The ISIS Hostage (2016)
The Hostages under the Children’s Hospital
Daniel was standing in front of a mirror that hung on the wall in the toilet of his new prison. The handcuffs and the blindfold had finally been removed and he had been given some clean clothes. He was looking at himself for the first time since he had been kidnapped twenty-four days earlier.
The skin around his eyes was not just blue, thought Daniel, but black as the night. There were marks that hung like a chain of oblong, grey beads around his neck, testifying to his suicide attempt. He leaned over the sink towards the mirror and looked himself deep in the eyes. There was no life in them. His cheeks were white and sunken. It was like looking at a dead man. He realized that the water he’d been given in the last few days might have actually saved his life.
Because of the blindfold, he hadn’t seen his hands since he had been caught in the cornfield and had smoked a cigarette in the banqueting hall with the boys in the Arsenal jerseys. They had swollen to twice their normal size, as if he were wearing ski gloves. When he went to wash the wounds on his wrists, he understood why the pain was so excruciating. Through a bracelet of reddish-brown gunk in the wound, he could see his bones and tendons. He tried to clean the wounds and washed the smears of blood and dirt off his body, which stank of stale sweat and fear. Then he put on the clean blue underpants and the camouflage uniform that the guards had given him.
Daniel was led into a large basement room. A heavy black metal door separated him from the corridor. The whitewashed walls of the cellar were made of concrete and the only sunlight that reached down into the room came through a small window in the toilet. Clinical white tiles covered the floor.
Daniel was able to walk freely around the room without a blindfold or handcuffs, and he had been given a blanket and a water bottle. He was fed a couple of times a day. He tried to get body and soul together again. He’d had ongoing gastrointestinal distress, which was made no better by the new, luxurious surroundings, even though he could now clip his nails and keep himself reasonably clean.
· * ·
It was the torturer Abu Hurraya who had delivered Daniel to the basement of the building, which was known as the children’s hospital in Aleppo.
The hospital had served as the unofficial prison of various rebel factions since the war had begun. The rebels were fighting among themselves for control of the area and there were periods when several factions shared the hospital buildings between them, so prisoners of Jabhat al-Nusra were in one wing, while ISIS prisoners were held in the other.
The prison was at that time under the daily leadership of the ISIS head of security in Aleppo, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Ubaidah al-Maghribi. The surname al-Maghribi indicated Moroccan ancestry, but he was by all accounts a citizen of the Netherlands. In a picture that was taken of him before he went to Syria, his almost feminine features are remarkable: a narrow face with a beauty mark on his left cheek and curved, full lips; round, dark, smiling eyes under bushy eyebrows; clean shaven with short hair, slim and tall.
Once in Syria, he had let his beard grow, but it was thin and barely covered his chin and cheeks. He never shouted and spoke in a friendly manner in several languages, including Dutch, French, English, German and Arabic.
According to several sources, Abu Ubaidah had studied computer engineering at the University of Amsterdam and now held a senior position in the ISIS organization. He had apparently married and had a child in Syria, all while holding prisoners in the basement of the children’s hospital.
· * ·
‘Psssst, Daniel … Daniel …’
He woke up and looked straight at two western-looking men. One of them had short grey hair, while the other had longish, tousled brown hair.
They looked at him with concern in their eyes and introduced themselves as the French journalist Didier François and freelance photographer Edouard Elias. Didier was in his early fifties and an experienced correspondent, while Edouard was in his mid-twenties like Daniel. The Frenchmen already knew his name. They had heard Daniel screaming while someone had been shouting his name.
‘We could hear that they were treating you very badly,’ Didier remarked. Didier and Edouard had been kidnapped only four days ago and had no visible bruises.
Daniel felt a paradoxical relief that he was no longer the only westerner. The presence of the Frenchmen could be his chance of survival, since the more foreigners there were the more focus there would be on finding them, he thought. And he had been longing for human contact with someone who spoke English.
‘I was captured three weeks ago,’ said Daniel and he told them briefly about what his torturers had done to him.
The sight of Didier and Edouard brought home to him again how dehydrated, emaciated and bruised he was. He had been reduced to a defenceless, dirty animal and he sensed that his wretched physical and mental condition was disheartening to the newcomers. The Frenchmen didn’t say much, as if Daniel were the symbol of what could happen to them. He could well understand their reaction.
When Didier asked him for advice on how to stay active while they were locked up, the mood softened a little and Daniel showed them a couple of abdominal and back bends that they could do to keep their bodies in shape.
After a few days they were all moved to a small boiler room further down the corridor. Two cisterns filled most of the room, but they were allowed to take their blankets with them and they were fed at noon and 6 p.m. Daniel was struggling with the open wounds on both his wrists and with his violent diarrhoea, which he had to control somehow, because there was no toilet in the boiler room.
When the prison guards knocked on the door and shouted hamam, the prisoners got to their feet and put on their blindfolds. They grabbed a water bottle with one hand and held on to each other’s shoulder to walk single file to the toilet. When they got there, Daniel hurried to use the toilet and fill his water bottle while the guards pounded aggressively on the door.
After only a few days in the cistern room, they were moved back to the large basement room. Daniel became increasingly ill and couldn’t keep anything down. He was lying on the floor and could feel pain all over his body, when a prison guard came in.
‘Do you think we can get a million dollars for you?’ he asked.
Daniel momentarily forgot his discomfort. The question was the first indication that the kidnapping could be about money and that he wouldn’t be sitting in this basement for ever. He remembered that his insurance would pay only five million kroner (about £530,000), but that was secondary right now.
‘I don’t know, but maybe,’ was his response. Daniel had been given a glimmer of hope to cling to.
The three western prisoners were soon separated from each other. Edouard was to remain in the basement room, while Didier and Daniel were moved to a smaller cell. There were already a couple of Syrian prisoners in the small cell, and this one didn’t even have a toilet.
For Daniel, the following days were a living hell.
He was terrified of what the guards might think of doing to him if they had to constantly take him to the toilet because of his diarrhoea. He didn’t dare knock on the door and ask permission to go. Suddenly he noticed faeces leaking out through his trousers and down on to the blanket. He tried to act like it was nothing, but when one of the Syrian prisoners smelled Daniel’s diarrhoea, he immediately hammered on the door and shouted to the guards that he didn’t want to sit in that stench.
