Deep inside Syria, a bishop worked around the edges international law to save the lives of more than 200 people — one of the largest groups of hostages yet documented in ISIS’s war in Syria and Iraq. It took more than a year, and videotaped killings of three captives, before all the rest were freed.
The millions in ransom money came in dollar by dollar, euro by euro from around the world. The donations, raised from church offerings, a Christmas concert, and the diaspora of Assyrian Christians on Facebook, landed in a bank account in Iraq. Its ultimate destination: ISIS.
Paying ransoms is illegal in the United States and most of the West, and the idea of paying the militants is morally fraught, even for those who saw no alternative.
“You look at it from the moral side and I get it. If we give them money we’re just feeding into it, and they’re going to kill using that money,” said Aneki Nissan, who helped raise funds in Canada. But, he said, there were more than 200 lives at stake, “and to us, we’re such a small minority that we have to help each other.”
The Assyrian Christians were seized from the Khabur River valley in northern Syria, among the last holdouts of a dwindling minority that had been chased across the Middle East for generations. They trace their heritage to the earliest days of Christianity, their Church of the East founded by the apostle known as Doubting Thomas. To this day, they speak a dialect of Aramaic, believed to be the native language of Jesus. But most also speak Arabic and some Kurdish, the languages of the neighbors who have long outnumbered them.
In a single night of horror on February 23, 2015, ISIS fighters attacked the Christian towns simultaneously, sweeping up scores of people and sending everyone from 35 towns and villages fleeing for their lives.
At 1am., Abdo Marza was awakened by the sound of rushing water in his village of Tal Goran. Somewhere upstream, the dam that had almost entirely cut off the Khabur River in the mid-1990s was open. The men were taking shifts guarding the village and it was not yet his turn. For the first time in many weeks, there was no sound of gunfire in the distance. He settled back into an uneasy sleep.
Around 4am ISIS fighters streamed in, firing their guns and kicking at doors. They herded the terrified residents into a home at the edge of town.
As dawn broke, the armed fighters took each man back to his home and forced him to destroy any signs of Christianity
Fearing for their lives, Marza and his neighbours obeyed the rough commands and stomped on their icons of the Virgin Mary, their pictures of Jesus.
“There was no way you could resist,” he said.
But they refused repeated demands to convert. Months later, recounting that night to the Associated Press from the safety of a German sidewalk cafe, Marza’s hands trembled at the memory.
As they were being rounded up, people made panicked phone calls to cousins, sons, daughters, friends — Assyrians who had left the region in generational waves for the West. To the outsiders, rumour mixed with fact, choppy voices could barely be heard over the sounds of gunshots. Even the total number of hostages was a mystery, ranging in estimates from 200 to 280 men, women and children.
By the second day of captivity, the hostages were sure they were going to die. Earlier that month, ISIS had beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. In August 2014, the extremists had seized the largest Christian town in Iraq, driving out its residents.
But as days stretched into a week, the 17 men captured from Tal Goran learned ISIS had other plans. They were offered freedom, with a catch. One man would have to deliver a message to their bishop in the town of Hassakah about 40 miles away, and return with an answer. The extremists demanded $50,000 per person, young or old, or they would be killed.
Marza wasn’t eager, but he volunteered for the mission as long as the rest of his village was freed. The militants were so delighted at his courage, they said, that they would keep only his six-year-old daughter Maryam and an elderly aunt. The rest of the Tal Goran hostages could go.
The extremists gave Marza a scrap of paper signed and stamped by ISIS group, allowing him safe passage: “The infidel Christian Abdo Marza wants to negotiate between us and their church for money. Please facilitate his task from the checkpoints in three days.”
The bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, took three days to answer as he consulted with others in the Church around the world on what to do. Finally he gave Marza a sealed envelope to take back to ISIS.
When Marza returned and handed the envelope to the ISIS leader, he said, he had no idea of the message inside or what it would mean for his fate and his daughter’s. But the extremist broke into a smile. “Your bishop is a very smart man.” With that, little Maryam was freed.
Athneil began secret negotiations for the more than 200 others, but it took a while before Assyrians realised what had happened.
In California, filmmaker Sargon Saadi packed his gear and headed back to a homeland he had left a decade before, hoping to find out what had happened to the Khabur villages. He found them deserted, but for a handful of ill-equipped Assyrian fighters.
“We didn’t know why they took them, we didn’t know where they took them, what they wanted to do with them,” Saadi said. Were they going to be enslaved, traded, ransomed?
The answer filtered down from the bishop: ISIS wanted money.
The price was daunting. The militants’ starting demand of $50,000 a person would mean more than $11 million for the entire group.
“There’s no easy way to give them money. It’s very dangerous, it’s also illegal in many countries,” Saadi said. “And the money they were asking for, no one could afford that kind of money.”
In Canada, after an emergency meeting, Canadian Assyrians pooled around $100,000 to help the Khabur Christians and sent it off to the Church to use wherever it could do the most good, Nissan said.
“Every Assyrian I know knows somebody that was either kidnapped or directly affected by the kidnapping,” he said.
In the German rustbelt town of Saarlouis, a chain-smoking Assyrian entrepreneur who owned two restaurants suddenly found a cause more important than his businesses. Charli Kanoun had persuaded the government there to accept the freed Tal Goran hostages. His next task was to raise money for the rest.
