5 min read  | Idlib, Interviews, Politics

13 days after abduction in northern Syria, South African volunteer may still be alive


January 23, 2017

South African aid volunteer Shiraaz Mahomed may still be alive, according to a statement released on Monday by Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of Gift of the Givers, a relief organization based in the small city of Pietermaritzburg.  

Mahomed’s location and the identity of his captors are known, Sooliman said, but still missing is “proof of life.”

“We have received excellent cooperation through ‘connected’ people who, through their own individual research and networks have confirmed that Shiraaz is alive. We can’t independently verify it as yet but we are not ignoring it,” according to the statement.

On January 10, unknown gunmen kidnapped Mahomed in the Idlib town of Darkush, close to the Turkish border, as he and three members of the Darkush Hospital staff drove towards a nearby border crossing to enter Turkey. Mahomed had just left the hospital after the visit, but his exact destination is unknown. The gunmen abducted all four men, but released the three hospital workers an hour later.

Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, one of the rebel groups controlling the area, told Gift of the Givers that “they have an interest in the case and will assist in the search for Shiraaz,” according to a January 17 article posted on the organization’s website.

Gift of the Givers is “the largest disaster response NGO of African origin on the African continent,” according to its website. The organization has operated in Syria since 2012 and runs a food distribution center, medical clinics and provides assistance to displaced Syrians living in camps in northern Syria.  

Mahomed, who had previously volunteered with Gift of Givers, arrived in Syria on January 4 to photograph the organization’s winter campaign, Fadi Shabaan, the Gift of the Givers spokesman for Turkey and Syria, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani. Shabaan personally invited Mahomed to Syria.


Shiraaz Mahomed in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com.

I asked Shiraaz to prepare five videos about our projects in Syria. He volunteered to report on Syrians’ suffering, and share this reality with South Africa and the entire world,” says Shabaan.

In Darkush, the city where Mahomed was kidnapped, residents have organized demonstrations in the town square demanding for the volunteer’s release, Smart News reported on January 16.

Ahmed Ghandour, the Darkush Hospital director, says that residents’ primary concern is that Mahomed, who “joined his voice with ours to convey our suffering,” is safely returned.

Fakri Shabaan, Turkey and Syria spokesman for Gift of the Givers.

Q: Tell us about Shiraaz. Who is he?

Shiraaz is a South African, Muslim businessman who volunteered to come to Syria to report on displaced Syrians who, after fleeing their homes to escape arbitrary shelling and bombing by regime forces and Russian airplanes, now live in camps. I personally invited him to stay with us for five days to cover our 2017 “Stay Warm in the Winter” campaign to provide our brothers and sisters living in the camps with basic needs.

We also wanted to respond to accusations that we are helping terrorists rather than civilians in need. The pictures and videos taken by Shiraaz [some of which are posted on Gift’s website] speak for themselves about what we really do.

Our brother Shiraaz responded to my invitation to collaborate with us. He volunteered to report on Syrians’ suffering, and share this reality with South Africa and the entire world. I asked Shiraaz to prepare five videos about our projects in Syria: al-Rahma hospital and its external clinics, al-Halal hospital, a food distribution program and a warehouse we run in the village of al-Hafariya in Idlib countryside.

I also asked him to photograph our rescue and medicine campaigns inside of the camps.

Q: Does Shiraaz have any specific political views about a faction that may have led to him being kidnapped?

I haven’t found a convincing answer until now about why he was kidnapped. He was a volunteer who came here to report about life in Syria’s border camps.

Truthfully, Shiraaz isn’t a regular volunteer. He occasionally does work with us. Also, he’s not a journalist, but a businessman. He came with us to volunteer as a humanitarian, and photography is just his hobby. I can’t think of anyone he would have problems with.

Q: Has Gift of the Givers suspended its funding, as some reports have claimed?

No, we haven’t. We have been supporting our Syrian brothers and sisters since 2012. They aren’t guilty for what happened. And actually, many of them came together and organized demonstrations that demanded for Shiraaz’s release.

We’re currently working on two projects: building an academy for orphans and establishing a women and children’s hospital.

Q: Do you know who kidnapped Shiraaz, and why? Has anyone asked for a ransom?

Until now, the kidnappers have not contacted us. We don’t know the reason they kidnapped him and why they are currently holding him.

Q: Have you collaborated with other foreign journalists in Syria?

We don’t have a permanent foreign journalist who works with us; we invite people to cover certain projects. Shiraaz was invited to report on a particular project.

But I’m certain that, after what happened to Shiraaz, I won’t invite any other foreign journalists to collaborate with us.

**

Ahmed Ghandour, director of Darkush Hospital, where Shiraaz Mahomed was last seen.

Q: Has Gift of the Givers suspended aid to Darkush hospital as result of the kidnapping? Are you afraid that if Shiraaz isn’t released, the organization will stop funding the hospital?

Although we’ve continued to receive aid until now, residents and hospital staff are afraid that Gift of the Giver’s support will be affected by the kidnapping. We fear that if Shiraaz isn’t released, Gift of Givers will stop funding us, in response to pressure from both the [South African] government and the public.

Our funding is tied to Shiraaz’s fate.

Q: Do you know which party kidnapped Shiraaz? What role did rebel factions play in this kidnapping, considering that they are responsible for security?

We still don’t know; there has been no communication with the kidnappers. We’re following up with factions, workers and local leaders in the area to find out where Shiraaz is.

As for us, our most important concern is Shiraaz’s life and safety. This is more important than funding. At the end of the day, what happens to Shiraaz will affect Syria’s reputation.

What’s important to us is that Shiraaz, who has always helped us and who joined his voice with ours to convey our suffering, is released. 

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