In Suwayda, a kidnapping becomes a village priority

On a cold night early last January, Muayyid, a 29-year-old electrician in southern Syria's regime-controlled Suwayda province received a phone call. Someone claiming to be a friend of his older brother said he needed help with car trouble.

Muayyid finished his work for the night and headed out to assist the stranded man just outside his village in west Suwayda, the name of which he asked us not to disclose. When Muayyid arrived, a group of men were standing outside a van parked on the side of the road.

The last thing Muayyid remembers is a strike to the back of the head. One of the men had knocked him out.

“When I came to, I was blindfolded in the back of a moving car,” Muayyid tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Basha in Suwayda province.

Muayyid is one of the countless thousands of Syrians kidnapped over the course of the war. Despite the fact that he lives in a relatively stable, government-held province, Suwayda, Syria Direct’s reporting indicates that kidnappings are still relatively common. Who is behind them? It’s not clear, but the perpetrators are exploiting the regime's lack of police officers and military presence in the province in order to kidnap civilians and exact ransoms.

In Muayyid’s corner of Suwayda, tribal law is sacrosanct. And so his kidnapping became a cause for his entire village to pursue. Hearing an accent from the rebel-controlled province of Daraa, next to Suwayda, villagers blocked the main road between the two provinces and began arresting men from Daraa, Muayyid’s father, Abu Kufah, tells Syria Direct.

Here, Abu Kufah explains his village’s quest to recover one of their own.

**

Abu Kufah, Muayyid’s father

Q: How did you learn that your son was kidnapped?

One night in January, Muayyid didn’t come home, and we got worried. None of us slept that night, and all of his friends came over to the house the next day.

We figured that he’d been kidnapped, given how common it is. That afternoon, someone called Muayyid’s older brother from Muayyid’s cell phone.

He said: “We have Muayyid. Pay SP50 million (approx. $100,000) and you can take him.”

Residents walk across a traffic circle in Suwayda city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Noura al-Basha.

Afterwards we tried to call the number again, but it was out of service. Muayyid’s older brother told us that the accent sounded like it was from Daraa province.

So Muayyid’s friends and brothers went to round up some of the men from Daraa who were in our village.

They blocked the main road that connects Suwayda with Daraa, and they detained a number of people coming from Daraa and sent them to our tribal meeting hall.

Q: Don’t you feel guilty towards those from Daraa who were detained? How were they treated?

Of course! But you do what you have to when there are no other options.

What I’m saying is that even if we sold our house, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with the money. We had to put pressure on this gang. As for how we treated [those we detained], of course we treated them like guests.

Q: How were you able to communicate with the gang? Were there any negotiations?

We were trying to call Muayyad’s number since it was all we had, but it was out of service.

Two days after the kidnapping, they called, and we tried negotiating the ransom. Muayyid’s older brother told them that he didn’t have the money to pay the amount they were asking for, so they hung up the phone. They called us back an hour later.

They said they’d dropped the ransom down to SP10 million ($20,000).

We didn’t dare negotiate with them over the ransom amount after that—Muayyid’s mother was sick to her stomach after that call. She told everyone to stop haggling over Muayyid. So, we agreed to pay the SP10 million.

Q: Did you consider notifying the police?

No, Muayyid was wanted for military service.

Q: So how did you get your son back?

The kidnappers called us after we had gathered the ransom. On January 18, Muayyid’s brother, his uncle and one of the people they detained from Daraa province took a car and had the ransom with them.

They gave the ransom money to the Daraa detainee. The kidnappers had spoken with him and told him where to place the money.

The detainee put the ransom money in the requested location, and after four hours, Muayyad arrived with his hands and feet in shackles.

**

Muayyid Fadel, 29, works as an electrician in rural Suwayda.

Q: How are you doing now?

Being kidnapped has had a really bad effect on my life. After I was released, I stayed in my house for four months without seeing a single person because of the mental pressure.

You feel as if at any moment someone could unload a Kalashnikov into your chest and kill you.

The worst is that I feel like a fool. They never gave me back my phone or my pistol even after my family paid the ransom.

It broke me, and it was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.

Original reporting by Noura al-Basha. This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.