Hakim sat on a mattress staring into space. He had been awake all night. It was 6:30 on May 14, and the first rays of sun caught the swirl of cigarette smoke clouding the room at chest level. A silver automatic pistol lay on the floor at his feet beside a cup of cold coffee and a piled ashtray. I asked why he was still awake. “The war. Many things,” he said, stroking his beard.
For a man on the cusp of such great betrayal, he was remarkably self-possessed.
I had woken early, buzzing with the anticipation of leaving Syria. I had just spent a week reporting on the Assad regime’s brutal air campaign in Aleppo, for The Times of London. It was my 14th trip to Syria since the conflict began, in 2011, and the war had grown worse every time. Assad’s bombs had killed nearly 2,000 in four months in the city. I thought about all I’d seen in the past few days: a demolished school where the splattered remains of children had been smeared over blasted concrete, endless heaps of rubble, wounded civilians covered in white dust. Even leaving Aleppo had proved a violent ordeal. Driving through a barrage of direct fire on the only road out of the city, my armed escort team had come within a few yards of being blown apart by a rocket. I was eager to say goodbye to Syria. My home, wife, and daughters suddenly seemed tantalizingly close.
Nevertheless, I had opted to overnight at Hakim’s home in Tal Rifaat on the journey out. The rural town is a natural stopping point on the route to Turkey – a mere 30 minutes’ drive away – and I had enjoyed Hakim’s hospitality in the past.
Hakim Anza, a.k.a. Abdel Hakim al Yaseen, was in his early 30s and a father of three, a former accountant who had been among the first in Tal Rifaat to rebel against the Assad regime. By the spring of 2012, when we first met, he was a local-subunit commander with Liwa Tawhid, one of the largest rebel brigades in northern Syria. Hakim had been a great source – quick-witted and amusing – and a generous host. Proud of the revolution and wise to the importance of having Western journalists work in rebel areas, he had fed us, given us shelter, and provided vital insights into the course of the conflict and the minds of those fighting it.
He had a ruthless streak, but no more so than the countless other commanders I have known. I’ve been covering conflicts for 21 years and I can think of a dozen men just like Hakim whom I had met in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Amid the ambiguities of the Syrian war, I suppose I considered him a friend, though I also knew that one day he might choose to turn. War, after all, is essentially a state of codified criminality, and after three years of savagery in Syria, even good men were turning bad.
Hakim seemed delighted to see us. Neither I nor any of my three companions – the veteran British photojournalist Jack Hill; Mahmoud, a Syrian activist who had worked as my translator, fixer, and guide on numerous occasions over the past two years; and Mahmoud’s sidekick, a young man named Avo – detected anything amiss, and our conversation flowed effortlessly into the night. Under the rising pall of smoke, Hakim told us about the underground schools being built in Tal Rifaat to protect the children from the bombs; the schism between those Sunni rebels who believed it was time to negotiate with the regime and those determined to fight to the bitter end; and the various conflicts within the jihadi movements. Nothing seemed to have changed since I had last seen him.
I would soon learn how wrong I was.
We said goodbye to Hakim under a cloudless blue sky. He clasped us each in a tight embrace, standing on the threshold of his home, his bearded face split with a beaming smile, and he continued waving as we drove away, following an escort vehicle that he had tasked to accompany us to the border. Safety seemed so close that it breathed on our faces.
But we knew we wouldn’t truly be safe until we crossed the border.
As the recent murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have shown, every Westerner in Syria today is a potential kidnap victim. The trade in hostages has escalated sharply since late 2012, parallel to the growing power of jihadi groups – most notoriously the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. A hostage, after all, could bring significant riches from governments or families willing to pay millions of dollars in ransom. And for those from nations officially unwilling to pay – among them the United States and my country, Great Britain – hostages hold extreme political value.
I had met Foley several times over the years. He was still alive as we set out from Tal Rifaat that May morning. So was Sotloff. But their captivity was never far from my thoughts. Jack and I knew that the same could happen to us easily. Our employer had prepared us. Before setting out on this assignment, we were equipped with satellite-tracking devices linking our position to The Times’ office in London. Should we go missing, the paper would alert representatives of the Islamic Front in Syria, a rebel group that controlled much of the northwest, who would attempt to locate us. Still, the threat of abduction shadowed our every hour.
