After kidnapping in pro-Assad heartland, survivor says 'it’s the law of the jungle here’

Three masked gunmen kidnapped Mustafa, 50, just outside his home in the small coastal city of Jableh, 23km southeast of Latakia’s provincial capital last September. They didn’t arrest him; rather, they simply grabbed him at gunpoint.

For 20 days, the armed men tortured the wealthy real estate developer, beating him with cables, putting out cigarettes on his body and nearly drowning him as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

A diabetic, he had no access to insulin. “I could tell that they started to fear that I might die,” Mustafa tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

For a ransom of SP20 million ($93,000), the father of three was dumped, beaten and bloodied, on the side of the highway.

It is not clear who kidnapped Mustafa, who lives in regime-held Latakia province. But six months later, he says he still lives in “constant fear.”

 Latakia, January 2017. Photo courtesy of the Latakia News Network.

Residents living in the pro-regime Alawite heartland of Latakia are generally far removed from the bombs and battles of war. However, Mustafa says the six-year conflict has stripped away any semblance of law and order from his hometown, with armed militias and criminal networks operating in plain sight. 

The security situation is deteriorating inside government-controlled Latakia, says Mustafa.

“The strong eat the weak, and there’s no law—much less any security apparatus—to do anything about it.”

Q: Six months after your release, do you feel like your life is at all returning to normal?

Of course not. I don’t think that it will ever be like before. How can I forget what I went through, the mental and physical agony? Everything in my life has changed. I’ve become afraid of being alone or letting any member of my family go anywhere by themselves. I don’t even let my kids go to the supermarket across the street.

When I go to work in the morning, I make sure that my wife stays with me on the phone the whole way there, and it’s the same thing when I’m coming home.

I’ve begun taking everything into account, even when I’m just out for a walk. If my kids ever ask to go somewhere in nature or someplace outside of the city, I categorically refuse. That is outside my control.

The memory of my kidnapping lives with me all the time. It haunts me in all of my interactions and has made me live in constant fear. It stole my freedom. I distrust everything and everyone around me.

Q: How have you seen the overall safety situation across Latakia evolve over the course of the war?

This city is not safe, and it’s been like that even before I was kidnapped. Maybe it’s because I never went through an incident like this one, but those fears and daily apprehensions never really affected me before I was kidnapped.

In the end, no one can feel what you’ve felt. There’s nothing anyone can say unless they’ve lived through the same experience.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I’ve said to myself that we really are living now by the law of the jungle here. The strong eat the weak, and there’s no law—much less any security apparatus—to do anything about it. The ones who have the power and the influence here are the ones who kidnap and steal.

Things get worse and worse in the city each and every day. The criminals exploit the whole situation, and no one is ever held accountable. The city is constantly without electricity, and by nightfall, there’s total darkness. Mobile phone service and the internet are both incredibly weak and obscenely expensive, all of which increases the opportunities for crime.

Every day I hear another story—somebody kidnapped or disappearing, someone robbed, even murder. There’s no denying, we’re living a game of luck and chance over here.

Q: What happened the evening you were taken?

It was the end of the work week, and I was on my way back home in the evening. I left my office at the usual time, just like any other day, and I got in my car. My wife called and asked me to pick up a few things for the trip that we take every Friday with the kids. I was a little late getting home just because I was grabbing all the things, but I didn’t feel like anything was off. No one was following me or watching me. Everything really was normal as per usual.

But when I got to my neighborhood, I couldn’t find a parking space close to my house, so I had to park about 200m away. As I was walking home, carrying the things, I got about 100m before a black car with tinted windows cut me off. I learned from my family after I was rescued that it didn’t have a license plate.

Three armed, masked men got out, and I had no clue who they were. They forced me into their car.

Other people were there, looking on as this all happened, but no one budged. They were shocked and frightened by the weapons.

 Barred windows of Latakia’s Hafez al-Assad school that closed in 2011. Photo courtesy of Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images.

Q: What happened after that? Where did they take you?

