“People are taken just for the money to release them,” said the director of the Britain-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who uses the alias Rami Abdulrahman.
Kidnapping was relatively unknown in Syria before the uprising began. The first reported abductions in the conflict occurred in summer 2011 and involved Sunnis, many of whom support the opposition, and Alawites, who mostly support the government. In many cases, there were tit-for-tat kidnappings in which one group took a set of hostages to negotiate the release of others, activists and monitoring groups say.
The scope of the threat has been difficult to quantify, observers say, as many victims are reluctant to talk about their ordeal. But anecdotal evidence clearly shows that kidnappings have been ramping up as the conflict has moved from rural to urban areas.
The kidnappers often target rich businessmen or skilled professionals, such as doctors. And in some cases documented by activists and monitoring groups, the hostage is killed even if the ransom is paid.
The situation has gotten so out of hand that, in early April, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree ordering a death sentence for any kidnappers who maim, sexually abuse or kill their captives. Even those who do not harm their victims will be given a life sentence of “penal labor,” according to the decree.
But the decree is unlikely to change the situation. “The kidnapping is either happening in areas outside government control or they’re happening in areas with tacit approval of the shabiha or members of the security services,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. The shabiha is a pro-government militia that usually works in tandem with the Syrian military.
Both the Syrian security services and the rebels have been accused of kidnapping for cash. In some rebel-held areas, people have been kidnapped to raise money for buying weapons, monitoring groups say.
‘Gangs can’t be stopped’
A man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about his safety, said he was walking home from a friend’s house in Damascus around midnight in February when he was confronted by three armed men.
They began roughing him up and asking whether he was an activist supporting the opposition, the man said in a Skype interview last week. Within minutes, he was crammed into a car and his face was covered with his jacket.
The man said he assumed that he had been detained by one of the government security services and was being taken to jail. Instead, he was taken to a room where he was stripped, tied up and left alone. For the first two days in captivity, he said, he was given only a glass of water.
“I kept screaming, ‘What have I done to you?’ I did not do anything at all!” the man said. “They said, ‘Do you want to live?’ I said, ‘Please, I’ll do anything.’ ”
One of the captors sought contact information about the man’s father. But when the man, a 29-year-old who works in an import-export business, told them that his father was dead, he was beaten and left alone again. “That’s when I realized they were after money,” he said.
The man concluded that the kidnappers may have known about his work and had assumed that he was wealthy. More beatings followed, and the kidnappers shaved his head to intimidate him.
At one point, the abductors pressured the man to reveal whether he supported the opposition or the government. From conversations he had overheard, the man thought that the group supported the government, so he told them that he backed Assad.
The man said he was released two weeks later after his brother paid a ransom of about $10,000. During his time in captivity, he said, he was given only four meals.
The man said that he would like to leave the country but that he is afraid of being kidnapped once again as he attempts to do so. He added, “Those gangs can’t be stopped or arrested. They are protected because they belong to the regime.”
A family divided
In some cases, the trauma of an abduction has split families apart. In September, a young woman in Damascus, the capital, said she got a call from her father’s phone at 2 a.m. She panicked, thinking that he might be having a medical emergency. But when she answered the call, a stranger told her that her father had been kidnapped, she said in a phone interview. The man on the phone described her father’s jewelry store and said the captors wanted the approximately $57,000 worth of gold from the store in cash as ransom.
She rushed to her parents’ house nearby and explained the situation to her mother and sister, she said. When they called the kidnappers back, one of them turned the phone toward her father. “I heard my father’s screams from the other side of the line as he was being beaten up,” she said.
The next morning, the three women went to the police, who told them that they should not be optimistic and advised against paying the ransom. When the young woman asked her uncles to help with the ransom, they refused. Some relatives even accused her of planning the kidnapping to get her father’s money.
Her uncles eventually paid the ransom. Her father was released six days later, left with no money or phone on a deserted stretch of highway between Damascus and Homs.
But her ties with the family were irreparably damaged. Even though her father was released alive, she said, he accused her of trying to get him killed so that she could inherit the jewelry business. Late last year, she moved to the northern city of Aleppo to escape the dark memory of the kidnapping.
“That was the last contact I had with my family,” she said.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.