What's a 72-year-old supposed to do after three months of being held captive in changing locations, guarded by armed men wearing masks and lacking his hearing aid?
Push-ups. Stretches. And, of course, one can spend the whole day trying to silently open the door. "At a certain point, I realized that I had to help myself, otherwise I was never going to get out of there," said Ziad Nouri only hours after his successful flight on Sept. 3. "I just wasn't sure whether I would accomplish it."
Nouri, an engineer with Syrian roots who lives in Munich, had only wanted to come to Syria for a few weeks to help plan a hospital for the German aid organization Grünhelme ("Green Helmets") in a city called Harem. Instead, he was kidnapped. And members of his group haven't been the only victims of kidnappings. In areas of northern Syria where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad's regime were already driven out more than a year ago, jihadists -- primarily from outside Syria -- have been hunting down potential hostages to fetch lucrative ransoms. In addition to Syrians, they have also been abducting Western journalists and aid workers.
Since November 2012, there have been more than 20 kidnapping victims from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. The abduction -- and spectacular getaway -- of three Germans provides detailed insight into the criminal network of the radicals.
On May 15, only four days after he arrived in Syria, Nouri and his colleagues, Simon Sauer and Bernd Blechschmidt, were taken from their lodging in the night and vanished without a trace. There were claims of responsibility: a small-time criminal from Harem wanted $5 million (€3.7 million) in exchange for releasing the captured Germans. Another, the leader of a radical group, sought to pin blame for the kidnapping on rival jihadists, and wasn't interested in money. It was a cruel game for the victims' relatives and Rupert Neudeck, the founder of the Grünhelme organization. He was the one who had sent the three to Syria, and he had no idea how he was going to get them back out.
As soon as they figured out there was no reward to extract, the informants vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. But there was no trace, no sign of life of the three kidnapped Germans.
Two Make It Out Alive
Things finally changed in the early dawn hours of July 4, when two emaciated figures showed up in the Turkish border village of Hamda. It was Sauer and Blechschmidt, who had escaped the previous day and been on the run ever since.
The story they tell paints a bizarre picture. On that night in mid-May when they were kidnapped, they say they were caught in a lightning-quick ambush by masked men, wrapped up and shoved into a car. First, they went to a nearby neighborhood, and then into the mountains. After a week, they were taken to the abandoned chicken farm from which they were eventually able to escape. But why had they been abducted in the first place?
They say that the masked men were constantly yelling at them, telling them that they were spies. During the interrogations, which were initially conducted by a man who spoke fluent German, the kidnappers accused Sauer and Blechschmidt of having had a hand in the devastating double bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on May 11.
But their captors apparently weren't the brightest fellows. Three attempts to make a video of the prisoners failed because the captors couldn't hold the camera still and tried to film into a dark cell from a brightly lit area outside. While they were very unclear about what they wanted, they made it equally clear that the three were supposed to remain there for some time.
Others would also share this fate. Over time, eight Syrian kidnapping victims were brought to the farm. There, in the back of a long shed, the kidnappers built walls to form cells, each 200 by 80 centimeters (78 by 31 inches), with a number on the steel door. There was something to eat once a day, but too little to drink in the sweltering heat.
From the statements of other Syrians who were held by the jihadists, a picture emerges of how they were kidnapped. It appears that there is a parallel structure in which "official" detainees -- such as smugglers, thieves and regime informants -- are held in known prisons and tried by courts. Such detainees get file numbers and their whereabouts are known.
But for the three "Green Helmets" there were no file numbers. No one in the "Shariah courts" of Salqin or Dana knew anything about them, and even their holding cells were discreetly chosen.
The kidnappers were also absolutely determined to keep their own identity secret. Later, Blechschmidt recounted one of the rare moments when the kidnappers threatened them in a rage. He said that masked men screamed: "You know who we are, don't you?" After the prisoners denied it, they yelled, "Yes you do! Admit that you know it!" But they could only deny it again. At a certain point, Blechschmidt added, the interrogators were probably convinced that the three really didn't know who was holding them captive.
