After five days of Syrian captivity, under conditions he described as “psychological torture,” NBC chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, escaped, along with NBC producer Ghazi Balkiz and cameraman John Kooistra, in a dramatic shoot-out that occurred as the men were being moved to another location in Syria.
Speaking to the Today show from Turkey following their escape and subsequent departure from Syria, the men addressed the horror of the situation they found themselves, held by kidnappers who were Shia loyalists of al-Assad, loyal to Hezbollah. From the Hollywood Reporter:
“We weren’t physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed,” Engel said, appearing to be in relatively good spirits. “They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times. And when you’re blindfolded and they fire the gun up in the air, it can be a very traumatic experience.”
A fire fight broke out between their kidnappers and rebels at a road checkpoint, during which the trio escaped out of the minivan in which they were traveling. NBC News detailed the harrowing events:
After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck and blindfolded before being transported to an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin. During their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, the network said.
Early Monday evening local time, the prisoners were being moved to a new location in a vehicle when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.
The NBC News crew was unharmed in the incident. They remained in Syria until Tuesday morning when they made their way to the border and re-entered Turkey, the network said. They were to be evaluated and debriefed, but had communicated that everyone was in good health.
The coverage of Engel’s saga began, essentially, with a void: Engel was oddly quiet after his last Twitter post on December 6th and this unexpected silence from the avid tweeter was noted. Friends and colleagues began to worry and Twitter trended with queries as to his whereabouts. When a Turkish news site reported that both Richard and Aziz Akyava?, a Turkish journalist working with Engel, had disappeared and were unaccounted for, Twitter buzzed with concerns about the correspondence’s disappearance and other outlets began to run with the Turkish report.
NBC quickly requested a media blackout, concerned for the safety of their reporter and Akyavas; a move reminiscent of one taken by the New York Times after reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008. It was believed, at the time, that Rohde’s kidnappers negotiated his safety based on the media’s willingness to keep his status unknown, though controversy followed that blackout and its purported reasons, some believing it had been a ploy by the paper to lower his ransom. Rohde was eventually released.
In the case of Engel’s kidnapping, most media honored NBC’s requested blackout. Gawker.com, however, ultimately decided – particularly after Twitter was barraged by tweets about Engel’s disappearance – that the blackout was effectively moot and filed a report, as did several other American news sources such as Breitbart.com and Daily Kos (all of whom referenced the Turkish reports). Major news outlets continued to be silent in honor of the blackout request, as did Addicting Info.
Once news of Engel’s escape was known, however, media worldwide responded with relief…and wide coverage. Engel is reportedly well liked and widely respected, known for his courageous reporting in war time locales and situations, much of which has garnered honors and awards. From the Daily Mail:
His work has received numerous awards, including five News & Documentary Emmy Awards.
In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan.
In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on ‘Unlikely Refugees,’ a ‘NBC Nightly News’ story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages.
Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for ‘Tip of the Spear,’ a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers.
Back on solid ground in Antakya, Turkey, Engel was clearly relieved as he spoke to the Today show team, expressing his thanks to NBC for their sensitive handling of the incident, both in terms of the blackout and their care in keeping the families informed. He was also quick to point out that many other reporters in the field do not have the freedom he does to report truthfully and candidly on the situation:
“There are still hostages. There are still people who do not have their freedom inside Syria. We wish them well.”
See the video of Engel’s interview: