The Road to Damascus
In 2012 Houston native Austin Tice heeded a calling to become a journalist in war-ravaged Syria. His photographs, stories, and tweets shed new light on the conflict—until one day they stopped.
Before he ever considered traveling to Syria, before he saw his byline in the Washington Post, and before he made worldwide news, Austin Tice had a revelation in the desert. At 29, he had insatiable curiosity and a surfeit of charisma, and though he generally wasn’t one to entertain visions, he’d been thinking a lot about his future. It was 2011, and he was three months into his deployment at Camp Leatherneck, in southern Afghanistan, with his fellow Marines. Despite being in a war zone, he was restless. The Arab Spring, the wave of democratic uprisings sweeping through Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, had been making headlines; the Islamic world was changing fast, and he felt desperately removed from the action. “So often I feel like I was born in the wrong age, or at least on the wrong continent,” he wrote on Facebook that July. But then, as he spent his downtime between missions gazing at photos of protesters in the streets of the Libyan capital and reading tweets about rebels clashing with forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, an idea came to him.
Excitedly, he hurried to his commander’s office and burst in. He knew what he was going to do, he announced: become a war photographer. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Bruggeman, looked at him cockeyed. Bruggeman had talked often with Austin during their deployment, and though Bruggeman had come to enjoy his big ideas, this was unusual even for him. “Why would you want to do that?” Bruggeman said. Austin’s eyes widened. “Why wouldn’t you? Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
Had Bruggeman known Austin before their deployment, he might have seen the moment coming. Growing up in Westbury, in southwest Houston, as the oldest of seven, Austin had always had a passionate streak. His mother, Debra, homeschooled her children in a house where NPR, newspapers, and the Bible stood in for television—which the family sold at a garage sale in 1988—and weekends were filled with canoeing and camping. One morning, when he was a first grader, Austin came downstairs to find that his assignments for the day weren’t ready. He turned to his mother and said, “ ‘You don’t care about my future. You don’t care about my education. I have no promise here,’ ” Debra recalled. “Everything was always so intense and urgent and relevant with him. He was like that from birth.”
His intensity led to academic success. A National Merit finalist and an Eagle Scout, Austin enrolled in the University of Houston’s Honors College just before his sixteenth birthday. Even then he’d felt the pull of the larger world. During his admissions interview, when asked what he wanted to do with his life, he replied, “Well, I really want to be a foreign correspondent for NPR.” (Jodie Koszegi, the admissions counselor, was impressed. “He knew his own mind,” she told me.) Soon he’d landed a gig writing for the campus paper, the Daily Cougar, and two years later, in the fall of 1999, he transferred to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. By the time he graduated, in 2002, he had grown into his lanky frame and earned a reputation for his direct, if not always gracious, manner. One college friend explained, “He’s the kind of person who really has a vision of his place in the world and who considers the question, ‘What can I do that will be really important?’ ”
Like so many young idealists, Austin ended up in law school, but, as would frequently be the case in his life, he’d soon grown restless. After one semester of legal studies at Georgetown, he signed up for the Marine Corps, and in 2005 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. “I felt there was this sort of disconnect between the world I was living in, where I went to class every day and parties, and then what I would read in the paper,” he would later say in an interview, archived at the Library of Congress. After two deployments, he restarted his first year of law school in 2008, but he found that the discipline and sense of mission he’d acquired in the military made him impatient with his younger, flip-flop-wearing classmates. In early 2011 he volunteered for another deployment as a reservist.
This was how he’d ended up in Afghanistan. No sooner had he arrived, however, than he began wrestling with the U.S. military’s role and tactics in the Middle East. “Heading out soon on a horribly conceived mission,” he wrote once on Twitter. “Hopefully will be forgotten like most dumb missions are; otherwise, see you on CNN.” His commander took his frustrations in stride. “He would drive conversations with questions that were not typical of conversations I was having with anyone, regardless of rank,” Bruggeman said. “He was very curious as to the purpose of our involvement. Austin has a refined sense of justice.” When, two weeks after announcing his new calling, Austin lugged a heavy, expensive Nikon camera that he’d just purchased into Bruggeman’s office, the commander was impressed. “It is not uncommon for someone to have a mid-deployment epiphany,” he said. “A lot of times people think, ‘Hey, I’m going to get out and go to school.’ This was a bit more of a radical epiphany. Not many people follow through on their radical mid-deployment epiphanies, but he did.”
The same day he bought his camera—August 11, his thirtieth birthday—Austin also purchased a plane ticket to Cairo for the following March. His deployment would end in December, and though he planned to return to law school for the spring semester, his main focus was to prepare for life as a foreign journalist. As a trial run, he intended to spend his spring break documenting the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution. Scanning daily headlines on his computer, he weighed where he might commit himself after that.
He briefly considered Libya, but Gaddafi fell in October, and as the news cycle moved on, Austin’s attention shifted to Syria. The conflict there, which had begun in March 2011 as a peaceful protest movement against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, had turned increasingly violent as the government cracked down on protesters. Now the Free Syrian Army—a ragtag association of mostly Sunni defectors from the military—was fighting to depose the better-equipped Assad regime, which is composed largely of Alawites, a Shiite minority. As the violence worsened, the government banned foreign news organizations and often refused to issue visas to journalists, forcing them to either embed with the regime or illegally cross the Turkish or Lebanese borders.
