Tortured by al-Qaeda in Syria, a US journalist is determined to end the civil war
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Tortured by al-Qaeda in Syria, a US journalist is determined to end the civil war

Ahead of a new documentary, Theo Padnos discusses his harrowing 22-month ordeal — from capture after crossing Turkish border to Qatar-brokered release on Golan Heights

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Theo Padnos reenacts his imprisonment by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front)  in 'Theo Who Lived.' (Zeitgeist Films)
Theo Padnos reenacts his imprisonment by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) in 'Theo Who Lived.' (Zeitgeist Films)

In fall 2014, American journalist Theo Padnos, a free man for only a few months, was already reenacting his capture and two years of imprisonment and torture by al-Qaeda in Syria for a documentary film.

Many people who had been through such an ordeal would not be willing to rehash it in such a detailed and public way. But Padnos is not like many people. The minute he appears onscreen, there is a sense that there is something special about his way of thinking that enabled him to get through it all unbroken.

Padnos’ distinctive — even quirky — personality shone through again when The Times of Israel recently held a conversation with him and the film’s director, David Schisgall.

“My feeling is that everybody experiences difficult situations differently and it isn’t necessarily that they are traumatized by them. You can be energized by them and interested in discussing what just happened,” Padnos said about his decision, so soon after his release, to work with Schisgall on “Theo Who Lived,” which opens in New York on Friday.

‘I survived because they didn’t kill me’

“I don’t think I was traumatized to begin with, so I have nothing to cope with now. I survived because they didn’t kill me. It didn’t have anything to do with my character,” Padnos insisted.

Schisgall didn’t quite see it the same way.

“Theo, you were traumatized. They tortured you,” he said, turning to Padnos.

“I think Theo’s physical survival was entirely due to contingency. But his spiritual and psychological survival had a lot to do with his personality. You never know how you’ll react in certain circumstances. Theo had a good war,” added Schisgall, turning his attention back to this reporter.

The 47-year-old Padnos, who is also known professionally as Peter Curtis, was not unfamiliar with Syria and the Middle East before his capture by three young men. Together, they crossed into Syria from Antakya, Turkey, where they handed him over to al-Qaeda in Syria, also called Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front. (In July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it had split from al-Qaeda. Leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, announced its new name as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Front for the Conquest of the Levant.)

'Theo Who Lived' director David Schisgall (Theo Padnos)
‘Theo Who Lived’ director David Schisgall (Theo Padnos)

A fluent Arabic speaker, Padnos lived and worked in Yemen between 2006 and 2008. Between 2008 and 2011 he moved between Yemen and Damascus, Syria, researching and writing. In 2011 he published a book titled, “Undercover Muslim,” a memoir of his year-long studies at a Salafi mosque in Sanaa, Yemen.

“I’m a humanist. I am not a religious person. I studied Islam so that I could write about it,” Padnos explained.

“I was a very bad Muslim, by the way. I got the hang of it, but I hated it. They ask you to do a lot of stuff I found boring and repetitive. I can understand praying three times a day, but five is a bit much.”

Padnos was imprisoned from October 20, 2012, until his release into the hands of UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights in a secret deal brokered by the Qatari government on August 24, 2014. During this period, Padnos was solely in the custody of Nusra Front, and moved 13 times from one improvised prison to another in rebel-held territory. He was taken to the outskirts of Aleppo, to Mayadin (near Deir al-Zour and Syria’s lucrative oil fields), to the outskirts of Damascus, and finally across the desert toward Daraa.

As Danna Harman wrote in Haaretz in 2015, despite Padnos’ torture, it is fortuitous that he did not end up in the hands of the Islamic State, which has captured and beheaded American journalists, including James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

“Details relating to the negotiations and circumstances of the release remain secret, but it seems that a number of factors worked in his favor – chief among them the critical intervention of the Qatari government on his behalf, at the behest of the United States government, the unrelenting efforts of his mother and her supporters back home, and the fact that, unlike Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Nusra Front is not known for executing its Western prisoners,” Harman noted.

Padnos places the responsibility of his capture mainly upon himself for having recklessly trusted the smugglers who took him over the Turkish-Syrian border. However, it should be noted that until late 2012, journalists were regularly going into and leaving Syria without event. Padnos was only the second journalist to disappear there.

Padnos worries about risks being taken by reporters still working in rebel-held areas. His view is supported by Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor who is on the board of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.
While Dvorkin, who held senior news management positions at CBC and NPR, was reluctant to comment on any possible psychological trauma suffered by Padnos, he did share his concern about news organizations sending freelancers like Padnos into dangerous situations.

‘What happened to me is happening in much worse ways to millions of people’

“With the increased pressure on news organizations to make their journalists do more with less in a digital environment, and with the tendency for media organizations to hire freelance correspondents willing to take risks and to do the work of once more experience (and expensive) staff correspondents, I worry that we are about to see more trauma as we did in the bad old days of the 1980s and 90s,” Dvorkin told The Times of Israel.

“Theo Who Lived” traces chronologically Padnos’ experience, as well as those of his mother and other relatives back home in the US working for his release. The film does not get into a deep explanation of the confusing dynamics of the Syrian Civil war. It does make clear that while Padnos was imprisoned, he and his Nusra Front captors were often bombed by Syrian government forces, while at the same time pursued by Islamic State fighters, who are the Nusra Front’s sworn enemies.

“I felt and still feel that what is happening in Syria is the dark side of the moon, and I wanted to discuss my own experience — not so much for what it tells you about Theo, but because what happened to me is happening in much worse ways to millions of people. I wanted to draw attention to this catastrophe that is unfolding,” Padnos said.

