The South African government can’t publicly take control of the search and rescue mission for photojournalist Shiraaz Mohamed, who last week spent his 39th birthday in captivity in northeastern Syria. So efforts to free him have been led by Gift of the Givers, whom Mohamed had accompanied to the war-torn region. But few details have emerged of where he is being held and by whom in the three months and three weeks since he disappeared.
Mohamed’s former wife, Shirley Govender, said the charity appeared to be in control of the mission but expressed reservations about it.
“Gift of the Givers created a WhatsApp group for the family and based on that group, they basically seem in control of the entire process … but there should be transparency and accountability, because we don’t know what’s next,” Govender said.
The silence around attempts to rescue him is anguish for his loved ones back home. Govender said she felt a sense of anger and desperation on Mohamed’s birthday.
Govender, who remained close to him despite their split, is the last known person to have spoken to Mohamed.
She spoke to him less than half an hour before he was taken and said the photojournalist seemed aware of the threat of being kidnapped.
Mohamed was en route to the Turkish border when he was abducted by two armed men in an area controlled by rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
An account from Gift of the Givers founder and chief, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, suggests two vehicles ambushed the car Mohamed was travelling in and held a gun to the driver’s head. The assailants took Mohamed for questioning, promising to release him two days later.
There has been no ransom demand for his safe return. Despite hundreds of interviews and requests for information, Gift of the Givers is still unclear about who kidnapped Mohamed or where he is being held.
Govender said she visited the place in Turkey where Mohamed was due to arrive on his way out from Syria, in search of answers. She spoke of apparent tensions between the head of the Gift of the Givers’s Darkush hospital in Syria and its former financial head Fekri Shabaan.
Two days after disciplinary proceedings were instituted against Shabaan by the Gift of the Givers staff in Darkush, Mohamed was abducted.
Mohamed stayed with Shabaan while in Syria. His abduction was immediately followed by a frantic search by the Gift of the Givers medical and support staff in Darkush and by residents in a displacement camp, which yielded no results.
Govender admits that her impression of what happened to her former husband is largely based on her interaction with Shabaan during her trip to Turkey. A former Al-Jazeera bureau chief in Turkey, Shabaan made startling claims that suggested the relief group was stifling attempts to get Mohamed out of Syria.
“The concern that I have is Shabaan’s allegation that Sooliman circulated a letter declaring [Shabaan] an enemy of Syria and its people to prevent him from taking Shiraaz out,” she said.
She alleges Shabaan provided evidence to suggest that Mohamed was taken by a rebel group in Darkush, which was known to the relief group.
“There’s every indication that he’s being held by a rebel group. Compelling evidence [from Shabaan] suggests that he has been taken by a rebel group,” she added.
But her assertions were dismissed by Sooliman.
“Neither Shirley nor her comments are relevant as she has no idea of events. The Shiraaz family has been totally briefed. All that Shirley has mentioned is a sad sack story,” Sooliman said last week.
Shabaan has since been dismissed by Gift of the Givers and his allegations denied by Sooliman, who said the organisation has “no control over the people in Syria nor over the Turkish government that controls the border post”.
“Shabaan has totally discredited himself. No organisation in [South Africa], Turkey, Qatar or Syria want to be associated with [Shabaan] because of his own actions and not because of anyone else,” the Gift of the Givers founder added.
Mohamed’s sister, Sumaya, thanked Gift of the Givers for their “continued efforts and support”.
With little more than hearsay to rely on about the circumstances surrounding Mohamed’s disappearance and no fresh evidence emerging, Govender has pleaded for an official investigation to be headed by South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation.
“The government should pull everyone together and if there are other organisations interested in searching for Shiraaz, get everyone in one room so we all working from the same page, instead of against each other,” Govender said.
The government is unlikely to be able to intervene. The department confirmed that standard policy prevents government from officially leading the search, because once the state is known to be taking part in the search, kidnappers usually raise the ransom amount.
Official government policy compels the department to allow the negotiations for release of a kidnapped citizen to continue between the group holding the person and their family.
But the government has been known to covertly provide assistance through the military, intelligence services and even mount a rescue operation when possible.
The latest information from Sooliman about efforts to have Mohamed released revealed negotiations to be at a sensitive stage.
“It’s tough. We have tons of things going on behind the scenes but there is no ransom demand,” Sooliman said.
Spanish journalist Antonio Pampliega spent 10 months in captivity in northern Syria. In an interview with the United States publication, The Daily Beast, in February he said he and his colleague were confined to their cells during their captivity, rarely seeing the sun. They were not beaten or mistreated.
Although it is unclear which rebel group is responsible for Mohamed’s abduction, there is some hope that he would not be harmed.
Na’eem Jeenah, the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in South Africa, said: “If it’s someone like Shiraaz, that’s not really involved in the conflict, then from the perspective of rebel groups he’s not regarded as an enemy. So for whatever reason he might have been kidnapped, the chances are he won’t be mistreated.”
On his birthday, Govender said: “I feel quite helpless. I don’t even know if he was aware that it was his birthday. Is he in the right frame of mind? Does he even know what day it is? Anyone would go crazy if you are confined to a small space with a language you don’t know.”
Sumaya said the family spent the day of his birthday praying.
“We had a lot of prayer on his birthday but it feels like you’re at sea, you’re adrift.
“Nothing is normal for us anymore. It was an especially difficult day for us, we tried our best to cope but were eventually overcome with emotion,” she said.