Jonathan Alpeyrie, a photojournalist for the Polaris agency, was abducted on April 29 in Syria. He was freed on July 20 and arrived in Paris on Wednesday, July 24. He was held for 81 days by Syrian rebels. This is his story.
Published in Le Journal de la Photographie 2013/08/01
According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 15 journalists have “disappeared” in Syria. On the evening of Wednesday, July 24, news of Jonathan Alpeyrie’s arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport was announced on Facebook. Few people were aware of the status of Alpeyrie’s situation. Since his abduction, his family had requested that journalists respect their privacy, and the request was heeded.
Last Sunday, Alpeyrie welcomed me to a friend’s boat near the Paris city limit. He looked relaxed and healthy. ‘Everything alright?’ Yes, he said, but one could tell as he recounted his story that, although he was in good shape physically, his captivity had affected his mind deeply. But what else would you expect? This is his story, which we are publishing in near exclusivity. (Alpeyrie has also given an account of his abduction to Régis Le Sommier of Paris Match.)
‘I was sold out for 450,000 dollars’
“I had already spent ten days in Yabrud covering daily news. I’m there with the rebels, the opposition, what they’re calling The Free Army, the ASL. I had made contacts there. I was alone. I always work alone. Yabrud is a suburb of Damascus and there’s little cover. It’s dangerous.
This is my third trip to Syria and it was only supposed to last ten days. I have good contacts in Lebanon who don’t even ask me for money… So I’m in Paris for a conference and the opportunity arises to travel to Syria.
We think I was sold out by my fixer. That’s what I think, and so does French intelligence.
I go to a city on the southern frontline near Damascus with an ASL unit—a katiba— that’s agreed to host me.
On April 29, they tell me that they’re going to see another group of fighters. It was a trap. I got into a 4×4 with the katiba officer, my fixer and two soldiers. We came to a checkpoint where masked men took me out of the car, forced me to kneel and pretended to execute me.
They put a blindfold on me and fire a shot next to your head. They empty my pockets, take everything and rough me up. But they know who I am so they don’t torture me like they would otherwise. They gag me and put me in handcuffs. They’re trying to scare you, break you, so you won’t try to escape. They took me away from the others and that’s when I became a hostage.
I spent the next three weeks in a house, handcuffed to a bed, with five or six soldiers and two bearded Islamists. (It’s not quite Al Qaeda but the bearded men had their upper lips shaved.) That was hard on me. What’s more, the area was under constant attack by bombs, helicopters and MiGs.
One day, a young soldier who looked crazy and made me uneasy, wanted to executed me because I had gone to the bathroom without asking for permission. He put his machine gun against my forehead but the others yelled at him and sent him away.
A week later, the head of the unit and the local rebel police interrogated me roughly. They accused me of being CIA. They yelled at me and called me a liar. They came three times. The last time they came with knives and started sharpening them, telling me they were going to cut my throat. They try to make you crack.
The group that’s holding me captive is very active, militarily. A lot of people come and go, but I stay hidden behind a curtain.”
A house with a swimming pool
“After three weeks we change places. I’m taken to a house 500 meters away, not far from their headquarters. I’m chained to a window. A week later, things have grown relaxed. They let me move around the house, which was surrounded by walls. I have more freedom. There’s a beautiful view of the valley to the west, towards Lebanon, and since I know the area, I know where I am. I walk around the house, talk to the leaders and help prepare meals.
At one point they make me teach them how to use a metal detector. There are many archeological sites in the region, and they can trade what they find in the ground for weapons and equipment. Once we went to an old wall they claimed was four thousand years old. We found a few things there.
Another day they ask me to teach them to use Russian equipment. I thought it was a trap since I had already told them I couldn’t speak Russian. You’re always on guard. They’re very cunning and lie to you constantly.
At first you think you’re going to be executed. Then you start to fear captivity. How long will they keep me here? Since you have nothing else to do, you start making plans in your head, where and how to escape… But it’s exhausting… You end up wearing yourself out and falling asleep.
There were fun times, too.
They knew that I was a swimmer, so they ask me to teach one of the bearded leaders to swim. They fill the pool with freezing cold water, and there I was, holding him up so he wouldn’t drown.
Sometimes they put a gun against my temple for fun. They get a kick out of it. I don’t.
I spend two months in that house, under constant attack. At one point the Hezbollah infantry were less than a mile from the house. They were driven back but things were getting complicated. It was very difficult, psychologically. Not only was I captive indefinitely, but a bomb could have killed me at any moment.
Rockets fall incessantly on their headquarters and the house where they’re keeping me. Four hits. It’s getting closers… Now it’s moving away. They’re adjusting their aim. They know what they’re trying to hit. One hundred meters away… Now twenty meters…
You think of escape, you think of suicide.
At one point I begin to welcome the artillery. It gives me something to do. You get to know the sounds. Something’s finally happening, and for that moment all you think about is protecting yourself. I’d been bombed in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia—all the conflicts I’ve covered—but this was different: I was a prisoner and in the kill zone.
Liberated through Damascus!
