Italian freelance journalist Susan Dabbous, 32, remembers her occasional childhood visits to Syria as one of sunny family reunions and archaeological beauty, but her more recent memories of her father’s birthplace include bloodshed, immense cruelty and being held captive for a frightening 11 days last year by a group thought to be from the al-Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al-Qaida.
“Syria is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I am not just saying that because I am Syrian,” Dabbous said, sitting in an intimate café in one of the more trendier neighborhoods of Jerusalem where she has been promoting her book, “How Would You Like to Die?” which she wrote following her captivity. Published in Italian in March 2014, an English version is available as an e-book online through iTunes.
Fascinated by the ancient culture and traditions she found in Syria, Dabbous, the daughter of a Catholic Italian mother and a Muslim Syrian father, began traveling to Syria on a more regular basis in 2007, visiting Damascus and Aleppo, where many of her relatives lived.
When the civil war broke out, she started crossing illegally from Turkey into the “freed” areas held by opposition groups several times a year for 2-3 week stretches covering civilians and refugees as a freelance journalist.
Her family managed to flee to Damascus, the only place it is possible to survive in Syria right now, said Dabbous, who is now based in Jerusalem and Rome working for Avvenire, an Italian Catholic Newspaper, and Skynews 24. As a freelancer she has also been based in Beirut.
In December 2013 she was awarded the International Prize for Press Freedom Isf-City of Florence by the Information Safety and Freedom Association.
With her Syrian looks and working as a print journalist, she was able to be relatively unobtrusive while she interviewed people when she first began covering the story in Syria. But that was not the case in April 2013, when she traveled for the first time with a TV camera crew as a producer for Italy’s Rai TV to report on the northwest Idlib region, filming destroyed and desecrated churches.
“It is a culture of martyrdom. Death is the best thing that can happen to you while doing something good. I was shocked and surprised by the question and was afraid I would be killed.”
— Susan Dabbous, who was asked how she would like to die while being held captive.
Arriving at the Christian village of Ghassanieh, they discovered that, bombarded by both the rebels and the regime forces, the entire population had fled, leaving behind only the head of the village and his wife, and Father Francois Murad. They refused to be interviewed, saying that they had spoken to the media before and nothing had come of it, but the priest directed the journalists to the village church, where they could see the destruction that had been done by rebel forces.
“It was completely destroyed, desecrated,” Dabbous said. “The Statue of the Virgin Mary had been beheaded and the cross was torn down. They had destroyed every single bench and the altar. They had slaughtered a dog, split him open, and he was still alive.”
At that moment, when journalist Amedeo Ricucci said they needed to kill the dog to end his suffering, a group of armed jihadists appeared demanding to see their photos and video footage, said Dabbous, and she knew then she and her colleagues — which also included an Italian cameraman and Italian freelance photographer as well as a Syrian driver, a Syrian fixer, two armed Syrian security guards and a Syrian-Italian translator — would be held captive.
“I realized we were being kidnapped and was accepting it very passively,” Dabbous said.
The leader of their kidnappers spoke English so Dabbous was able to communicate with him, and she played along with him, she said, when he denied having desecrated the church, insisting that they treated Christians well. Quickly realizing that in their eyes it was a serious infraction for her to be traveling as a lone woman with the group of men, she asked to be separated from her colleagues. The sheik was a strong leader who made it clear to his men they were not to touch her and, in keeping with their religious views that a woman is totally impure, she was kept covered completely with a blanket, she said, which oddly enough, once she realized she would not be raped, helped her remain calm.
“I didn’t want to see anything. I was comfortable under the blanket. It is a situation where you just want to disappear,” she said.
Most of the men had kept their faces covered, but she saw the faces of young fighters, she said.
There were other prisoners there, and even from under her blanket she could hear some of the Syrian prisoners accused of being traitors being tortured, Dabbous said.
After four days, she told her captors that she wanted to learn Muslim prayers and asked if she could be moved somewhere else. She was brought to a house where the wife of a fighter from Tunisia was, and the title of her book comes from one of the conversations on religion she had with the young woman who innocently asked her how she would like to die.
“It is a culture of martyrdom,” Dabbous said. “Death is the best thing that can happen to you while doing something good. I was shocked and surprised by the question and was afraid I would be killed.”
She spent four days with the young woman, cooking and talking, and their conversations are recounted in her book. Then she was brought back to where she had been held before and was happy to hear, if not see, her colleagues. After a few more days they were released, thanks to their colleague who negotiated with local sheiks and the Italian government.
“We were very lucky; no one has been released in 11 days,” she said.
Though Dabbous does not know the details of their release, she said several European governments such as the Spanish and the French have paid ransoms of some sort for the release of their kidnapped nationals. In their case, she said, it seems the kidnappers wanted equipment and the Italian government, through the Syrian fixer, acquiesced to their demands giving them food and winter clothes for the fighters.
“I don’t know if they wanted weapons, but this is war,” she said.
Reflecting a year after her capture, she said, she will not go back to Syria.
“This is something bigger than me. I will go back only when the war is over. Other journalists are getting kidnapped. It is too dangerous,” she said.
Kidnappings, which began about a year ago, are becoming increasingly frequent not only for political or religious reasons but also out of purely financial concerns.
According to Committee to Protect Journalists, 80 journalists have been abducted since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. A reported 60 journalists have been killed in the conflict.
More than 150,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in the three-year-old civil war.
While in Damascus, which is under the strict control of the regime, the situation is bearable, but crowded with refugees, the rest of Syria is devastated, Dabbous said.
“I can’t see a future for Syria right now,” she added, not giving much weight to the recent re-election of Assad, and predicting only more violence in a protracted civil war similar to that of Lebanon. “I don’t know how many Christians will be left. I hope they will still be there. They are part of the country. They are not ‘Christians’ they are ‘Syrian.’ I am trying to be positive now that I am far away from Syria, but the closer you are, you can’t be positive.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.