European parliament addresses Syrian hostage crisis

Governments of western hostages are finally working together


Twenty-two western journalists are currently held hostage in Syria. At least 20 Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish journalists have also been kidnapped. More than a dozen other westerners, including an Italian priest, seven employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross and five employees of Doctors Without Borders, are captives.

“Syria is the biggest international hostage crisis of our time,” says Florence Aubenas, co-chair of the support committee for French hostages in Syria.

Aubenas, who writes for Le Monde, was a hostage in Baghdad in 2005. She was in Strasbourg yesterday, when the European Parliament devoted a session to hostages in Syria. The president of the parliament, Martin Schulz, will deliver a speech on the same subject today.

At least five western countries – the US, Britain, France, Italy and Spain – have citizens held in Syria. “It’s such a serious crisis that, for the first time, countries are beginning to consider taking steps together, negotiating together,” says Aubenas.

“In the past, each had its own doctrine. Some advocated intervention. Others said we should pay for hostages. Each country handled it through their own intelligence services. Now countries are sharing information and working together.”

When the family of French journalist Nicolas Hénin broke their silence last October, almost four months after he was kidnapped in the northern Syrian town of Raqqa, his father Pierre-Yves said: “We well know that Nicolas’s situation is but a grain of sand compared to the immense tragedy that has struck the Syrian people. But this grain of sand is ours, and we care about him.”

Nicolas Hénin is also this correspondent’s “grain of sand”. When I met Hénin in Baghdad in 2003, he was incredibly generous in sharing contacts and knowledge. Three years later, he was proud and joyous when he introduced me to his future wife, Isabel, in Damascus. Later, he sent photographs of their newborn children: Sophie (now four) and Émile (1½).

Pierre-Yves records radio messages to tell Nicolas the children are fine, that Émile is learning to walk. He does not know if Nicolas hears them.

As I move around Paris, I often see hoardings with photographs of Hénin, Didier François, Edouard Elias and Pierre Torres, the other three French journalist hostages, all held since last June.

“Nicolas was the first journalist to cross Syria’s northern border when the war started in 2011,” says Jean-Pierre Krief, a film-maker who worked with Hénin for five years on a documentary about Iraq. “People have forgotten that Nicolas was the one who opened the way, before the wave of television networks. It was a feat; he’s always ahead of the pack.”

A freelancer for France 24 television, Le Point magazine, Radio France and the Franco-German television station Arte, Hénin is of the new generation of journalists, at ease in print, radio and television. Arte has just nominated Thunder Run on Baghdad, a film Krief directed and which Henin shot, for a US Emmy award.

Western governments usually prefer that hostage crises be handled in silence. Ultimately, the Hénins felt it was important “to make it known that Nicolas is a journalist”, Pierre-Yves said on the phone from Strasbourg, where he too attended the parliamentary session on hostages. “We don’t want to add a symbolic absence to Nicolas’s physical absence. It became untenable not to talk about him.”

Silence is appropriate if negotiations can be undertaken and concluded quickly after a hostage-taking, Aubenas says. That was the case of two Swedish journalists kidnapped in Syria in November and freed in early January.

But for long-held hostages, publicity is essential, Aubenas continues. “Freed hostages have told us their jailers taunted them: ‘We don’t hear anything about you on the radio. You’re not worth anything.’”

It is also important that other journalists be informed of the risks they are taking. “Otherwise, you’re sending them to disaster. It’s urgent to talk about it: for the hostages, and for those who follow,” Aubenas says.

Official French policy is that ransom must not be paid. “Of course you have to pay ransom,” Aubenas says. “This debate about ransom . . . unfortunately it’s not an option. It’s not as if we have the choice of saying, ‘We’ll pay’, or ‘We won’t pay’.”

On January 6th, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch confirmed that the four French hostages – like most of the westerners held in Syria – were kidnapped by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis. The last sign of life for the four French hostages was a video showing them together last October, wearing Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuits.

Isis’s motives remain a mystery, since it has made no political or financial demands. Some sources believe the Assad regime has infiltrated the group and is pulling the strings of the hostage crisis, as it did in Lebanon in the 1980s.

During fierce fighting last month between Isis and less radical Islamist groups, Isis is believed to have moved its western hostages eastward, towards the border with Iraq. “It crushed hopes of a rapid liberation, but at the same time it avoided the risk of them being hurt in the fighting,” says Pierre-Yves Hénin.

According to an article on the Daily Beast website, corroborated by other sources, a red-headed Chechen commander in Isis, known as Abu Omar al-Chechen, was responsible for moving the westerners in armoured vehicles.

Journalists are torn between their vocation to tell what is happening in Syria and the danger of kidnapping.

“Camus said journalists are historians of the present,” says Krief.

“Nicolas was acutely aware of the need to recount history as it is burning, when it is at the same time news and history.”

Publicising the hostages’ fate is one way of covering the war in Syria, says Aubenas. “We have to explain why news comes out in a fog of blood and incomprehension. We have to explain how, in a year and a half, the north has gone from being nice rebel-armed villages to a place where everyone is suspected of being al-Qaeda.”

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