They bound and blindfolded me, all at gunpoint. I couldn’t see a thing and I had no clue where we were going, but by my estimation we were in the car for about 45 minutes to an hour.

The only thing that I could think about was my children. I kept asking myself if I would ever see them again. Would they grow up fatherless?

They kept taking turns hitting me, one after another, while cursing me the whole time. I felt dizzy. Throughout that ride I kept asking who they were and what they wanted from me. Every time I asked a question, I got hit. I finally stopped asking questions altogether in the hopes that they might stop hitting me so much.

The car finally stopped, and my heart felt like it would burst out of my chest from the fear of the unknown. They kicked me out of the car, and I fell to the ground.

“Get up, animal…This is just getting started,” one of them said. He started kicking me before I finally stood up in pain. They led me to this place that I think was a warehouse or a garage because of the creaking, metallic sound the door made every time it was opened.

Q: How long were you held for? What did they want from you?

I was held for 20 days. I counted each and every day. Two days after my kidnapping, they used my phone to contact my wife, and they demanded a SP20 million (approx.: $93,300) bribe from her.

After that, they would call her once a week from another phone, and each call would only last no more than a minute.

In that first call, my captors demanded the ransom without ever giving any information as to how the transaction would go down, not when, not where. All they said was that they’d be sure to contact her again. Of course, this was just to put pressure on my family and force them to give in to the demands and pay without thinking twice.

It was 10 days before they made that second call. But during this time, they tortured me in every way imaginable. There were times that I wished I would die. I asked them to reach out to my family and go through with the deal so that my torture might finally come to an end. All they said was, “All in good time.”

They hit me with cables and put out cigarettes on my body. I couldn’t even tend to my injuries, and so they got infected and worsened. I suffer from diabetes and needed my medicine, but they had no mercy, no compassion.

They tortured me constantly by shoving my head under water until I could barely hold my breath any longer.

Q: How did you got out of this?

After 15 days passed, my condition began to seriously deteriorate. I began falling in and out of consciousness a lot. I could tell that they started to fear that I might die.

They contacted my wife again, who was beyond anxious to hear from them. They told her that they wanted the money in cash in three days and to be ready. They told her not to even think about turning to the police, because they won’t do a thing, and that she knew exactly what would happen to me.

They continued torturing me, albeit a little less than before. Still, my health continued to deteriorate each and every day. I felt for sure that I was going to die.

They contacted my wife and told her to get the money together. They said they’d tell her where to go the following day and that she should come by herself.

That same day they put me in a car. We drove for about a half hour until we got to what I think was a home. I heard the sound of someone knocking on a door, and then we went up a few stairs and were inside.

The following day they put me in a car with a guy. I heard them saying, ‘We’ll follow you in a car.’

They contacted my wife and told her to put the money on a street corner and then to leave. As for me, they threw me out of the car as I was handcuffed and blindfolded. As soon as they did, they contacted my wife and told her that she’d find me lying on the highway at a spot near the gas station.

Q: What kind of state were you in when you were finally released?

My wife didn’t recognize me at first. I had lost 15kg, my body was bruised and swollen all over and there was blood everywhere. I was an entirely different person from the horror of that experience.

She got me to a hospital right away, where I stayed for a month and five days. All I could do was look at my family in total silence. I didn’t say a single word for an entire month.

My kidneys were in particularly bad shape because of my diabetes. The doctor told me that they were only at four percent of normal function.

I can’t easily forget what I went through. The fear haunted me everywhere I went. I no longer trusted anyone around me, and I felt like I was being watched and followed all the time.

I started dropping my kids off at school and making sure that I was the one taking them back to the house. I absolutely never let them go out by themselves, and that was final.

There is no longer law and order here. These men are above the law. They control the power. I know I wasn’t their first target, and I surely won’t be the last one either. The rich are the most attractive prey for them.

 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Yasmine Ali

Originally from Latakia, Yasmine moved to Jordan in 2012 where she completed her education in English Literature. She has worked with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Her goal is to report on the challenges facing Syrian children and youth.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.