Friday, October 10, 2008

Kidnapped on the Road to Allepo

To finish off our coverage of this story, we bring you the story of how two American journalists, Holli Chmela and Taylo Luck, ended up in a Syrian prison, as recounted by them to their employer - the Jordan Times - as published in NOWLebanon:
“We had planned to take a bus from Tripoli to Homs, but the bus station was closed and a taxi driver offered to take us across the border, saying he was licensed to make such trips,” they told the daily.

“He took us with another driver and on the way went off the main road,” Luck told the English language-daily where he had been working. “I asked him where the border was but he did not answer. As he continued driving, he locked the car doors and asked us to hand over our money, but we refused to give him anything. At that moment, a military car showed up and pulled him over and without a word took our bags, passports and cellphones and took us into their vehicle.”

“We did not know whether we were in Syria or Lebanon until we saw a sign for Al Hosn Castle after 20 minutes of driving. Then we knew we were in Syria,” Luck said.

The Jordan Times reported the two “did not reveal their profession to authorities and said they were just tourists. The Syrian police told them they would take them to a bus station in Homs but their destination was in fact a prison, where they both were held for eight days.”

“I found myself behind bars with more than 30 people, while Holli was locked up in another room. I refused to be separated from her and they finally put us in one room for one night before we were separated again,” said Luck.

“The two stayed in this prison near Homs from Wednesday night, October 1, until late Wednesday, October 8 … Interrogators accused them of smuggling themselves into Syria to cause problems, Luck said… On Wednesday night the two were transferred from Homs to a Damascus prison,” the front-page story read.

“Most treated us well and some policemen even allowed me and Holli to meet late at night and talk. A lot of officers were more than understanding of our situation and showed several acts of random kindness,” the two journalists told their paper.

“They were filing papers to transfer us to a military prison in Damascus and by coincidence, an officer saw Holli and recognised her from media footage,” the paper reported.

“He asked us: ‘Are you Americans? Are you journalists? Are you the two journalists?’” the Jordan Times quoted the journliasts as saying.

“We may have exercised poor judgment, but at the end of the day, we were victims,” Luck said.
And for those who still have no idea what we mean when we refer to this case as being of the "Kronos variety", here is a recount of Kronos attempts to take a Syrian taxi (Syria forbids Lebanese transport services from operating in Syria) from Lebanon to Syria and the "adventures" he endured:

I had no problem on the Lebanese side of the border, but once I arrived to the Syrian immigration office to enter the Syrian territories, you can see how these officers were taking advantage of other people’s misery. The people there holding out their passports to the immigration officers just for the stamp were like an ant hill. The officers were refusing to stamp anything ...why? It is not because of the highly unorganized nature of the situation, but rather for something called IKRAMMIEH in Syrian. This word must be put in context first: literally it means the additional pay out of good will for a service performed. So, these officers wanted extra money for the stamp otherwise, you would be delayed indefinitely at the border. What amazed me is that it is not that people did not know that the officers wanted the bribe; rather it is the stubbornness of these people who did not want to bribe anyone for what is rightfully a service without any extra expense. So, you can image what I did. Although I would like to be stubborn about it and fight for my rights, I decided to bribe the son of a bitch. Within 10 seconds after that, I received my passport and entered the Syrian territories.

Within a kilometer of northern Syria, I saw people in the middle of the road in plain clothes, some with side arms, only barely visible to the my eyes. Apparently this was some checkpoint for the notorious Syrian undercover police also known as the MOKHABARRAT among the natives of the region. I did not know back then when they had stopped us that this was actually the undercover police, rather I thought that I was going to get kidnapped or something like that...I mean, the concept of a checkpoint is alien to these people for some reason. So, the cabby stops, and i am still holding out my passport, and the gunman approaches my window, and asks for my passport. The only thoughts in my head were, if he takes it, my ticket, or so my option to leave the region will be gone. So I refused to give him my passport and hid it...BIG MISTAKE :S. So, he said while raising his voice really loudly as if I had insulted his entire family or something like that, and this is the translation : "Do you want to die... give me your passport you son of a bitch." So, you can only imagine what is going through my mind at this point, and finally the cabby decided to interject and tell me that this 'man' is an undercover cop. Henceforth, the ‘undercover cop’ was flipping through my passport, and asked me about my destination. I did not want to give him the address of my host as it is none of his business, and told him that I was heading to the airport at Damascus in order to return to Canada. He took one look at me and said ‘Where do you think you are? …. Canada?” and then flicked my passport straight in to my face after which he signaled that we may continue the journey.

So, I am on my way to Damascus.....so I believe that this is true till he misses the Damascus exit on the highway and continues to drive north. Well, the cabby drove me to his hometown of Homs where he had arranged with his son to drive me instead. Surprise surprise…. There, he requested to be paid in full, violating our agreement in Tripoli. Basically, he refused to offer the service any more unless he was paid with some IKRAMMIEH....gosh I hate that word!!!!! So of course, I coughed up the money and the 'bonus' and we were finally off to Damascus...yea right, upon reaching the outskirts, the cabby's son decided to no longer take me to my destination inside the city. He obviously wanted more money, but this time I had enough of this abuse/exploitation...shame on them. So, I found another cabby, and continued with him towards my destination. The dude did not want to switch on the taxi meter, all he mentioned was, "you pay me the value of what this trip is worth to you otherwise I will not take you" So, I obviously agreed as I had no other better option. Finally I arrived to my destination and my host welcomed me warmly.

Traveller beware.

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