There’s got to be only a certain number of times that being handsome and diving behind the nearest sand dune will be enough to save Richard Engel’s life and limbs, but I’ll resist counting down his nine lives. I’ve been taking the deaths of war correspondents seriously since Sean Flynn disappeared in Cambodia before Engel was born. My uncle was an Army photographer in World War II and the one thing scarier than storming an enemy post shooting bullets is doing it shooting pictures. I am unabashedly in awe of every man and woman who reports from a war zone. This morning’s news from NBC came as a complete shock.
NBC and the rest of the mainstream media intentionally kept quiet about the kidnapping of Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his four-man crew in Syria. It is believed that if journalists’ captures are not publicized, there is a greater chance they will be freed, but in Syria this is a risky assumption. Early in the revolution, foreign journalists were targeted by the regime.
Last Thursday, Engel and his crew were being driven through what they believed to be rebel-held territory in Syria in the company of a few rebel soldiers. Fifteen members of the regime-loyal Shabiha militia suddenly ambushed their vehicle, literally dropping out of the trees to surround the vehicle. One rebel soldier was executed on the spot and Engel and his crew were bound, blindfolded and placed in another vehicle. Engel reported that the militia were Shiite Muslims trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They also have ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist group that is dominant in Lebanon. Leave it to Engel to manage to interview his captors while being interrogated.
The captives were moved several times, subjected to interrogations, threatened repeatedly with death. During their interrogations, the militiamen would hold up guns, let the captives know the guns were in proximity to their heads and then fire them into the air next to the captives’ heads. They weren’t physically tortured, but in Engel’s words, “psychologically tortured.” Engel was traveling with his producer, Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra and two others who have not been identified.
The captives were told that the plan was to exchange Engel and his crew for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese Shabiha members who were being held by the rebels. It was a unrealistic plan because there is not a true central authority for the Syrian rebels and it is difficult at best to determine who is holding any captives or who to negotiate with.
Monday night, while transporting their captives to yet another holding site, the militia blundered into a checkpoint manned by the rebel Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. In the ensuing firefight, two of the militiamen were killed and Engel and his crew freed. They crossed into Turkey early Tuesday morning, local time.
The three appeared together on the Today show by live link from Antakya, Turkey. “It’s good to be here. I am very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning,” Engel said. “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. When you’re blindfolded and then they fire the gun up in the air, it can be a very traumatic experience.”
Ignoring orders to be silent, the men “…kept each other’s spirit’s up” Balkiz said. Kooistra told the Today crew, “I made good with my Maker. I made good with myself. I was prepared to die, many times.”
During their captivity, there was no claim of responsibility by any group nor a demand for ransom from the captors.
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford with a degree in International Relations in 1996. In addition to his fluency in Arabic, Engel speaks Spanish and Italian. He began his journalism career as a freelancer, finally hired by NBC fulltime in 2003. NBC learned during the first Gulf War with correspondent Arthur Kent that journalists can become victims of PTSD. CNN’s Mick Weir retired because of his severe PTSD after years in the heart of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. Engel-watchers (unsurprisingly mostly female) are aware of how often NBC pulls him from front line assignments, brings him back to the States, rotates his locations. He has been unapologetically pro-rebel for the two years he’s been covering the Arab Spring, but his understanding of the people, culture and history of the entire region makes him one of the best war correspondents possible in these times.
Engel might want to consider keeping that beard he started growing during his captivity. Makes him look downright dashing and slightly dangerous.