Those who did sneak into the country exposed themselves to tremendous risk. Syria was quickly becoming the most dangerous place in the world—a “black hole,” as some would later call it—for journalists. (Since the start of the Syrian uprising, some 95 journalists have been killed there, and at least 12 are currently imprisoned, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) In February 2012 Marie Colvin, a veteran reporter for London’s Sunday Times, was killed by rocket fire in the city of Homs after slipping across the border. Following Colvin’s death, news agencies began pulling back their personnel.
With few journalists on the ground, it was growing increasingly difficult to know what exactly was happening in Syria. Reading the news, Austin was irritated whenever he saw that journalists “could not confirm” details because a news organization didn’t have a reporter in country. The shroud of silence over the conflict—which Colvin herself had described as the worst she’d ever seen—only helped crystallize Austin’s sense of mission.
After returning to Washington, D.C., in January 2012, Austin used his savings to buy camera lenses and other gear and began studying maps of Syria and teaching himself rudimentary Arabic; on Fridays, he audited an introductory photography class at Georgetown. “Time to work hard, be dull, and prepare for the next great adventure. In a movie, this part would be a montage,” he tweeted. At a panel discussion on Syria at George Mason University in February, Austin met Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, then the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit supporting the Syrian revolution. “He made it very clear that he was going whether I helped him or not, which was the attitude of many freelancers at the time,” Ghosh-Siminoff said. “I felt like I had some responsibility to help him meet the right people so it wouldn’t be a complete disaster.” Ghosh-Siminoff was concerned that Austin didn’t speak Arabic and feared for his safety but ultimately agreed to connect Austin with some activists he knew in the region. “From the beginning, he said he wanted to get to Damascus. No journalist had done what he was planning to do, this trek from top to bottom.”
In March, Austin traveled to Egypt with his sister Meagan and two friends, marveling at the pyramids, enjoying the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh, and photographing a protest in Tahrir Square. This taste of photojournalism confirmed what he’d known all along: he was meant to spend the upcoming summer in Syria. Late one night in Cairo, he called his parents to inform them of his plan. “I’m not going to have any discussion about this,” he told his mother. Debra knew that her son wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise. “There was no talking him out of it. So we just let the butterflies fly and asked, ‘How do we support you?’ ”
On May 8 Austin packed for southern Turkey. He would fly to the city of Gaziantep, take a bus to the city of Antakya, and from there figure out how to enter nearby Syria. He squeezed some $10,000 worth of gear—including his camera, lenses, a portable satellite Internet terminal, a small solar panel, and a Kindle—into several green camera bags and a backpack. To keep himself entertained over multiple flights and layovers, he also brought along Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book about his time as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Before boarding his first flight, Austin pulled out his phone. “This is either gonna be wildly successful or a complete disaster,” he tweeted. “Here goes nothing.”
The Syria that Austin entered is not the Syria of today. The reports emanating out of the country have been bleak: seared into our minds are the images of carnage from the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons (more than 220,000 Syrians have died in the conflict so far), of 3.9 million refugees fleeing the country, and of the horrors perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, including the gruesome beheadings of foreign journalists like James Foley and aid workers like Peter Kassig. But when Austin first landed on its border, a year and two months after the revolt started, Syria had not yet descended into such chaos. It was already one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but the general assumption was that its government, like Egypt’s and Libya’s and Tunisia’s before it, would soon topple in the face of a united popular uprising. Opposition groups had not yet splintered, U.S. involvement still appeared to be a possibility, and the extremist groups who would later give rise to ISIS were insignificant.
But the violence was escalating. In the months before Austin arrived, Assad had increasingly been clamping down with force on those who opposed him. A UN cease-fire in April 2012 was widely disregarded. As Western powers stood by, unwilling to take a side, the pace of the conflict began to quicken. For the Turkish city of Antakya, this suddenly meant a new identity. With a population of 250,000, Antakya is the capital of Hatay Province, a sliver of land sandwiched between Syria, which controlled the area until the late thirties, and the Mediterranean Sea. It had once been the third-largest city in the Roman Empire and, as the biblical city of Antioch, was an early center of Christianity but had since faded to a provincial backwater. Now Antakya’s geography was turning it into a Casablanca of the Syrian war, a safe haven for refugees, injured fighters, spies, arms dealers, and diplomats, who rented apartments and hotel rooms in the city and mingled at the many outdoor cafes and kebab stands.
Antakya lies in a valley surrounded by mountains and bisected by the Orontes River, tamed into a concrete channel. On a cloudy afternoon, Austin rode the bus in from Gaziantep, passing green rolling hills covered with olive groves and finding the scenery “reminiscent of Southern California.” In the city, he met with a contact provided by Ghosh-Siminoff: Mohammed Issa, a jovial, slightly chubby lawyer and activist from the Damascus suburbs who had fled Syria in July 2011 after being arrested and imprisoned for 57 days. They had tea at a cheap restaurant in Antakya’s old city, and when Austin mentioned he was on a tight budget, Issa invited the American to stay with him and his friends in a second-floor apartment in a mustard-yellow building on Dumlupinar Street. A Syrian refugee named Jameel Saib had found the apartment in early 2012, and it had become something of a way station for displaced Syrian activists, revolutionaries, and foreign fighters of various persuasions on their way to take up arms across the border.