The guards hustled Daniel out to the toilet, where he was ordered to wash himself and put on a clean pair of trousers. Then they put a large, empty yoghurt container into the cell, which Daniel was supposed to use as a toilet. But the bucket wasn’t deep enough and his faeces splattered out over the wall.
The other prisoners were irritated and so were the guards. When one of them, a short, fat man, discovered faeces on the wall, he went berserk and hit Daniel on the head and shoulders with a stick.
He then took Daniel to the bathroom, where he drew his pistol and pointed it threateningly at Daniel’s face.
‘You have to pull yourself together,’ said Didier to Daniel afterwards, with reference to the fact that the smellier and the more frightened and submissive he became, the more he was reducing himself to an animal that the guards thought they had the right to beat.
He was so weakened by the beatings and the diarrhoea that he often fainted when he stood up and he didn’t have the strength to eat. Didier hid flat bread for him under the blanket and asked for diarrhoea pills.
But it was the wounds on his wrists that most worried Daniel. He was terrified that they would become infected, that he would get gangrene and die. The bracelet of pus and fluid hardened, fell off, and became slimy again. He tried to protect his wrists from the hairy blanket he was lying on by placing a piece of fabric between it and his hands. When he finally dragged his body to the toilet, he held back from washing afterwards for fear of germs and just shook himself dry.
The fat little man often came to visit, sometimes with food and a young boy - whom he was clearly looking after and who could be heard shouting nonsense out in the corridor - and at other times just to amuse himself by humiliating Daniel.
‘Make a noise like a dog!’ shouted the fat man, who laughed loudly when Daniel barked.
‘Make a noise like a donkey!’
Daniel didn’t dare disobey.
‘When I say “Daniel”, you say “jahass”,’ came the order.
‘Say it as if you are sad,’ he continued and Daniel said ‘jahass’ in fifteen different ways.
‘As long as they don’t beat me again,’ he thought as he went through all the sounds of the animal kingdom.
He had become a dog himself, one that did what it was told, and lay down on his back with his legs over his head. He was afraid of shitting in his trousers in front of the little fat man.
There wasn’t any peace at night, either. Daniel lay listening to prisoners being dragged out of other basement rooms and beaten. The screams and blows of the whip reached into the cell, where he counted them to shut out his anxiety. Counting helped. The victims howled and whimpered, sometimes for maybe fifteen minutes, other times for several hours. The torture made Daniel sleepless and paranoid.
On 20 June, after more than a month in captivity, a guard came to fetch him and told him to follow. Daniel crossed the hallway and was led into the guards’ room. It was a long room with a television and a table at one end, where two guards were sitting. One of them was a burly man with a long beard, who stood ready with a camera on a tripod. The burly man told him to sit on a chair by the wall. Daniel was going to appear in a video.
‘It’s to your government,’ he was informed.
Daniel sat in a camouflage jacket and tried to look at the camera, even though it was too far away for him to see it properly without his glasses.
‘Pull your sleeves down over your wrists,’ said the cameraman, adding, ‘and hold them down between your knees.’
Following instructions, Daniel said who he was and that he wouldn’t be released unless the Danish government paid a ransom. ‘Please pay so I can come home,’ begged Daniel, followed by greetings to his family: ‘I’m well. I miss you. I love you, Mum and Dad. I love you, Signe.’
Then they turned off the camera.
‘Thank you,’ said Daniel, relieved that a video message would finally be sent to Denmark.
‘You should thank yourself,’ said the burly man, blindfolding him and taking him back to the cell.
· * ·
More than a month had gone by since Daniel disappeared. It became a permanent part of Susanne’s morning routine to follow the news about Syria and write in her diary.
She also developed habits she had never had previously. Every evening she said a prayer, asking God to take care of Daniel, no matter where he was or what he had done. In the bedroom she had placed two wrought-iron hearts containing strings of lights, which she lit every evening at dusk. She also began taking the time to chase flies out of the window to freedom instead of smashing them with a fly-swatter as she usually did.
Susanne and Kjeld were both spending a lot of time on the phone. In the space of a few weeks a previously unknown man had become the most important person in their lives. Arthur was their lifeline to Daniel and he called them frequently from Turkey with new information.
‘Daniel has probably been brought before a sharia court in Aleppo,’ he reported in a loud voice. ‘It’s being said that he has been accused of having brought pornographic images.’
Arthur explained that, within his network of informants, rumours had flourished at first that Daniel had been sentenced to death and that the sentence had already been executed. Shortly afterwards it was reported that he was alive and could escape sentencing if the family paid a sum for his offences. Arthur suggested that, with his help, Susanne and Kjeld should write a letter to the sharia court to influence the judges to release Daniel on payment of a fine. It was still unclear whether the information had come from influential sources in the hierarchy around Daniel, yet Arthur sent word to his network that he wanted to get proof that Daniel was still alive and to start negotiations. The hope was that this message would also confirm that Daniel had been detained in Aleppo as alleged.
An amount of approximately $700,000 had been mentioned by Abu Suheib, according to an intermediary. This was money that would have to be paid by Daniel’s family, because Denmark doesn’t pay ransoms to kidnappers. The political parties in parliament had rarely been more steadfastly in agreement than they were on this issue. They didn’t want to incite terrorist organizations and other criminals to take more Danish hostages. Denmark thus belonged to the group of countries that was trying to curtail the hostage industry by slamming shut the cash box. The State didn’t want to become involved in what the ministries behind closed doors had dubbed the ‘Daniel affair’, either by paying a ransom or any other costs associated with the search for him.
On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry was willing to play a liaison role and made rooms available for meetings between various actors in the case. It was also incumbent on the Ministry’s Citizens Advice Bureau to provide information to Susanne and Kjeld, who, along with Anita, regularly attended meetings at the Ministry concerning Denmark’s position on the case and the latest news about Daniel, although very often they had already received this information from Arthur.
There was no doubt that the network that had taken Daniel was just as ideological as it was money-grubbing. The hierarchy among the suspected kidnappers slowly became clearer to Arthur and it led straight to the top of the ISIS leadership. At the bottom of the hierarchy sat the Iraqi ISIS leader in Azaz, Abu Suheib, who was most likely the one behind Daniel’s kidnapping in the first place. Further up was the head of the prison in Aleppo, the Dutchman Abu Ubaidah. Operationally, they shared the same boss, Abu Athir, who was the Emir of Aleppo and was at the top of the hierarchy as a member of the Shura Council under Baghdadi.
