It was Sept. 16. The two Spaniards had almost made it to safety. Journalists Javiar Espinosa and Ricardo García, as well as their escorts, fighters with the Free Syrian Army, were hardly 15 minutes by car from the Turkish border when they were stopped at the last checkpoint within Syrian territory and abducted.
Some of their escorts were subsequently freed. From them, it is known that the men at the checkpoint were members of the extremist rebel group "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
The two Spaniards were a big catch for the radical Islamists. Since early last summer, ISIS and other extremist groups have apparently shifted their strategy and begun targeting foreign reporters for abduction. On Tuesday, Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Beirut-based SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, said that 20 foreign journalists are being held captive in Syria. Some of the missing journalists are in the hands of the regime, he added, but the majority are captives of extremist groups.
And these are not the only missing reporters. In addition to foreign journalists, Mhanna says, about 10 Syrian journalists have been kidnapped and are being held. Since fighting broke out in the spring of 2011, roughly 55 journalists have lost their lives in Syria.
So far, all attempts to free Espinosa and García have failed. The Islamists don't appear to be concerned with ransom money. According to sources close to the extremists, the foreigners are instead viewed as a kind of life insurance policy. As things now stand, ISIS and similar radical groups are at war not only against regime forces, but also against groups of moderate Syrian rebels. For them, the Western reporters in their power are akin to a trump card that could win them concessions from moderate rebels concerned with the Westerners' well-being. The situation has also apparently prompted the Islamists to increase their attacks on rebels with opposing goals.
On Tuesday, four well-known human rights advocates were abducted in a rebel-controlled area near Damascus. Among the kidnapped were also Razan Zeitouneh, an acclaimed human rights lawyer, and her husband, Wael Hamada. The abductions have triggered sharp international criticism.
Experienced, Respected, Abducted
Islamists have set up a prison in the city of Ar-Raqqah specifically for their kidnapping victims, observers say. In addition to the journalists Espinosa and García, at least five other Westerners and an unspecified number of Syrians are being held there. At yet another location, ISIS has reportedly imprisoned at least four French citizens: Didier Francois and the photographer Edouard Elias, who were kidnapped in July, and Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres, who were abducted in June.
Espinosa and the photographer García were experienced and internationally renowned war correspondents. They were aware of the risks associated with their work. Espinosa, for instance, was in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, when a rocket struck nearby, killing American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. The fact that Espinosa didn't just look after his own safety and that of other Western reporters, but also helped evacuate wounded Syrians, earned him great respect among Syrian rebels.
Prior to their kidnapping, the Spaniards had been traveling for two weeks in the Syrian province of Deir el-Zour on behalf of Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo. There, they documented the fighting between the regime and the rebels, but also the fight for survival of ordinary civilians. "Another body, another funeral and 1 more hole in the park," tweeted Espinosa on Sept. 15 from a burial ceremony.
It was his second-to-last tweet before he disappeared.
The fact that Espinosa's story is only now becoming public knowledge is the decision of his wife, Mónica García Prieto. After trying for weeks to negotiate with the kidnappers, she has now come to the conclusion that a news blackout is no longer useful, García Prieto said Monday in Beirut. Meanwhile, the García family has relayed the story to the Spanish public.
García Prieto appealed to the Syrian people to campaign for the release of her partner. "Javier and Ricardo are not your enemies," she said at a press conference, adding that they and their associates had made great sacrifices in order to report on the Syrian tragedy.
"Please honor the revolution that they have protected and free them," she added.