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Tale of a kidnapping: 'First-rate killer' served tea, talked poetry, NBC News' Ghazi Balkiz recalls

After being held captive for five days in Syria, NBC's Richard Engel and his team recount being ambushed and blindfolded before being freed at a checkpoint. 

NBC News producer Ghazi Balkiz and several colleagues were kidnapped and held for five days in Syria in December before escaping unharmed. Here is Balkiz's account of his time in captivity.

I heard him enter the room as I lay on the damp mattress on the floor in a cold room. Abu Jaffar paused and cocked his pistol. Then he knelt down and pushed the barrel hard against my head. The metal felt cold against my skin.

Abu Jaffar, whose face I have never seen because he was always wearing a black ski mask when we were not blindfolded, saw that the piece of cloth they used to bind my hands had come loose and thought I was trying to escape.

Now I've had guns put to my head before: once in Iraq in 2003 and another by Abu Jaffar himself just three days earlier. While I did not believe I was going to be shot those other two times, this time I did.

John Brecher / NBC News

Ghazi Balkiz, a London-based producer for NBC News who was held captive for five days in Syria, is seen here on assignment in Rome this week.

It was as if time slowed down and some sort of survival instinct kicked in; there was fear, a lot of it, but this was not the time to deal with it. I told myself that I had to be very careful about what I was going to say in the few seconds to come. This really was a matter of life and death.

I called out to my friend and colleague Ammar, who was kidnapped with us and who was acting as our translator, and through him I urged Abu Jaffar to listen to me before shooting. I explained that the cloth might have come loose because I was scratching my arms because I have psoriasis. I asked permission to sit up and show him, and then rolled up my sleeves and showed him the scars.


He took a look, inquired more about my skin condition and then said "I am sorry" in English and patted my head, which I thought was very condescending. He asked me if a shower would make me feel better.

That's how I ended up taking a shower a day before the rest of the guys kidnapped with me. I joke about this now, saying that this is probably the only time in my life psoriasis led to something good: a shower.

After the shower, I was given new clothes, including a really ugly beige cardigan that I ended up wearing on live television as soon as we crossed the border into Turkey after escaping. I have since received so many comments about this sweater – none of them complimentary.

Our kidnappers asked me to sit down and talk to them, so I -- feeling fresh and clean after the shower -- talked with Abu Jaffar and another kidnapper named Zain. It was the first time I had had a conversation with two of our kidnappers. Once again my colleague and friend Ammar was our translator.

Over a pot of sweet tea and cigarettes, we talked about poetry. Abu Jaffar told us that he writes poetry. We also talked about what kind of music we each preferred; I told them I liked the Lebanese singer Fairouz.

NBC's Richard Engel and his production team made their homecoming late Thursday night. In their first in-depth interview since being freed, Engel and his team, including cameraman John Kooistra, producer Ghazi Balkiz and two other crew members, tell their story about spending five days in captivity in Syria and the trauma they survived. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

"Like the morning coffee, it enters every house," Abu Jaffar said of her music.

This all sounds like some sort of a friends' gathering, hanging out and talking about life, only in this case, Ammar and I were sitting on the floor, still blindfolded and our hands tied.

This was on the fourth night of our kidnapping in Syria and in the second hide-out we were taken to by our kidnappers -- members of the feared and brutal "shabiha" pro-government militia.

During our conversation, Abu Jaffar talked about how beautiful his country was. He described sitting against a tree on a hill watching the sunset. He talked about the fresh and delicious produce from the farms around his village.

He said he never wanted to leave his country, and how if we had met in different circumstances, I would have seen how beautiful Syria really is. He said if there was no war, we might have even met.

We talked about our families. Abu Jaffar and Zain did not say much about theirs, but I told them about mine, about my parents and how worried they must be by now. I told them about my wife and how much she means to me, about my older brother and how honorable he is. I also told him about my late younger brother, the circumstances of his death and how it had devastated my parents.

I hoped my parents would never have to go through the death of another son again, I told Abu Jaffar.

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

By telling them all this, I was trying to make our kidnappers see us as human beings who have people who love them, who have experienced happiness and grief. I thought this might make it harder for them to execute us.

That prompted Abu Jaffar to talk about destiny and fate. So I told them about Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" -- at least what I got out of it -- and about how Coelho wrote that understanding "Maktoob" is worth more than gold.

Muslims believe that everything that happens in this world has already been determined by God. "Maktoob" in Arabic means "Everything is written." My kidnappers said that everything they were going through, this war and all, has already been written.

We continued to talk. Unfortunately, I can't remember everything we talked about. Abu Jaffar and Zain also asked Ammar all kinds of questions. We were interrupted when another one of our kidnappers whose name I never got came back to the house. He was not happy that Ammar and I were in the living room.

Then there was the silence. I cannot really say that it was an awkward moment of silence; after all, the whole situation was awkward.

As we sat there in that silence, Abu Jaffar, Zain and another kidnapper whose name I never knew went and sat further away. They talked among themselves, asking each other questions like "How did it come to this? What happened to us that drove us to kidnap people and hold them against their will?" One of them referring to us asked rhetorically, "Don't they have families that are worried about them?"

Our kidnappers, it seems, had a human side after all.

Throughout our captivity, I did my best to hide my feelings of fear and helplessness from our captors. I kept telling myself that I needed to focus on when we get out and not if. I told myself to stay positive.

The mornings were the worst. Waking up cold in a cold room, body stiff. For the first few seconds I would be disoriented and ask myself, "Where am I?" Then the realization of where I was would sink in, and I'd sigh.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

Time passed and events happened and during our last car ride with our kidnappers, we were rescued by a rebel group. Abu Jaffar and another one of captors in our vehicle were killed in the firefight that led to our freedom.

I am still alive and doing relatively well. I am reunited with my family and friends. But those five days of my life are going to live with me and my family forever.

When we as journalists go into the field, we know the risks we are taking. But I guess we, or at least I, always thought, "It is not going to happen to us." But this time, it did happen to us. This does not stem from an unrealistic approach to things, events and life, because trust me: What I see in the field is very real. We cover war and conflict zones and in those situations, bad things happen and people die. The way I go about it is to plan for the worst but hope for the best.

Now Abu Jaffar is dead. During our captivity, he put his gun to my head twice, and on our first day he ordered the execution of one of the rebels who were with us; the execution was carried out within seconds. He also was "a first-rate killer" as he once described himself to us.

At the end of the day, I remember what my mother went through when my younger brother passed away, and I cannot help but think that even though Abu Jaffar was not a good man, he also had a mother and I am sure that she is in pain just like every mother who loses a son would be.

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