All lines of command led to Abu Athir and Arthur learned from his network that it was he who decided whether hostages should live, die or be brought before a sharia court.
The family couldn’t take the risk of not trying to raise the $700,000 that might bring Daniel home. Kjeld contacted the family’s banker and on 20 June Susanne overcame her misgivings. She and Kjeld signed for a loan of 3.7 million kroner, guaranteed by Daniel’s insurance. Susanne dropped off the signed loan documents at their local bank branch before going to work at Legoland, where she earned $23 an hour.
She told herself that the staggering amount they had borrowed was just a number on a piece of paper.
· * ·
No one ever saw the video in which Daniel appealed to the government to pay a ransom, because it was never sent to Denmark.
Daniel, who was unaware of this, survived on the slim hope that the appeal would help to get him out. In the meantime, he had been moved back into the large basement room, without Didier. The cell was now full of Syrian prisoners, who had placed their blankets as far from the toilet as possible. The atmosphere in the room was sultry and stagnant and the only fresh air that occasionally reached them came from the small toilet window.
Daniel lay between a thin man, Bashir, who was in his fifties, and his stout friend Mohammad, who had sixteen children; there were a lot of medicine bottles by his blanket, because he suffered from diabetes. They welcomed Daniel and let him eat more than them.
In the morning the Syrian prisoners got up early to pray, while Daniel usually slept until the first meal, around midday. He tried to establish daily routines to regain his strength. He felt weak when he tried to walk around in the cell, but reminded himself that if he got some exercise his body would begin to absorb nutrients rather than expel them. He counted eighteen steps back and forth across the cell floor.
Bashir smiled at him and told him in English about his son, who was at university, and his two wives, who were good friends, even though they shared a husband. The guards told Bashir that they had imprisoned that son and one of his wives. He cried every time he prayed, fearing the worst.
‘They aren’t real people. They are insane,’ Bashir sobbed. He was convinced that he would never get out alive. ‘I wish the revolution had never begun,’ he said. ‘The only ones still fighting are the bandits. The good people left long ago.’
The walking helped and, soon enough, Daniel was pacing back and forth on the floor for hours talking to himself. He played several voices at once, and he imagined that God was one of them.
Good morning, Daniel.
How are you?
I’m fine, thanks. I’m in a room where there is plenty of space and I get food twice a day. I can go to the toilet when I want to. My stomach feels better and I have a wonderful family and girlfriend.
What would you like to do when you get back home?
I would like to see my family and Signe first, of course. And then I would really like to find a permanent place to live in Copenhagen.
How would you furnish it?
I want to buy a printer, so I can print some photos. Then I could build some cushioned stools and a big, beautiful wooden desk. I would give my younger sister a rail pass for her birthday, so that she can come and visit whenever she wants. Signe could move in with me and then my family can come for Christmas.
What will you eat?
Well, I’d really like to learn how to cook duck. My mother could teach me her recipe.
When he felt pain in the back of his knees, he lay with his legs up the wall and observed the motley crew of prisoners, who were regularly being replaced with new people. Two Kurds had been captured and were accused of having shot some Islamists. One of them was small and lively, the other one thin and frightened and Daniel couldn’t help but look at a strange hole in the base of his nose where mucus leaked out. He reeks of beatings, thought Daniel, who had learned first-hand how torture makes the body smell.
A hierarchy quickly formed among the prisoners, which made Daniel uneasy. They behaved like guards towards each other, where the strong ones made decisions and the weak ones were exploited. The smelly Kurd was treated like a slave and forced to massage the superiors and wash their plates. In general, Kurds were always at the bottom of the hierarchy, purely because they were Kurds. Daniel enjoyed a certain status, because he symbolized a ticket to the West and also because he had been imprisoned the longest. But the hierarchy could change in a flash. If a prison guard selected one of them as a scapegoat, the others kept their distance, so as not to be associated with him. Bashir was always at the top, though, because he had the greatest reserves of energy.
Occasionally, the internal pecking order would be replaced by a community of equal standing, like the time when a new prisoner was thrown into the cell. He was about eighteen to twenty years old. His body was black and blue; his clothes were torn to shreds and he couldn’t walk or eat. Together they dragged the new man into the bathroom, where they washed him and his clothes. Survival sometimes depended on forgetting one’s own suffering and helping others who were worse off.
· * ·
In order to pay the $700,000 that Daniel’s family had borrowed from the bank, they needed a proof of life, so as to be certain that those who were demanding the money really had Daniel - and that he was alive.
Arthur’s local assistant, Majeed, was trying to get permission to see Daniel in the prison and to take a photograph of him. Majeed drove to Aleppo on numerous occasions, until one day he was finally allowed to meet the Dutchman Abu Ubaidah.
Abu Ubaidah was slight, calm and subdued. He listened more than he spoke and when he opened his mouth he chose his words carefully, which Majeed found unusual in such a setting. Abu Ubaidah didn’t reveal whether or not he knew of Daniel, but told Majeed he would have to wait to talk to Abu Athir.
Majeed waited for two days. When Abu Athir finally showed up, his bodyguard, who wore a suicide vest, immediately took Majeed aside and said, ‘How dare you approach the Emir of Aleppo!’ The bodyguard dragged Majeed down into a basement, where he was frisked before being allowed to speak to the emir.
‘Have you come here to ask about an infidel?’ asked Abu Athir suspiciously.
Majeed explained that he wanted to take a proof-of-life photograph of Daniel; Abu Athir consented.
On 30 June Majeed was driven to the prison under the children’s hospital. When he arrived, he wrote down his name and the date on a piece of notebook paper, which he handed over to Abu Ubaidah. He wasn’t going to be allowed to take the photograph himself.
· * ·
A masked man wearing a tracksuit came into the cell. He held a camera and a piece of paper. He made Daniel stand against the wall and ordered him to hold the piece of paper in front of him, on which a name and date were written.
There were a couple of clicks from the camera and the masked man disappeared just as quickly as he had come.
Daniel had no idea who Majeed was.
· * ·
The proof-of-life photo of Daniel with Majeed’s note was delivered to Arthur on a USB memory stick. It was the first tangible proof that the people they were dealing with had access to Daniel. It was now more than fifty days since Daniel had been kidnapped.
Arthur asked the crisis psychologist who had been allocated to Daniel’s family to drive to Hedegård and show them the photograph. Kjeld, Susanne, Christina, Anita and Anita’s boyfriend were sitting around the table in the kitchen when the crisis psychologist placed it in front of them.
