Little is known about the whereabouts or condition of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who was kidnapped in Syria six years ago. But this much, his parents, six younger siblings and the U.S. government believe is true — he is still alive.
Tice’s family, friends and colleagues gathered at the National Press Club on Tuesday evening to mark the anniversary of his disappearance.
They looked at photographs Tice took before he was snatched at a checkpoint outside Damascus, an exhibit that will stay at the Press Club through August and then tour nationwide to raise awareness of his captivity. The photos show children and daily life in Syria, the focus of Tice’s articles that were published by The Washington Post, McClatchy, Agence France-Presse and others.
“It’s time,” said his mother, Debra Tice. “It is time to see Austin walk free. It is time for him to come home.”
Tim Grieve, vice president of news for McClatchy, said Tice’s detention remains fresh because of what he symbolizes.
“We owe it to Austin and his family to keep telling his story,” he said. “And we owe it to the people who read our work. They need to know it comes at a cost, sometimes an unbearable cost.”
Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. More than half of the 54 foreign journalists being held hostage by hostile forces are in Syria. In the first half of this year, 47 journalists worldwide were killed doing their jobs. Only in Afghanistan were more journalists killed than in Syria, where seven lost their lives.
“Austin’s case, unfortunately, isn’t an isolated one,” said Margaux Ewen, the North America director of Reporters Without Borders, which has worked with the Tice family. “Staggering numbers of journalists have been killed, physically attacked or imprisoned around the world. We know the world is getting worse for journalists and press freedom. That’s why we have to continue to raise our voice on cases like Austin’s so pressure is maintained to bring him home.”
Executives from news organizations that published Tice’s work spoke at Tuesday’s reception, seeing in Tice’s disappearance a tragedy for a passionate journalist and his family, and underscoring the perils many reporters face in bringing a story from a faraway land to their audiences.
“Austin is a talented journalist who took on significant risk to cover a war that many here did not understand,” said Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher of The Post and a speaker at the anniversary event. “Six years after his disappearance, we are reminded of the dangers reporters endure in order to shed light on the dark corners of the world, uncovering truth others would rather keep hidden. This global tragedy has caused an unimaginable amount of pain for Austin’s friends and family, particularly his parents, who have been relentless in their focus on his return. It is time for him to be released without further delay.”
Tice, a former Marine who was attending Georgetown Law School, went to Syria in May 2012 to tell the story of the war through its impact on average Syrians. He filed his last stories and, just a few days after his 31st birthday, prepared to depart overland to Lebanon.
He apparently started but never arrived. Five weeks later, a proof-of-life video turned up showing Tice saying under his breath, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” as armed men led him blindfolded down a rocky mountainside. There was no message apart from the headline: “Austin Tice is alive.”
He has not been heard from since. U.S. government officials and the Tices say they have reason to think he remains alive, somewhere inside Syria. It is presumed he is being held, if not by the Syrian government itself, then by forces connected in some way to the government.
In April, the FBI posted a $1 million reward for information that leads directly to Tice’s “safe location, recovery, and return.”
“We want information. We want to get this done,” Debra Tice said. “We’ve been working on this a long time. Now, we’re hiring some help. What else would you call a reward for information?”
The Tices say they are encouraged by the Trump administration’s success in securing the release of U.S. citizens held overseas. Among them are three U.S. citizens who were held in North Korea on suspicion of espionage and a woman held in Egypt on charges of human trafficking.
“We really do believe that this administration has a greater commitment to bring people home,” said Debra Tice, who spent the first half of August in Washington talking to officials in the White House and State Department. “They already have a good track record. We’re just counting on them to keep at it.”
One sticking point has been the reluctance of senior U.S. officials to engage in direct talks with Syrian government officials. The Tices hope the recent appointment of Robert O’Brien as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department means he will have the mission of making contact with Damascus.
For now, the lives of the Tice family are in suspension as they dedicate themselves to finding their son and bringing him home. A family Web page has a countdown clock of the days, hours, minutes and seconds that have elapsed since he was taken captive.
“I think we all do our lives in very much similar ways, one day at a time,” Debra Tice said. “Sometimes it becomes one moment at a time. You just keep breathing.”