AMMAN: One night last month, a group of masked men broke into Fajr Hamawi’s home and took his father away.
“We thought they were the police and that dad had become a regime detainee,” Hamawi, 28, whose family lives in a small village southwest of Hama city, told Syria Direct.
The next day, Hamawi, 28, received a phone call from his father’s cell phone. The man on the other end of the line was brief and direct: “They told us we would pay SP2,000,000 (≈ $3,773) if we wanted to see him alive again,” says Hamawi.
The Hamawis sold all of their sheep, tantamount to the family’s life savings, in order to secure the ransom money. The kidnappers told Hamawi to place the money in a black garbage bag and leave it in an abandoned cement factory on the outskirts of the village. He did as he was told and waited for his father to be released.
Three days later, the family heard that an unidentified body had been found in a ditch on the Misyaf-Hama highway, a few kilometers north of their village.
“I went to the morgue and there was my father’s body lying on a concrete slab,” says Hamawi. “The authorities wouldn’t give us any more information or allow us to ask any questions,” he adds.
In Syria today, the Hamawi family’s story is not exceptional.
Kidnappings, both politically and financially motivated, are a common occurrence in rebel-held territory such as Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The Islamic State alone has made millions of dollars from kidnapping ($25 million in 2014 alone, according to US intelligence estimates). Meanwhile, a February report by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, determined that “tens of thousands” of people detained by the Syrian regime face “cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.”
For Syrians, “the specter of arrest or abduction, and the near-inevitable horrors that follow, have paralyzed communities across the country,” reads the report, entitled Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention.
But in regime-controlled Hama province, kidnapping is a local affair, and one primarily motivated by “financial considerations,” a local journalist who began documenting abductions in the central Syrian province earlier this year tells Syria Direct.
In the past two months, Ahmed Mohamed, a pro-opposition freelance journalist, says he has documented more than two dozen kidnappings in Hama city and its surrounding villages. Kidnapping here has become “as profitable a business as any,” he says.
Local, regime-affiliated militias and National Defense Force units are responsible for the kidnappings, says Mohamed. Sometimes, kidnapping victims are selected for their “anti-regime positions,” explains the journalist, but more often they are selected for “financial considerations.”
The militias act in their own self-interest and outside any law but their own, says Mohamed. “The regime can’t control these militias. And no one militia listens to another—when they have a disagreement, the bullets come down like rain,” he explains.
It was this gangland chaos that Abu Ahmed, an olive farmer from western Hama, was thinking about when he implored his son, Ahmed, not to make a nighttime trip to a distant olive mill last October.
“I told him I would go but he said it was a long trip and I would have to stand for a long time at the mill,” says Abu Ahmed, whose family brings in extra income by selling olive oil in local markets.
Ahmed and his cousin, Mohamed, set out to process a few bags of olives at a mill near Misyaf, a small town that is a 45-minute drive from the family’s home outside Hama.
“They were gone for 11 hours and we didn’t hear anything from them. I tried to call several times but his phone was shut off,” says Abu Ahmed.
Over the next few weeks, Abu Ahmed sold most of his belongings and twice delivered ransom payments, worth SP4,000,000 (≈$7,547) each, to locations determined by his son’s kidnappers.
“After that I never heard anything from the kidnappers and to this day I don’t know what happened to Ahmed and Mohamed,” says Abu Ahmed.
“I haven’t even been able to hear their voices.”