BAALBEK, Lebanon: At the start of their 16-month captivity, Lebanese servicemen held by the Al-Qaeda affiliated group Nusra Front used to share their meals with their captors on the outskirts of the eastern border town of Arsal, recalled a recently freed hostage.
Bulgur and lentils were among the modest dishes that Internal Security Forces 1st Sgt. Ihab Atrash used to share with the militants.
After finally settling in a remote house on the outskirts of Arsal, the Lebanese servicemen were provided with a kitchen and a bathroom in the room they lived in, Atrash said just a day after his release.
The militants gave them everything they need to prepare food and shower, he added.
“If one of my colleagues suffered from any illness, Nusra Front members used to call in a masked doctor to treat the patient,” Atrash told The Daily Star in an interview at his Baalbek residence. Ziad Omar suffered from a stroke that required his transfer elsewhere. He was treated and returned. Abbas Msheik had kidney problems that required medication, which he was provided with.
Atrash is among the 16 Lebanese Army and policemen that were released Tuesday by the Nusra Front under a Qatari-mediated deal which also stipulated the release of 13 Islamist militants held by Beirut and another 10 in Damascus.
The servicemen were captured in August 2014 when militants from Nusra Front and Daesh (ISIS) overran Arsal. After a five-day battle, the militants withdrew from the town taking with them over 30 soldiers and policemen to the outskirts.
“We used to believe that we were between life and death, until we were led to believe that we were closer to death than life,” Atrash said. “This was the sentiment that prevailed in the final hours before we took the Red Cross vehicles which reunited us with our country and families,” he added.
Once they made it into Arsal, with eyes settling on the Lebanese soldier who greeted them, the servicemen took a sigh of relief knowing that they were out of danger.
“Because there persisted a fear that Daesh would react, carry out an attack with the aim of thwarting the liberation,” Atrash explained.
Nine servicemen remain with Daesh and not much is known about their current status.
On Aug. 2, 2014, Atrash was working in Arsal’s police station when they learned the Army had captured Imad Joumaa, the rebel Syrian commander.
“It was only a matter of hours when we started seeing militants in the vicinity of the station at the entrance to Arsal,” he said.
Work continued normally in the station, but things became complicated in the afternoon.
“At around 3 p.m. armed men tried to enter the station and kidnap us,” he said. “They were confronted by the residents, martyrs fell and it was only moments until Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, better knowns as ‘Abu Taqiyeh’ came and announced we were under his custody and that we were safe.”
Hujeiri, transferred the servicemen to his house, where they stayed until the next day. Hujeiri was a mediator between Nusra and the government.
The militants had one demand and that was for Joumaa to be released. When that failed tensions escalated into a battle with the Army. A rocket fell near Hujeiri’s home, Atrash said.
“Meanwhile, the militants came and asked for us to be transferred to a safe place, and we learned after that we were taken to our new place of captivity in one of the caves on the outskirts that’s far from the town.”
A few days after that, the servicemen were questioned by the militants. They were blindfolded and handcuffed. They were threatened, insulted and hit at times, but this didn’t go on for very long.
“Remarkably, whenever a security event happened in Lebanon that was related to our file, Nusra members used to come and threaten to kill us,” Atrash said. “This happened tens of times.”
Lebanese Army soldier Mohammad Hamieh and policeman Ali Bazzal, later killed by Nusra, received the most death threats, he said.
The release of the 16 servicemen was not easy. Until the final days before they were freed nothing was guaranteed. News emerged of their release last Friday, but it was faced with hurdles.
“Last Monday [Nov. 23] Nusra Front Emir Abu Malek al-Talleh [Nusra’s top Qalamoun commander] informed us that the negotiations had reached their end and soon we would be freed,” he said. “In that moment, our feelings were indescribable, we were shocked.”
On Nov. 28, the servicemen’s hopes of freedom were shattered when they were informed that the negotiations had failed.
“We stayed in a state of shock and despair until Tuesday, Dec. 1, when members of Nusra came and informed us in the early morning hours that today was the day,” Atrash said.
At 10 a.m. they embarked on the road to freedom.
“Once Red Cross cars made it to Arsal we started to feel freedom in the air.”