“Everyone contributed; the church opened an account in Irbil, Iraq, and announced it on the internet so everyone can donate,” Kanoun said.
On the outskirts of London, Andy Darmoo ran the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation in addition to a crystal chandelier business. He was one of the first people the bishop had alerted about the ransom demand. Darmoo and just a handful of Assyrians were the only ones who knew exactly how many Christians had been taken: 226.
In Australia, Nicholas al-Jeloo, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne whose cousins were among the hostages, gave a slide presentation on the history of the Khabur at a local church hall. Much — but not all — of the audience was from the Assyrian community, and more than 500 people donated that night, he said.
Al-Jeloo spent his childhood in Australia hearing about the trials inflicted upon the Assyrian people, how they managed to stick together, keeping the same dialects, the same customs, and even the same village names as they moved from Turkey to Iraq and finally to Syria. He himself had visited there to complete his family tree.
The calls for donations went out across social media, but primarily on Facebook, where second cousins and friends of friends found themselves in the same networks, anxiously asking for solid news or, failing that, rumours. On May 26, two elderly women were freed. On June 16, one man was released. On August 11, 22 more people were liberated and many in the diaspora hoped the ordeal was nearly over.
“For the Assyrians, the Khabur was one of their last cultural strongholds in a sea of hostility in the Middle East,” al-Jeloo said. “If they didn’t help these people, it was the end.”
Then in September 2015 came the video showing three Khabur men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, being shot to death by their captors. It’s not clear what prompted the killings — whether the ransom demands had changed, ISIS’s cash was running low, or the captors had simply grown impatient.
“When that happened, everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over. Churches, and donations, Assyrians, non-Assyrians, just donating to the churches and funneling it to the bishop,” Saadi said.
They didn’t see other options.
“We can’t fight them, Assyrians don’t have an army to go rescue them. They don’t have SWAT teams, they don’t have SEAL 6. The only option they have is to pay ransom. And everybody was so fearful that the rest of the hostages were also going to be killed,” he said.
Nissan organised a Christmas concert with $90 orchestra seats, raising a few thousand dollars.
“We just kept giving and giving,” said Nissan.
By then, Marza had settled into an immaculate house in Saarlouis, and young Maryam began learning German along with Arabic. But his wife and other children — including a 19-month-old baby — are stuck in Lebanon, awaiting permission to live in Germany.
The rest of the men from Tal Goran are also without their wives and children, and say their safe home in Europe grows lonelier by the day. ISIS and other extremists have made a fortune off the desperation of hostages and their families. A United Nations resolution from December 2015 condemned the practice of taking captives and called on governments “to prevent kidnapping and hostage-taking committed by terrorist groups and to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments or political concessions.”
But while no government appeared to stop the fundraising, the Assyrians say no country stepped in to free the Khabur captives either. Governments are reluctant to discuss the issue at all, and none openly acknowledges paying or advocating others to pay ransoms. But in June 2015, four months after the Khabur Christians were seized, the Obama administration said families would not be prosecuted for trying to free their loved ones.
“It’s a conflict between a very personal desire to free these people, these innocent people, and the law of the land,” said Diane Foley, who faced a similar dilemma when her son James was kidnapped by ISIS extremists. James Foley was ultimately killed, like the Christians, wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling before a video camera.
“The captors are very aware of what a tough situation that they put people and countries in, and they’re loving it,” said Diane Foley, who has set up a foundation in her son’s name to advocate for families of hostages, better communication between governments, and a more consistent government policy.
The United States and Britain refuse to pay ransoms, while some European governments routinely pay ransoms. Foley said she learned only much later that her son and others had been held along with Europeans who were freed in exchange for money.
But the Assyrians had no government to speak for them. Brokered almost exclusively by Bishop Athneil, negotiations for the captive Christians resumed in mid-autumn. By then, the remaining hostages had been moved to Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate. The money went into a bank account in Irbil, Iraq, under the name of the Assyrian Church of the East.
Thirty-seven Assyrians were freed on November 7, and from then, the releases took place every few weeks into the new year.
Each time, the freed captives were put on buses. ISIS then emailed their names to the negotiators.
On February 22, 2016, a final list of 43 names was emailed to the bishop. The last captive Christians from the Khabur River valley were on their way out. But when the bus arrived in Hassakeh, only 42 hostages were on board — 16-year-old Maryam David Talya wasn’t there.
She had been pulled off the bus at the last checkpoint by an ISIS guard who wanted her for himself, Kanoun said. On Easter Sunday, after another agonising month of negotiations, Maryam stumbled into the arms of her waiting parents in Hassakeh.
How much was ultimately paid to free the Khabur Christians remains a mystery. The bishop, the only person with a full accounting, declined to speak to the Associated Press.
Those involved give him credit for saving the lives not just of the hostages but those of hundreds of other Assyrians who have left in hopes of building a better life outside the war zone. The Khabur valley has been all but emptied of its Christians.
“Honestly, this man should go down as a saint, the things that he’s done, the sacrifices he’s made to help these people,” Nissan said. “He’s refusing to leave Syria until all his flock is secured.”