole and not on certain individual cases. However, he confirmed that the cases of those involved are under investigation. He added that some of them have been suspended, as an initial procedure. Legal action is also being considered.
With the efforts of the Ministry of Reconciliation – as confirmed by the minister- more than 40 of those involved have been sent to court, for different reasons. They were given different prison sentences. In Homs alone, 38 accused belonging to the Naional Defense factions who were involved in kidnappings, murder and burglary, were sent to court in Damascus, according to a security source. Nijm Al-Ahmad, Minister of Justice, says “there’s no one above the law”.
An Untaught Profession
The reporter managed to get an interview with Ali F., whose story was presented at the beginning of this investigation and who is involved in the kidnappings especially in Hums, Hamah and their suburbs. Minister Haider says that he has requested putting an end to these acts, demanding during a ministerial council meeting that Ali F. is brought to justice.
At the beginning of the crisis, Ali established a “Village Protection Group”. He had a kiosk where he sold cigarette. He hired a number of young men, whom he supplied with weapons. He also liaised with security authorities to avoid provoking them, because of his armed presence in the village. He would receive orders from them, as he says. This gave him a sort of legitimacy.
At the beginning of 2012, an officer was kidnapped from a village close to that of Ali’s. All fingers pointed at some kidnappers from a village that is relatively far and difficult to access. Ali ordered his team, accompanied by two of his young men, to approach a food court. He checked out the customers until he found four who came from that suspect village. He kidnapped them, then, started negotiations with their relatives. The officer was freed. The success of this operation gave him popularity in the region, where he was seen as “the defender of the village” at a time when the state security authorities were unable to interfere in a direct manner to solve the issue.
Soon after that incident, Ali F. started the kidnappings as well as asking for ransom. This brought him millions. The circle of youth working with him was larger than ever; 270 young men. This allowed him to expand his activities to include several governorates such as Aleppo and Idlib, as confirmed by one of the men working with him.
Counter Kidnappings … A New Era
After the first kidnappings and the series that followed which included targeting neighborhoods supportive of the government, a new era of kidnappings and counter kidnappings was to begin in Homs. Pro-government areas began forming groups in order to respond to the abductions of its people. Some of those were led by factions of “The National Defense”, others- people in power- heading the Reconciliation Committees (before the Ministry of National Reconciliation was established.) They received their power and authority as a result of the failure on the part of the government to resolve the issue, as confirmed by the Minister of Reconciliation as well as witnesses who sought their help in rescuing the kidnapped. Since the authorities could not sort the issue, people relied on such committees to resolve the problem. This transformed heads of the committees; such as men of religion, heads of tribes and others, into local media celebrities. They were in direct contact with the people whom they promised to sort the kidnapping situation via an exchange of detainees who were held by the authorities.
Attempts on the part of the armed militias to free those detained by the Syrian authorities in exchange for those kidnapped, failed. Mr. Munthir Khaddam, spokesman to the National Reconciliation, an anti-government organization, puts the blame on the authorities for their lack of commitment and responsibilities towards their citizens, including their supporters. He also blames them for not responding to the demands of the militias in the kidnapping/detained exchange process. He says: “The authorities did not respond to the offer of the armed militias who kidnapped hundreds of the government’s soldiers. One incident comes to mind, one relative of mine in al-Tabqa, asked the kidnappers via a video recording to exchange them with women detained by the authorities in al-Riqqa and al-Tabqa. However, the authorities did not respond. In Aleppo, an offer was made regarding the exchange of an officer and his soldiers, again the authorities did not respond. Unfortunately, they did not respond even when civilians were kidnapped as was the case in Lathiqiyya, ‘Adra and East Damascus”.
National Reconciliation … A Choice and a Ministry
Syrian authorities formed The Ministry of National Reconciliation Affairs. Dr. Ali Haidar was appointed as the Head of the Syrian National Social Party- an opposition party. Among the objectives of the ministry as per Republican Decree of 2010 is to search for the missing, kidnapped or arrested.
Minister Haidar took up his position amidst grave challenges due to the nature of ties between security authorities responsible for detention file. He says:“The current logistics do not match the required level. Good intentions are demonstrated through direct relationships. The ministry strives to offer the people what they need. It is necessary to establish discourse among security authorities, national security office and the ministries of Interior, Defense, Justice as well as National Reconciliation. The issue requires an inclusive proposal where the ministry plays a supervisory role between these sectors in order to resolve the kidnapping matter; being a sensitive issue. At times, there are several sectors involved in investigating the one case.
Abduction Ending in a Sale or Death
Mrs. Maha R., married with three children, was exposed to extortion when her husband, a businessman, was kidnapped while on his way to meet his friends in October 2011. She had contacted his friends who claimed they had not seen him at all.
Soon after, the kidnappers asked for ransom. The wife suspected one of those friends to be involved in the kidnapping after she heard his voice on the phone, during the negotiations that were taking place. Communication with the kidnappers, as a result, came to an end as she believed he was been killed after being kidnapped due to his sect.
