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Journalist Theo Padnos Recounts Years as Syrian Prisoner in Documentary “Theo Who Lived”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos' story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region's language and culture

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In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016, Theo Padnos poses at the family's house in remote Reading, Vt. In 2012, journalist, Padnos slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch. Image source: VOA

reelance journalist Theo Padnos in 2012 slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch.

The group held the Massachusetts native for nearly two years before releasing him in August 2014 as they were convinced he was a CIA agent because he spoke Arabic.

Now, Padnos is retracing his journey in “Theo Who Lived,” a documentary being screened Sept. 30 in Cambridge. Its theatrical premiere is in New York City on Oct. 7, followed by a wider release.

Padnos, 47, who has been living in Paris and Vermont, tells the Associated Press he’s grateful to have survived.

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The ordeal not only changed his outlook on life but also gave him perspective on the Syrian conflict that he feels is important to share.

Padnos is working on a nonfiction book, a play and a novel drawing on his experience. He wrote about his captivity for the New York Times Magazine shortly after his release and is trying to continue writing about the region as a journalist.

” I had a real spiritual voyage, which was terrifying for me and my family at the time,” Padnos said from his family’s vacation home in Vermont. ” But looking back, this is what life gave me and I’d like to take what I learned and turn it into some positive benefit.”

The film follows Padnos as he returns to places in Turkey and Israel that figured prominently in his 22-month capture. The film crew never set foot in Syria. Padnos reflects on his captivity on sets emulating his tiny prison cell and the room where he was subjected to torture and beatings.

Along the Turkey-Syria border, he recalls the moment when his traveling companions instruct him to dash across the field and hop the razor wire fence separating them from Syria.

It’s a moment Padnos says he’d replay in his mind for months after.

The trio of men had claimed they were providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army and offered to take him across the border with them. But they were actually affiliated with al-Qaida. They staged a fake interview, beat him and took him hostage shortly after crossing the border.

” This is where I threw my life away. It’s like a precipice that I walked up to and I actually jumped,” Padnos says in the film. ” Now I’m back in a safe place and I’m thinking why did I ever jump?”

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Padnos also details a series of failed escapes, including one in which cellmate and American photojournalist Matthew Schrier managed to sneak out through a narrow prison window but Padnos could not.

Padnos’ mother, Nancy Curtis, who is interviewed in the documentary, says she still has mixed emotions about her son’s release. During the ordeal, she became close to the parents of other Americans kidnapped by extremists overseas. Many of them were not as fortunate as her family, she says.

Curtis and other family members, working with the U.S. and Qatari governments, successfully arranged for Padnos’ release just days after the Islamic State beheaded New Hampshire journalist James Foley in a video. The family maintains that no ransom was paid.

” I always clung to the hope that he’d come home,” Curtis said. ” But I also don’t feel great joy and happiness. Probably anyone who has had a solider in the war who came home but knows others that didn’t have similar emotions.”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos’ story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region’s language and culture.

Having spent years prior studying Arabic and Islam in Yemen and Syria, Padnos was able to build trust and friendships with some of his captors.

Near the end of his captivity, he was given greater freedoms and even traveled personally with the then-high commander of al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

“The real intimacy he developed with his captors was remarkable,” Schisgall said. ” It’s a very important message for Americans to see these people fighting as complicated individuals who are both very dangerous but also very human.” (VOA)

Next Story

Sri Lanka Commemorates 10 Years Since End of Civil War

Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake has said his troops will ensure that this year’s commemoration goes ahead peacefully

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Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony's Shrine, April 21, 2019, after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka. VOA

Still reeling from the Easter terror attacks, Sri Lanka commemorates this weekend 10 years since the end of a bloody civil war that killed at least 100,000 people, the scars of which are still not healed.

Security was tight in the north of the island, home to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, ahead of solemn ceremonies Saturday.

Sri Lanka’s government and top military brass were to have their own commemoration in Colombo Sunday.

On May 18, 2009, government forces brought their no-holds-barred military offensive to an end at a lagoon in the northern coastal district of Mullaittivu with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers.

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FILE – People stand in front of a mural of Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran painted on a wall in Chennai, India, May 19, 2015. Across Chennai, large billboards with photographs of Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, urge its people to “not forget” the day the insurgent group accepted defeat. VOA

Thousands missing

Sri Lanka’s then-president Mahinda Rajapakse declared an end to the 37-year separatist conflict — marked by massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations — between Tamil militants and the central government, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese.

But for thousands of war widows and other victims on both sides, this marked the start of a new struggle: to find out the fate of their loved ones.

About 20,000 people are still missing, including 5,000 government troops.

Anandarasan Nagakanni, 61, is still searching for her son Arindavadas.

“He was last seen with the Sri Lankan army, and after that we haven’t seen him,” she told AFP at a tiny makeshift office in Mullaittivu, where a notice board was covered with dozens of photos of missing people.

Nagaraja Sureshamma, 65, who lost one son and is still looking for the other, recalled the horrors of the final months and how civilians scrambled to escape indiscriminate attacks and shelling.

“We were all going together, but my son happened to go on a different route. … Ever since, we have not been able to find him,” Sureshamma said.

“If they are not alive, then they need to tell us that at least,” said Mariasuresh Easwari, an activist trying to help find the missing.

“Did you murder them? Did you bury them? Tell us.”

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FILE – A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil woman supporting the Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front holds a placard as police officers stand guard during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 30, 2013. VOA

Grieving banned

Sri Lankan forces have been accused of killing about 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the war, a charge successive governments have denied.

Several mass graves containing skeletal remains have been found in the past two decades, but only a handful of those buried have ever been formally identified.

Until recently, even remembering the war dead was considered subversive and annual memorial services by Tamils were trashed by government forces.

Government forces have set up memorials in the north for fallen security forces and bulldozed Tiger cemeteries, obliterating any sign of the rebels who at their zenith controlled a third of Sri Lanka.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a recent report that the new government’s promised political reforms and accountability for wartime atrocities have failed to materialize.

“For many Sri Lankans living in the bitterly contested north and east, the war has never quite ended,” it said.

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Sri Lankan security officers inspect vandalized shops owned by Muslims in Minuwangoda, a suburb of Colombo, May 14, 2019. VOA

Islamist terror

Although the pain for many families remains, and many in the 2.5-million-strong Tamil community still feel disadvantaged, the end of the war did open a peaceful new chapter in which Sri Lanka’s economy and tourism boomed.

But this peace was shattered April 21 when Islamist suicide bombers targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners.

The attackers were homegrown extremists — the Islamic State group also claimed credit — and riots since saw dozens of homes, businesses and mosques of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority vandalized. One man was killed by a mob wielding swords.

According to the ICG, the Easter attacks “compounded the general anxiety, tearing again at the social fabric, unleashing further violence and complicating the road to sustainable peace.”

Evoking memories of past dark times, a state of emergency has been in place since April 21 with the return of some wartime restrictions on free movement.

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Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake has said his troops will ensure that this year’s commemoration goes ahead peacefully.

“As much as we mourn the soldiers who were killed in the war, (minority Tamil) civilians also have a right to commemorate their war dead,” he said Thursday. (VOA)