24 Mar 2013

The kidnap capital of Syria

In Damascus fear is everywhere, and being rich just makes you a more obvious target for those who are now kidnapping for money in the Syrian capital.

But it’s not just money that makes you a target – sometimes you are a target for just being you: and it doesn’t matter if you’re Shia, Christian, Druze, Alawite or Sunni. The cancer of sectarianism has taken hold in this city, which has seen a huge rise in kidnapping since the revolution.

Now we can all bicker about just how unsectarian things really were under President Assad before the civil war, but many here say people did rub along reasonably well together however dark the reasons might be.  But even that degree of tolerance – much cherished by my Syrian friends of all backgrounds I might add – is now completely obliterated.

We were in Jaramana today, it’s a Druze area.

Funny how you still have established ethnic/relgious ghettos here even though it was so ‘non-sectarian’. Yet now thousands of Shia are crammed into the area. People like Sana Ganem.

Special report: Syria’s Descent

Being displaced by the fighting is the least of her pain in many ways. It is now eight months since she saw her son Ahmad, himself a father to two young children. She cannot forget the day his wife called:

“At 9.30 or 10 she called and said: “They’ve taken Ahmad.” I said “Who?” She said six men came and there were another six waiting in a van. As a mother I just fell apart.”

Although not quite because she soon set out to confront the men who might know where he is. It’s not hard. It’s just the next district to Druze and Christian Jaramana –  increasingly Sunni al-Mleha.

“They were in the fields – the terrorists,” she says. All pro-government Syrians here call the rebels “terrorists”. “They were hiding in the trees like monkeys. Thay asked me why I had come here and if I was Shia. I said that my son had been kidnapped. They said to me the government had done this. I could not argue with them, for they would kill me as easily as drink water.”

That was  almost eight months ago. Since then there’s been no contact. No ransom demand. No nothing.

It is pitifully easy in this city to find actual victims, though few are willing to tell their story and be identified.

One man told me after his ordeal “Imagine living your life for 68 days and thinking this day could be your last day. The beatings, the humiliation, it was awful for me.” He says he was one of seventeen men held by rebels – kidnapped, he says, purely because they were Shia in order to extract ransom.

Initially, he is reluctant to tell me about the ill-treatment because he feared reprisals. But his mother-in-law yells at him.

“Say how they beat you!!” she urges him. “Tell them we had to raise a million Syrian pounds across the neighbourhood to get you out of there.”

The spiral of kidnappings is deepening. Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze and Alawite inceasingly turning to their own neighbourhoods, guarded by the local souped-up version of neighbourhoods watch – young men and kalashnikovs.

Like every other aspect of war in this country, it is getting worse, more brazen and more corrosive with each day that passes.

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