When she received no news regarding her husband, she began negotiations with agents — those involved in the kidnapping business. She was exposed to deception and extortion by those who claimed that her husband was alive and that they knew about his whereabouts. She resorted to a well-known figure in Homs, Sheikh Ahmad al-Shaaar, Head of the Popular Reconciliation Committee, who was able to regain some of the money she had paid to the agents.
The wealthy woman received an offer from one kidnapper. She thought of kidnapping someone who came from the same neighborhood as those who had kidnapped her husband; as a bargaining card to get her husband back.
One so-called ‘kidnapping businessman’ explains: “This line of work is costly; a lot of expenses go towards feeding the kidnapped, their salaries, rental of the place where they are held as well as salaries of the guards. Selling the kidnapped is a popular trend’.
MP Eyad Soliman, who was kidnapped in Tadmur, was sold to one of the armed militias who were interested in buying him in order to negotiate the release of some militia leaders.
Agents and Consultants
Sheikh Ahmad al-Shaar, head of the Popular Reconciliation Committee, who used to act as a mediator to win the release of those kidnapped, refused to sayt how much he earns in return for his efforts. He claims he does this as an act of charity. When we arrived to his office in Homs, it was heaving with employees. It was the address to visit in situations of kidnap. So, what’s behind this? Soon, we realized, based on a phone call he had received from a well-known figure in Flayta village, that he needs his help in order to release a kidnapped person who has been taken by the Sheikh’s people.
The phone call, which was recorded, included an agreement regarding hostage exchange in return for money. The conversation went as follows: “We won’t disagree over money … Just as you care for us we’ll do the same with you.”
Al-Shaar was murdered on May 27, 2013 on his way to al-Dabaaa village in al-Qaseer region.
Authorities outside the Authorities
Saleh N., one of the most influential men who are working on the files of the kidnapped within the “Popular Reconciliation Committee” often repeats his famous speech regarding the fact that he’s accountable only before the president. Minister of Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, justifies this by saying: “These words are taken out of context. The president praised the efforts made by those leading popular initiatives. The president urged them to work within the law. In other words, to use their authority in order to free those kidnapped in exchange for the release of those detained. They did not commit a crime by liaising with security authorities.”
A Sudden and On-Going Investment
The birth of a new class of wealthy people- referred to as “crisis businessmen”- is the result of kidnappings. There is no approximate figure brought by this unexpected investment. There are no accurate statistics indicating the number of kidnapped since the beginning of the crisis in Syria
Towards the end of 2014, 35-year-old Ammar J. was kidnapped by Ali F.’s gang, while on his way back from Aleppo to Lataqia. He had to pay 15 million Lira ($10 million- as ransom, his car and money that was in the car. Ammar’s strong relationship with influential officials was of no use; he had to pay ransom. The kidnapper was threatened, but could not care less. He said that Ammar would not be released until the ransom money was paid. Ammar was kept hostage for 15 days. The ransom was paid.
The reporter managed to collect information regarding the amount of money paid as ransom by some of the wealthy families; between three million and 20 million Liras ($ 12,000 – $100,000).
Sheikh Nawwaf Tarrad al-Mulhim witnessed an operation to free the son of a wealthy men in Wadi al-Nasara in Homs for 17 million Liras ($ 100,000)..
The Minister of Reconciliation estimates that one of the three kidnappers mentioned in this investigation made one billion Liras ($4 million) from this profession at a time when the average monthly income is $ 100 per month.
Anti-Terrorism Law … Fighting Kidnapping
Nijm al-Ahmad, Minister of Justice, believes that the government is serious in pursuing kidnappers, be it individuals or gangsters. They have issued a law to establish a court that deals only with terrorism cases (Law 22/2012) in addition to” law no. 19/2012) concerning terror crimes. Punishment of such crimes could reach 20 years in prison with hard labor or execution, if the accused had murdered their victims or raped them.
The law applies to those convicted of abduction, regardless of where they work — be it with National Defense, the popular committees, the military. Al-Ahmad(middleman) says; “The law does not discriminate between anyone regarding their work, duties they are entrusted with and their geographic area. The punishment will be even stricter on those responsible for implementing the law.”
Far from the Law … Close to Desperation
Neither those who have been kidnapped or their families nor the majority of Syrians show much interest in official statements of optimism that the rate of abductions should drop as a result of those two new laws.
Ali F., Musayb S., Salah A., and Others … Not convicted
The cases of the thousands who were abducted in or by Aloush do not seem to convince Syrian families that authorities are giving enough attention to this humanitarian issue. These abductions have left a scar in the hearts of Syrians, deeper than any of the procedures and declarations announced by the authorities. Whenever someone is kidnapped, you hear a collective prayer:“God, let him die and spare him the agony and torture of abduction.”
This investigation has been completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net