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Ransomed: The freeing of 226 Christians from Islamic State

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What AP’s Lori Hinnant knew, from a conversation with Beirut bureau chief Zeina Karam early this year, amounted to a fascinating mystery: A series of Syrian villages had been emptied and many of their people taken hostage by the Islamic State group, but now most appeared to be free. It was clear that ransoms were paid, but no one would talk about how it happened.

In early 2015, Islamic State fighters swept into 35 towns in northern Syria and kidnapped men, women and children of the sect that traces its origins to the earliest days of Christianity

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A map shows the string of Assyrian Christian villages attacked by the Islamic State group along northern Syria’s Khabur River in this frame grab from “Silence After the Storm,” a documentary about the villages by Assyrian filmmaker Sargon Saadi. – Sargon Saadi via AP

The hostages were more than 200 Assyrian Christians who were rescued through a fundraising effort among the vanishing people’s global diaspora that brought in millions of dollars. These were the broad outlines of the story that Hinnant’s months of reporting confirmed, but even better were the exclusive details she unearthed _ including IS sending one villager with a ransom note to his bishop, the church dinners and concerts held around the world for donations, and the decision, fraught with ethical qualms and legal risks, to pay a ransom.

Hinnant’s resulting “thriller,” as one admirer called it, is the Beat of the Week.

In early 2015, Islamic State fighters swept into 35 towns in northern Syria and kidnapped men, women and children of the sect that traces its origins to the earliest days of Christianity; despite a history of persecution, the Assyrian Christians retain ancient traditions, even speaking a dialect of Aramaic, thought to be the language of Jesus. IS called them infidels but recognized their potential value as hostages, if their widely scattered community could be pressured for ransom.

When Hinnant, international security correspondent based in Paris, began to look into what happened, no one would comment. “My break came,” she explained, “when a contact I made in Iraq who was Assyrian … gave me phone numbers for several former hostages he said had ended up in Germany.” The fourth one she called agreed to tell the story, including his own central role: “He was the one who carried the ransom demand over” from IS to a specified Assyrian bishop.

“Assyrians are a tight-knit community, and once one former hostage was willing to speak, others opened up,” Hinnant said. Although some hesitated for fear of casting their church in a bad light for paying a ransom, others proudly discussed the work that the church _ and especially the bishop, described as “a saint” _ had done to save so many lives.

Hinnant’s story takes readers from the hostage courier’s initial contact with the bishop and then his delivery of the sealed reply back to the IS militants, and to Assyrian communities around the world _ Germany, Britain, Australia, California _ as they found countless ways to raise money to be forwarded to a special bank account set up in Iraq. Ticking off dates, the story shows hostages being freed as the per-head demand was met, first a few, then a few more. It also relates the Assyrians’ horror and panic when, for unexplained reasons, three hostages were executed, their killings videotaped.

“The article almost reads like a thriller down to the final 43 hostages and then the final one who almost didn’t make it out.”

“When that happened,everybody went crazy and money started flying in from all over,” one fund-raiser said. “… Everybody was so fearful that the rest of the hostages were also going to be killed.”

Hinnant’s story follows the releases to their astonishing conclusion _ with everyone freed.

The story,with photos by Michael Probst and video by Peter Banda,Michael Pohl and Ben Dangerfield,played strongly. It was among the top 10 on AP mobile for the week and was trending on Twitter days after it ran. The BBC did a pickup, crediting AP and interviewing a key player from the story; Die Welt voiced a German-language version of the video.

A religion news website stated: “The article almost reads like a thriller down to the final 43 hostages and then the final one who almost didn’t make it out.”

AP International Investigations Editor Trish Wilson commented: “Our goal,on the terror team that spans AP journalists across the Mideast,Europe and in Washington,is to bring our readers stories off the news that help bear witness to the human toll that the Islamic State group is taking. … There are stories too of noble feats,and courageous people,who are trying to survive a horrific modern reality.”

For reporting across continents that turned an intriguing mystery into a memorable tale of the human spirit, Hinnant wins this week’s $500 prize.

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