Ransom, retribution fuel Syria kidnap spree

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iol news pic Syria kids REUTERS Children stand near buildings damaged by what activists said were jet shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Meyasar district of Aleppo February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

Damascus - When you're kidnapped in Syria, you may not know if you've been taken for your political views or your bank balance.

With an uprising-turned-insurgency raging for nearly two years, kidnappings by both rebel and government militia are rampant, especially against the business class of Damascus.

The epidemic adds strain to an already struggling economy, and can leave households with their breadwinner dead, missing or cowering at home, forfeiting income for safety concerns.

One man got away with his life when he was kidnapped in December and ransomed by his family.

His shoulder in a cast and lips swollen from beating, the 35-year-old father of two says he fears returning to work at his family-run factory on the outskirts of the capital.

“The kidnappers had been waiting for me at the gate,” said the man, who asked not to be named for his own safety. “They had been watching me and my brother for some time. There's no way we can go back.”

Sitting next to his pregnant wife, he said he had probably been kidnapped by rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad since his factory is in Aqraba, a rebel stronghold.

“It's rebel turf, and no one does anything without the rebels' blessings,” he said. “Truth be told, just like the regime has its own Shabbiha (pro-Assad militia), so do the rebels these days.”

The young man says he sympathises with the anti-Assad insurgents, but his family has mixed affiliations and his brother is a staunch supporter of the government.

He reckons his brother was his abductors' intended target. “When they pushed me into their van with my eyes blindfolded and hands bound, the first thing they asked was: 'Where's your brother? He's the one who needs to be taught a lesson'.”

The two brothers and their father have abandoned their factory in Aqraba since the incident in December. They have shut it down completely.

“We're all just sitting at home doing nothing,” he said, refusing an almond from his wife, pointing to his battered jaw.

In the past few weeks, several kidnappings and attempted kidnappings stand out.

There was the freelance physical therapist who received a call from people pretending to be potential clients.

“They said it was urgent. They needed me right away to help an elderly person in pain and said they had been referred to me by a current client,” the physical therapist said, asking not to be named. He is known as a staunch Assad supporter.

“Coincidentally, I ran into that client, and he told me he knew nothing of it,” he said.

It later became evident that the callers had already kidnapped a man they thought was related to the physical therapist, and were already demanding a ransom.

When the therapist never showed up, the kidnappers called back, saying: “We're coming after your kind and every other regime dog.”

The physical therapist says he has now cut back severely on his working hours and no longer accepts new clients.

Sometimes, the crime is deadly and the politics ambiguous, as kidnappers on each side try to blame the other.

Take the case of a property agent who hangs Assad portraits in his office and comes from the formerly rebel-held Damascus suburb of Itseyya, which the government has recaptured.

His 18-year-old son was kidnapped and the car he was driving was stolen. The youth turned up dead, bound in duct tape and apparently asphyxiated. A note pinned to him read: “This is the end of every regime informant.”

However, the young man was abducted in an area of Damascus with a heavy government presence where rebels are not known to operate. And a relative said the teenager's car had shown up in a garrison neighbourhood that is home to military families.

“I saw the car myself, and many people tell us they saw it there, too. So who's responsible for the crime? It's convenient they left that note on him to make it look like the rebels had done it,” said the relative, who supports the opposition.

As lawlessness, looting and kidnappings spread through the capital, businesses and factories are closing down.

Local product shortages range from food to medicine to textiles. Shop shelves in Damascus are emptying.

Syria used to have several dairy brands. Now only one is on sale, with most other factories destroyed or shut down.

Milk Man is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad. His factory in Ghouta is under strong military protection from the rebels operating in the area.

Pharmacists are chronically short of supplies and say criminals often steal their goods. One said dozens of locally made drugs, from creams to nasal sprays, no longer exist because the factories that make them have closed.

To avoid the lawlessness and clashes in outlying industrial areas, some factories, such as Syria's international award-winning chocolate-maker Ghraoui, have relocated to calmer sites.

“We've moved our entire workshop to the city centre,” said one Ghraoui employee on condition of anonymity. - Reuters

*This story was reported by a journalist whose name is withheld for security reasons


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