BEIRUT: An American photographer has escaped from Syrian Islamists who seized him in December, tortured him and were still holding an American cellmate near Aleppo, the freelancer told the New York Times.
Matthew Schrier, 35, told the paper on Friday that he was accused by captors from Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group aligned with al Qaeda, of being a CIA spy. On his first trip to a war zone and travelling without a commission from a media organisation, he was taken as he left Aleppo by car on Dec. 31.
He slipped from a gap in a basement window early on July 29, he said, leaving behind his bulkier compatriot, whom he met in captivity. The paper did not identify the other man. Both had occasionally been beaten and given electric shocks.
Once, clad in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits, they were filmed confessing to espionage. Schrier was also whipped with cable on the soles of his feet, his knees wedged in a car tyre.
Previously unreported, his abduction was one of several Westerners in rebel-held territory since the civil war began. It highlights suspicions of foreigners among some of those fighting President Bashar al-Assad. The presence of Islamist militants in their ranks has dampened Western support for the rebels.
Schrier's captors masked his plight by sending emails from his account. They also raided an online bank account and bought computers and car parts with his eBay account. He was questioned by men speaking fluent English. He thought they were Canadian.
Moved several times and often held alongside Syrians accused of fighting for the government, Schrier said he was also taken for a time by another group, Ahrar al-Sham. Treatment improved when he converted to Islam and was given a Koran in English.
In his account of his escape, Schrier said he was able to stand on his cellmate's back and unravel a wire mesh covering a window. Just before dawn, he wriggled out but the other American got stuck. "All right, go," he told Schrier, who walked until he found other rebels. They drove him to the nearby Turkish border.
His experience also highlighted risks facing those reporting from Syria, notably freelance journalists travelling alone.
Interviewed in November by the Times Union, a newspaper in Albany, New York, which published some of his work from a Syrian refugee camps, Schrier, until recently a healthcare worker, said he funded his own trip and hoped for career as a photographer.
"I don't have a death wish," he said. The Syrian fighters he had encountered until then were "not jihadists or extremists":
"The rebels," he said, "Want me to be as safe as possible."