The men slept on soft pallets covered in mismatched floral fabric, which they stacked on top of the cabinets when not in use. Austin began attending the rebels’ organizational meetings, making out what he could in his self-described “crummy Arabic”; having political conversations with Syrian refugees over coffee; and introducing his new Muslim friends to the musical stylings of Taylor Swift. He bonded with Issa over their legal backgrounds. “He was so social. We got to be such good friends that we forgot he was a journalist,” said Issa, who now works as a producer for Al Jazeera in Gaziantep.
In the two weeks he spent at the apartment, in fact, Austin made quick inroads. “I could make ten documentaries about the people who have come and gone from this house,” Saib said while sipping hot tea one day this March, sitting cross-legged on a daybed in the apartment’s light-filled front room. He estimates that hundreds of people have passed through his home, from Western journalists to jihadist fighters. But Austin stood out from the others because he seemed sincerely interested in getting to know everyone. “One time we stayed up all night just talking,” Saib said. The apartment had been so crowded with guests that there was no room to sleep. “So we went to the park and stayed there until seven a.m.” The two sat under the palm trees and cedars and discussed whether happiness was found in material or spiritual things.
In addition to being a safe place for refugees and fighters, Antakya had become a staging point for journalists planning to cross into Syria—in particular freelancers who had cut their teeth in Tahrir Square and Tripoli and were eager for a Syria dateline. Like Austin, many of these freelancers were young, inexperienced, and willing to take enormous personal risks, operating without insurance, translators, or expense accounts. Theo Padnos, James Foley, and Steven Sotloff, who would all later be kidnapped in Syria, spent time in Antakya. But none, perhaps, were looking to go as far into Syria, or stay inside as long, as Austin.
Soon he got the break he’d been wanting: another journalist connected him with Mahmoud Sheikh el-Zour, a sprightly 52-year-old Syrian who agreed to take him into Syria and help set up interviews and translate, a role that foreign correspondents commonly refer to as a fixer. El-Zour had been imprisoned for almost two years in the eighties during the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, and later received asylum in the U.S., but he had left his life in Atlanta and his job selling heavy equipment and returned to the region to join the Free Syrian Army. When el-Zour agreed to become his fixer, Austin could barely contain his excitement. “I am embedded with #FSA,” he tweeted. “Newsworthy stuff going on daily. If someone wanted to hire me that would be great. Student loans don’t pay themselves.”
A few days later, on May 23, Austin found himself crouching in red dirt among the dry, nodding plumeless thistles as the afternoon sun dipped in the sky. Next to him, el-Zour was whispering into his walkie-talkie to rebels on the other side of the barbed-wire-and-cement fence that marked the Syrian border. When the time was right, they shimmied under the fence, and a group of rebels picked them up. They took back roads to skirt Syrian army checkpoints, until they reached their destination, Khan Shaykhun, a town some 75 miles away, in the northwest corner of the country. Austin had made it. Now he would slowly start working his way toward Damascus, about 160 miles south, recording what he saw.
For the first two weeks, he stayed in the home of Ziad Abo al-Majd, an activist in a nearby village, sleeping in an underground room in case of shelling. He would share a breakfast of cheese, olives, and bread with his host before heading out for the day, accompanying fighters to neighboring towns to document everything from Friday prayers to field hospital operations to funerals. Austin’s nights were usually reserved for uploading photos and writing about what he’d seen that day. “He was the first foreigner I ever met,” al-Majd, who is now the head of the management council of the revolution in Idlib Province, told me over Skype. “He was like one of us. . . . He was cool, kind, and so serious about his work.”
That June, July, and August would be the deadliest months the war had seen. For Austin, this made for perfect timing, but friends back in Antakya grew concerned. They had cautioned him not to speak about his time with the Marines while in Syria—lest he get crosswise with anyone about American foreign policy—but his general openness still worried them. “He was too brave, and I told him that many times,” Issa said. “He is clever, but he trusts his cleverness too much. Because of this, he met a lot of people and trusted them quickly and went with them many places in Syria. As a Syrian, I can’t trust any group.” Saib agreed. “He was adventurous and reckless,” he said. “And overconfident. It’s a problem in war zones to be too confident.”
If Austin felt any fear himself, it was suppressed by an immediate vindication of purpose. Within a week of crossing into Syria, he’d sold his first pictures, to McClatchy, which owns 29 papers in the U.S., including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Though his initial idea was to work only as a photojournalist, once he was on the ground, he found that he wanted to also write about what he was seeing. He reached out to Mark Seibel, McClatchy’s Washington, D.C.–based chief of correspondents, who was impressed by his writing. On June 1, McClatchy published his first story: 736 words about a meeting he’d observed between UN monitors and rebels in Latamneh, six miles south of Khan Shaykhun.
And with that, Austin, whose only real reporting experience had been covering campus issues for the Daily Cougar, was now a foreign correspondent.