‘He’s alive,’ thought Susanne when she saw the photograph of Daniel. ‘He’s alive, but his eyes are dark and tired.’
Christina began to cry and looked at the others’ stony faces. As the tears ran down her face, it irritated her that she was the only one who was crying.
Daniel had become thin. His shoulders had almost disappeared and his chest was flat under the camouflage jacket, but the family reassured themselves with the thought that it was most likely Daniel’s muscles that had shrunk. As Susanne wrote in her diary, ‘Everyone knows that the muscles disappear quickly, and fortunately he is in really good shape.’
The psychologist emphasized Daniel’s clean nails.
‘It’s a bad sign if he isn’t able to keep himself clean,’ she said. Susanne thought that Daniel looked frightened and tired, but the psychologist pointed to the whites of his eyes. It meant he was getting enough fluids.
It was also comforting to know that by sending the proof of life, the kidnappers apparently believed that Daniel was worth a lot of money and they weren’t about to risk losing thousands of dollars.
No one mentioned the visible wounds on his right wrist and the scars discernible on his neck; at least, not out loud. Anita didn’t talk about the wounds until she was sitting in the car with her boyfriend on the way home to Odense. That was when she realized for the first time how serious the situation was. Or, as Susanne wrote in her diary that evening: ‘If the seriousness of the situation hadn’t been clear to us all before, it certainly hit us the moment we saw the photo.’ She didn’t write anything about Daniel’s wrists.
· * ·
Tomatoes. Onions. Cucumbers. Olives. Daniel greedily ate the vegetables that Bashir had earned for the cell. When he washed the metal plates in the bathroom after meals, the guards gave him extra food, which they all shared. Daniel’s day consisted predominantly of his walks in the cell and long talks with Bashir. It was no longer Daniel who was beaten by the guards, but his fellow prisoners. He sat facing the wall and waited until the beatings of the Kurds and some of the others were over. He got nothing more than a few punches in the ribs or a slap around the head, and he got the feeling that the guards had been told not to beat him.
His body was beginning to recover and he was comforted by the fact that he had participated in one proof-of-life video and had had his photo taken. There was something happening around him that he only got confirmation of when a guard came into the cell one day and said, ‘Daniel, you’re on your way out.’
Almost every day something happened in the cell which made it difficult for Daniel to find peace, and his mood swung up and down. One day the door opened and the guard spoke in Arabic with Bashir and his friend. Afterwards, Bashir sank down on the rug, clearly affected by the conversation. Daniel went over and asked him what had happened.
‘We have to make a video,’ he began. Bashir talked about his possible death sentence. He and his friend would have to claim their allegiance to the Syrian regime in a video. They would have to say how they had helped in the bombing of civilians in Aleppo. The guard said that they would be killed if they didn’t cooperate in the propaganda video, which was intended to show that the kidnappers had imprisoned some of the regime’s supporters.
The video would lead to Bashir’s certain death, whatever he did. If other rebel groups saw it, they would kill him for supporting the regime. If he refused to appear in it, he would be shot by his captors.
Before Bashir left the cell, Daniel asked him for a favour. If Bashir were released, he was to write to Christina and Signe and say that Daniel was fine. They exchanged email addresses and Daniel repeated Bashir’s to himself over and over, so that he would remember it.
Bashir and his friend were taken away and Daniel never saw them again. He feared for them; he missed their company and felt lonely and far away from everything familiar. All his doubts resurfaced. Maybe he wasn’t on his way home after all.
Instead, the prison guards started to worry about his wrist. A doctor rubbed iodine on it and bandaged it and while Daniel stood with his hands against the wall, they exposed one of his buttocks and gave him a shot of antibiotics. They were clearly interested in keeping their hostage alive, but how long would they hold him?
Daniel was trying to walk away his worries, eighteen steps back and forth, when he suddenly got an unexpected visitor from Denmark.
The heavy metal door opened and he was ordered to put on his blindfold. He tied it as loosely around his head as possible.
‘Come with me,’ said the guard.
Daniel was made to stand against the wall in the corridor, where he could just make out the toes of four boots under the blindfold, standing right in front of him. Suddenly someone spoke Danish to him.
‘Where do you live in Denmark?’ asked a voice, which sounded young.
‘I live in Copenhagen,’ said Daniel.
‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ asked another voice that sounded just as young - from his accent, Daniel suspected the man had been born and raised in Copenhagen.
‘Yes, I have an older sister and a younger sister.’
The Danes seemed to be carefree and in high spirits; they were chuckling and Daniel was irritated by the thought that they had come just to see the Danish zoo animal in the basement.
‘Do you think we can get two million euros for you?’ asked one.
‘The Danish government doesn’t negotiate,’ said Daniel, and he told them that his father was a lorry driver and his mother a hairdresser. Two million euros was a massive sum for them.
‘I really don’t think you can get that much,’ added Daniel.
‘Is there any information you can give us about your family?’ demanded the other one.
Daniel gave them the information that he could remember; telephone numbers for Susanne and Kjeld and email addresses for his sister and Signe. He tried to make sense of the fact that there were two Danish-speaking boys in an Islamist prison in Syria, quizzing a kidnapped compatriot.
‘What about your elder sister?’ asked one of them. ‘How old is she?’
‘OK, do you think we can get married to her?’
‘You’ll have to talk to my father about that,’ said Daniel.
‘She’s blond, isn’t she?’
The question sounded more like a statement and the two Danes disappeared.
Daniel had noticed several Europeans in the network that was holding him captive. Even though he had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists in the midst of a civil war in Syria, a number of those whom he saw wearing hoods spoke French and English - and even Danish. The torturers, the guards and the kidnappers were either a product of the Syrian regime, the Iraq War or of life in Europe. Several thousand Europeans, such as the Belgian Jejoen, had travelled without the slightest hindrance over the border from Turkey, and some ended up working for the same man who was making the final decisions about Daniel: Abu Athir, the Emir of Aleppo.
In other words, there was a four-lane motorway from the heart of Europe to the caliphate.