We were about 20 minutes from the border when I saw a shiny, dark-blue BMW X5 SUV prowling the empty road ahead of us at low speed. The car made me nervous: It was out of place, far too gleaming and new for the dusty roads of northern Syria. A man’s hand waved languidly through the driver’s-side window, motioning us to halt. Something was wrong. “Don’t stop for this guy!” I ordered Mahmoud, who tried to speed past the more powerful car. We juggled position for a few seconds before being forced to pull over, out-motored. Four men sprang from the vehicle, yelling, assault rifles in hand. It was an experienced, well-oiled team that had clearly done this before.
Before the gunmen reached my door, I surreptitiously thumbed the safety arm from the panic button on the tracking device in my pocket. Minutes later, I knew, The Times would get a call from our rendezvous contact on the Turkish border to say something had gone wrong. That man would immediately request permission to enter Syria and alert the Islamic Front.
It took the gang just a few seconds to grab the four of us and spread-eagle us against our vehicle. With a flurry of blows, they pushed us into the SUV’s trunk, tossed a pile of blankets over our heads, and sped away.
I’d been abducted before, in West Africa. I’d also undergone hostage training in the U.K., so I had a fairly clear idea of what to do: Endure the initial shock of capture, attempt to build trust and rapport with your captors, and then escape at the first opportunity. Still, nothing can prepare you for those first few seconds. I was not sure whether we had been seized by kidnappers seeking to hold us for ransom or if we were about to be slain by an Islamist group intent on filming our deaths to make a political statement.
Unexpectedly, the answer came in a tussle over an asthma inhaler. As we lay crunched in our bundle, the vehicle speeding onward, two of the gang leaned over the backseat, lifted the blankets from our heads, and removed every item from our pockets, including my tracking device and my inhaler. I seldom suffer from asthma, but I always keep an inhaler with me on assignment. War is bad enough even when you can breathe.
I sat up and asked a young, bearded fighter to give back the inhaler. He struck me, more out of instinct than malice. I asked again, and again he hit me. Then, apparently puzzled at my insistence, he looked at the inhaler and shrugged a question. I pointed at it, then at my chest, and gasped. He understood the gist, and returned it.
That moment was an epiphany: We were hostages whose lives had value. They were not going to kill us. Instead, they likely were planning to sell us to a jihadi group – an increasingly common practice among rebel groups in Syria. At that point, of course, all bets would be off. Still, this was key information that I was determined to exploit. If these men could be made to believe I was sick with some condition they only half-understood, I figured, they’d underestimate me, providing me an edge when I got the chance to run.
After about 15 minutes, the vehicle stopped, and the four of us were led, blankets over our heads, down a series of steps. I was pushed to my knees against an engine block on the stone floor of what appeared to be the basement of a farmhouse. Straw and dust littered the floor. I was blindfolded with a dark cloth, my hands bound tightly together with plasticuffs. Soon my fingers grew swollen and numb.
Disorientation set in fast. In the hope of learning more about our predicament, I coughed and wheezed as much as I could, feigning an asthma attack. The ruse worked. Hidden hands led me up some steps. The blanket and blindfold were lifted, and I was given a glass of water. I saw a gunman in front of me, two others at the top of a stairwell. Through a window I observed an orchard. At night it might provide cover for a breakout.
“HELLO, HAKIM,” I SAID. “I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS.” “NO FRIENDS,” HE RASPED, AND BLASTED TWO BULLETS INTO ME.
I remained frightened, but I felt that at least I was gaining some measure of control. I had learned that the gang did not plan to kill us. I had sowed the notion that I was sick and unlikely to escape. Next, it was time to begin a dialogue.
The blindfold was replaced, and I was led back to the cellar. After a few minutes, I raised my bound hands.
“Speak that one!” a captor commanded, ordering Mahmoud to translate.