When it comes to epiphanies, there is perhaps no greater touchstone than the story of the Apostle Paul, whose own awakening—in present-day Syria, and on the way to Damascus, no less—imbued him with singular purpose and a desire to change the world. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that Austin, after awakening to his calling as a war photographer, would follow the same path. “I really think that the next few years of my life are going to [be] a turning point, like I’m standing on the cusp of really coming into myself,” he’d written on Facebook in the months before reaching Syria. Reporting what he witnessed on his way to Damascus, he felt sure, would open the world’s eyes to the atrocities taking place before him.
He was not, however, as prepared for how the journey would open his own eyes to danger and suffering. In Kafr Zita, a town of 17,000 four miles south of Khan Shaykhun, Austin shadowed the rebels during a four-day battle with the regime. They were a disorganized and motley bunch, dressed in tracksuits and jeans and wielding machine guns, Molotov cocktails, and RPGs against the regime’s Russian tanks and helicopters. At one point during the battle, a helicopter fired on a pickup truck that Austin was riding in, and he got separated from el-Zour for four hours. A few days later, the Syrian army set fire to houses in town, leaving behind smoldering piles of rubble. When Austin returned to survey the destruction, he ducked into one of the scorched homes to take pictures and found himself standing in charred human remains. Later that day he photographed some chilling graffiti, spray-painted in Arabic on a stone wall near an abandoned Syrian army checkpoint: “Don’t worry, Bashar, you have a military that will drink blood.”
The experience left him rattled. “Been in Syria for 11 days and seen combat [twice]. It’s terrifying. I can’t comprehend the bravery of the [people] who have endured it for 14 months,” he wrote on Twitter. He was gutted by the suffering he saw along the way. “Saw a girl who’d been hit in the head by a tank round. 3 other kids died in the attack. She has brain damage and can’t walk. I broke down,” he tweeted. The plight of kids in the war zone weighed heavily on him. “I have more pictures of beautiful Syrian kids than I could ever possibly use. It breaks my heart to see what is happening to them. No kid should even have to know that things like this happen in the world, much less be forced to live and sometimes die this way,” he wrote in a caption on Flickr.
Austin’s searing coverage helped fill the void of news about the war, and as he started to make a name for himself, he began pitching stories to editors at some of the largest U.S. media outlets. The first of his three Washington Post stories—a profile of “the Idlib boys,” as Austin called them, the FSA battalion operating in the northern province by the same name—ran on June 20, less than a month after he entered Syria. But the piece he seemed proudest of was a story for McClatchy that pondered whether certain elements of Assad’s forces might be intentionally underperforming. His time as a Marine had given him a keen understanding of military tactics. “He could tell you by the angles at which these helicopters were trying to chase rebel convoys that they were purposefully trying to miss,” one journalist told me. “That was a great insight because it illustrates that there are elements in the Assad military—Sunni pilots—that are not trying to prosecute this war and are sympathizing with the opposition.” As he inched closer to Damascus, Austin—with an unkempt beard matching his brown hair and eyes—appeared on CNN and CBS and gave radio interviews to the BBC and NPR.
By this time, he was traveling with another journalist. In Kafr Zita, less than two weeks into his time in Syria, Austin had met David Enders, a Beirut-based correspondent for McClatchy who had entered the country a few days prior from southern Turkey. They decided to stick together, traveling over the next couple of weeks from the top of Hama Province, in northwest Syria, down to northern Homs Province, in the center of the country, collaborating on several stories and spending considerable downtime waiting in safe houses.
Enders, who has a decade of experience covering wars in the Middle East, found Austin to be “very driven and very principled and very brave” but tried to impress upon him some safety tips. “He wasn’t trained for some of the delicacies of the situation. He was filing [stories] from the places he was, he was tweeting from the places he was. I told him explicitly that it was absurd to think that the government wasn’t monitoring those things and explained to him that I never datelined anything or published anything until I had been gone from a place for two days,” he recalled. “These are things that you do in a situation where the government has shown a willingness to target journalists.” Filing via satellite phone is risky too, as the regime can track and triangulate the signal. (This is widely acknowledged to be how the government targeted Marie Colvin.)
Most journalists who were going into Syria at the time would cross the border from Lebanon or Turkey, spend a few days inside, and head back to safety. That included Enders. At the end of June, Enders told Austin he was returning to the Lebanese border and implored Austin to come with him. But Austin wanted to continue south, to the city of Homs, which had been embroiled in a grinding, bloody siege for thirteen months. “My understanding of getting into Homs at that time, if you managed it, meant a slog through a two-mile sewer pipe, and if you got caught, you had nowhere to run,” Enders said. “I had advised him strongly not to continue on to Homs and to return to the border with me, but he wasn’t interested. He was intent on going to Damascus.”
This choice to continue south also meant Austin had to part ways with el-Zour, who wanted to stay and fight with the Idlib battalion and eventually return to Turkey, and so he reluctantly passed Austin off to another band of rebels headed south. El-Zour called Saib back in Antakya to express his frustration. “Austin wants to go to Damascus, and I can’t go with him now. I feel afraid for him, but I do not have the ability to make him stay with me,” Saib recounted el-Zour saying. (El-Zour, reached inside Syria, declined to comment for this story.)