I can’t say much about the details of my release. The French and American governments prefer it that way. What I can say is that I have powerful contacts in Lebanon, and these contacts have a good relationship with Syria. My contacts quickly learned where I was being held and by which Islamist group… They kept my family informed. My father spent three months lying to everyone. Very few people were aware that I was being held captive.
The story of my release… I doubt there are many like it. Again, I don’t know all the details, but there was a Syrian man close to the regime, a member of parliament and a businessman, who was looking for Edouard Elias and Didier François, and he stumbled upon me.
The group holding me said they had a French journalist. So they filmed me. Forty-eight hours later they released me to a local leader. They talked for a bit. Suddenly two men dressed like shabiha appear. I think I’m being sold to the regime.
In this area there’s no front line, but there are spies from all sides… They put me in a car. I end up in a prison run by the Syrian regime and start to lose it. The guys tell me not to worry. They tell me I’m free, and that I’m going to Damascus. Obviously, I don’t trust them.
Five hundred meters from the Homs-Damascus highway, which is held by the regime, they make me change my clothes, give me a fake ID, and tell me to stay quiet at the checkpoint. We arrive in Damascus with bombs falling all around us. There’s an explosion every thirty seconds. They take me to a large, luxurious villa in an area of Damascus that hasn’t been touched by the war. It belongs to the well-connected businessman. He has amassed an army of 300 shabiha.
There’s a Lebanese man there whose name I cannot reveal. They start talking…
I wait with a few guards. We watch TV together. They give me some clothes and a telephone, which I use to call a friend who gets in touch with my family. After a while, the businessman organizes my departure for Lebanon.
He sends a car full of his men, their pockets full of cash. The first car leaves, and we head out half an hour later. We pass through all the checkpoints. At the border they hide me in the trunk. Once we’re in Lebanon, they drive me to an apartment in Beirut and ask me not to leave. I escape while they’re smoking. The cleaning lady tries to stop me… I call the French embassy. Two gendarmes come for me… It’s over.
I stay at the embassy for four days while they issue me new papers. Mine were all gone. They were very efficient. I was amazed at the difference between where I had spent the past few months and the French embassy in Lebanon, which is like an Ottoman palace. Then I returned to Paris—Air France led me ride first class—where a couple of my friends, my family and the DGSE were waiting for me.
The problem is that the rebels are losing the war. The government has found an efficient way to organize its army. Militia are everywhere. The rebels are so desperate they don’t care about their reputation abroad. They see guys like us as an opportunity. So they kidnap us for money.
My kidnapping was about money. As soon as they got what they wanted, they let me go. When we’re released, we’re not heroes. Even before I was taken hostage, I never thought it was a good idea to publicize kidnappings. It adds to the value of hostages. The press thinks that if we don’t talk about it, we’ll forget about it. But they’re wrong, as long as the family, friends and the authorities are working to liberate the hostages.
I look forward to returning to work. I can’t wait to get right back in. But war? I’ve covered fifteen conflict zones since 2004. I’m done with it for now. And Syria is over for me. I was lucky to get out. I’m going back to reporting. A while ago I started working on a report on Muslim women in the US. I’m going to finish it.”
After 45 minutes, Jonathan Alpeyrie went quiet. He wore the same calm expression as when the interview began. He reiterated his belief that discussing hostages is wrong. He only agreed to speak with with Régis Le Sommier of Paris Match and Le Journal de la Photographie on the condition that the articles be published simultaneously.
Jonathan plans to return to reporting as soon as possible. While he still hopes to recover his computer and telephone, the same cannot be said for his two Nikon D300s and their lenses—his kidnappers want another 6000€ for them. Will some camera company out there do what it can to help this photojournalist get back to work?
Interview conducted by Michel Puech
Born in Paris in 1979, Jonathan Alpeyrie moved to the United States in 1993. He graduated from the French high school of New York City in 1998, before going to the University of Chicago to study medieval history. Jonathan started his career shooting for local Chicago newspapers during his undergraduate years. He did his first photo essay in 2001 while travelling the South Caucasus. After graduating in 2003, he went to the Congo to work on various essays, which were noticed and picked up by Getty images, and signed a contributor contract in early 2004. Jonathan has worked as a freelance for various publications and websites such as, Le Figaro magazine, American Photo, Africa International, The Traveler UK, and various New York City and Los Angeles Newspapers. Today he is a staff photographer for Polaris Images, which he signed with in November 2009. He also has been working as a fashion photographer in New York City for the past two years , with ELLE and various local designers. Jonathan Alpeyrie’s career, which stretches over a decade, has brought him in over 25 countries, covered 9 conflict zones, mostly in East Africa, the South Caucasus, the Middle East and central Asia. A photography book about WWII veterans with Verve Editions is also in the works, and planed to come out next year.
Jonathan Alpeyrie, have been published in reviews such as: Paris Match, Aftenposten, Time magazine, Newsweek, Wine Spectator, Boston Globe, Glamour, BBC , World magazine, Popular Photography, the New York Times, VSD, American Photo and ELLE.