· * ·
The background of the photograph of Abu Athir was bursting with bright-green fruit trees. The sun was shining and at the emir’s side was one of his European disciples. It looked as if they were at an idyllic spot in the Syrian countryside as they stood next to each other, smiling for the camera. Abu Athir’s black hair billowed and disappeared behind his shoulders. His face was wrapped in an abundant, thick beard, broken only by a wide smile that exposed a set of snow-white teeth with two pointed canines in his upper jaw. His tight-fitting, black wool hat made him look like a hipster and his eyebrows formed a slight unibrow over his wide nose. The day the picture was taken Abu Athir was wearing a beige tunic unbuttoned at the neck, with a grey shirt underneath and practical outdoor trousers from the Swedish brand Fjällräven. He was much taller than the Frenchman beside him. The Belgian combatant Jejoen, who had come to Syria to take part in the war under the emir’s command, looked at the picture for a long time. He was fascinated by Abu Athir and there was general agreement among the Europeans that the emir was especially tough, but approachable.
You had to earn his trust, however, which is where Jejoen was having problems. Abu Athir was suspicious of him, because Jejoen’s father Dimitri was travelling around Syria looking for his son, which meant that Jejoen’s Syrian comrades suspected him of being a spy. They had found a message on Jejoen’s mobile from his father, who had mentioned some Israeli contacts. At the risk of his own life, his father had visited one rebel leader after another, including the great emir Abu Athir, who briefly detained him.
No one understood how he was released alive, but the messages and his father’s search raised suspicions about Jejoen, who was placed under house arrest in Abu Athir’s prison in the basement of the children’s hospital.
· * ·
Daniel was trying desperately to get a message home to Hedegård.
There was a new Syrian prisoner in the cell. He had been accused of having sex with his brother’s wife, because he had been seen alone with her. The judge had looked mercifully on this transgression and the Syrian was to be released once he had received his punishment: a whipping.
Daniel tore a piece off a box of penicillin tablets and wrote a message to Signe and Christina with a pen borrowed from one of the other prisoners. He wrote that he was fine, was being fed every day and had access to a toilet. They shouldn’t worry and he was sorry that he had put them in such a situation. Daniel gave the Syrian man their email addresses, so he could send the Danish message to them if he ever got the chance.
He folded the fragment of paper and the Syrian stuffed it in his back pocket.
‘What about in your underpants or socks?’ suggested Daniel. ‘A less obvious place?’
A few days after the Syrian had been released, the guards moved Daniel to a new room further down the corridor. It was a boiler room directly opposite the toilet that prisoners used if their cell didn’t have one.
It was around 17 July and Daniel had been imprisoned for two months.
· * ·
Susanne and Kjeld’s bank loan of 3.7 million kroner had been converted into US dollar bills by the Danish National Bank. They were now stacked and ready for payment with Arthur in Turkey, who, with cash in hand, was going to get Daniel back home.
But the communication with to the kidnappers had cooled. Despite intense pressure, Arthur couldn’t get the practical details in place on how the money should be handed over. It seemed to him as if those responsible had lost interest in closing the matter, and his network wasn’t having any luck in obtaining clear answers.
The reason was probably that the relationship had become strained between Abu Suheib, the Iraqi head of ISIS in Azaz, who had taken Daniel captive, and Abu Athir, the Emir of Aleppo. For Arthur, it was crucial that the person he was negotiating with also had the keys to Daniel’s cell. He sensed that the Iraqi was interested in negotiating a release, while Abu Athir seemed to want to hang on to Daniel. And Abu Athir had the keys.
At the same time the war was raging in and around Aleppo, where Daniel was being held. The insurgent groups were fighting among themselves and against the Assad regime, which continued to bomb the populous city.
An increasing number of reports were coming in that poison gas was being used against the rebel-controlled areas. In Raqqa, a city north-east of Aleppo that the rebels had taken control of in March 2013, there were rumours that ISIS was winning more influence and had pushed out Jabhat al-Nusra and the other factions.
Susanne and Kjeld followed the news from Syria and feared for Daniel, sitting imprisoned in the midst of war. They watched powerlessly as the bombs fell on Aleppo.
· * ·
Daniel was in the boiler room with seven Syrians. A couple of them were in their teens, while others were family men in their forties who didn’t speak a word of English. However, there was one young man in his twenties with whom Daniel could communicate and play games. They scratched out a chequerboard on the concrete floor with a nail and used stones to represent the chequers. One player’s chequers were large stones, the other’s small ones. Daniel tried to disappear into the game and forget about the cords dangling from some pipes in the ceiling, and what they might be used for.
‘Sometimes they torture in here,’ his fellow prisoner told him. Daniel shuddered at the thought of sitting in the room where the torture took place. Occasionally he and the other prisoners were taken to the toilets across the corridor while someone screamed for fifteen minutes inside the boiler room. Daniel was paralysed by the screams, while his fellow prisoners took the opportunity to wash their clothes in the sink or go to the toilet.
Daniel didn’t dare spend too long urinating. If the guards had worked themselves up after beating a prisoner, it could mean a beating for him if he wasn’t finished in the toilet by the time they came back.
There was often noise in the corridor, because the toilet and wash basins lay directly opposite the boiler room and prisoners were constantly being led in and out. Daniel discovered a small hole in the boiler room’s metal door and when he looked through it he felt the breeze that filtered through. His poor eyesight became noticeably better when he looked through the hole towards the door to the toilets. His eyes could suddenly focus like a camera through the small opening. He was soon using it as a way of passing the time, by keeping up with what was going on outside the room and seeing who walked by. And he knew he was unlikely to be discovered, since the guards would have to first unlock the door, giving him time to move away from it.
One day he heard voices speaking English in the corridor. From his vantage point, he could see that there was a group of prisoners in a queue for the toilet.
‘WHAT’S YOUR NAME?’ shouted a guard. The answer came loud and clear.
‘MY NAME IS JAMES FOLEY.’
The guard repeated his question to three other prisoners, and Daniel heard them answer: John Cantlie, David Haines and Federico Motka.
He moved away from the door, dumbfounded. How many of us are there? he thought. He watched through the hole on a daily basis when there was noise in the toilets.
In particular, he was surprised that James Foley was in the basement. The last news he could remember about the missing American was that he had been imprisoned by the regime in Damascus.
It wasn’t long before he spotted two men he also hadn’t seen before. One of them was in desert boots, jeans and a white shirt. The other one wore a checked shirt and trousers, where the lower part can be zipped off. Daniel smiled when he saw that the man was wearing boat shoes. They had to be westerners too.
