Jun 9, 2016 by


Ángel Sastre, held hostage for 10 months by an al-Qaida affiliate, says western media must do more: ‘We need to put the emphasis on the civilian population’
Ángel Sastre, right, with fellow journalists José Manuel López, centre, and Antonio Pampliega, arrive at Torrejón’s military airport in Spain after being released from captivity in Syria.
Ángel Sastre, right, with fellow journalists José Manuel López, centre, and Antonio Pampliega, arrive in Spain after being released from captivity in Syria. Photograph: Handout/Reuters

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires



Until recently, Ángel Sastre was best-known to Spanish television viewers for his adventurous television reports from South America and the Middle East. But the confident and easy-going manner Sastre once projected onscreen seems to have disappeared entirely.

As he describes his experiences over the past year, Sastre speaks in agitated bursts, tripping over his words. “I haven’t slept in two weeks, I have panic attacks, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress,” he explains.

In July 2015, Sastre and two other Spanish journalists, Antonio Pampliega and José Manuel López were seized by the al-Nusra front – al-Qaida’s franchise in Syria – and held for 10 months.

Spanish authorities have never elaborated on the circumstances of the three reporters’ release in May, but it is widely understood that – as in previous cases involving Spanish citizens – a ransom was paid.

They returned to a hero’s welcome: the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, posted a photograph of the journalists descending from the plane at Torrejón airbase, and national television channels broadcast the emotional scenes as they were reunited with their families on the tarmac. King Felipe telephoned the three men to welcome them home.

But, in his first interview with the English-language media, Sastre says that the attention focused on his safe return grated on his conscience.
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“We need to put the emphasis on Syria’s civilian population,” he says, speaking via Skype. “We need to talk about the barbarity of a regime that drops barrel bombs on its own people. And we need to talk about how precarious the situation is for journalists working freelance in conflict zones. The media have to commit to carry our stories and we need to be paid adequate fees. Because wars without witnesses are the worst kind of wars.”

Sastre, 36, was born in the small 15th-century town of Don Benito in western Spain. His first posting as a correspondent was London, but before long, the self-described “action and adrenaline seeker” moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, from where he has covered Latin America and reported on conflicts in Kurdistan, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine and Syria. “Heart split between Latin America and the Middle East,” reads his Twitter bio.

At home in Latin America, Sastre works as a regular contributor for Spanish TV, radio and newspapers. But in 2013, he took time off from his normal work, and headed to Syria, covering his own costs to report stories from rebel-held areas.

“I went to tell what’s happening in Syria,” says Sastre, who accuses the western television stations of depending too heavily on footage provided by factions in the war.

“It’s not enough to publish footage of bombs or gunfire. You need reporters on the ground who can translate the information, do interviews … Activists are replacing journalists.”

In the summer of 2015 he decided to return, travelling with Pampliega and López to Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, where they hired smugglers to take them across the border into Syria.

Sastre says he was aware of the risks they faced: “From the moment you enter Syria you become a military and economic target, with people looking for you to kidnap you and sell you to one of the rebel groups.”

Since the war began, the journey into northern Syria had never been easy, but by 2015 it had become increasingly perilous, and other reporters warned Sastre and his colleagues not to undertake the journey. Their destination, east Aleppo had been all but emptied of citizens and new arrivals like the three Spaniards would be quickly recognized as foreigners.

On 10 July, he posted what would turn out to be his last tweet for many months: the word “courage” in Spanish, English and Arabic.

“We hid in a wood at night to check how often the border guards passed. They took us to a farmhouse where the next morning we continued on a tractor across farmland to an olive field. Five children aged between 10 and 14 appeared among the olive trees, and guided us across,” he says.

The three men met up with their fixer outside Idlib and headed into the bombed-out city. “Aleppo by now looks like a rat maze, the people still living there can’t get out and are continually hearing helicopters dropping barrel bombs on them,” says Sastre.

With a driver, a guide and their fixer, the journalists headed to film a report on the abandoned patients of a derelict mental hospital. As they reached downtown Aleppo, a van pulled in front of them, and six men jumped out, brandishing Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sastre and his companions were bundled into the vehicle and forced to sit with their heads pushed down between their knees.

Sastre believes his captors belonged to a small rebel faction who seized the three Spaniards in order to sell them to a more powerful group: over the next 10 months of captivity, Sastre was moved between six or seven different locations and eventually separated from his compatriots.