“Who are you, and why have you taken us?” I asked, trying to sound respectful and apologetic.
Our captors claimed to be with Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. But that seemed unlikely. The men littered their speech with the pejorative kufr – unbeliever – using the word so frequently that it struck me as more of an act than genuine. They smelled of cigarettes, too, which are strictly forbidden by many fundamentalists.
I explained that Jack and I were journalists, there to provide a factual record of the catastrophic events happening in their country. “What good is factual record to us when our children are dying?” my captor replied cuttingly. Still, Jack and I worked the limited exchange as best we could, desperately trying to establish some point of common humanity. Somewhere amid the jumbled talk, Jack managed to mention that his grandmother was Palestinian, a fact met with interest by our captors.
I thought of Hakim. Would he hear of our abduction and spring to our rescue, mobilizing his fellow Liwa Tawhid fighters for us? Or was Hakim the very architect of our kidnapping? I knew that two of Hakim’s five brothers were affiliated with al-Nusra, and it was rumored another brother served with ISIS, though Hakim’s own Liwa Tawhid fighters often battled against the ultrafundamentalists. Such divisions were typical in Syrian families in the north.
The thought of Hakim’s potential ISIS connection chilled me, and I began grasping for some sort of escape plan. I had visions of untying my fellow hostages’ bootlaces so we could tiptoe barefoot past a sleeping guard; I imagined how best to jump from a moving vehicle; I fantasized about running through the dark orchards. Then a new train of thought emerged: Will I have to kill someone to get out of here, to get back to my wife and daughters? Will I have to smash a sleeping guard’s brains out with a rock held in my bound hands? Could I do that? Could I kill the young one who gave me my inhaler back? How heavy would the stone have to be? Smash him on the crown or the temple? Use the rock edge or the flat?
The questions spun out into the darkness unanswered. Looking back, they seem absurd, a guilty secret. Yet at that moment, they were part of a sudden and necessary evaluation, and came quite naturally.
A couple of hours later, we were handed to a new group of men, who loaded us into a sedan and drove off. I could see nothing, and my hearing was muffled by a coat that had been placed over my head. But I noted the metallic rattle of a sliding garage door. The engine cut. Doors slammed. Then there was silence.
Through a tiny chink in the bottom of my blindfold, I noticed a patch of Avo’s clothing across the other side of the backseat. I also could see that the car’s windows were masked by curtains. Jack and Mahmoud, I presumed, were in the trunk somewhere behind me.
After a few minutes, the door beside me was unlocked. Someone removed the coat from my head and slapped me, a blow that seemed designed to intimidate and subdue rather than hurt. My blindfold was readjusted and my bonds checked. My assailant slapped me again, then closed the door. A pair of men talked by my window. A few minutes later, I was struck again.
My mood plummeted. Escape seemed a distant prospect. Wondering if I’d ever see my children again, I prayed briefly. “God help us get out of here. God protect my family. God save me.” The words seemed cold as stone.
More whispering followed, then another thump on the vehicle, this time from the rear.
A round of grunts and thuds ensued, each more aggressive than the last. I heard the trunk being slammed repeatedly, then the sounds of a terrible beating and muted gasps.
I assumed that the guards had opened the trunk and discovered that Mahmoud or Jack had removed his blindfold. In my mind’s eye, they had dragged him out, smashing the trunk against his arms, and were now beating him to a pulp on the ground. I sucked air into my lungs, clenched my jaw, and huddled against the seat, waiting for hands to grab me from the car and my own beating to begin.
Nothing happened. The flurry of dull blows ended suddenly, perhaps 10 or 15 seconds after they began. A car door opened and a ripple of air brushed my face.
Then I heard a quiet voice, disembodied and distant, but urgent. It mumbled some indistinct words that I could not make out until a single one emerged: “Run!” It was Jack.
I lifted my hands, pushed back my blindfold. I could see no trace of either my comrades or my captors. The car door nearest to where Avo had been was open. I was entirely alone. My brain cartwheeled: “What the fuck is going on?”
