By Margaux Bergey
Journalists Jeppe Nybroe and Rami Aysha wanted to shoot a video story about Syrian armed groups kidnapping people for ransom. On Feb. 7, they traveled to the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley about 8 miles (13 km) to gather information—only to get more than they bargained for.
Arsal is a mainly Sunni town whose residents generally support the Syrian opposition. When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated government began an offensive in Syria’s Qalamoun Valley in November, thousands of refugees flocked across the border. Once a town of 20,000, Arsal is now home to 90,000 refugees, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Along with the refugees have come Syrian rebel groups opposed to Assad, who have used the town as a place from which to launch attacks on the Syrian regime.
Nybroe, a Danish freelance television journalist, and Aysha, a Lebanese-Palestinian fixer had arranged an interview on the outskirts of Arsal. After crossing the security checkpoint at the entrance of the town, they turned at a mosque onto a small street. A car blocked their way and masked men carrying weapons appeared
“One hit me in the face with his weapon,” says Aysha. “They took us inside the town, 400 meters after the army checkpoint at the entrance to the city.”
The kidnappers took the journalists’ phones and equipment, blindfolded them and drove them outside the city. Aysha says we was “badly beaten” when they discovered he had hidden his second mobile phone.
Their kidnapping highlights an increasing danger for journalists in Lebanon who report on Syria’s three-year old civil war as the conflict spills across the border. In April, Egyptian photographer Hussein Shaboun was kidnapped and held over night in Arsal—and other journalists are reviewing how they report in areas of Lebanon once considered safe.
Their captors were likely veterans of the al-Farouq Brigade, Aysha says. The Brigade, once a key part of the rebel Free Syrian Army, appears to have splintered in the past year and the group in Arsal now seems to operate independently.
“They were mostly Syrians,” Aysha says. “We had to negotiate for everything: water, food and going to the bathroom without being watched.”
The two were kept in a small room inside an isolated house in the outskirts of Arsal. In an interview he gave to the Danish television station TV2 on earlier this year, Nybroe said that he was “beaten and humiliated” in detention. Nybroe also said that the journalists received several threats. “They said they would cut us into small pieces and send them to the Danish embassy or our families,” he said. After speaking to Danish media, he says he was advised not to give more interviews, and refused to comment for this story.
After three weeks in captivity, the captors struck a ransom agreement. That same day, the two journalists were allowed access to the Internet. On March 6, after nearly a month in detention in Lebanon, they were released. Aysha says he still does not know who paid the ransom. The Danish embassy in Lebanon declined to comment on the source of the payment. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces are investigating the matter and also refused to comment on their findings.
What is clear is that Arsal and its outskirts, a once-safe area in Lebanon for reporters, is becoming increasingly dangerous. The Lebanese army has recently established patrols in the city, which is surrounded by Hezbollah-controlled villages. In February, the Syrian army and Hezbollah took control of the Syrian city of Yabroud, about 20 miles southeast of Arsal. The city has regularly been hit by rockets launched by Syria’s air force and in April the army announced it had found a booby trap near an amusement park in the town.
“Things have changed,” says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the SKeyes Center, a Lebanon-based press freedom group. “Journalists can still go to Arsal and near the border, but they have to take extra safety measures.”
The group recommends hiring an experienced driver, traveling with others and not spending the night.
Given that potential news stories about refugees and Syrian fighters abound in Arsal, journalists are likely to keep coming. But since the kidnapping, “the good old days are gone,” Aysha says.
Bergey is a French journalist based in Beirut. Her work has appeared in outlets including TV5 Monde, France 3 and Le Nouvel Observateur.