Despite his limited grasp of Arabic, Austin quickly and implicitly trusted the rebels he met. “At the time, other journalists did go battalion hopping,” Ghosh-Siminoff explained. “There was sort of a system of trust and faith, by referral from whatever FSA group you were with. It kind of made sense because you felt like everyone was fighting for the right reasons. You weren’t worried about rebels kidnapping or killing you, because the rebels needed the media attention, needed the media on their side.” (The landscape is different now. There are about 1,200 militias operating in Syria today, says Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, citing CIA figures. “Many militias were still trying to be nice to Americans in the early stages of the civil war because they hoped they would get arms and help and money from the Americans. Today, Americans are seen as more useful for hostage money,” he told me.)
Though Austin was reaching places seen by few other Western journalists, he was weary of the many delays and the waiting around that travel in Syria required. After a few days idling in safe houses on the outskirts of Homs, Austin gave up and pushed farther south. “I have wasted a lot of time outside Homs, ultimately can’t get in. Headed toward Damascus instead,” he wrote Ghosh-Siminoff on July 1. “Things are happening there, there’s clearly an army offensive going on.” Four days later, he arrived in Yabroud, a city in the Qalamun Mountains some 45 miles north of Damascus that was largely untouched by shelling. “If didn’t know otherwise you’d never think there was a revolution here. Muslims & Christians intermingled. Peaceful,” he wrote on Twitter. “I feel like I’m on vacation. NO SHELLS!!” He shaved his scraggly beard to acclimate to the more secular environment and declared Yabroud to be an “oasis of calm” in a front-page Post piece. Next he moved on to Al Tal, six miles from downtown Damascus, where he watched rebels and government troops battle for control of two secret police buildings, with the FSA ultimately prevailing. “It was quite a scene when they struck the government flag on the roof and raised the Free Syrian Army flag. There was quite a bit of celebration in the streets,” he told Scott Pelley on the CBS Evening News.
In the middle of the civil war, he didn’t let go of home. While holed up in a basement in Al Tal during one long bombardment, he penned a letter to a neighborhood association in Houston to support a planned housing development for single mothers. (“Dear Ma’ams and Sirs, I write to express my disappointment in my hometown’s apparent opposition to the extension of charitable aid to the most vulnerable in our community,” the letter begins.) When talking with his parents, Austin tended to shield Debra from the day-to-day realities of the dangers he faced, though he was a bit more candid with his father, Marc. One day when Austin was in Al Tal, Debra decided to see if his satellite phone was working.
“Oh, hey, Mom!” he said when he picked up. Other voices chattered in the background.
“What are you doing?” Debra asked.
“The connection might not be too good because we’re sheltering in a stairwell,” he said, before adding, “Actually, I gotta go. We’re running now. Love you, Mom. Talk to you later.”
After that, Debra decided never to call his satellite phone again. “Okay, well, his phone works,” she thought to herself, “but that was too much information.”
While he didn’t reveal fear to his parents, he was more forthcoming with his friends. One evening, Austin confessed to Ghosh-Siminoff over Google Chat, “I’m having a good time, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t also terrifying.”
“They give you a flak jacket?” Ghosh-Siminoff asked. Austin replied, “I got offered one but turned it down. Meh.”
Austin’s exploits and his desire to document the war even at great personal risk inspired a blend of awe and worry among his friends back home. Their concerns prompted him to write a note on Facebook, later published on the Post website, that has since become something of a manifesto.
“People keep telling me to be safe (as if that’s an option), keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing, keep asking what’s wrong with me for coming here. So listen,” he wrote. “Our granddads stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima and defeated global fascism. Neil Armstrong flew to the Moon in a glorified trash can, doing math on a clipboard as he went. Before there were roads, the Pioneers put one foot in front of the other until they walked across the entire continent. Then a bunch of them went down to fight and die in Texas ’cause they thought it was the right thing to do. Sometime between when our granddads licked the Nazis and when we started putting warnings on our coffee cups about the temperature of our beverage, America lost that pioneering spirit. We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation. . . . So that’s why I came here to Syria, and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom. . . . They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death. Neither were the Pioneers. Neither were our granddads. Neither was Neil Armstrong. And neither am I.”
Austin’s summer had been full of danger, but his ultimate goal—trying to sneak into Damascus—would be his most daring move yet. On July 30, after days of trying, Austin finally persuaded a group of FSA rebels to smuggle him into the capital.
A truck ferried him through the Damascus suburbs, then he switched to a car, which soon stopped ahead of a government checkpoint. Austin slid out of the backseat and onto the pavement. As the car drove off, a guide led him into a stream of pedestrians walking toward the checkpoint. Austin was draped in an abaya, a long black gown, and his face was covered by a niqab, a full-face veil. Through a slit he could see soldiers with Kalashnikovs milling about, periodically searching cars and eyeing ID cards. He felt conspicuous in the disguise, which left his feet exposed and stretched awkwardly across his muscular shoulders—sculpted by years of swimming in childhood and rowing crew in college—giving the impression of a hulking woman. Still, odd as it was, wearing the outfit seemed better than approaching a checkpoint as himself, a journalist in the country illegally. If discovered by Assad’s soldiers, he could be detained in one of the regime’s many prisons, or worse.
