The civil war in Syria has a habit of swallowing people whole. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 10,000 people are currently imprisoned in regime facilities, with another 3,000 held by rebel fighters. As I wrote in a New Republic feature on the media centers amassed on the Turkish border, the abductions are a big reason the war is such a perilous one to cover. Reporters Without Borders says that along with upwards of 100 citizen and professional journalists killed in Syria since March of 2011, 74 more have been arrested, kidnapped, or gone missing. The Italian journalist Domenico Quirico, who spent 152 days in rebel hands, recently described Syria as a "country of evil."
Among the latest abductees is a young Syrian photojournalist named Ziad Homsi, who was detained by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, while working in the northern city of Raqqa. In the swirling mass of revolutionary groups active in Syria—by some estimates, there are hundreds—the al-Qaeda-affiliated ISIS, through cruelty and brutality, has managed to make itself one of the most powerful. Unlike the Free Syrian Army, which seeks to topple Assad and erect a new government, ISIS is beholden to a religious mandate, and in addition to brazen attacks, it has repeatedly lashed out at journalists it believes could undermine its jihadist mission.
I first met Homsi in September of this year, in the Turkish border town of Antakya. He was lanky and tall, with a shock of dark hair and a fashion sense—tight jeans, plaid shirt, Asics low-tops, chunky black-framed glasses—that would not have been out of place in Brooklyn. (It is Homsi whose silhouette graces the opening image of the article.) Somewhat unusually for a Syrian, he had an intricate black tattoo on his upper chest, which was visible when he bent forward to speak.
Homsi was born and raised in northern Syria, and was barely into his twenties in March 2011, when the first anti-regime protests kicked off. He had taken classes in photography in school, and as the conflict enveloped the north, he began slipping through the streets of Aleppo and Raqqa, his Canon EOS slung over his shoulder. Many of his early photographs were used by citizen media sites such as the Free Syrian News Agency, or FSNA; others were posted to his (deservedly popular) Flickr page.
Homsi had been invited along to my meeting with an older journalist, the FSNA's Jameel Salou, and he sat respectfully in the Antakya cafe while Salou recalled his multiple stints in Syrian prisons and then his detention, in 2012, by ISIS. (Salou was eventually released thanks to the intervention of the FSA.) At this, Homsi shook his head. For months, he had been crossing back and forth between Syria, where his family was still located, and a small apartment in Antakya. At that point he had not yet encountered any trouble. But he understood the risks. "Everyone knows someone who has died. Everyone knows someone who has been taken. Our eyes are not closed." Still, he continued, "I believe that is our war. And our duty to document it."
Later, back at my hotel, I brought up Homsi's Flickr stream on my computer. The pictures were vivid and sad but often darkly beautiful despite their subject matter. There were images of bright-faced children clamoring towards the lens; of decimated dolls lying amid a spray of rubble; of a freshly stitched up corpse on an operating table. There were photos of everyday life, if you happen to reside in a war zone.
The Turkey/Syria border crawls with Western journalists dispatched to cover the war in Syria; most are experienced, dedicated, and careful. But there is also a sizable contingent of unseasoned freelancers looking to make a splash, in any way possible. There are parachute journalists, cowboys, and would-be Gonzos. (I think here of a recent Medium.com article, "I Went On the World's Deadliest Road Trip," which actually contains the following phrase: "Our little tour of Hell was a lot of fun.") I certainly don't exclude myself from the ranks of parachuters. I spent only a week in Turkey. I leaned heavily on the expertise of friends—both Syrian and western—with a grip on the political subtleties of the region. And once I'd gotten what I wanted, I flew back home again.
I entered each interview with the perspective of a Western journalist who has been taught to prize absolute objectivity. I listened to citizen journalists—Homsi’s colleagues—describe carrying both cameras and side-arms; I heard them say they had helped picked out enemy sniper posts with their zoom lenses; I asked one if he considered himself to be an unbiased journalist, and received the following reply: "Yes, but for the side of the revolution." It was easy to smirk at this. It was easy to forget that while I had elected to write about the conflict in Syria, these journalists felt no such choice.
Last week, when I learned from mutual friends that Homsi had been kidnapped, I went back and listened to a recording of what he had said about "his" war and his duty. The air went out of me. There are debates about biases and standards, and then there is the fear that your job will get you killed, and you do your job anyway, because you can’t not. Much more than it had been in Antakya, it became clear to me just how brave Homsi and his compatriots are. To what lengths—and in the face of what potential perils—they will go to tell the story of their conflict.
It may be a long time before we know exactly what happened to Homsi. Some journalists, like the American James Foley, have been missing for months. Meanwhile, you can scan the headlines, and find glimmers of hope. Last Friday came news that Marcin Suder, a Polish journalist kidnapped on July 24, had managed to escape his Syrian captors. Writing on Twitter, the Polish foreign secretary said that Suder was "already back home," safe and sound.
Matthew Shaer is the author of The Sinking of The Bounty.