Daniel began counting. There were the two Frenchmen, Didier François and Edouard Elias, whom he had shared a cell with, but had not seen for a while. There were the four men who had been asked to say their names by the toilets: James Foley, John Cantlie, Federico Motka and David Haines. And then the two men in boat shoes and desert boots, whose names he didn’t know. And then there was him.
I’m obviously not the only idiot, he thought, and suddenly became optimistic. The more of them there were, the more focus there had to be on their release. He wept with relief.
When he had been in the boiler room for five days he was led into the guard room, where Abu Ubaidah sat in jogging trousers at a table with a computer in front of him. Also on the table was the message that Daniel had tried to smuggle out with the Syrian prisoner.
‘Why would you do such a thing?’ Abu Ubaidah said quietly in English. ‘We’re treating you well, aren’t we?’
Daniel explained that he hadn’t told them where he was and offered to translate the letter from Danish to English.
‘No. We’ve already had it translated,’ was the reply.
A few days later he was taken into a dark room with a wooden door. Sitting there was the man in the white shirt and his partner with the boat shoes.
Pierre Torres and Nicolas Hénin introduced themselves and gave Daniel a proper hug as a welcome. Pierre had longish dark hair, a broad white face and a wide, open smile.‘Welcome to our room,’ he said kindly, and Daniel felt overwhelmed by this warm reception.
The two Frenchmen had each been kidnapped separately in Raqqa more than a month ago, on 22 June. Pierre was a marine biologist, but had become a freelance journalist after the Arab Spring. The movement had awakened his activism and he had been in Egypt, Libya and Syria several times.
At the end of May he had gone to Raqqa, where he was living with a family. ISIS was gaining ground in the town, but not without resistance. There were daily demonstrations against Jabhat al-Nusra, whom people called the Islamists, but Pierre’s experience was that most of the combatants had already switched their allegiance to ISIS. Raqqa was full of hooded Islamists, but also democracy-hungry activists rebelling against the Islamist hegemony, which they didn’t want to replace the tyrannical regime. Pierre was fascinated by these ideological clashes.
The day he was kidnapped he had had an upset stomach, but was nevertheless walking to the city centre to witness another demonstration against the Islamists. A few blocks from the governor’s building a small car drew up beside him. The men wore hoods, which didn’t concern Pierre very much because most of the fighters did. However, when they pointed their weapons at him, he was afraid that they belonged to one of the regime-backed militias. He resisted and tried to escape, but each time he pulled away they slammed his head on the roof of the car. Eventually he was thrown into the back seat with blood dripping from his forehead and driven to a house outside the city, south-east of Raqqa. There he met Nicolas Hénin, who had been taken the same day.
After two weeks they were moved south to the children’s hospital in Aleppo, where Daniel was the first westerner they had met, although they were aware that there were others.
They had communicated through a hole in the wall with Didier and Edouard, who were sitting in the next cell. They also knew that the aid workers David and Federico were there.
Daniel immediately took to Pierre, who, as a marine biologist, could give him advice about nutrition and bacteria.
‘You’re far too thin,’ he said to Daniel, who looked like a scarecrow. Daniel’s eyes stared out from deep, dark holes and Pierre felt he could see all the way into Daniel’s brain.
‘What happened to your wrist?’ asked Pierre, and Daniel felt the urge to cry over someone wanting to hear his story.
The ceiling fan made such a noise that they couldn’t hear what was going on in the corridor. It was hard to tell if it was day or night, because the only light came from a naked light bulb. Unlike Daniel, Pierre and Nicolas spoke to the guards quite a lot. The Frenchmen hadn’t been exposed to as much violence as Daniel and therefore dared to express their needs. For example, they asked the guard (whom they called ‘Abu Gold Watch’ between themselves, because of his big gold watch) if they could have toothbrushes. Even though the answer was no, Daniel was surprised that they had asked. Most of the time, he tried to make himself invisible to the guards, who nevertheless singled him out by asking him to perform such actions as banging himself on the head with a shoe a hundred times.
Pierre advised Daniel not to play along with the guards’ humiliations.
‘You have to be more boring and pretend you don’t understand anything.’
‘I can’t just start ignoring them from one day to the next,’ said Daniel.
He realized that Pierre was trying to make him stronger and thus less subject to the whims of the guards. One day, when he wanted to teach Pierre the proper technique to do a push-up and couldn’t even lift his body off the floor, he knew he had to regain his strength to survive.
He started training. Before lunch he strengthened his torso and before dinner he exercised his legs. Pierre took part in the exercises and at night they lay side by side on their blankets and talked.
Their daily training was interrupted briefly by a guard who wanted to photograph Daniel.
‘Could you two exchange clothing for a moment?’ asked the guard, pointing at Daniel’s military clothing and Pierre’s white shirt, wand can you do something about your hair?’
Daniel pulled Pierre’s shirt over his head. It was too big for his narrow shoulders, but looked nicer than the military jacket, which gave the impression he was a combatant.
He was taken out to the corridor and had his photograph taken. There were no questions and no label, so he was unsure whether the photo would be used as proof of life. Nevertheless, he tried to send a message home - a smile. He hoped that the smile would reassure his family in Hedegård if they ever got to see the photograph.
Daniel and Pierre had just managed to work out an exercise routine when they were moved to a larger cell under the children’s hospital, where there were four more western hostages: Didier and Edouard, and David and Federico. There were now a total of seven westerners in the same cell. It was the first time that Daniel had met the two aid workers.
David was British, while Federico was Italian. They had come to Syria together as aid workers to find suitable places to establish refugee camps for the rapidly growing number of internally displaced refugees. In the spring of 2013 they had been attacked by masked men on a road in northern Syria and they hadn’t stood a chance.
David was thin and had such a full beard that he reminded Daniel of a caveman. Federico was young and taciturn. They told him that they were receiving much better treatment than they had before. Neither of them went into further detail about what had happened to them.
Finally, after more than two months in captivity, Daniel no longer stuck out as the blond westerner among the Syrian prisoners; at last he had some people to talk to who understood him. Together they could try to make the best of the terrible situation they were in. But after a few days, Daniel saw that any solidarity had been replaced by an internal hierarchy, just as it had been when he sat in the cell with the Syrian prisoners. In the cell, the seven hostages arranged their sleeping areas along the walls. Daniel was given a place closest to the door and right by the buckets where they shat. He knew he belonged to the lower half of the hierarchy, otherwise he wouldn’t be forced to sleep by the toilet buckets, which was regarded as an almost radioactive area in the cell. Moreover, it was unpleasant to be close to the door and the unpredictable guards who barged in several times a day. At least Pierre lay next to him, which made Daniel feel safe.
