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Newly freed pilgrim speaks of difficult conditions in captivity

Fatima, the daughter of released pilgrim Abbas Hammoud, seen left, reacts upon the arrival of her father at his home in Tyre, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

TYRE, Lebanon: In his humble house in a small neighborhood in Tyre, Abbas Hammoud stood welcoming tens of visitors. Every once in a while he halted his task to kiss again the hands of his mother.

Hammoud, one of nine Lebanese pilgrims held hostage for more than 16 months in Syria, was released alongside his fellow captives Sunday in a three-way swap deal that also included the return of two Turkish pilots to Ankara and the release over 100 Syrian women detainees.

The newly freed man detailed the "very difficult conditions" he suffered while in captivity in the Aleppo district of Azaz where heavy shelling was often too close to the small ramshackle dwelling they were held in.

"It was a difficult phase and an experience that has been carved in my bones and I will never forget it," Hammoud said.

"Shelling was so close to us and we escaped death every time [there was fighting] because the attacks were even more ferocious than during the 2006 war with Israel," the man added as his mother placed the Quran over his head.

“It is a blessing that he returned," Umm Hammoud said. Her lined face spoke loudly of her own suffering in the absence of her only child.

Although he spoke bitterly of his Syrian kidnappers who fed the hostages canned food and bread, Hammoud said they were never beaten.

"We were not beaten, but we were constantly insulted and the treatment became even worse following the death of Abu Ibrahim," he said, referring to the head of the brigade holding the pilgrims. Abu Ibrahim was killed in shelling last year.

Most of the kidnappers were killed, Hammoud noted, describing their death as revenge from God.

Hammoud also explained that most of the group of captives were elderly men who had to take regular medications.

“They didn’t even provide us with our proper medication although we told them about our condition,” Hammoud said.

"One night, my chest started closing in and I started breathing heavily so they transferred me to an Azaz hospital for a while but the doctor there did not recognize me,” he said.

People from his diverse Tyre community of Shiites, Sunnis and Palestinians flooded Hammoud's house to congratulate him on his safe return, shaking his hands, kissing and hugging, as he tearfully smiled throughout the visit.

Hammoud, surrounded by his wife and children, also made a point of saying that the abduction of two Turkish nationals in Beirut sped up the process of his release.

"If the Turkish pilots were not kidnapped, our release would have taken longer," he said.

"But I know the Turkish people have nothing to do with our abduction because no Turkish official ever visited us in the 530 days of captivity," Hammoud said.

The only time a Turkish official saw the pilgrims was on Wednesday when they were moved into Ankara in preparation for the release.

Hammoud never understood why he and 10 others who were on their way back from a pilgrimage in Iran were kidnapped by the rebels over a year ago. Two of the original 11 taken were freed last year.

"What is the reason? May God forgive those who kidnapped us, but I still don't know why [they did it]," he said.

Hammoud, whose wife was unable to find words to describe her mixed emotions, thanked everyone particularly Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim for relentlessly working on securing their release.

 

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