After a fruitless eight months, the families of nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped by an armed group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army are fed up with the lack of action, and are taking matters into their own hands.
The hostages’ families began 2013 by sealing shut the entrance to the Turkish Airlines office in Beirut with red wax. A week later, they staged a protest outside the Qatari embassy, accusing the Gulf state of being complicit in the kidnapping and detention of their loved ones in Syria.
They have even threatened to boycott Turkish products and interests in Lebanon unless their family members are released.
Daniel Shoaib, whose brother Abbas is one of the hostages, told Al Jazeera: “No one is doing anything to secure their release, and we hold Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia responsible for the situation.”
According to a senior Lebanese security official working on the case, all avenues have been exhausted, forcing local intelligence agencies to explore alternative channels.
“We are not negotiating with the kidnappers directly, and the governments mediating are not interested in advancing the case,” the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Al Jazeera.
One day in May
On May 22, 2012, dozens of Lebanese men and women were travelling by bus through Syria on their way back to Lebanon from a Shia pilgrimage in Iran. After crossing the Turkish border into the Aleppo district, the bus was ambushed by around 30 armed men, who forced several of the passengers to dismount at gunpoint.
“They never accused us of being members of Hezbollah, but just that we are from the same sect.“
– Hayat Awali, pilgrimage organiser
After removing 11 of the men, they instructed Hayat Awali, the woman leading the pilgrimage, to report the kidnapping at the nearest police station.
“They said they would hold the men hostage to exchange them for two Syrians currently in Syrian prison,” Awali told Al Jazeera. “They said because we are Shia we can get Hezbollah to pressure the Syrian government.
“They never accused us of being members of Hezbollah, but just that we are from the same sect.”
Within hours of the news breaking, residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs took to the streets, burning tyres and blocking roads. Government officials and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for calm, asking all residents to go home.
After a flurry of diplomatic manoeuvres, information leaked out that the pilgrims would be released via Turkey, and that former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri had commissioned his private plane to fly them to Lebanese soil later the same day.
Dozens of government officials gathered at Beirut airport that day with the families, ready to give the pilgrims a jubilant welcome.
But between the official declaration of the pilgrims’ release and their “imminent” arrival in Lebanon, something went wrong. The kidnappers changed their mind.
‘Because he is Shia’
The kidnappers – part of a group known as the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, which controls most of the Aleppo region along the Turkish border – then declared they had in their possession several Hezbollah commanders, including Nasrallah’s nephew.
The group’s leader, Abu Ibrahim – who was also responsible for the brief kidnapping of a Lebanese journalist – accused the hostages of “suspicious activities” around Aleppo, refusing to release them until his group had investigated.
“They are not members of Hezbollah,” said Shoaib, a dismissal reiterated by Awali and other family members. “They kidnapped my brother because he is Shia, and that’s it.”
Nasrallah made a speech in which he condemned the kidnapping, and said such acts to pressure Hezbollah on its position regarding Syria would never achieve their goal.
Infuriated by Nasrallah’s refusal to play ball, Abu Ibrahim responded by changing the terms of release.
In a statement aired on Al Jazeera, he said the men would only be released “after Nasrallah apologises for his latest speech”. He also said he “knew” the hostages were “involved in the crimes and massacres committed by the regime”.
The families, however, refused to be used as what they consider to be pawns in the Syrian civil conflict.
“What they have done is affecting us, the families; not Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese government,” said Shoaib. “My mother is now in hospital every few days because of this.”
“[The kidnappers] want to drag Hezbollah and Sayyed Nasrallah into this, and we will not let them. We will never allow [him] to apologise,” said Awali, defiantly.
Dragging its feet
What ensued was months of procrastination, uncertainty, and a veritable media circus.
Several domestic media outlets went to town with the story, visiting and interviewing the hostages and Abu Ibrahim, while their families were forced to watch from Beirut.
Every few weeks a new report emerged, claiming the Northern Storm Brigade was “days away” from releasing the hostages. But each time, Abu Ibrahim changed his mind and shifted the conditions for release.
“Who knows what the kidnappers want… they don’t seem to know either,” the Lebanese security official said, suggesting external players may be pressuring the kidnappers to keep hold of the pilgrims.
Eventually two of the original 11 hostages were released, but so far there have been no indications the others will be set free anytime soon.
To add to the families’ woes, the Lebanese government has also been dragging its feet. Only after a kidnapping spree in Lebanon resulting in the abduction of several Turkish and Syrian nationals did the government form a committee to work on the bus hostages’ case.
“During Ramadan, Abu Ibrahim requested we get Haifa Wehbe to perform a Ramadan concert for them.“
– Hayat Awali, pilgrimage organiser
“It was only at this point [interior minister] Marwan Charbel told us, ‘now we are starting to work on negotiations,’” Mona Tirmous, whose husband Ali is one of the hostages, told Al Jazeera.
“We blame the government too,” said Awali. “They’ve never made an effort with this file, and today they’re just sitting on the sidelines.”
The families have been allowed to talk with their loved ones, but only when Abu Ibrahim wants to issue a demand, which he does through the hostages.
These demands have included orders to demonstrate outside the Syrian and Iranian embassies in Beirut to protest the Syrian government’s actions. Others are more absurd.
“During Ramadan, Abu Ibrahim requested we get [pop singer] Haifa Wehbe to perform a Ramadan concert for them,” said Awali, incredulously. “He also told us to ask [pop singer] Assi Halani to write an anthem for the revolution.”
“But until today, we still don’t know what they actually want,” she said.
Power and politics
Several Lebanese politicians have tried to secure the release of the pilgrims. According to security sources, Marwan Charbel, the interior minister, went to Turkey to encourage authorities to exert pressure on the kidnappers. “He even offered himself as an exchange for the hostages,” said the security official. “He was in tears.” But his efforts were to no avail.
Most recently, Oqab Saqr, a Lebanese MP based in Turkey, has put himself forward as a mediator. He claimed a deal would be contingent upon the release of more than 200 Syrian “prisoners of conscience” and a Jordanian allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. These names were provided to him by Abu Ibrahim.
But the families are sceptical. “Oqab Saqr says he’s trying to help us by seeking the release of our relatives,” said Shoaib. “He’s never even spoken to us.”
Two weeks ago, in what seemed to be a reaction to the families’ escalating attempts to secure their loved ones’ freedom, Interior Minister Charbel visited the emir of Qatar, asking him to work for the pilgrims’ release. Following the meeting, Charbel said the Qataris “expressed an interest”, and have assigned an official to take a look at the case. Qatari officials had not responded to requests for comment by time of this article’s publication.
And last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati visited his Turkish counterpart. Afterwards, Miqati said he had “requested that Turkey pressure the kidnappers to ensure the release of the captives”.
For his part, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan stated: “We are exerting efforts together with the brothers concerned in order to secure the release of the abductees in Azaz and we hope to succeed.”
Only time will tell whether these efforts will be successful. But for the pilgrims’ families in Beirut, the Syrian revolution has proven to be problematic.
“For us,” said Awali, “the slogan of the Syrian revolution is to kidnap visitors.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha