French blogger who was captured by ISIS and released after repeated beatings, torture, and psychological abuse, Pierre Torres, and journalist specializing in the Middle East and human rights, Tom Gross, at the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Moderator: Pierre Torres was a French – in fact he was a French oceanographer – who, when the Arab Spring started in 2011, like many of us, was very, very excited for these revolutionary events that we were very hopeful about back then about democratisation in the Arab world. And, Pierre, I believe initially, before you went to Syria, you first went to Libya and Egypt when the Arab Spring started.
Pierre Torres: Yes, indeed. That’s it. I went there to see the incredible revolutions, which were completely unbelievable at the time. And I arrived in Libya before the war started. So I didn’t expect to see such a violent situation. But when I was there, there was no point in moving away. So I spent two months there.
Moderator: What brought you to Syria?
Pierre Torres: I went to Syria for the first time in 2012 in the summer. I remember that during [the] winter, I saw on TV the fall of Baba Amr, and after that, Syria got a kind of black dawn, there was nothing going out of the country. So in my opinion, there was a major lack of information there. That is the reason why I went there in [the] summer – end of spring beginning of summer – 2012. And after that, there were again, a lot of journalists.
Moderator: Yes. If we all recall, people were very excited at the beginning, about the
protests in Syria. But the world lost interest rather quickly, or rather to a large extent. So, you started working as a freelancer for some French publications and media. And then I believe you were kidnapped in June 2013? How did this come about, your abduction?
Pierre Torres: Between 2012-2013, I studied some philosophy to get some tools to understand this very, very special situation. And in spring 2013, I went to several places for the first time; the Kurdish area in Syria and then in the city of Raqqa. I went there because the city was freed on 3rd March 2013, so it was free for a few months. I went at the end of May and I was assessing what was going on in the city. And the situation was really interesting, way more complex than I could imagine. There were a lot of groups, a lot of Free Army or jihadist groups, but also a lot of activists. And for me, it was very, very important to report on that because at that time already, the newspapers were already writing about the caliphate in Raqqa. That was not the case at all.
A few days – just to give you a picture – before my abduction, huge demonstrations started everywhere in the city of Raqqa against ISIS. So we have to keep in mind that people there were not supporters of ISIS at all. Other groups were sometimes Islamist as well, but a different way of being Islamist and they were more or less supported by the population. But, ISIS was clearly not.
Moderator: Just in case people don’t know, Raqqa is now the de facto capital of the Islamic State. All the horrific videos we’ve seen of beheadings, of the Jordanian pilot being burned in a cage. and videos yesterday of Kurdish prisoners in a cage, are in Raqqa. As Pierre points out, up until the Islamic State captured Raqqa, the population there was very anti-Islamic State and held demonstrations against them. So one can only imagine the horrific terror they live under now in the Islamic State.
So Pierre, after you were first taken, what was your emotional feeling? Were you alone? When did you first realise that other people have been kidnapped from France and other Western countries?
Pierre Torres: We realised it by the time I was put together with Nicolina, two weeks after my abduction and then sent to another jail in Aleppo, and few by few, we were joined by other Westerners, many journalists and NGO workers who were kidnapped all over the country in the liberated area. And it continued almost all the time, even after winter 2012-2013, when the Islamic State started to struggle, in a military way, with all the other rebel groups. We were kind of desperate to see this group growing and growing to reach more than 20 people.
Moderator: And I understand that the people looking after the British hostages, let’s say, i.e. abusing them and kidnapping them or guarding them, were themselves British citizens who had joined the Islamic State. And you were one of four French hostages, and from what I understand, French citizens or French or Belgian citizens, were also guarding you and communicating with you. That’s correct, yes?
Pierre Torres: I will only talk about the French ones because they are the only ones I’m sure about. I’m sure that there were some French and Belgian citizens. I saw a lot of them, I can say more than 10 of them, and there were also other nations. I mean, it was impressive to see how many nations were there. There were people from all Western nations and a lot of people were coming from North Africa, especially Tunisia, as well.
Moderator: And one of your fellow hostages who was released, Nikola Hanin, he has identified the killer, the terrorist, who shot four people dead at the Brussels Jewish Museum last year, as one of the same people who had been one of his captors in Syria. Is that your recollection too?
Pierre Torres: Yes, indeed. We were held for a time by a couple of guards and this person was one of them. And he spent a lot of time talking with us.
Moderator: Did you have the opportunity to ask people who grew up in France or Belgium or indeed here in Switzerland, French speakers, who grew up in not so different circumstances than you grew up, why were they doing this? What were they doing, trying to go to another country and trying to form some kind of Islamic State?
Pierre Torres: In fact, they generally talked about that by themselves, I didn’t have to ask about it and it was very surprising because it was very rarely something religious. Generally, it was very political, and I remember one day there was a French guy who compared himself to – I think you say in english international brigade – les brigades internationales.
Moderator:From the Spanish Civil War.
Pierre Torres:Yes, who fought in Spain, and my father came from Spain at that time so it’s kind of a related story. And it was very weird to use this comparison because those guy were all more or less communists and for, I mean for Muslim communities, kind of the absolute evil. It’s the worst Kufa, you can imagine, the most unbelievable you can imagine. So, those people in many ways, in their way of being Muslim, were very much Westerners.
