[When Part 1 ended. I and my fixer were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint and taken from the car]
The Free Syria Army fighter drove off and Suheib and the commander walked a short distance away and talked. I was left alone standing next to the big ugly fighter holding an AK-47 again and another dozen fighters. After a few minutes, the ISIS commander and Suheib returned to me. We stood in the middle of the road. The ISIS commander on my left, a little to the front of me. Suheib was directly in front of me. The ISIS commander wanted to ask me a few questions. He spoke to Suheib who translated into English. The tone was more of a friendly interview than an interrogation. The ISIS commander asked me. “Do you think of death?” I felt pretty calm and tried to act that way; not showing any nervousness. “Not much,” I said casually. (This is true. I suppose if I thought about death a lot I wouldn’t go to conflict zones.)
[Suheib and myself in one of the rooms at the apartment that I and the fixers and their clients (newspaper reporters and Amnesty International people) stayed.]
Then the commander asked me if I believed in God. I said, “Yes.” The truth is, of course, I’m not really sure about this. But, I knew better than to confess my agnosticism. I did not want to be considered an “unbeliever.” That could be very dangerous. Fundamentalist Muslims have been known to kill atheists. So, I said “Yes.”
The commander then asked if I knew when I would die. I said, “No, I am not God.” I thought that was a good answer. Again, I remained intentionally nonchalant. Then he asked me if I was a Christian. I am not a Christian. But I knew from my experience in the Middle East it is best to say you are a Christian. The vast majority of Muslims have no problem with Christians. I was sometimes asked this question and always said, “Yes.” There was never a problem.
When I said “Yes” the ISIS commander “went off.” He started shaking his hand and saying (as Suheib translated) that Christians were “kafir,” (unbelievers) because the trinity is false. There is only one God, not three. He saw the trinity as a form of polytheism. I was surprised by this reaction. I simply shook my head “Yes” and said, “I understand” as the commander railed against the falsity of the doctrine of the trinity. Although I went to Catholic grade school and high school, I never really understood the trinity. I certainly wasn’t about to get into a debate about it with an ISIS commander. When the commander was done, he and Suheib walked a short distance away and started talking some more.
[The author with Free Syria Army fighters in Aleppo]
I was left with the big, ugly man again and the other dozen Jihadi guards. Within a few minutes, a man in a pickup truck drove up as I stood there. He had a fair complexion with a few days growth of beard. He addressed me in English. He asked me who I was. I told him I was an American journalist. “This place is very dangerous for you. You should leave,” he said. “If you go any farther there are men who will kill you.” I don’t remember exactly what I said but I’m sure it was some kind of assent or acknowledgement that I understood.“You know why? All Muslims hate America.” I’m sure I nodded my head and said something like “Yes, I understand.”
I told him that in Aleppo, Suheib and I had told the more fundamentalist fighters that I was from Canada. He then said he was from Montreal. “Parlez vous Francais?” I said. “Oui,” he replied. He then started speaking in French. Although I went from a “B” to a “C” to a “D” in three semesters of college French, I know French when I hear it. I switched back to English. He again warned me to leave, saying that it was dangerous for me there. I said I understood. At the time and in retrospect it seems touching and strange that an ISIS man from Canada was trying to save an American. We shook hands. I wanted to take his picture and would have but had not been given my camera back yet. That would not have been a smart thing to do.
Suheib later told me that when he was talking to the ISIS commander alone the second time, the commander was very angry with him for bringing an American journalist to the area. Apparently we had been stopped at the ISIS ammo dump checkpoint for that part of the front. Suheib said the commander told him that if he (Suheib) had not been there the commander would have either killed me or taken me captive. But because Suheib knew the commander (he was from Saudi Arabia) and because Suheib had good relations with all the rebel groups, the commander didn’t. Suheib suggested to the commander that instead of killing me or taking me prisoner, he should invite me to convert to Islam. So, that is what he he did.
[Author with Suheib (Aref Zidan) and a Free Syria Army fighter at the apartment we used in Aleppo. My fixers had a generator to provide emergency electricity (when the power went out) and provided satellite internet for anybody who came by. There was a constant stream of people coming and going to use the internet. I felt like I was in a one act play.]
Suheib and the ISIS commander approached me again. “Ronald,” Suheib said. “Listen to what the commander says and repeat it.” “OK, I said. So, in a “repeat after me” kind of way the commander spoke a few words in Arabic and I repeated them in Arabic. At the time, I had no idea what I was saying. Later, Suheib told me that it was what one says when one becomes a Muslim. “I witness that there is no God but God. I witness that Mohammed is the messenger of God,” etc. The commander would say a few words, then I would repeat. A few times I mangled the words and stopped, somewhat embarrassed. The commander patiently repeated the words. I tried again. After a minute or two, I had made it through. Then Suheib said, “Ronald, listen carefully to what the commander is going say.” Then the commander in a kind of half singing and half chanting tone spoke for a minute or two. I was later told it was a passage from the Koran. When the commander stopped, Suheib asked me how I felt. I said “Tell him that he sang beautifully.” Suheib and the commander went off again. I was left with the guards.
After a short time, the FSA fighter returned. He had found his unit but a sniper was shooting at the road and his commander would not allow me to go through. It was too dangerous. OK, I thought. Time to go back to Aleppo. Suheib said goodbye to the ISIS commander. I was given my camera and passport back and we got into the car and drove the way we had come. I didn’t make it to the front line that day.
I would like to end the story here. But I can’t. In June of 2014 I learned from Jack Hill and Anthony Loyd of the Times of London, a person from Amnesty International, and my contacts in Syria that sometime in early 2014 Suheib went to a local ISIS group to secure the release of his brother who was being held by them. He never returned. Approximately two months later his new wife (he had married in September 2013) received a written communication from ISIS informing her that they had killed Suheib. Suheib saved my life.
[L to R; Suheib’s sister, Suheib (Aref Zidan). Suheib’s fiance´and later wife and widow.]
[Suheib (Aref Zidan). My fixer and the man who saved my life.]