Austin followed his guide at a deliberate pace, trying not to rouse suspicion. He kept his eyes trained on the ground. All he could do was keep moving and pray he wouldn’t be noticed. It was in the upper 90’s and humid, and the black fabric—which retained the perfumed scent of the last person to wear it—was oppressive in the afternoon heat. They were nearly past the checkpoint when, from twenty feet behind them, one of the soldiers bellowed, “Stop!” They didn’t look back. His guide sped up, so Austin did too. Then they heard the crack of gunfire. At this, they both bolted down the street. Bullets pinged the wall beside them.
They ducked into an alleyway and kept running, past women and children gawking from doorways, until they reached a busy intersection and were reunited with their car, which had made it through the checkpoint. The car soon stopped again, this time to pick up the architect of this plan, a rebel who went by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad. He looked at Austin’s get-up. “Take that thing off,” he said. “It does more harm than good.” As Austin would recount the next day in a piece for McClatchy about sneaking into the city, he received a cursory tour of central Damascus in the car, passing the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the feared secret police; circling roundabouts; and viewing the charred husk of a bombed-out building. Around sundown, the car pulled up at their destination, an FSA safe house, where Austin shared an Iftar meal with fighters who were breaking their fast on the eleventh day of Ramadan. As they ate, one of the men turned to Austin. “Welcome to Damascus,” he said.
Austin would spend most of the next two weeks in Daraya, a Sunni suburb on the southwestern outskirts of the capital, famous for the handmade wooden furniture that craftsmen churn out in their small workshops. He settled in with a group of rebels, staying in a two-story marble villa that served as the battalion’s media center. His days were divided between covering demonstrations, observing the battalion’s weapons and tactics training, and helping out with a street cleanup after the regime cut public services to the area. There were also moments of levity, playing Counter-Strike with his hosts and ringing in his thirty-first birthday with a pool party complete with whiskey and a Taylor Swift sound track.
Though embedded with the rebels, Austin did what he could to present a balanced view of the war. On August 3, McClatchy had run his piece on alleged executions and human rights abuses perpetrated by the rebels.
Six days later he took a two-day trip to Jdeidet Artouz, a nearby suburb, to film a TV spot on a government massacre that left fifty dead. His guide, a young activist and Palestinian refugee who goes by the pseudonym Adam Boudy, helped translate as Austin interviewed family members of victims of the raid and was struck by his charisma. “Everyone wanted to talk to him. He was very magnetic, and he was able to get what he needed as a journalist. His charisma gave him the keys to the people,” Boudy said.
Back in Daraya, Austin’s Internet access was spotty over the next few days. He feared the government was jamming it, and he was growing anxious about his safety. “He was concerned he had been inside too long and that his presence was becoming a known quantity by the regime,” Ghosh-Siminoff said.
Austin often referred to his time in Syria as his “crazy summer vacation,” but by mid-August he was ready for a break. He prepared to leave Damascus and head to the Lebanese border by car, for a few weeks of relaxation in Beirut, where he planned to meet a friend. But he never arrived. Austin’s stream of tweets, Google Chats, emails, and texts suddenly stopped, and messages to him went unreturned. His editors determined that the last time his satellite phone transmitted was August 13. After two months and 21 days in Syria, Austin Tice had vanished.
On August 17, Debra Tice was wrapping up a six-day canoe trip on the Boundary Waters, in the upper reaches of Minnesota. She had been happy to be back in the place where, seventeen years before, she had helped chaperone a Boy Scout canoe trip for Austin’s fourteenth birthday. Soon after pulling her boat out of the water, she called to check in with her husband in Houston.
“I don’t have any good news, and I have more bad news than you’re expecting,” Marc Tice told her, “so decide how you want to hear it.”
Her husband typically wasn’t cryptic, so this unsettled her. She walked out to the dock, where she could be alone. It was there, surrounded by pine trees and the sound of gently lapping water, that she heard the news that her firstborn son was missing.
All week Marc had been trying to rationalize the radio silence from Austin. They had last emailed at 6:40 a.m. Houston time on August 13, the middle of the afternoon in Damascus. Austin had planned to leave for Beirut the next morning, so a certain degree of disconnectedness was to be expected. But after four days without any form of communication, Marc broke down and contacted Mark Seibel at McClatchy.
Seibel said he hadn’t heard from Austin either. He was concerned and so were editors at the Post.
Later that afternoon, a State Department official called Marc in Houston. “They uttered that classic line, ‘Are you sitting down?’ But, of course, by then, I knew what they were calling about,” he recounted.
Soon the Tices found themselves in Washington for meetings at the FBI and the State Department. McClatchy went public with the news on August 23, reporting that Austin “has been incommunicado for more than a week.” Journalists in Antakya and Beirut and inside Syria mobilized. The Liwan Hotel, built in the twenties as a mansion for the first president of Syria and recently reborn as a boutique hotel, became the unofficial headquarters in Antakya. Reporters posted up in the hotel’s courtyard restaurant or darkened bar and worked their contacts, trying to piece together the murky circumstances surrounding Austin’s disappearance. (Among the journalists at the Liwan Hotel was James Foley, who had spent a few days with Austin outside Homs and who would be kidnapped one hundred days after Austin, in Idlib Province.)