From the captors' accents, Nouri could tell that the most were from North Africa, and a few were from Turkey. Sometimes the prisoners heard screaming when the Syrian captives were being tortured.
After a few weeks, Sauer started urging the others to attempt an escape. Although skeptical at first, Blechschmidt was eventually persuaded to join in. Nouri, who could speak with the men behind the masks, had complained about not getting enough water to clean himself before praying. They bought his argument and, in early June, allowed him to move into the main house in front of the building for chickens, which they were staying in themselves. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. When Sauer busted the lock on his cell and freed Blechschmidt, they had to leave Nouri behind.
Right after escaping, the two were taken back into custody, but this time by Turkish police accusing them of trying to enter Turkey illegally. They were eventually allowed into the country after paying fines worth €500 ($675).
Having just arrived in Turkey, Sauer sketched out a map of the chicken farm and the surrounding villages. But the search for it was still difficult, especially since there are many abandoned chicken farms between the gently rolling hills of northern Syria. Looking there for people who have disappeared is also very dangerous. Granted, the cities are under the control of secular rebels and local councils. But jihadists have hunkered down in the countryside, in small villages and on individual farms, and there's no telling what they will do. There have been repeated clashes between secular and extremist rebels, but the former haven't been able to drive out all the religious fanatics.
For example, the nearby district city of Salqin was gripped by a mood of both tension and buoyancy just two days after the two escaped. "We showed it to the bearded ones," says a man between puffs on a water pipe. The most radical group of Islamists, known as the "Islamic State," had also billeted in Salquin with some 100 foreigners. Recently, they had planned to enforce acceptance of their entirely specific beliefs -- and that in what is presumably the province's most secular city, which has been dubbed "Little Moscow" and has an elected city council on which communists, Nasserists and independents sit.
The jihadists marched through the city with determination, says the man beneath a small cloud of smoke, "to shatter all the water pipes, because they view smoking as a deadly sin." But they didn't get far. After smashing about a dozen water pipes, he says, they were confronted and blocked by a delegation of local rebels. "Go home!" the group's commander says he barked at the jihadists. "Or we will put up water pipes at every control stop and let whoever wants to smoke -- including women!"
The pipe-wreckers then withdrew in a huff to their headquarters on the edge of the city, he says. "We should finally kick them out," he concludes with a draw on his pipe that makes the coal embers glow orange, "like they did in Kfar Takharim," the closest small city.
Abandoning the Chicken Farm
It's a surreal coexistence, but that's just how things were in northern Syria in the summer of 2013. In Salqin, the jihadists lost their cultural battle; in the neighboring city, they were forced to withdraw; and a few kilometers down the road, they operated a prison and torture camp unmolested.
When the camp was finally located over a week later, it was deserted. The men took Nouri with them, but they left behind their entire jihadist inventory: Pakistani-style uniform pants and shirts, a balaclava and four flags from the Al-Nusra Front, one of the most powerful Islamist groupings operating in Syria. But they forgot to get rid of a few things. Three handwritten notes in the pockets of some pants mentioned appointment arrangements with their leaders -- and would play a role later on. Then, beneath some cookbooks in a kitchen drawer lay sheets bearing grades given to the rank and file for "obedience," "conviction" and "athletics." From them, one learns that a certain Abdallah al-Tunisi was a fervent believer in the cause, Abu Aisha was a good athlete, and Ukba tried harder than everyone else.
The entire cellblock area had been neatly and tidily dismantled, and its rubble dumped outside. The group of gangsters obviously wanted to keep it a secret that it had held captives here.
But to learn about it, one simply has to ask the people living nearby. From their farm 200 meters (660 feet) away, Ahmed Metchi and his brother even watched the two German prisoners escape before disappearing into the silver-gray mass of olive trees. "They were in a hurry," Metchi says. An hour later, 30 armed men rushed out in search of the men. Three Tunisians reportedly came to the Metchi farm and asked: "Did you see two guys running off?" They answered that, yes, they had, but also asked what the big deal was. "Those are POWs!" they were told, "That's secret!" And then the Tunisians ran away to continue their search, coming back hours later empty handed.
