More than two years of destruction and violence have taken their toll on the people of Syria, where rebels are fighting to overthrow dictatorial President Bashar Assad.
At least 70,000 people have died, and millions of Syrians are displaced. But the suffering is not contained by national borders -- it has seeped into surrounding countries where refugees have crowded into camps, and into the broader region where stability has been threatened.
On Friday, the suffering reached all the way to the Chapel of the Holy Family, a place of worship tucked inside the Alumni Memorial Union building on the grassy campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee.
There, the family and friends of James Foley gathered to light candles and pray for his safe return from a country where scores of people die violent deaths every single day.
The vigil came 134 days after Foley, a journalist and video reporter, was abducted by gunmen in Syria. It is still unclear whether the abductors were rebels or regime loyalists.
“We really have no idea who captured Jim, or for what reason,” said Diane Foley, James’ mother. “So we don’t know who we’re supposed to be interacting with. That’s part of what’s frustrating, but we really feel that everyone has been trying hard to help us.”
Foley is just one of many journalists who are currently jailed or missing in Syria. At the end of last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, reported, there were at least 15 detained or disappeared media workers in the country. That figure did not include victims -- such as Foley -- whose names were being withheld by their families at the time.
These journalists have paid a heavy price for daring to gather and spread information amid one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, which has left millions of Syrians injured, displaced, frightened or bereft.
“It can be hard for average Americans to really understand what’s happening in Syria,” Diane Foley said. “We wouldn’t know anything without these journalists who go into dangerous places where there is a war, where people are getting hurt and families are caught in the middle. That’s why Jim is so passionate.”
Line Of Fire
Freelance journalists are often extremely vulnerable in places such as Syria, where fighters on all sides have vested interests in how their struggle is portrayed to the world.
“Some of these journalists are lucky to have the support and training of the organization that they belong to: Well-established news agencies have security built in,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
“But more and more organizations are not sending their employees to Syria. More and more, we see individual freelancers and media activists taking these trips,” Mansour said, adding that CPJ works to provide advice and resources to those who decide to take those risks.
James Foley is one of at least three international journalists publicly listed as detained or missing in Syria today.
Bashar Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen, disappeared in August. He had been caught in the middle of a fierce firefight in Aleppo.
Fahmi is a correspondent for Al Hurra, an American television station that broadcasts in Arabic. Fahmi’s colleague Cuneyt Unal, a Turkish cameraman, was captured the same day Fahmi disappeared, but he was released 90 days later.
Nothing has been heard of Fahmi for months, but in December the South East Europe Media Organization bestowed on him its Human Rights Award. His wife Arzu Kadumi accepted it on his behalf, as reported by the Broadcasting Board Governors.
“Journalists are being killed in various war zones in the world, are being held captive or accused of being guilty because of crimes they did not commit,” Kadumi said. “My husband is one of them ... for 109 days I have been screaming that my husband is not a terrorist, but a journalist.”
Austin Tice, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, was captured last August. He had put his law degree on hold to travel to Syria when the civil war broke out and was freelancing for the McClatchy Co. (NYSE:MNI), the Washington Post Co. (NYSE:WPO) and other media companies when he was first detained.
His last Twitter post before his capture was a happy one:
Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.
— Austin Tice (@Austin_Tice) August 11, 2012
On Sept. 26, a short video was released on YouTube. It shows Tice, wearing a blindfold and tattered clothing, as men led him along a rocky hillside and then make him kneel to recite a prayer in Arabic. Tice appears distressed but healthy. The video has spurred some debate regarding its authenticity: Experts note that the choppy footage does not follow the typical form of jihadist videos.
Tice’s whereabouts are still unknown, and the Syrian government has never officially claimed possession of him.
Of course, captivity is far from the only risk journalists face in Syria. At least 43 media workers were killed there last year. CPJ reported that at least 28 of those were specifically targeted because of their jobs. So far this year, at least seven media workers have been killed, six of them for being members of the press.
