Lebanon News

Freed pilgrims detail horrific ordeal

BEIRUT: Nine newly freed Lebanese hostages recounted Sunday how they miraculously escaped death during their 17-month ordeal, detailing how Syrian captors often insulted them and deprived them of medication and food.

The released captives, most of whom live in impoverished areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs, said the conditions of their confinement by the Northern Storm Brigade deteriorated when the head of the rebel group was killed.

“The most difficult moments were when they [the kidnappers] closed the doors on us in the room and we were kept in,” said Jamil Saleh, one of the freed hostages. “The nine of us had to sleep in a small room. If someone got sick they [the rebels] didn’t take him to a physician or get him proper medication,” Saleh told The Daily Star.

Beside him sat his mother, his 21 grandchildren and other family members who were busy offering baklava to well-wishers who had flocked to his residence in the Beirut southern suburbs.

“I would ask them: ‘Could you please open the door for me so that I can walk in the sun and reenergize?’ but they never allowed this,” he said.

Saleh, 65, was the oldest of the nine kidnapped pilgrims. He suffered from heart problems before his abduction.

“I used to tell them, ‘I am sick, I have many problems and need medication.’ They used to get me random medicine and say ‘This will make you feel better,’” Saleh said.

Saleh and eight other pilgrims were released Saturday after being held for 17 months. They were abducted in the Azaz district of Aleppo in May 2012 on their way back from religious pilgrimage to Iran.

The freed pilgrims flew from the Turkish city of Istanbul to Beirut Saturday evening, part of a deal that saw the release of two Turkish pilots the same day. The pilots were abducted in Lebanon in August of this year.

Negotiations to ensure the release of the pilots included the payment of a ransom, a security source told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.

Unconfirmed reports on the release of over 100 Syrian female detainees by Damascus also emerged. The deal was mediated by Qatar and Turkey. General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim acted as a negotiator on behalf Lebanon.

Saleh said the kidnappers did not specify the reason for their abduction.

“I told them that many young men had joined political parties during the Civil War in Lebanon, but none of my sons did and that I don’t belong to any party,” he said, bursting into tears.

Abbas Hammoud, another of the freed hostages, was similarly uninformed about the motivation behind the kidnapping.

“What is the reason? May God forgive those who kidnapped us, but I still don’t know why [they did it],” Hammoud said.

While receiving people at his home in Tyre, Hammoud detailed the “very difficult conditions” he suffered during his captivity.

“The shelling was so close to us and we escaped death every time [there was fighting] because the attacks were even more ferocious than those during the 2006 war with Israel,” the man added as his mother placed the Quran over his head.

She remained silent, but her lined face spoke of the ordeal endured by the disappearance of her only son.

As the rebels fought regularly with regime troops, fierce clashes also broke out within the opposition forces recently, namely between the Northern Storm Brigade and the extremist Sunni Islamist State of Iraq and Greater Syria in Azaz.Hammoud said that the rebels frequently moved them to a new place in Azaz every three days due to the continuous fighting and shelling.

“First we used to sleep in one room, every three on a mattress and we were fed canned food and stale bread,” he said.

He added that it was impossible to flee the detention area, which he described as worse than Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Hammoud said the captives were not physically harmed.

“We were not beaten, but constantly insulted and the treatment became worse after the death of Abu Ibrahim,” he said, referring to the head of the captors holding the pilgrims.

Hasan Arzouni agreed, saying under Abu Ibrahim’s watch their living conditions were humane.

“When Abu Ibrahim was alive ... we got all our basic needs, like food and water. We got whatever we demanded and very quickly.”

“When Abu Ibrahim was killed, things changed ... they started to be very late in getting us the medication that we needed, and sometimes they said that it was not available,” Arzouni said at the terrace of his humble house in the Beirut southern suburb of Hay al-Sellom, packed with people who came to extend greetings.

Arzouni added that Abu Ibrahim had been replaced by Samir Ammouri, another Syrian rebel. He said that Wednesday morning the captives had been blindfolded and taken in a bus from Azaz to Turkey.

“They took off our blindfolds in Turkey. We were treated very well by the Turks, we were like tourists,” he said.

Though the captives were able to watch television, they said the rebels did not allow them to view news broadcasts about the developments in their case.

They said that the kidnappers deceived them several times, saying that they would kill them instantly.

Abbas Shoaib was the only captive who was tortured, according to his brother Daniel. “My brother underwent medical tests today and will head to hospital soon. They hit him with their rifles,” he said referring to the rebels. The freed Shoaib could not be reached by The Daily Star.

Ali Zogheib said that his life and that of his fellow captives had been at risk in the last few weeks, when clashes intensified between the Northern Storm Brigade and the ISIS.

“So many rockets landed near us, but thank God we were not even slightly wounded,” he said. “We begged them to move us to a safer place but they did not heed our calls,” he said, interrupted regularly by well-wishers at his house in Hay al-Sellom.

He said the rebels detonated a bomb just above his head, but he was not wounded. Zogheib, who had undergone open-heart surgery before he was abducted, said that rebels did not treat him when he felt severe chest pains on one occasion.

Expressing relief that he was released, Saleh voiced concern for his future.

“I am now 65, I retired and I no longer have a salary to earn a living. I call on the state to pay me compensation,” he said. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 21, 2013, on page 1.

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