PRETORIA – Days after reports that kidnapped South African photojournalist Shiraaz Mohamed had escaped from his Syrian captors, his family on Thursday pointedly accused humanitarian aid organization Gift of the Givers of taking him to the volatile nation, and refusing to take part in efforts to rescue him.
The Mohameds also said that Gift of the Givers was endangering their son by speaking to the media about his alleged escape from his captors and whereabouts.
“For two and a half years, we believed and trusted Gift of the Givers to bring my son home after the organisation took him to Syria to cover its winter campaign. We were forced to seek other help because Dr Imtiaz Sooliman (Gift of the Givers founder) failed in his promises to free Shiraaz from his captors and bring him home to me. There was no progress, only media hype,” Shireen Mohamed, Shiraaz’s mother said in a media statement.
“For the past seven months, Gift of the Givers has not been involved in negotiations because the organisation chose not to be part of a collaborative effort to get Shiraaz home. In October 2019, we again appealed to Dr Sooliman for help with information on other organisations or anyone else who could possibly assist us towards meeting our target of $700 000. He refused.”
She said Sooliman informed the family about Shiraaz’s escape on Saturday night, but the family already had the information ‘through the efforts of our collaborative partners”.
“In the media, Dr Sooliman spoke about how happy the [Mohamed] family was, however he has had no direct contact with me apart from the WhatsApp message. On Sunday morning, the family was shocked to hear news reports about Shiraaz’s ‘escape’ from the media based on Gift of the Givers press statement. We had expressly requested that this information not be shared until we received official confirmation from authorities,” said Shireen.
“We explained to Dr Sooliman that it was premature and may endanger Shiraaz’s life. He continued to bombard the media space, with complete disregard for Shiraaz’s safety, sharing unverified information and creating false expectations of his return this weekend. This has now created complications for my son’s return to us.”
Shireen said Sooliman does not have her permission, or Shiraaz’s consent, to speak about ongoing efforts to bring the photojournalist home.
“I need my son home. I do not want my son home in a body bag because of reckless comments,” said the mother.
On the other hand, Gift of the Givers denied taking Shiraaz on a mission to Syria.
“We never took Shiraaz. He went on his own accord. I don't know Shiraaz, nor have ever met him. Gift of the Givers never made any arrangements to take Shiraaz to Syria. We never made any promises. We tried what is practically possible within reason,” Sooliman told African News Agency.
He said after Shiraaz was kidnapped, in June the family decided to use another negotiator to assist them but Gift of the Givers could not be involved in that process which included raising money for ransom.
“We don't get involved when more than one negotiator gets involved. It's detrimental to the hostage. We don't raise money to pay ransom,” he said.
On claims that the family already knew about Mohamed’s escape before Gift of the Givers informed them, Sooliman said when the humanitarian organisation conveyed the news, the family was “clearly ecstatic when we sent a message to them on a chat group. It was obvious they had no news about Shiraaz from their response”.
Sooliman said a volunteer who used to work with Gift of the Givers had facilitated Mohamed's visit to Syria but it was not the aid agency’s mission.
“There was no mission. There was a solitary photojournalist who wanted to capture the human suffering inside Syria. This volunteer worked with many people and organisations and had facilitated many individuals and organisations entry into Syria,” said Sooliman.
The South African government said this week that it is looking into reports of Mohamed's escape but cannot make any further comment until it had confirmation.
He was captured near Darkoush, along the Turkish border, in 2017.