Their task, already a thankless one, was further complicated when forces loyal to President Assad, using tanks and engaging in house-to-house searches, began assaulting the Daraya suburb, where Austin had been staying, a week after his disappearance. More than four hundred people were killed, making it the bloodiest massacre of the Syrian conflict up to that point. Journalists in the region eventually heard several stories about Austin, most involving a cab driver that he’d called. Perhaps the cab driver had sold him out, or maybe he had been seized by government forces at a checkpoint, or maybe a group of rebels had traded him to the regime. “I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly what happened after he got into that taxi, or if he even did,” Enders wrote to me.
All early reports seemed to indicate that Austin had been detained by the regime. The first public indication of this came on August 27, when Eva Filipi, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Damascus, said in an interview with a Czech television reporter during a trip back to Prague, “From one of our sources we came by the news that he is alive, and he was detained by government forces in the suburbs of Damascus.” On August 31, a State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. government was working to confirm reports that Austin was being held but that the Syrian government had yet to respond to official inquiries regarding his whereabouts. By October, U.S. officials’ wording had become less ambiguous. “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody,” spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters. But the Assad regime has never admitted involvement in Austin’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, the Tices got a sense of Austin’s impact on Syrians on September 7, when demonstrators at the weekly Friday protests in Yabroud held up posters bearing Austin’s picture and calling for his release. “Freedom for Austin Tice, who lighted Syria with his lens,” one read in Arabic. “Seeing that protest was actually one of the most emotional things for me,” Marc said. “He talked to a lot of people in Yabroud and obviously made a big impression on them.”
No demands or proof of life were forthcoming. In late September, a shaky, 46-second video was posted to YouTube and later to a pro-Assad Facebook page. Marc was alerted to it by an editor at McClatchy in the middle of the night on October 2, when his phone chimed at 2:15 a.m., jolting him awake. He walked downstairs to watch the clip; as he saw what unfolded, the color drained from his face. The blurry video opens with a shot of a ramshackle convoy of vehicles driving on a dirt road alongside hills covered with stubby, thorny brush. Then a group of men wearing freshly pressed shalwar kameezes, tactical vests, and black headbands, with assault rifles and RPG launchers slung across their shoulders, roughly hustle a blindfolded Austin out of a white pickup truck and up a rocky hillside while shouting “Allahu akbar.” Austin, wearing the same green shirt he had worn on CBS News not long before he disappeared and sporting a newly sprouted beard, looks distraught and bewildered. He recites the Bismillah—“In the name of Allah”—in broken Arabic before sighing and adding, in breathless English, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.”
Shaken, Marc walked over to the sofa in the living room, dreading the moment he had to show the video to his wife. But he didn’t have to wait long. Debra woke up and, upon discovering he wasn’t in bed with her, knew something was wrong and went looking for him. They hunched over the computer and watched the chilling clip together to verify that it was indeed their son. But the Tices found a glimmer of hope in the title of the video: “Austin Tice still alive.” It’s the only time the Tices have gotten a glimpse of their son since his capture.
“Whoever is holding him, the first message they sent us was that he was alive. I feel certain they must have known that we would be concerned that he had been injured in the attack on Daraya, so there’s this desire for us to be assured that he’s alive, that he’s coming home,” Debra told me this March. “It’s almost like an expression of compassion: ‘I can’t really end your suffering, but I can give you an Advil.’ ”
Immediately, pundits, journalists, and intelligence analysts began speculating about the origin of the clip, finding that it lacked the hallmarks of typical jihadi videos—slick editing, a prominent logo, a credits page. This led Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, to tell the Post, “It’s like a caricature of a jihadi group.” The clothes weren’t right either: no one in Syria at that point was wearing shalwar kameezes, the tunic-and-pants outfit favored by Afghan men. Joshua Landis, the Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, told me, “At the time I looked at it, everyone was asking if it was authentic; at the time it seemed rather staged.” An activist who spent time with Austin near Damascus put it this way: “I think all the Syrian activists believe that the video was a show. And the only real thing in that show was Austin, unfortunately.”
In November 2012, two months after the video surfaced and three months after Austin went missing, the Tices made the first of four trips to Beirut. They rented an apartment and met with American, Russian, and British diplomats. At a press conference at the Beirut Press Club on November 12, they told a packed room of reporters that they were in the region in hopes that anyone with knowledge of their son’s whereabouts would get in contact with them. They acknowledged that their family was now part of a larger story. “We know that we’re not the only family that’s suffering. Austin’s silence gave us some understanding about the anxieties and uncertainty that so many families in this part of the world face,” Marc told reporters. They stayed in Beirut twice as long as they had planned, returning home in late November for the first of three Thanksgiving meals without their son. “When we left for that trip,” Debra told me, “we were really thinking that we were coming home with Austin.”
Their son’s disappearance has since taken over the Tices’ lives, and they have joined a small but active community of American parents whose children have been kidnapped in Syria. They became especially close to Diane and John Foley, who first reached out to them in early 2013. Their sons had become friends inside Syria and had been kidnapped within four months of each other, and now their families faced the same unhappy limbo.
