Al-Malikiyah, Syria – The message came from an unknown sender shortly after Iskandar’s daughter disappeared. She had been missing three days when it arrived, taken while en route to the airport in the capital Damascus.
“We have your daughter Judy. We will tell you a time and place to bring the money,” the text message said.
That was a month ago and Iskandar has heard nothing since. The family takes shifts with his phone as his wife, uncle or cousin holds a silent vigil waiting for a message.
“I will pay. Just give my daughter back,” Iskandar told Al Jazeera.
Tens of thousands of people have disappeared without a trace this past year. Six aid workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross and one with the Syrian Red Crescent were abducted by unidentified gunmen on Sunday. As of Monday, four of those taken were freed.
The kidnappings in western Idlib province highlight the growing problem of people being disappeared throughout the country, as the two-and-a-half year civil war continues to rage.
Syria’s powerful security forces have subjected tens of thousands of people to “arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, enforced disappearances,”according to Human Rights Watch’s 2013 World Report.
Rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government, meanwhile, have been accused of abducting civilians and journalists. Rival militia also grab their opponents, holding them as bartering chips.
Hardline groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra travel in caravans throughout countryside and set up checkpoints, snatching people at will – including journalists and aid workers.
And criminal gangs also exploit the lawlessness sweeping the country, spiriting away individuals for ransom, and fueling a lucrative black market in kidnapping that has increased steadily over the past year.
“It is generally very, very difficult to know who is behind an abduction,” said Amnesty International’s senior crisis advisor Donatella Rovera. “Abductions are a daily occurrence in Syria, and it’s only getting worse.”
Held for ransom
Iskandar said he believes criminals in Damascus are responsible for taking his daughter.
“We think they are like the mafia,” he said. “It was not rebels or the regime. It was criminals.”
In the case of kidnapping for money, victims are carefully selected on the basis of the family’s wealth. Ransom demands for Syrian nationals vary from US$2,000 to $20,000. A Western hostage can reportedly fetch as much as $600,000.
Despite kidnappers for ransom seeking out wealthy families who can pay up, Iskandar said he is a “nobody” who works “for an electrical company”.
According to analysts, Syria is now experiencing increased abductions for a variety of different reasons.
“The problem here is we have a mixture of commercial and ideological motivations,” said a security advisor working in Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to talk to the press.
“So if an Alawite gets taken by some Sunni guys for commercial purposes, he can expect some pretty nasty treatment.”
Costs of war
As Syria’s war moves towards its third year, the devastation wrought continues to rise. More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict and more than two million have fled the country.
Iskandar – his face is pale and gaunt – is one of those forced to endure the suffering.
His tired eyes peer out from behind his glasses. His wife brings two photographs of their daughter Judy out, while a cousin puts his head in his hands in distress. The mother begins to weep.
Iskandar runs prayer beads impulsively between curled fingers, his hands shaking. His 21-year-old daughter is in her first year of university, studying social sciences in Damascus.
Her frame is thin and her brown hair straight. In one photograph, she stands smiling in the overgrown garden where the family now sits.
“She was not so religious, but she was an excellent student, very good at her studies,” Iskandar said. “She was interested in Kurdish history, Kurdish music.”
Judy intended to fly for a holiday to Qamishli, in Syria’s northeast, where her family awaited her arrival. She never made it to the airport. The road to Damascus’ airport is volatile and the surrounding areas host to a plethora of armed groups.
The family saw the passenger arrivals streaming out of Qamishli’s airport. They waited and began to call Judy when she didn’t turn up. There was no answer on her phone, however.
As the sun sinks low to the west, a half-dozen neighbours come to visit the grief-stricken family. Iskandar said he only wants his daughter to be safe while held captive and returned without harm.
“I want to tell them [the abductors], please treat her like she was one of their own children,” Iskandar said.
* single names only were used to protect the family’s identity