AL JAZEERA AMERICA | Lebanese families tormented for more than a year by thoughts of what an Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria might do to their abducted loved ones were finally relieved this week when the captives were set free in a prisoner exchange with the Lebanese government.
On Tuesday, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) released 16 hostages — three Lebanese soldiers and 13 members of the General Security force — in exchange for eight fighters, as well as 17 women and their children, including the former wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the chief of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
None of those released from Lebanese prisons included “convicts or individuals who shed Lebanese blood,” according to Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s security chief.
In August 2014, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL kidnapped 29 Lebanese servicemen; four of them have been killed, and nine remain in captivity.
Those freed on Tuesday were met with tears of joy from family and friends.
“‘I will die for you’ — this was his first sentence to me,” said 37-year-old Sabrine Omar, whose husband, Ziad Omar, was among the released servicemen. Her voice shook as she described the first 24 hours of their reunion.
They have twin 3-year-olds, and she told Al Jazeera, “Both my daughters stayed up all night. One of them sat next to [his] bed and could not stop touching Ziad’s face as she murmured, ‘I love you, Papa,’ throughout the night.”
Every morning, Sabrine Omar had told their daughters — Grace and Greta — that they should say “‘Good morning, Papa,’ because he is coming home,” she said. “The girls knew I [was] lying because he would never show up at night, but it was the only exchange of hope between me and my daughters.”
Though she and her daughters have found peace in his return, other Lebanese families remain tormented by the captivity of their loved ones, since ISIL is notorious for releasing videos of hostages being tortured and executed.
“His mother wakes up crying and goes to bed crying,” said Hussein Yousof, whose son Mohammed Yousof, 26, a Lebanese soldier, remains imprisoned by ISIL.
Sitting in a tent by a small protest memorial erected for his son in front of the Lebanese parliament, Hussein Yousof explained his family’s frustration with the government’s inability to get all the prisoners released.
“We sat here for a year and will continue to sit until something is done. We can’t negotiate with terrorists, but what other choice do we have?” he said. “We don’t know if they’re dead, if they are alive. Every morning I wake up in fear that I may see him in a video being slaughtered like others.”
The negotiations that saw the 16 servicemen released entered their final phase in late October, when Qatar spearheaded mediation between the parties. To make the negotiations happen, leaders of Lebanon’s fractious political landscape — including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and political foe Hassan Nasrallah of the armed group Hezbollah — had to come together.
Despite Jabhat Al-Nusra’s release of Lebanese captives and the rare level of cooperation among the country’s rival political elites, negotiations with ISIL remain difficult.
Paul Salem, the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said ISIL is more likely to free captives for ransom than for political concessions. “For ISIL, kidnapping for ransom is a well-known form of financing,” he said.
“ISIL does that for profit, and hence, for financial reasons, they may be open to negotiating for the release of the kidnapped, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are open to negotiation for political purposes,” he added.
Malcolm Nance, a veteran U.S. intelligence officer with experience in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, suggested that the only option available to anxious family members is for them “to financially negotiate through Syrian middlemen. They have a better chance buying them out than to wait for government negotiation.”
Family members of the captives say they have been contacted numerous times by ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra members seeking ransom and supplies — including food, medicine and other items — in exchange for the hostages. But the Lebanese government has barred any direct transaction between the parties.
As for Tuesday’s exchange, Nance argues the swap was beneficial for the Al-Qaeda affiliate because it not only “helped Nusra distinguish itself from ISIL but also got them the people that ISIL wants, including Baghdadi’s ex-wife.”
For Yousof and his family, dealing with these political machinations remains a harsh reality. “The hardest thing is when a man cries. But there’s a point that the man falls — I’m there now,” he said as his glossy red eyes shone behind smoke from his cigarette.
But even for the returned men and their loved ones, the experience was a nightmare.
Sabrine Omar described her husband’s tango with death when, a few months ago, Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters asked who wanted to be sacrificed for the group and he raised his hand.
“They decided that they were going to shoot him,” she said. “Ziad told me he sat in front of them and said he has no fear — ‘Do whatever you want.’ He said he was ready to go.”
“If this were to happen, it would have ruined me — the fear of losing someone who you lived for is cruel. But I know he still hasn’t told me everything.”
TARA KANGARLOU ON AL JAZEERA AMERICA