In one of those transfers Sastre was handed over to al-Nusra front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, and one of the most powerful Islamist factions fighting in the country. Throughout the war, al-Nusra has taken several western hostages, including Italian aid workers Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, and US journalists Theo Padnos and Matthew Schrier.990
José Manuel López, left, Ángel Sastre, rear, and Antonio Pampliega, right, shortly after their arrival in Syria.

José Manuel López, left, Ángel Sastre, rear, and Antonio Pampliega, right, shortly after their arrival in Syria. Photograph: Ahmad Ajjan/AP

Al-Nusra is locked in a bitter struggle with its rival, Islamic State, but Sastre says he was under no illusions that offered any grounds for optimism. “Those bastards are as bad as Isis. They wouldn’t have had the slightest problem in killing me at any moment,” he says.

Sastre believes he was held in the areas of Idlib and Maarat under al-Nusra’s control close to the Turkish border. Transfers between his jailers usually took place at night, and Sastre was always blindfolded and handcuffed.

Although he seemed to be moving to areas with less bombing, in a war where hostages are sold for cash, the motive wasn’t exactly humanitarian. “I was their treasure, they wanted to prevent anything happening to me,” he says.

While most European governments – including Spain, France and Germany – officially deny paying to free their citizens, millions of dollars have been funneled to Islamist kidnappers over recent years, often via third countries, including the Gulf states.

In contrast, the US, Canada and the UK have refused to pay ransoms, and few of their citizens have escaped abduction by jihadis alive.

Sastre was held in a series of small, damp rooms in semi-abandoned farmhouses surrounded by olive trees.

Initially, his jailers were communicative. “I talked quite a bit with them at first, political conversations. They said their main enemy was Isis. They played me videos, talked about the war and tried to justify what they’re doing,” he says.

The conversation often turned to religion. “They tried to convert me. They talked about the merits of Islamic religion compared to Catholicism, about the common roots of our religions, including Judaism. They said the Qur’an was authentic because it was a direct revelation from Allah while the Gospels have passed through different hands and undergone translation.”

Those conversations ended abruptly once Sastre passed into the hands of al-Nusra.

His cell was fitted with an infrared camera with which Sastre’s captors watched him round the clock. Forbidden from doing sit-ups or push-ups, Sastre could only exercise by stretching. He was allowed to walk in circles round the room for 15 minutes a day.

“The contact became minimal, professional. I was told I was a prisoner of war. They brought my food, took me to the bathroom, that was it, practically wordless. At no time was there any empathy,” he says. “So I don’t have any Stockholm syndrome.”

His only reading material was two books on Islam provided by an early group of jailers.
Spanish reporters turned hostages: Ángel Sastre, Antonio Pampliega and José Manuel López.
Spanish reporters turned hostages: Ángel Sastre, Antonio Pampliega and José Manuel López. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

When his captors did talk, the common language was English, but Sastre doesn’t think any of them were British or American. “They were definitely Arabs, but I don’t know if Syrians, Libyans or Iraqis.”

Sastre’s biggest fear was being sold to Isis – or simply being abandoned. “You try to not go crazy stuck so many hours in a room. You hang on to the hope they won’t abandon you. And the ever-present fear is being executed or sold to Isis. And it isn’t just because Isis might make a decapitation video with you, but because of all the different kinds of torture that we know about from reports by other hostages.”
After 10 months, his ordeal ended almost as suddenly as it began. Sastre is circumspect of the details of his release, saying simply: “They took us to the border and released us.”

The Spanish government has also remained tight-lipped – Rajoy’s office issued a statement saying that “allied and friendly” countries including Turkey and Qatar played a part.

Sastre is grateful for the self-restraint shown by the Spanish media, which refrained from broadcasting videos he was forced to film by his captors. “What these people want is for their videos to be seen. But the Spanish media rose to the occasion, because the best that you can do is keep quiet and allow the process to run its course.”

His 10-month ordeal makes Sastre sceptical of any chance of peace in the near future.
“I feel very identified with the Syrian people and ashamed of the position taken by western countries who only talk about Syria when they see their own welfare threatened by the mass arrival of refugees,” he said.

What began as a revolution against an oppressive regime has been taken hostage by Islamist radicals, Sastre says. Meanwhile, “a regime that bombs its own people is propped up by alliances with Iran and Russia as the rest of the world turns a blind eye, allowing Bashar al-Assad to remain in power.

“Being realistic, there doesn’t seem to be any happy ending in sight for Syria. It’s a dead-end tunnel.”

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