World

A Hostage's Escape From ISIS

Daniel Rye Azaz, Syria
The last image that Danish photographer Daniel Rye captured, of his shadow against a nearby wall, before ISIS kidnapped him in the northern Syrian border town of Azaz, May 2013. Daniel Rye

The following is an extract from Puk Damsgård’s story of Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen’s 13 months in ISIS captivity in northern Syria. This scene details his escape from an Islamic State militant group (ISIS) safe house in the northern Syrian town of Azaz where he had been tortured for weeks.

Daniel felt hands on his neck and shoulders. Some people were holding him up, others fiddled with the chain. For a brief moment he thought God’s hand was lifting him up towards the light—until someone threw cold water on his face. He was reluctant to wake up, but moved his head instinctively when a boot threatened to step on it.

The guards broke out in cheers: their hostage was alive and kicking. They celebrated by beating him with a plastic tube, which bent around his tormented body, and then they left him tied to the radiator in the room.

They had tortured, starved and drained him of all humanity. He was no longer himself. He had jumped as high as he could so that the chain would break his neck, but his head remained intact on his shoulders and the guards were celebrating because he was still alive. Had the child in the doorway given him away?

Maybe they wanted to kill him themselves? Maybe he had actually wanted the child to raise the alarm? He didn’t know.

Once he was alone again, he tried to reach the bag filled with cans of Coke in the hope that he might find something to drink. His feet could just about touch the bag, but he couldn’t move it.

Over by the bed, he saw a half-filled water bottle, which lay there shining like a miracle. Water. Using the outer edge of his big toe, he managed to reach it. He drank the few gulps that were left in the bottle, looked around the room and suddenly realized that there was no glass in the window frame.

Instead, there were rolled-down metal shutters on the outside of the window. They were partially destroyed in one corner and a piece of cardboard had been pasted over to obscure the view of the outside world. He also caught sight of an old lampshade in the nearest corner. It resembled the lamp his grandmother had at home with a fringe dangling around the bottom of the shade.

Before leaving for his trip to Syria he had seen the film Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale as an American pilot who is taken hostage during the Vietnam War. In the film Bale uses a nail to work open his handcuffs, allowing him to escape the torture camp.

Daniel thought of this scene as he contemplated the old lampshade on the floor. He pulled it towards him with his feet. Perhaps things could work out in real life as they did in the movies.

He took his time jiggling and fiddling with the lampshade’s metal spokes and eventually managed to break a piece off the shade that was about seven centimetres long. He inserted the end of the metal into a hole in the handcuffs so he could bend it slightly. It formed the shape of a key, which he might be able to use in the same way as Christian Bale’s nail.

Daniel stuck the metal into the handcuff lock and turned it. He fiddled with it for several hours at different angles until finally, he heard a click: the lock was open. He sat quietly for a moment. The only thing he knew for certain was that he was on the first floor and could jump out of the window, but he had no idea how far down it was, nor what was outside the house. It didn’t matter. He just wanted out. Better to die on the run than live under torture.

Daylight penetrated the holes in the metal shutters, forming cones of light on the floor. Daniel heard the day’s first call to prayer as he removed the cardboard and climbed through the corner of the window frame where the shutters were broken. He pushed himself through until he was finally standing on a small balcony.

It was low enough for him to jump, so he crawled over the railing, stretched himself out and dangled his legs in the air before he let go and landed on his bare, swollen feet in a pile of branches.

He scanned the horizon for somewhere to run for cover, but could see only gangly, leafless trees and an empty building to the right. Next to the trees was a dirt road and he chose this as his escape route, even though he was well aware that he would practically light up like a beacon in the middle of the flat, lightbrown landscape with his blue shirt and black jeans that stank of dried urine.

When he had run a short distance, Daniel could make out something that looked like a leaky old water tower. Instinctively, he headed towards the water jet that was leaking out of the tower.

He stood under the water, drank it and became soaking wet. Time was of the essence, but he wouldn’t last long as a prisoner on the run without any water.

He continued down the dirt track for a while, but the buildings on both sides were surrounded by tall walls, which made it impossible to hide. The road split and as he made a left, he could see a man watching him from a window. He also passed two women who tried to make contact with him and he shouted as naturally as possible ‘mafi mushkila,’ ‘no problem,’ before he followed the wall around the corner to the right. The stones cut his feet. It felt surreal to be free.

Around the corner he caught sight of a hole in a wall, where there was just enough space for a body of his size to squeeze through. He crawled through it and came out in a garden with tall grass in front of a house. For a moment he stood still and breathed deeply. In the grass in front of him was a pair of old trousers filled with what looked like sticks of dynamite. A feeling of panic set in, he felt trapped. The women could have alerted someone about the blond man they had seen running around barefoot in the neighbourhood.

He clambered back through the hole and ran further down the dirt road towards a more open landscape. His scratched feet left a bloody trail behind them, and the neighbourhood was about to wake up. He could make out a few scattered settlements on the horizon, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to run for several kilometres. Instead, he ran out into a cornfield, where he threw himself on his knees and took off his blue shirt to camouflage himself and proceeded to crawl forwards on his elbows.

He could feel the dry earth clods and rocks scraping against his naked torso. However, he couldn’t carry on in a straight line because the corn was too low in some places to conceal him.

Suddenly he heard voices from somewhere behind him. He stopped crawling and lay completely flat on the ground for a moment, before he curled up in a foetal position and waited for the voices to disappear.

It sounded as if several men were talking together as they stamped about in the corn. Daniel leaned forwards slightly to see where they were and discovered that there was a man standing right next to him. When the man looked at him, straight in the eye, Daniel leapt up in a split second and sprinted further into the cornfield.

The men behind him were now shouting loudly in Arabic, and his legs were heavy, as if he were running on a cushion. He heard gunfire. Bullets whizzed past his ears. Daniel threw himself to the ground in a mixture of exhaustion and fear of being hit. Men he didn’t recognize bent over him. ‘I am Daniel, from Denmark,’ he panted, and he told them they would get money if they helped him over the border into Turkey. A short, fat man tied his hands behind his back and lost control of his gun, which went off into the ground. Daniel almost smiled. If they were such amateurs, he thought, he might be able to persuade them to drive him towards Turkey.

They put him into the back seat of a car parked on an adjacent road and drove in the direction he had just been running from. The car stopped at a sand-coloured house surrounded by a wall. They led him down into a cellar, where they provided him with a bottle of water that had been in the freezer and a cigarette.

Daniel inhaled the cold water and cigarette, while he showed them the bruises on his torso and neck. They didn’t speak any English, but seemed to understand. Did they also understand that he wanted to go home? They threw him back into the car, in the trunk this time, and drove for quite a while. They made short stops along the way—it sounded like they were buying groceries.

They pulled him down into another cellar—a kind of banqueting hall, where weddings might be held. There were oversized Arab sofas lined up against the walls. Daniel was allowed to have his hands untied to go to the toilet and wash himself. They gave him an extra-large pullover to wear.

A couple of kind older men came by with chocolate, coffee, biscuits and water. Daniel began to believe he might see his mother again. Some boys came along wearing Arsenal jerseys and studied him closely, along with the rest of the gathering, as he once again displayed his various marks and scars. Until a voice made him shudder.

‘Helloooo Daniel. We’ve missed you. Where have you been?’

His tormentor, Abu Hurraya, stood in the doorway, handcuffs at the ready.

Extracted from THE ISIS HOSTAGE One Man’s True Story of 13 Months in Captivity by Puk Damsgård published by Atlantic Books Ltd copyright © Politikens Forlag, JP/Politikens Hus A/S, 2015.

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