How doctor risked death to find his captured SA friend
... but now photographer's Syrian captors have demanded $100,000 for a proof-of-life video
Over the past 12 months, Dr Ahmad Ghandour has endured death threats, false leads and heavy gun fire. His car was damaged in a bombing and terrorist groups have tried to extort money from him.
He did it all in a bid to find kidnapped South African photo-journalist Shiraaz Mohamed.
Last month, his hard work paid off. The Syrian surgeon, who also works with South African disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers, received proof that Mohamed was alive.
Mohamed’s family had compiled 10 personal questions, which were forwarded to the terrorist group claiming to have him in custody.
Among them were things that only Mohamed could know: Where he went for Jamaat (a religious trip) a month before he was captured; the name of a friend he went on Umrah (a minor pilgrimage to Mecca) with; what his brother-in-law does for a living.
The answers have given renewed hope to Mohamed's family, and they are hoping the people holding him will now continue communication – possibly by asking for a ransom.In an interview with Times Select, Ghandour said he had talked to tribal leaders and other influential figures, and checked prisons.
“All these steps took place in very difficult and serious conditions where I was subjected to several death threats. At one stage, just as I finished a meeting with one of the community leaders about Shiraaz, the place where we met was bombed and a lot of people were killed.”
He risked his life on several occasions, traversing areas of intense conflict and heavy bombing to meet various leaders of the myriad terror groups, medical personnel, journalists and prison guards.
According to Gift of the Givers, many chancers came asking for money for information, but were ignored until Ghandour met someone in Turkey who claimed to be with the group of kidnappers and wanted to start negotiations.
“He gave me his [Mohamed’s] passport and his notebook as proof. To me that was not proof enough that Shiraaz was still alive. With the help of the family, we compiled 10 questions we knew only Shiraaz could answer,” said Ghandour, who has been working with the Gift of the Givers since 2012.
The same person then called the organisation with the answers to all the questions and, to top it all, Mohamed sent greetings to his family and the organisation in a letter written in Arabic.
Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman said the organisation was working tirelessly to have Mohamed released, but it could not reveal any further information as it might jeopardise the negotiations.
He said his captors recently asked $100,000 in exchange for a proof-of-life video, but the Gift of Givers refused to pay the amount, saying it should be handed over as a gesture of good faith.
The latest developments come amid claims that Mohamed had faked his capture and had joined one of the Syrian terrorist groups.
An e-mail sent by the Syrian government to International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and top management of the department last year, which Times Select has seen, says Mohamed worked for the terrorist group Fath Al-Sham and had been tasked with bringing them money from outside Syria while providing media coverage for Gift of the Givers.
It also claimed Mohamed had been released from his kidnappers, Ahrar Al-Sham, an affiliate of Fath Al-Sham, in about March last year through the intervention of Turkish intelligence and handed over to Fath Al-Sham to continue his terrorist work.
But these claims were dismissed by Sooliman, who facilitated Mohamed’s entry to Syria so he could take pictures of the work the organisation is doing in the hospital and the camps.
Dirco spokesman Nelson Kgwete would not comment on the e-mail. He said the department had done everything possible to trace Mohamed and was in contact with his family and Gift of the Givers.
Mohamed’s sister, Sumaya, asked everyone to continue pray for her brother’s release.