Moderator: I understand that there were 23 different Western hostages kept at different times and some or all of them were tortured and treated very badly, and I’ve spoke to Pierre yesterday and before and we don’t want to go into detail about that out of respect for them and out of respect for their families. But you, as I understand, have spoken to the families of some of the British and Americans who were beheaded after your release. I should just point out that Pierre was released in April 2014, and then that summer last August – in fact I’d just like to name them for their memory: American journalist James Foley, and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Cassick, and British aid workers, Alan Henning and David Haydens. All of them were beheaded one by one with the choreographed videos and so on. Another woman, Kayla Mueller died, we don’t know how, and one of the reasons that I believe that Pierre doesn’t want to go into too much detail is that at least one other British hostage, John Cantlie, is still there. For various reasons, we don’t want to give away detailed information. But can you tell us, did you speak with the families of Steven Sotloff and Jim Foley and so on after your release?
Pierre Torres: Yes, I did. In fact, Steven, for example, used me as a message carrier for his family. And he had a personal message for different members of his family. So it was the only way of doing it because there was no way of writing anything. So the only thing I can keep with me is my memories.
Moderator:Because I believe that you were given about 24 hours notice that you would be released before you’re released. So they had an opportunity to give messages to their family through you. Also, am I right in thinking that even though there’s a raging civil war going on in Syria, the kidnappers, the hostage takers, still had communication? They were able to email the families of some of the hostages to demand ransoms. Is that right?
Pierre Torres: That’s true. For most of the hostages, the negotiation was dealt with by the state or by the organisation. One of the hostages was freed through his family.
Moderator: Yes, and just in case people don’t know, the British and American governments have been very, very strict about not negotiating in any way and also about not allowing the families to even publicise that their children or brothers were being held hostage. There were hostages also from Germany, and Italy and Spain and some other countries, Denmark and so on. And it’s a little bit of a different situation with the Europeans. Would you even criticise the American or British governments for not doing more to save their citizens?
Pierre Torres: Yes, I will really criticise those governments. I will not criticise them on their strategy, it’s their business and it’s not up to me to judge on what they have to do. But the United States is spending a lot of money and energy for their outside intelligence CIA, way more than France or Spain or basically all the other countries in the world. So they didn’t do the job. That’s it. I am not saying they should have done that or that and I agree with them that it’s not my business to go into what they did, as long as they do the job. And now they’ve failed.
Moderator: And I understand that in addition to sometimes horrific treatment in your 10 months in captivity, obviously you didn’t have access to watch TV or the internet. Did you have maybe some books to read or something to occupy the time?
Pierre Torres: Yes, sometimes we had books but they were not sorted out. There were many kinds of books. Some were very extreme into violence, some were very interesting and full of very rich ideas about Islam and we also had, I remember, some video clips as well.
Moderator: And they made some videos of you but those videos were never released later, if I understood correctly?
Pierre Torres: Yeah, I mean, we were shown some videos. They have propaganda and yeah, they also shot some videos for several reasons.
Moderator: And I understand that you and Nikola Hanin, one of the other French hostages, in order to fill up your time, you have written a book in your heads together and it will be published actually next month. Nikola has written the words and you’ve done the pictures, maybe you can just tell us in French the title.
Pierre Torres: Yes, it’s about a hedgehog, named Faza hedgehog, and the title is “Will daddy hedgehog go back home?”
Moderator: So it’s a kind of allegorical children’s story and I’ve had a read of it this morning. It will be published in French next month, and hopefully in English and other languages later. So it was literally written in captivity to pass the time.
So are there any final thoughts you’d like to give? One of the people you were with, John Cantlie, who’s a British journalist or photographer is now being used, you may have seen, by ISIS to deliver a kind of propaganda reporting from Raqqa. So we know that this is in fact keeping them alive. Are there any messages or thoughts or about either the hostages that died, or about John that you’d like to share?
Pierre Torres: Yes. We heard this morning’s speech from Marcus Loening, who advised us to look precisely at the big picture because it’s often more complicated than we thought at first look. And that’s what we have to do with IS, because nowadays it’s frightening everyone, they want to be very, very tough, and they are. One of our best shields, one of the worst enemies they have are the Kurdish, more or less under the influence of YPG, and we are helping them massively to struggle against IS. But we have to keep in mind that even though there are very, very good points, I mean, 50% women everywhere, that’s amazing, especially in this part of the world, and they use violence in a very careful way, generally, especially with Westerners, they are also very, very far from being a democratic organisation.
A friend of mine, named Massoud Hamid whose a journalist, who is a French-Syrian journalist, is now doing some very interesting stuff. I think he’s in Iraq nowadays; he is on the frontline against the Islamic State. His brother is an activist, his name is Amir Hamid and he was taken more than one year ago by YPG, who didn’t give any news about him since that time, and they even denied they had him. But by the time we got a civil witness who can testify showing him in the jail of YPG getting bad treatment, we have to ask those people who asked for support, who asked for  to be recognised as a non terrorist organisation, to to clarify the situation with individuals like Amir Hamid, so in their area.
Moderator: Yes, we should also ask the Kurds who are now our allies to behave in as democratic a way as possible. Anyway, Pierre, thank you and thank you for doing it in English. By the way, Pierre learnt English from the American and British hostages in his 10 months. That’s why he now speaks English and we should also give a thought to those poor people. So thank you, Pierre.