Paris: He was kidnapped in Syria by an armed group, held by Islamists and freed by a pro-Al Assad official — Jonathan Alpeyrie spent 81 days in captivity in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
In a detailed account of his ordeal to weekly Paris Match, the 34-year-old photographer — who returned to France last week after being released — recalled mock executions and scenes of torture.
“I was betrayed by my fixer [local translators who help journalists in foreign countries], who sold me out,” he said, remembering the moment on April 29 when masked men stopped his vehicle on the road to Rankos, north of Damascus.
“They pushed me to my knees and pretended to execute me with several gun shots. Then they gagged and handcuffed me.”
He was taken to a house along with the fixer, who was later freed by another group of “bearded” men.
Alpeyrie, who works for the New York-based Polaris Images agency and had been in Syria for 10 days when he was kidnapped, spent three weeks tied to a bed as bombings raged around him.
Reporters Without Borders describes Syria as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for media personnel”, with at least 24 journalists killed and 15 foreign reporters having disappeared or been abducted since the start of the conflict in March 2011.
Alpeyrie eventually met the chief of the clan holding him captive — “Assad, an Islamist”, whose group “Katibat Al Islam” controls Rankos.
“One day, they simulated the act of cutting my throat”, he said.
Eventually he was moved to another house in the countryside, where he spent the first week chained to a window before being allowed to move more freely.
“As the weeks went by, the bombings were becoming more intense. You could feel that the [regime] soldiers were getting nearer. We were attacked by MiGs [Russian fighter planes]. The bombs were falling just 50 metres away,” he said.
Alpeyrie told the weekly magazine that he also witnessed the torture of four Christian Shabihas (pro-Assad militia) who had been captured.
“They were setting dogs on them, they hit them with their belts. I heard their screams, it was horrible. It lasted a week.”
The photographer also recalled lighter moments with his captors, including teaching Assad to swim in a nearby pool.
“In the water, he started to panic. I held him like a baby,” he said.
Then on July 18, a “shaikh” told him he was going to be freed. He was driven to Yabroud, north of Damascus, to the man’s flat.
“Two men arrived... One of them spoke perfect English. He told me: ‘Jonathan, you are now free. We are from the government and you’re going to Damascus’.
“I collapsed. I could picture myself ending up in a government prison.”
He was driven to a house in Damascus where he says he met the “businessman” who paid a “ransom” to the rebels.
According to Alpeyrie, the man is on a black list of Syrian dignitaries drawn up by the West and paid $450,000 (Dh1.6 million) for his release.
Alpeyrie was driven to neighbouring Lebanon, from where he eventually flew to Paris.