The ranking was also defined with the help of the kidnappers. The guards ordered the cell to appoint an ‘emir’, who would speak on behalf of everybody. The title went to the Frenchman Didier, because he was the oldest among them. One of his tasks was to decide what the prisoners should try to get the prison guards to deliver.
‘We should ask for more food,’ suggested someone.
‘No, what about soap? We must show that we care about our hygiene,’ said another.
‘Toothbrushes!’ shouted a third.
Daniel said that he didn’t need anything.
‘I’m just happy not to be hanging from the ceiling,’ he remarked. ‘For me, it’s important to regain my strength and get some exercise.’
The heat in the room was oppressive. Even though there was a fan, the air felt so still that some of Daniel’s co-prisoners complained that it would be dangerous for them all if he began exercising and sweating too much in such an enclosed space.
He disagreed, but worked out a plan. When the morning sun hit the fan, it cast an orange beam of light on the wall just above him. Then he got up and did strength and balance exercises on his blanket, while watching the beam move from the wall above him and down across the floor. When it hit Nicolas’s feet, Daniel would have to finish his gymnastics, because the others would begin waking up. The complaining stopped.
Outside the cell, there was more and more fighting. They could hear the deafening sound of bombs and firing near the children’s hospital. The war was moving closer, but Daniel didn’t care. He devoted all his energy thinking about mealtimes, when he would suddenly see sides of himself he didn’t much like.
They were given too little to eat and he felt a constant gnawing hunger that was driving him mad. If the guards forgot to come with food, his whole body filled with anxiety. Lately, some French-speaking fighters had been in charge of taking care of the prisoners and they had not been generous types. They sometimes withheld meals, so Daniel ate like a dog, hoarding and grabbing things from the other rations when the food was finally brought in. Heated arguments arose about who was stealing food from whom, and Daniel invented a technique whereby he swallowed the food almost instantly to hide how much he was eating, and defended himself by saying that he was too thin. He greedily licked his metal plate for the smallest crumb, while others became surly, withdrawing from the disagreements and refusing to eat. Several of them pointed to Daniel as the villain.
The only peace around mealtimes came when seven chunks of bread and seven boiled eggs were handed out.
The prisoners in the cell had been given a pen to share and rules were soon agreed as to when it might be used and for what. Daniel was given permission to use it to design a chess game, which he sat in a corner to make. He broke small pieces off the penicillin package that he had brought with him from cell to cell. He used the pen to draw the king, queen and pawns, but when he wanted fill in the black pieces, some argued that it was an unnecessary waste of ink.
The chess set was his new pastime and at night Daniel and Pierre lay close to each other on their blankets and played, while having whispering conversations about their lives and families.
Pierre spoke about his elderly Spanish father, who had lived through the Spanish Civil War. His parents’ house was an hour’s train journey from Paris in an abandoned factory that had been Pierre’s childhood home, surrounded by fruit trees and the roar of the river that flowed past at the end of the garden. Pierre had left home several years earlier, but Tonton the donkey still lived in the garden, and Olaf the dog also ran around among the free-range geese that often peeked into the living room through the garden door.
Daniel didn’t know what he would do if Pierre disappeared. Their talks kept the fear and the madness at bay.
· * ·
On 4 August Kjeld was sitting in his lorry when he received an email from Arthur with an image file attached. He waited until he went home to Susanne before downloading the file.
Arthur had written in the email that it was a new photo of Daniel. Kjeld and Susanne agreed that this time they didn’t need the crisis psychologist to be present. They felt able to see the image alone and besides they wanted to save on the cost of the psychologist, who would surely be needed when Daniel came home.
When the photograph appeared on the computer screen in their study, they went completely quiet. A wild man in a white shirt was staring directly at them through round, sunken eyes. He had a beard and hair that stuck out all around his head.
Susanne and Kjeld wept, while staring at the picture. Their son looked so abject, as Susanne described it, and he had some ugly marks around his neck. They could no longer be ignored; the marks were even clearer than in the first picture they had received.
‘Do you think they’ve tried to strangle him?’ asked Suzanne. Kjeld didn’t dare answer.
It was only when they had been looking at the photo for quite a while that they noticed the smile. Daniel was trying to send a message that he would be all right, thought Susanne.
When Daniel’s elder sister Anita saw the photo, she thought he looked exactly like their father when he had been ill with cancer, with his prominent cheekbones and hollow eyes. She said that the marks around his neck could be a fungal growth, which you could get if you were malnourished.
‘I’ll take that her word for it,’ Susanne wrote in her diary. There was so incredibly little for the family to hold on to.
Two photos in more than two months, when they had neither heard Daniel’s voice nor had any idea what was going to happen to him. At the same time there was the forced silence. Daniel’s disappearance was a secret outside the family’s inner circle.
Susanne had told only three trusted colleagues at Legoland, otherwise she couldn’t stand talking about it. It was hard enough already. While visitors rode the carousels at the theme park, she stood in the staffroom and received calls from Arthur and the authorities, who had questions or new reports about her kidnapped son. Sometimes she wept; other times she felt hopeful.
‘Tell lies which are as close to reality as possible,’ Arthur had advised them when Kjeld and Susanne recounted how they were getting lost in the web of lies they told to everyone else about Daniel’s whereabouts.
They had cancelled going to a party, because they couldn’t handle lying to their friends. They excused themselves by saying they had the flu. When the host asked them some weeks later about their illness, they had no idea for a moment what she was talking about. Kjeld and Susanne were living a double life.
· * ·
On the same day as they received the photograph of Daniel in Hedegård, he and the other six prisoners were joined in their cell by another hostage.
‘We have a friend for you,’ announced a guard.
The American journalist Steven Sotloff lay down in the only place there was room - the middle of the floor. He said that he had been captured shortly after crossing the border from Turkey and that the many checkpoints on the roads in the area were no longer controlled by the original Syrian rebels. Now ISIS fighters were standing there.
There were now eight westerners in the same cell. Somewhere else in the basement under the children’s hospital were James Foley and John Cantlie. Daniel had seen them, but would not meet them until several days later. It finally happened when the prisoners were going to the toilet.
