Kidnappings are not new in Syria; when the peaceful protests that began in 2011 gave way to an armed conflict, gangs exploited the chaos by abducting civilians all across the country.
Recently, Damascus has witnessed an increase in kidnappings. The kidnappers are generally believed to be shabiha (pro-government militia members and gangsters) who live in neighborhoods inhabited by military officials and intelligence agents, such as ʿIsh al-Woroor, Mezzeh 86, and Jaramana. The kidnappers move around in black-tinted cars, chasing the victims to small side streets or building entrances where they then drug and kidnap them.In April 2016, three girls were kidnapped in broad daylight, according to activist Abu Wa'el al-Shami1 from the activist-run Damascus Media Office. “The families keep the kidnappings a secret,” he said to SyriaUntold, “in order to preserve the girl’s reputation. So what we know about the situation is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Some parents, however, plaster their daughter’s pictures, captioned “missing”, on the walls of the capital, asking for those with information to contact them.
Despite the large number of eyewitnesses, people rarely come forward. Rose Dalati, another activist, confirmed this phenomena. “One of the girls was kidnapped in broad daylight in Midan neighborhood [...]. She was kidnapped in a crowded street with many pedestrians: a black car stopped, with young militants leaving the car and dragging her onboard. Nobody stopped them.”
As checkpoints are commonly found in the city and its environs, many believe that these kidnappings are carried out with the knowledge of security forces. This is the view of Rami Zineddin, a merchant in the Old City. “Security measures and military reinforcements are twice as strong in the capital compared to previous years and most of the abductions take place nearby heavily-secured areas, such as Masakin Barzeh,” he told SyriaUntold.
"The kidnappers ask for extremely large ransoms, but usually settle on an amount of 5 million Syrian pounds (around 10.060 USD on the black market) after negotiations, though it largely depends on the socioeconomic status of the family. Most of the victims are targeted because their parents are able and willing to pay large sums of money to free their daughters quickly due to fear of rape and scandal," continued Zineddin.Even though the abducted women are often subjected to rape and sexual assault, generally they are kidnapped for the ransom or increasingly for organ theft. Following surgery, the victims are released into the neighborhood where they were taken.
Since 2012, Marjeh and Midan are two of the most targeted neighborhoods; in August 2012, in Midan, an 18-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped, and had her kidneys stolen, according to Bashir al-Munjid, who owns a clothing shop in the surroundings of the kidnapping scene.
Bashir added: “These events took place between areas patrolled by the National Defense Forces (NDF). In winter evenings of 2015, the NDF would stop those passing through the checkpoints and ask for details about the person’s family, place of residence, and if the person was travelling alone and from a wealthy family, they would disappear him, calling his or her family, demanding a ransom.
"In one of these abductions, the kidnappers claimed they were part of the Free Syrian Army despite its lack of a presence in Damascus (only few neighborhoods are controlled by the opposition in Damascus). During the daytime, however, these kidnappings were possible thanks to the complete apathy of bystanders and the shabiha's carelessness. The daytime makes it easier to find victims, especially since people fear leaving at night because of the risk of being kidnapped.”Generally, the families of the kidnapped report the incident to the police, but they turn out to be helpless, as they do not have authority over the shabiha. The parents then communicate with the security branches, and are told that they need to pay a bribe before they get any information.
Then they might move onto the Ministry of National Reconciliation, whose minister ʿAli Haidar has admitted previously in an interview given to the pro-government al-Watan newspaper in September 2015 that his ministry "received a number of complaints from citizens who insist their relatives or children have been kidnapped from safe areas.”
Nonetheless, in the same interview, Haidar clarified that the ministry’s task is limited to reporting the crimes to the relevant authorities but it cannot arrest the perpetrators, as it lacks executive powers.
“It is not strange for the kidnapper to be a member of the security forces,” Hayyan Zoʿbi, another activist from Damascus, told SyriaUntold, “in March 2016, a black car missing its plates stopped in front of a shop in Suq Tawil in Damascus and asked the owner to get in. His family was contacted days later for a ransom. It is unrealistic to think that this car passed dozens of checkpoints in Damascus, and nobody from the security forces was aware of it, especially when considering the detainee swaps conducted by the security services for money that are known to all Syrians.”
Needless to say, abductions are not limited to Damascus. In late 2011, the kidnapping of young women by taxi drivers proliferated in Homs. The taxi drivers, already having agreed with a group of shabiha where to drop off the victim, would change the route in the middle of the journey. Upon arriving at the destination, she would be tied up and her parents called for a ransom.
In Homs, women were also kidnapped from their homes directly, forced out of their residences by threat of violence. Many of the women targeted were related to men who were wanted by the security forces in the city, and this has led to anger and acts of revenge.
[1st photo: A poster with the picture of a kidnapped girl - Damascus (Damascus Media Office)].