As far as he is concerned, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what is going on in Syria and how the civil war could be brought to an end.

Theo Padnos reenacts his imprisonment by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) in 'Theo Who Lived.' (Zeitgeist Films)
Theo Padnos reenacts his imprisonment by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) in ‘Theo Who Lived.’ (Zeitgeist Films)

“People are under the impression that it’s an incredibly complicated labyrinth of confusion, but I think that without bullets and RPGs and Kalashnikovs peace will occur relatively quickly. The solution is to cut off the arms to the rebels and allow the state to settle its problems with the rebels through talking — which they are already doing in many places, by the way. This was the Syrian government’s strategy all along; to force the rebels to negotiate. And the rebels will negotiate once they have no other choice.”

According to Padnos, it is clear that the modern Syrian state should and will prevail over the rebels and jihadists, who engage only in chronic, tribal welfare and cannot provide the schools, electricity, running water and non-arbitrary justice that Syrian citizens want and need.

‘Without bullets and RPGs and Kalashnikovs peace will occur relatively quickly’

“It’s a modern state versus a very rudimentary kind of traditional society, and of course the modern state is crushing and being extraordinarily hard and merciless with this essentially tribal society it is battling… The rebels are prepared to fight until they conquer Jerusalem or the end of time occurs, and they mean that literally. So we prefer a state… that will allow women to go to school,” he said.

Although Padnos insisted that his character had nothing to do with his survival, he did suggest that it helped him take an interest in and understand the people who were around him while he was a prisoner. This was especially so after a year or more had passed, when he felt he had acclimated himself to his surroundings.

“At first I was rolled up into a ball, trembling and terrified, but after a year and a half something emerged within myself that allowed me to write,” he recalled about his beginning to write a novel on paper supplied him by his captors. He is still working on the novel, and hopes to publish it in the future — after he publishes a memoir (a fleshing out of a New York Times article he wrote in October 2014) of his time in Syria that he has recently completed.

He also began to communicate and bond with his fellow prisoners (some of them IS fighters) and his Nusra captors, including Nusra Front high commander Abu Mariya al-Qahtani toward the end. He is still in touch with some of them, especially on Facebook and Twitter, which he says they all love and use.

‘At first I was rolled up into a ball, trembling and terrified, but after a year and a half something emerged within myself that allowed me to write’

“I’m trying to help them all. I want there to be peace. I know they can reenter society… The people who are dangerous, we can’t integrate them. But most of them are not dangerous. They just need to abandon their guns and pursue civilian life,” Padnos said.

One person Padnos is not in touch with is Jewish American photographer Matthew Schrier, who was Padnos’ cellmate for part of the time. The two men planned an escape, but only Schrier, who exited first, made it out through a small window high in the wall. When Padnos tried to squeeze through the opening, he got stuck, and Schrier left him there. The consequences for Padnos were severe.

Theo Padnos, wearing the actual clothes he wore as a Nusra Front prisoner, walks in the Judaean Desert (standing in for Syria) during filming of 'Theo Who Lived.' (Zeitgeist Films)
Theo Padnos, wearing the actual clothes he wore as a Nusra Front prisoner, walks in the Judaean Desert (standing in for Syria) during filming of ‘Theo Who Lived.’ (Zeitgeist Films)

Schisgall, 48, brought Padnos, who had spent a couple of days in Tel Aviv being debriefed by the FBI immediately upon his release, back to Israel to shoot part of the film. They filmed on the Golan Heights, and also in the Judaean Desert, which stood in for Syria.

Recreating the various places Padnos had been in Syria via locations in Israel and sets in Brooklyn was far less challenging than telling a story with a perspective on the Syrian Civil War that is quite different from what the American media is generally providing.

‘Theo spent more time with our enemy than did any other American Arabic-speaking reporter. And he had quite a different take about what is happening there and who the people are’

“Theo spent more time with our enemy than did any other American Arabic-speaking reporter. And he had quite a different take about what is happening there and who the people are. One of the biggest challenges was trying to evoke how Theo experienced Syria, which runs somewhat counter to the first draft of history that is being presented in the press,” Schisgall said.

“In America, people are only vaguely concerned with Syria and think there are the good guys and the bad guys. The lines between the good guys and the bad guys in Syria are very gray. That was hard to push, as well,” he added.

The director also pointed out that Padnos presented a different paradigm than what Americans are used to in terms of individuals who have been tortured by an enemy. He said that Americans are generally only willing to accept that they are either so traumatized that they are a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, or that they should be the president of the United States (in other words, the John McCain story).

‘I hope to be a bridge between the Arab world and the West, to get communication going in both directions’

“In point of fact there is a middle path between these conventional areas. These are not the only two outcomes for people tortured by our enemies. There a lot of other outcomes,” Shisgall observed.

Padnos, who now divides his time between the US and France, is the obvious example. He is quite certain that his mental health has not been adversely affected. And he is also sure that he is not suited for public office. He is a writer, and he believes that al-Qaeda gave him the gift of clarity, and he plans on pursuing what he believes is his natural role going forward.

“They helped me see that I have something to contribute and a way to contribute it. I hope to be a bridge between the Arab world and the West, to get communication going in both directions. I get along well with Arabs and relatively well in the West,” he said.

He likens his position to that of a child of divorced parents, something he is familiar with from personal experience.

“Both parents will talk to you, and you understand the perspective of both parents and you’d like them to be closer. You want to repair relations.”

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