"They were eerie," Metchi says. "We sometimes heard screaming from over there, as if someone were being tortured." Later, Nouri would also talk about the screaming coming out of the chicken shed, which the torturer repeatedly interrupted by commanding "Admit it!" But it apparently wasn't clear to either Nouri or to the battered Syrians being interrogated exactly what they were supposed to admit.
"Five days later, when two more Syrians made a run for it there, they even came to us and asked where they were in the first place. They looked pretty beaten up," Metchi says. And then one morning, all the Tunisians vanished.
Kidnappers without a Plan
Nouri recounts how bizarre things quickly became. "After Simon and Bernd escaped," he says," the leaders came and said to me that I would now be freed." In reality, they had sent a ransom note to Rupert Neudeck, demanding €25 million within 48 hours. Neudeck scraped together all his liquid funds and offered €42,000, but the kidnappers told him he should stop playing games.
Meanwhile, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) was happy that some sort of contact had finally been made with the abductors. On the other hand, though, it would have been a tough sell politically to get the green light for a ransom payment worth several million when the funds would be going to a group aligned with al-Qaida.
The kidnappers continued to send more letters that included a 48-hour ultimatum and threats, but never provided clear stipulations about how the ransom money should be handed over or how the captive would be released. For all the professionalism they showed in pulling off the abduction within just a few minutes, in the end, the kidnappers seemed to lack a plan. Nothing was thought through. They built a proper prison in the shed of the chicken farm, but didn't know what to interrogate their prisoners about. They tortured their victims in an effort to force confessions without knowing what the prisoners should confess. Indeed, they seemed to encapsulate the actions of al-Qaida adherents in a nutshell: loudly calling on others to join the battle and spreading anxiety and fear, but without having the slightest clue of how to administer captured territory or what to do with it.
Nouri's Big Escape
With the summer already half over, the kidnappers retreated into the mountains with Nouri, whom they confined in a kitchen with a tiny bathroom. No one spoke to him. When he asked his guard what they planned to do with him, the guard answered that he didn't know, either. Nouri wrote petitions to the group's commander, the "emir," whoever that was. In response, the masked men took his pen away.
He didn't know anything about the search for him, but his kidnappers surely did. Their names were on the small pieces of paper left behind at the chicken farm. They are known figures in the jihadist scene and, indeed, within the extremist group of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS). Word was spreading throughout the province that they had captured an innocent old man and, on top of that, were demanding an unbelievably high ransom for him. Such tales are not positively received.
The fact that there has hardly been any word of the kidnapping in the German press also had some effect. On August 7, the kidnappers sent a letter in which they bitterly complained about how no one seemed to care about the fate of a "German citizen." What's more, there was no longer any mention of a €25 million ransom. The kidnappers' assiduously maintained cover was blown. In mid-August, two young Tunisians presented themselves to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of the blue in Salqin. Aren't people looking for a missing German, they asked, before suggesting that if a family member came, perhaps a solution could be found.
This eventually led Ziad Nouri's daughter, Dr. Saru Murad, a physician with the "Green Helmets," and Abdulkader al-Dhoun, a researcher for SPIEGEL, to head for Salqin for a meeting at the FSA headquarters. One of the jihadist emirs, a Saudi Arabian in his mid-20s, showed up, repeatedly mentioning how the case still needed a bit more scrutiny, and floated the possibility that Nouri could be a spy. Still, he couldn't explain why this hadn't been looked into over the last three months. The Saudi Arabian also noted that there would be no further demands for ransom, because Nouri is a Muslim, after all. He finished by saying that his side still needed some time to determine whether Nouri was a spy.
During his entire time in captivity, not a single kidnapper had asked Nouri a single question, he later said.
At 4 a.m. on the 111th day after Nouri was abducted, the call to prayer sounded through the darkness of the desolate village in which the kidnappers had been holding him captive. He had stayed awake after breaking the door lock in the evening "right when those outside were being loud," and they never came around at night. After three months in captivity, he endured one final, well-calculated period of waiting. Ten minutes after the sound of those heading to the mosque died off, he looked out the window, opened the door, descended the stairs, and disappeared into the fields.