As always, they were ordered to go in single file down the corridor, blindfolded. Daniel never knew if anyone was standing there ready to give him a slap. They didn’t take their blindfolds off until the door to the toilets was closed and locked behind them.
James was standing between two sinks and first greeted Federico and David, whom he knew already, after which he presented himself to Daniel, who kept a little in the background.
‘Hi, I’m Daniel,’ he replied.
‘We’ve heard a lot about you,’ said John, and James smiled broadly. James had a bit of an underbite and a beard on his chin. During his imprisonment, he had converted to Islam and wore a long tunic. Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off James, who was finishing at the sink. A grown man, thought Daniel, who washed himself calmly as if he were standing in his bathroom in the United States.
‘See you,’ James said to the group, before a guard led him away.
When the other hostages returned to their cell, they talked a little about James and John.
‘They look much better than they did when we were in the Box,’ David remarked and Federico nodded in agreement. The Box was the nickname for the prison the two of them had previously been in with James and John, near the city of Atme in Idlib province.
While there, they had been under the control of three British guards. David and Federico were reluctant to talk about what these three men had subjected them to.
James and John were in a cell at the end of the corridor with a German and, for a few weeks, a fourth fellow prisoner. He wasn’t exactly a hostage in the same way as them. He had privileges. The Belgian fighter Jejoen was under house arrest, part of the time in the same room as the three westerners, but every now and then Abu Athir gave him permission to move freely around the building.
The others in the cell were also treated well. They were given copied pages from books about Islam and a French guard, Abu Mohammad, gave James permission to take a bath, which was unusual. Abu Mohammad would also sit in the cell occasionally and talk to them. An Iraqi guard, Abu Mariyam, bought cakes for them in the market and Jejoen joked around with James and John.
Jejoen had a good relationship with the Dutch prison warden, Abu Ubaidah, so sometimes he went into the kitchen and cooked, while also watching Abu Hurraya beating prisoners in the office or blasting them with the stun gun.
Jejoen noticed the piles of clothes that had piled up under the stairs to the ground floor. He was convinced they belonged to executed prisoners, because he had seen some prisoners being led away one day and the next day he recognized one of their shirts in the bundle.
His trip to Syria was far from being the adventure he had dreamed of. All he wanted was to go back to Belgium and to his father, who was still looking for him.
· * ·
In the second half of August 2013 Arthur’s assistant Majeed met Emir Abu Athir and the prison leader Abu Ubaidah in a building close to the children’s hospital in Aleppo. He had bought a small camera in Turkey, so that he could record a video of Daniel.
It seemed that Majeed had won over their confidence a bit, because they told him that Daniel had tried to commit suicide by hanging himself from a chain to which he had been shackled to the ceiling. The guards had heard a loud noise from inside the room, hurried in and found Daniel dangling from the ceiling. They had arrived just in time to save him. But Majeed was also lied to.
‘Daniel has converted,’ said Abu Ubaidah in his quiet voice. ‘He is now called Abu Aisha.’
‘As he is now a Muslim, let us get him home to his family,’ said Majeed, but Abu Athir rejected this.
‘His conversion is a lie built on fear,’ said Abu Athir, who was still convinced that Daniel was working for the intelligence services and the army. ‘There are several prisoners here who have converted, because they think it can get them out.’
‘He’s very athletic. He does gymnastics in the cell,’ explained Abu Athir.
Abu Ubaidah was more reserved with information and never spoke badly of Daniel.
‘Your friend is very smart,’ said Abu Ubaidah. ‘He always knows what to say.’
Majeed didn’t know what he was supposed to make of that.
Majeed’s visit to the children’s hospital took place under high security. They tied a scarf around his face and drove around the streets for about an hour to confuse him, before he was led up and down the stairs. He sensed that he was in a basement when he heard a voice over a walkie-talkie: ‘Is there anyone who can come over to the hospital?’
They went down a long corridor and turned into a room where the air was heavy and stuffy. Someone made a small opening in the scarf, so Majeed could peer out.
‘Can you see him?’ he was asked.
Majeed saw a thin, fair-haired man with tired eyes in a sunken face.
‘Yes,’ said Majeed, and his eyes were covered over again while he was dragged back along the corridor, where he waited for them to record a video of Daniel. He wasn’t allowed to have the camera back, because the guards feared that it had a built-in GPS, so instead he was given a USB memory stick, which contained the video.
When Arthur heard that Daniel had tried to commit suicide, it put him in a tight spot. He usually shared most of his information with the family, but in this case he hesitated. The information could be an attempt to push the price for Daniel higher. It could also be a lie. But since there were no longer any real negotiations going on for Daniel’s release, Arthur, in consultation with the crisis psychologist, chose to conceal Daniel’s attempted suicide from the family; it was unconfirmed information and wouldn’t benefit them in any way at that point in time. He saw it as part of his job to protect them from any information they didn’t need to know.
· * ·
Daniel stood against the wall in the guards’ kitchen, while a guard filmed him. He was told to repeat precisely: ‘My mum’s name is Susanne. My dad’s name is Kjeld. My girlfriend’s name is Signe. It’s the twenty-first of August and the guy who helped me is Majeed.’
A few days later the guards brought good news to the four Frenchmen. The French government would negotiate for their release, said the guards, but the opposite was true of the Danish government.
‘If they won’t negotiate, you’ll be sent home in a body bag,’ was their message to Daniel.
Pierre and the other Frenchmen were exhilarated and their mood changed, as if they were already on their way home. The hostages believed that real negotiations were taking place; that the kidnappers had contacted the authorities.
Daniel was frightened and confused. Had the insurance company refused to pay out? Did his parents not realize the policy existed? He lay next to Pierre, took his hand and wept at the thought that the Frenchmen were going home to their families, while he would be left alone in the cell with David, Steven and Federico.
Outside, the fighting had become more intense and they were getting even less food. Pierre understood the seriousness of the situation and held Daniel’s hand for hours, while they lay staring up at the ceiling.
‘If I am released, I will make contact with your parents, the Foreign Ministry and the insurance company,’ promised Pierre.
Daniel squeezed his hand, but couldn’t fall asleep.
Some days later, one evening towards the end of August, everyone in the cell was told to stand up against the wall, after which they were handcuffed and blindfolded. The only thing in Daniel’s mind was not to be separated from Pierre and the other Frenchmen. Being French meant hope. Being Danish could be a death sentence.