In the gloom, I saw a spear of light illuminate a set of narrow concrete steps running to a trap door in the ceiling. My mind crystallized. I seized the moment. I ran.
Have you ever been rolled in heavy surf? If so, then you know that your thoughts in the spinning tumult have no more horizon than the next gasp of air, the next roll, the next wave. My escape was so. Body and mind blasted into a super-adrenalized zone of hyperclarity and strength, where fear had mercifully little space, and my only concept of the future lay in coping with the next few seconds.
I ran up the steps onto a flat, sun-baked roof in the center of a town I recognized instantly as Tal Rifaat. I broke right across the roof, scaling first one wall with my hands angled clumsily before me, then another. I climbed a ladder onto the next story. From the street below I heard shouting. Jack’s voice. I peered over the roof. Jack was on his back fighting with two men. Apparently, the seconds he had wasted warning me of the escape had cost him his freedom, for he had run straight into the hands of other guards. One of the men fighting with Jack, a bearded man in a white shirt, was struggling to pin down Jack’s flailing arms. He momentarily raised his face to avoid a punch, and in that second of recognition everything fell into place.
It was Hakim.
Stretch out through the seas and wonders of the English dictionary, scour the farthest-flung valleys of dialect and vernacular, and there is still only a single four-syllable word that fit Hakim in that moment of recognition: motherfucker.
There was nothing I could do to help my friend, so I continued running. Almost immediately I encountered a wall that was too high to scale. Hoping no one had noticed my escape, I dropped into the narrow slice of shadow cut at the wall’s base by the high midday sun and lay hidden there, collecting my thoughts. But before I could figure out my next move, I was spotted. A small boy in the street raised his hand and pointed to me. Eventually, an older man joined him. The man shrouded his eyes from the sun and stared hard. My sanctuary was blown.
I dropped back to ground level in a succession of awkward descents, my hands still bound, with the notion of running into a crowd and shouting for help.
Winding up in the courtyard of an apartment building, I ran along the perimeter, examining each adjoining room in the hope of seeing a doorway leading to the street. Entering a kitchen, I noticed a neat stack of washed utensils by the sink and grabbed the sharpest knife I could see, clamped it in my teeth, and attempted to cut through the plastic tie binding my hands. It was not sharp enough.
Then I heard the crash of a door being kicked open at one end of the courtyard. Someone shouted “Hakim,” followed by the unmistakable sound of armed men, their footfalls heavy and urgent, running toward me.
Anthony Loyd recuperating in a Turkish hospital.
Knife in hand, I fled into a well-scrubbed bathroom and squeezed behind the door, as desperate and instinctive as any hunted animal intent on survival. In the tiles in front of me I saw the reflection of several armed men searching the courtyard outside. One came to the bathroom door and stared in. A young man who looked to be in his 20s, fully uniformed, with an AK-47 in his hands, he seemed not to notice me. But as he turned to go, he caught sight of my reflection, spun right, and loosed off a single round, which blew a hole in the wall. Punctured by the bullet, an unseen pipe began spurting water at the gunman, who backed stumbling out of the doorway.
Throwing the knife on the floor, I stepped toward him, my bound hands raised. “OK, OK,” I said, in supplication. He loosed off another rifle shot, which blew a bit more tiling off the wall, as a half dozen uniformed fighters ran up behind him. They seemed enraged, and fell upon me with a flurry of punches and blows from rifle butts, dragging me through the courtyard.
For a moment, I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was out in the street. My face was swollen, and I could barely see from my right eye, which was filling with blood, but I was still standing, being frog-marched toward an intersection where some two dozen people, civilians and fighters, stood staring. In their midst, his back to me, I saw Hakim, addressing the crowd and gesturing wildly. I heard him use one word repeatedly: jasoos, or spy. I was an agent of Assad, he told the crowd. Then he changed tack, denouncing me as a CIA spy instead.
Syrian crowds can turn ugly quickly. This one, though sullen and suspicious, simply stared at Hakim and me as I was marched toward him. “British journalist,” I said, wanting someone to know who I was, fearing that I might be about to disappear once more. “Anthony Loyd. British journalist. The Times.”
