By James Traub
In the ancient southeastern Turkish city of Antakya, 20 miles from the border with Syria, a plump Syrian merchant who calls himself Abu Nabil can be found most evenings drinking tea in the Bellur, a pleasant open-air cafe. Abu Nabil is the kind of mysterious middleman who germinates spontaneously in war zones. His specialty, or so he says, is arranging the release of journalists and activists kidnapped by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
When I met Abu Nabil, in the first days of October 2013, he told me that he was at that very moment negotiating for the freedom of James Foley, an American freelance journalist who had disappeared the year before. I said that I had heard that Foley was held by rebels, not by the regime. Abu Nabil shot me a masterful look.
«The company» — Kroll Risk and Compliance Solutions, the private security firm working the case — «doesn’t know anything; the government doesn’t know anything; nobody knows anything,» he said, through an interpreter. «James Foley will come to his family in 15 days.”
Foley did not come to his family in 15 days; whatever hole he has been deposited in, he is there still. Abu Nabil’s tale, like so many of the narratives emerging from a vicious civil war now well into its third year, was a compound of outright lies, exaggerations, and, quite possibly, truth. The kidnapping and ransom specialists at Kroll had been sufficiently persuaded of Abu Nabil’s veracity that they dispatched two agents to Antakya, where they had spent weeks trying fruitlessly to press this Arabian Sydney Greenstreet for hard proof.
The fate of journalists kidnapped in Syria is a terrifying mystery. As of press time, at least 30 journalists, as well as a number of humanitarian actors, are languishing in captivity. In only a few cases do their colleagues or employers know where they are or who is determining their fate. In almost no cases have their captors made any effort to communicate. It is as if these unlucky men and women have simply disappeared.
The early days of the war saw a number of tragic deaths of journalists, including the Sunday Times of London’s Marie Colvin and freelance photographer Remi Ochlik, killed by regime shelling during the bombardment of Homs. And then things took an even nastier turn. On August 13, 2012, Austin Tice,an American former Marine, law student, and sometime journalist, was nabbed, apparently by the regime. Nothing has been heard from him since October 2012. Two months later, the NBC reporter Richard Engel and his team were kidnapped by what Engel described as the pro-regime militia known as shabiha. They escaped after five days when their captors drove into a rebel checkpoint. Those were just early mile markers on the road to anarchy. Today, rampant kidnapping has become the norm.
Covering wars is, of course, a dangerous job; that’s one of the things many war correspondents like about it. But Syria is dangerous in a way that is less thrilling than sickening. Stephanie Freid, who covers the war for the Chinese CCTV network, says, «I’ve never been in a bleaker, darker setting; it’s a godless place. Whenever I go in I feel like, ‘Just let me get out alive.'» While some major news organizations continue to work inside Syria, many of the world’s most experienced war correspondents — including C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, Paul Wood of the BBC, and Janine di Giovanni of Newsweek— stopped crossing into Syria in September 2013. They’re not afraid of being killed, at least no more than any sentient being would be in such a dangerous place…