(Reuters) - When he got in the taxi, the Syrian worker unwittingly walked into the hands of kidnappers. Dumped blindfolded in a graveyard eight days later, he was glad to be alive.
Abu Ahmed, a 35-year-old house painter, is one of hundreds in the Syrian city of Homs who have fallen prey to a growing sectarian kidnapping trade fuelled by increasing unrest.
State security forces are focused on trying to crush an insurgency in Homs, heart of the 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, residents say Homs has become a lawless place where people are dragged away at gunpoint almost daily, targeted solely for their religious identity.
“My captors beat me and mocked me for being Sunni. They tied me to a metal bed and I slept sitting up,” Abu Ahmed said. “Even if they hadn’t tied me up, I wouldn’t have tried to flee. I was terrified. I thought they would kill me.”
In Homs, members of the same minority sect to which Assad himself belongs kidnap Sunni Muslims. Those who are part of the Sunni majority, backbone of protests against 42 years of autocratic Assad family rule, go after Alawites.
So far, sectarian violence and killing are rarely the goals of the abductions. But the kidnapping trend in the city of one million people, Syria’s third largest, has taken on a logic of its own.
Some seize people for money in Homs, where the bloody turmoil paralyzing the city has left thousands jobless. Others kidnap to trade hostages. And some simply feel that having captives on hand could serve as leverage later.
Residents say police write reports but never take action.
“There is no one to complain to. There’s no law. You either sit and wait for God’s mercy, or you kidnap too. Homs is now in the hands of hooligans. Rationality is gone,” said Jamal, 30, an Alawite driver held for five days.
Stories like his are hard to verify, as government restrictions and the ongoing violence curb media access. But human rights groups and the government itself have chronicled dozens of kidnapping cases. All of those interviewed spoke by Skype, to avoid the telephone monitoring of security services.
In Homs, near-empty streets are patrolled by jittery soldiers hiding behind stacked sandbags. Residents shut themselves inside by dusk to avoid kidnappers waiting under the cover of darkness.
Even going out in the daytime is risky now. Jamal was kidnapped at noon.
“I was driving out of the market. Four men with Kalashnikovs waved me down. I sped away because I knew what would happen.”
But a hidden car raced out of an alley and cut him off.
“They dragged me out of my car and beat me. They took my two mobile phones, 2,500 liras ($40) in my pocket and my shoes.”
Jamal was then taken to a house where he was crammed into a room with 10 other Alawites, held hostage for days on end.
“It was the house of a guy people call ‘The Frowner’. He’s a creep. He runs the kidnapping scheme in that neighborhood. It was such a farce, I stopped worrying I would die,” he said.
The kidnappers let Jamal call his family and tell them they needed to pay 150,000 lira (around $2,500) for his release and another 300,000 to get back his car.
“My family is poor. They don’t have much money, so they talked to some of the Alawite thugs in our neighborhood hoping to get some Sunnis released in exchange for me,” Jamal said.
The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Under Assad rule, many Alawites were drawn into the political and military elite but others remained deeply poor.
There are exceptions to the sectarian loyalties - some Alawites back the protests and some Sunnis support Assad - but the broad divide between the two communities in Homs even shapes the kidnapping trade.
Not all abductions have a happy ending.
There has been more than one incident of a group of Sunni or Alawite bodies dumped in the street, mutilated. Some worry this foreshadows greater sectarian strife to come.
Gunmen dragged 30-year-old Zainab off a bus screaming, picking her out as an Alawite because she was not wearing the Muslim headscarf worn by many Sunni women in Syria.
Her brother Hadi said she pleaded with her captors.
“She shouted, ‘Why kidnap me? Kidnap Bashar, I don’t have anything to do with this!’ People on the bus just stared, terrified, they didn’t say a word,” Hadi said.
But Zainab told her brother that her kidnappers were polite once she was taken to her abductor’s home. He called her ‘my daughter’ and promised not to hurt her.
“She called and said she’d been kidnapped, that they were kind to her but that we needed to get these five Sunni men released in exchange for her,” her brother Hadi said.
Abu Ahmed fared worse. His captors ridiculed him, kicked him in the face and interrogated him about his neighborhood, a Sunni area that has become a stronghold of armed revolt.
He believes the men were either police or pro-Assad Alawite gunmen, known as “shabbiha,” who help the police. Shabbiha are widely feared by Syrian protesters, who say they are more brutal because of their anonymity.
“They wanted to know the names of who the armed rebels were in my neighborhood, they wanted to know who specialized in filming protests uploading videos, and they wanted to know where the protest leader Omar al-Telawi lives.”
Abu Ahmed tried to plead ignorance but said he was so afraid he eventually caved in and told them where Telawi lived, assuming the activist was already in hiding. “As for the rebels, I gave them names of men who were already martyred (killed),” he said.
A GIRL’S WORTH
Jamal, stuck with “the Frowner,” worried that his family could not afford the 300,000 liras for his car on top of his 150,000 ransom.
“They asked their neighbors holding Sunnis hostages ‘just in case’ to give them one captive, but the men demanded a large fee,” he said.
His mother even asked a Sunni cleric to help but he too failed to secure Jamal’s freedom. She finally called the Frowner. “Maybe she cried, maybe she shamed him. I don’t know. But he agreed to free me for just the 150,000,” Jamal said.
He walked home barefoot: “The kidnappers told me where to find my car. But they kept my shoes.”
Zainab was finally released when her family, through the help of Sunni and Alawite sheikhs, found the five men her captors wanted freed. Each side dropped off their hostages at agreed-upon security checkpoints and sped away.
Her relatives point out that women hostages fetch a higher price. A kidnapped man usually guarantees the release of only one man in exchange.
“We’ve created a first in Islamic history,” her brother joked. “Inheritance laws in the Koran say a man is worth two women. In Homs, a girl is worth five guys.”
Abu Ahmed was released seven days after his interrogation. His kidnappers used his phone to find a friend who arranged to release an Alawite hostage in exchange for Abu Ahmed’s freedom.
Abu Ahmed was stuffed in a car and driven away blindfolded, then dumped from the car. He could hear traffic in the distance.
“I stood there blindfolded, afraid to move. Suddenly I heard my friend’s voice. He said take off the blindfold, you’re free. That was when I realized I was in a graveyard,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to cry, I thought I was finished. My captors had left me to pick up a hostage my friend left for them at another graveyard, just across the street.”
Once a pacifist, Abu Ahmed has now joined the Free Syrian Army, whose clashes with state forces have begun to overshadow what began as a peaceful protest movement in March.
“We need to arm and defend ourselves and get rid of this regime, this is their fault,” he said. “I joined the rebels so we can put an end to this nightmare.”
(The identity of the reporter on this story has been withheld for security reasons)