Several of those killed during the revolution came from foreign countries, such as the American Marie Colvin, Japanese Mika Yamamoto and French Remi Ochlik. But the vast majority of slain media workers have been Syrian citizens, many of whom did not decide to become journalists until the Assad regime began its brutal crackdown.
What It’s Like
A few international journalists were released after being abducted. These include Dorothy Parvaz, an American-Canadian-Iranian correspondent for Al Jazeera, and Richard Engel, an American journalist and correspondent for NBC. Both of them have shared accounts of their experiences publicly.
Parvaz was captured and detained at a Syrian facility. Then she was rendered to Iran, judged innocent and flown to Qatar, where she landed a free woman. The entire ordeal began on April 19, 2011, and lasted for 19 days.
“Most of [my time in the Syrian facility was] spent listening to the sounds of young men being brutally interrogated -- sometimes tied up in stress positions until it sounded like their bones were cracking, as we saw from our bathroom window (a bathroom with no running water, except for one tap in a sink filled with roughly 10 cm of sewage),” Parvaz wrote in an article for Al Jazeera.
“One afternoon,” she wrote, “the beating we heard was so severe that we could clearly hear the interrogator pummeling his boots and fists into his subject, almost in a trance, yelling questions or accusations rhythmically as the blows landed in what sounded like the prisoner's midriff.”
Due to her gender, Parvaz was spared this physical abuse. Her cell mate, a teenage girl, was clearly suffering severe psychological trauma -- it is unclear what became of her.
NBC’s Engel was kidnapped more than a year later. He, five team members, a Syrian rebel commander and a bodyguard were all abducted by masked men loyal to the Assad regime last Dec. 13. The rebel commander and his bodyguard died during the ordeal, but all six members of the NBC team were eventually saved by rebels: They crossed into Turkey Dec. 18.
In a recent article for Vanity Fair, Engel reveals how the gang of abductors -- led by an erratic and troubled man named Abu Jaafar -- bound their hands and shipped them from place to place in the back of a dirty truck, constantly threatening to end their lives.
“They wanted to break us and terrorize us and make us docile,” Engel wrote. “They were having fun doing it. Abu Jaafar was laughing most of the time. In the coming days, we would become familiar with his short, repetitive, girlish laugh: Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.”
It became clear to Engel that the men detaining him for most of the ordeal were low-level regime loyalists who were, at times, conflicted about their actions. Abu Jaafar apologized to Engel in an apparent fit of sympathy, as did another regime loyalist who once escorted the journalist to the toilet.
“I sorry,” the guard said, in broken English. “But I love my Syria too much.”
For those journalists who are still missing or detained, there is nothing their loved ones can do but wait.
Diane Foley has gone for months without learning anything new about her son’s condition or location, but she is still grateful for all the help she has received.
“Everyone has been very supportive,” she said. “Jim is a freelance journalist, but some of the news outlets he was working for have been trying to help us. They’ve been wonderful. The government has been trying to help in any way they can, but of course they’re frustrated themselves because they don’t have good relationships with the Syrian government.”
CPJ’s Mansour agrees that working with governments can be tricky.
“Some governments play more of a hands-on role, and some are more open about that process than others. Governments can have complicated relationships with each other; they have their own interests,” he said, adding that CPJ works more with families and employers than with the national governments involved.
Despite these efforts, the whereabouts of journalists such as James Foley are still mysterious, leaving family and friends to wonder what he’s thinking and how he’s faring.
After Engel escaped his abductors, he went home to New York and cooked the meal he had been dreaming of while bound and blindfolded in Syria. The thought of peeling garlic, chopping onions and spending time with people he loved had kept him sane during the worst of his experiences.
Diane Foley doesn’t have plans to cook anything special or host a big party when her son Jim finally comes home -- that day will be momentous enough already.
“I think he’d just be happy to eat anything,” she said. “I just want to see him, and I’ll give thanks to God when that happens.”