On August 19, 2014, as the Tices prepared for a candlelight prayer vigil marking Austin’s two years of captivity, they received crushing news: a video had appeared online showing James Foley’s beheading by ISIS. Videos showing the deaths of four more prisoners would follow over the next three months: American freelancer Steven Sotloff on September 2, then British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and American aid worker Peter Kassig. The footage spurred the Obama administration to take military action against ISIS and awoke the White House to the necessity of changing U.S. hostage policy. The government had forbidden private citizens to raise and pay ransoms for kidnapped Americans, even while some Europeans, without such restrictions from their governments, were paying extremist groups to secure release of their loved ones.
The Tices, who had been less than enthused about most of their interactions with the government prior to the policy review, twice traveled to Washington to suggest policy changes to government officials. This June, they returned to Washington and, sitting in a room with other families in the Executive Office Building, listened as the president personally laid out the changes to the hostage policy: the government would create a “fusion cell” at the FBI to coordinate interagency efforts; each family would be appointed a “family engagement coordinator”; and, perhaps most important, families would no longer be threatened with prosecution for raising ransoms. The Tices were heartened by the changes, which they said would have helped when Austin first went missing, though they’ve never received a ransom demand or any communication from his captors.
So where is Austin? The Tices say they don’t know for certain, but they do receive word periodically, from credible sources both within the American government and abroad, that he is alive and “reasonably well treated.” They say they know he’s not being held by ISIS or any part of the Syrian opposition. “We believe it is a Syrian entity of one type or another that’s holding him,” Marc said during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington this February. “The exact circumstances of Austin’s captivity are still, to a large degree, a mystery to us. We don’t know details and specifics. We have heard . . . that we need to be patient, that there is a general confidence that he will come home safely.”
Austin worked so hard to bring awareness to the plight of the Syrian people, and his parents are trying to keep up that mission while making sure his plight also receives ample attention. This year the Tices launched an awareness campaign about Austin, partnering with Reporters Without Borders and New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. At least 267 news sites donated ad space to the campaign, with the New York Times and the Washington Post each running full-page ads. As part of the campaign, more than eight hundred black blindfolds were printed with #FreeAustinTice, so people could take photos of themselves wearing them and post the images to social media. The most recent public development in the case came in late March, when the French newspaper Le Figaro published a story asserting that “an emissary representing the U.S. government” had visited Austin at a prison in Damascus. The piece went on to claim that the U.S. and Syria were directly negotiating for Austin’s release. State Department officials denied most of the story but did concede that they have been in “periodic, direct contact” with the Syrian government over certain consular issues, including Austin’s case.
In the meantime, being the parent of a hostage continues to be a full-time job. During a panel discussion at the New America Foundation this April, Debra told the audience that her whole life is devoted to “determining who is holding my son and how to bring him safely home.” This work has taken her to national television studios, to conference rooms in drab government office buildings, and, this past spring, to Paris’s Place de la République, where she spoke onstage before a crowd of more than 10,000 on World Press Freedom Day to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Reporters Without Borders. On her most recent trip to Beirut, which spanned this May and June, Debra sliced her foot open on a jagged pipe while crossing the street. In the ambulance on the way to the American University in Beirut Medical Center, the paramedic told her that he was a UN volunteer and knew all about her son. “You’re the mother of my hero,” he said.
On most days, there is little the Tices can do. Nearly every morning, Debra wakes up at 4 a.m.—noon in the Middle East—and looks over Twitter to see if anything has shifted overnight. They sift through Google Alerts and tweets and various websites for information. “We’re hopeful about any little change in the region that might give the slightest hope that Austin will be released. We’re always looking for any kind of earth move,” Debra said. This process continues throughout the day. The last thing Marc does before bed is check his phone and Twitter feed. “If I hear a ding in the middle of the night, I check it. That’s when things seem to happen,” he said. “I’m always checking.” One day when I was visiting, Debra got a message from Marc to look into news regarding a meeting between Iranian and Jordanian intelligence agencies. These news tidbits usually don’t amount to much, though the recent nuclear deal with Iran—a close Shiite ally of the Assad regime—and the possibility of Syrian peace talks have given the Tices hope for movement on Austin’s case. But it’s still largely out of their control, and that’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect.
Debra, who is used to being an integral part of her children’s lives, now has no action to take. “If there’s ever a problem, I’m all over it,” she said. “So part of the frustration is there’s nothing I can put my hands around, there’s nobody I can shake down.” August 13 marked three years since Austin disappeared, and mostly what they’ve heard from his captors is infuriating silence.
This March Debra and Marc sat in the living room of their ivy-covered red-brick home and showed me old family photos of Austin. Here he is as a toddler with a blue knit cap pulled down over his ears, standing in a pile of leaves in front of his newly built jungle gym. Here he is at sixteen, with the bicycle-powered contraption he built to wheel his lawn mower around the neighborhood to increase the number of lawns he could hit in one day.
Across the room, hanging on the wall, is a shiny black plaque. This is his George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious honors in journalism. It was presented to Austin in absentia in February 2013 for his McClatchy stories. His parents know he will barely be able to contain himself when he finally sees it. Just above the engraving of Austin’s name, the award lists the field that the former law student and Marine—after just a few months of work—had reached the pinnacle of: “war reporting.”