I raised my tethered hands. “Why?” I asked.
Hakim swiveled to look at me. His eyes were slightly glazed, and he seemed unhinged, out of his depth and uncertain. I was pushed toward him until we were less than a few feet apart. The crowd was silent.
“Hello, Hakim,” I said, as coolly as I could. I wanted the crowd to understand that we were not strangers. “I thought we were friends.”
Hakim could not bear those words. Maybe I should not have uttered them, for they put him in a position that only a dramatic statement could rectify. I saw the silver pistol sweep across his chest as he aimed down at my ankle.
“No friends,” he rasped, and blasted two bullets into me at point-blank range.
The first bullet blew apart a small chunk of my left ankle, before traveling deep into my foot and coming to rest near the sole. The second, entering just above and to the rear of the joint, pirouetted around inside my foot and cracked my heel. The sensation was a simultaneous combination of impact and electric shock. Curiously, though, it did not hurt much. My foot felt numb but relatively functional.
A gunman grabbed me and propelled me past Hakim, through the crowd, and into the ground floor of some type of security headquarters. Ten or so armed men, some in civilian dress shirts, others in combat gear, stood inside. In the corner, his face bruised and battered, stood another prisoner: Jack.
“Ant!” he shouted across at me, his arms open wide with relief at seeing me. “It’s going to be OK! These are revolutionary police!”
My friend looked well intentioned but crazed. Things seemed very far from OK. Yet deep down a voice inside me – calm, instructional, and present throughout much of the ordeal – told me that Jack was right. Though I did not know of Mahmoud’s or Avo’s fate, I knew our own recapture was far too public to allow my kidnappers easy recourse to continue with their plans. Hakim’s spy accusations confirmed it. His kidnap plans had been foiled by our escape.
I was pushed to the floor and searched. My new captors seemed fussily concerned, in the way of police officers rather than fighters, with the blood running from my foot across their clean floor, and I was quickly pulled upright and marched out of the room and back to the street. Behind me, I could hear Jack shouting and struggling as men attempted to tie him to a radiator. The situation suddenly deteriorated again.
I was forced into a vehicle waiting outside. In the front sat one of Hakim’s deputies, a grim, humorless man named Abu Tawfiq, and two men I did not recognize. In the back was Ala, a thick, brawny lunk who also was part of Hakim’s entourage. His face was streaked with blood, and I realized that perhaps the man who had been beaten behind the sedan was not one of my team, but Ala.
As the car pulled away, Ala exacted his revenge. He held my head by the hair and pummeled away, big farm-boy fists smashing my face one way and another as he gasped with delight. The first two blows hurt in a dull, deep way, and caused black and white dots to pop around the periphery of my limited vision. After that, though, sensation faded and I observed the thudding impacts in a disembodied state. At times, one of his comrades joined the fun. Through my one good eye I saw my blood splatter across the car seats and floor, joined by fistfuls of my hair.
The vehicle pulled to a halt outside a field clinic. Two men hauled me out and made me stand. My left leg was nearly numb beneath the knee, and I was unable to walk. Ala picked up a rock – close to the size of one I had imagined killing a guard with – and smashed it on my crown. I fell to the earth, before being dragged through a doorway where a thin, feral-looking gunman kicked the shoe off my foot and then, joined by a companion, kicked and stomped at my bloody ankle. They were wasting their time. I was so out of it I felt almost nothing at all.
Someone dragged me onto a stretcher. My clothes were cut from me with surgical scissors, until I wore nothing but my handcuffs and a pair of boxer shorts. Syrian medics peered into my ears with torches, searching in vain for some secret spy’s transmitter, regarding me all the while with a mixture of unease and curious wonderment as they pondered my identity. In time, they took down my boxers, too.
After a while, a short, smiling civilian man appeared. He pushed to the head of the stretcher.
“It’s OK,” he said. “We know who you are. You are safe.”
The atmosphere in the room changed in an instant. The doctors relaxed. Abu Tawfiq, who had been brooding menacingly in the corner, seemed suddenly isolated. Minutes later, another man arrived. Everyone in the room turned to look at him. In his early 30s, he was powerfully built and heavily bearded, and he carried about him the aura of a man at ease with command. As a leader of the most powerful rebel group in Tal Rifaat, the man’s word mattered.
The man stared at me, noting my injuries carefully, before ordering my bonds to be cut. Abu Tawfiq stepped forward to protest. The commander eyed him with bare contempt and waved him from the room with a single gesture, as if shooing a street cur from his yard. Then he looked at me again and laughed. “We are sorry this happened to you,” he remarked, genuinely amused. “But in your job, a few cool scars are no bad thing.”
The next few hours slithered past in a concussed blur of relief. The Syrians moved me quickly from the aid station to a hospital in the town of Marea, where I was X-rayed and had my wounds washed and bandaged. While I was there, a doctor handed me a phone with one minute’s credit to call my wife. I guessed that The Times would have informed her of our abduction. To put her mind at rest, I did not mention that I had been shot, merely that I had escaped and was with “the good guys.”
I refused the doctor’s offer of morphine by way of thanks. It was the first choice I’d had since being abducted, and it made me feel civilized.
By mid-afternoon, unable to walk, I was driven back to Tal Rifaat, where I was met by Jack, Mahmoud, and Avo. We pieced together what had happened. It turned out that while they were in the sedan trunk, Mahmoud and Jack had hatched an audacious plan. The two men managed to free their hands of their bonds in the darkness. Our captors had opened the truck an inch to allow the pair to breathe and Mahmoud noticed that there was only one guard left. He and Jack kicked the trunk open, jumped out, and assaulted the man. Mahmoud saw a hammer on the garage floor, grabbed it, and beat the guard to the ground with a series of blood-splattering blows – the hideous beating sound that I had presumed involved one of my friends as victim.
Avo, meanwhile, had kicked open his door and fled with Mahmoud, both men breaking out of the side of the lockup as Jack rushed past the injured guard, who was struggling back to his feet. He tried to open my door and alert me, only to find it locked and shrouded by curtains, so he moved to the front of the car and shouted his warning, turning to flee before other guards appeared.
Once on the street, Avo and Mahmoud, bloody hammer in hand, shouted to startled passersby that Western journalists were being held hostage in the garage. Then, in true Hollywood style, they leapt aboard a stolen motorbike and sped off to raise the alarm with local activists and the Islamic Front. That group, which also had been alerted by The Times, had intervened on my behalf.
Together, escorted by four heavily armed Islamic Front fighters, we made it to the Turkish border without further incident and crossed in an ambulance.
Four days later, I was medevaced from Istanbul to London. My physical wounds healed fast. Already I have recovered most of the use of my left foot. Some days I feel rage at the humiliation of being dragged around like a tethered animal, of being beaten and shot, then beaten some more. At other times I am afflicted by the curious, illogical shames of trauma. But my perspective of the experience is that of 21 years working in war: My life is full of dead and wounded friends. Getting shot is not that unusual.
James Foley is now one of those dead friends. We first met in Afghanistan and again later in Libya. The last time I saw him was in a restaurant in southern Turkey in late 2012. He was leaving Syria; I was going in. I didn’t know him well, but I do know this: James was a deeply impressive man with a very rare ability to engender warmth in nearly everyone he met. His death threw me. I cannot explain if it made me feel guilty for my freedom, or relieved. Mostly, it made me feel sad – very, very sad. But I will return to war reporting as soon as my ankle is healed.
I heard from Hakim one last time. A couple of days after our escape, while I was in the hospital in Istanbul, he wrote me a rambling, barely coherent Skype message, in which he threatened to blackmail me with the publication of “documents” that would endanger me if I ever revealed his name. He went on to accuse Jack of planting a surveillance device in a headlamp he had been given as a gift. Weighed against the hospitality he had shown us, and the intelligent, engaging conversation we had enjoyed on our last evening together, these details seem much less sinister to me than pathetic.
In defeat, the man had degenerated into a spiteful child. The Syrian fighter we had once known had lost much more than his decency. The wages of that war had cost him his mind.