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Development Policy

When volunteers become hostages in Syria

Would you know what to do if hostage-takers overran your bus? The German government does, and it's trying to train volunteers before they go to Syria. One rule: always travel with a local.

In role-plays and multiple-day seminars, Florian Sander learns how to behave under extreme duress during foreign deployments. Sander travels regularly to Pakistan on behalf of Misereor, an organization that provides help in developing countries. Abroad, he meets with local organizations that work in conjunction with his own.

Preparing for abductions, however, is something you can't prepare for, he tells DW. Still, it's sensible to play out a scenario and "already be confronted with the situation. By doing that, you at least have certain sequences running through your head before you have to deal with them," he said.

There are a number of organizations and companies in Germany that prepare those working for development agencies for a deployment in foreign crisis regions. Toward that end, the German government opened the Academy for Crisis Management, Emergency Planning and Civil Protection (AKNZ) in 2004.

Testing danger

The humanitarian workers travel through western Germany on a bus and are dropped off in a practice area that represents a fictional country in crisis. In one scenario, the bus is overrun first, with the workers suddenly finding themselves taken hostage.

"The 'practice hostages' reported afterwards that, after about a half-hour, they didn't know anymore if they were participants in a course or actual abductees," says Karl Kähler, a teacher at the academy.

This emergency, which participants experience as a fictional scenario, is experienced by empoloyees of the "Green Helmets" - the infrastructure-building UN forces, who often work hand-in-hand with the Blue Helmet peacekeepuing troops.

Three German volunteers from the Green Helmets were recently building hospitals in Syria. During the night of May 15, they were kidnapped from the city of Harem close to the Turkish border. The kidnappers are presumed to be radical jihadists.

A grainy picture taken from a television video shows a nondescript room with a green white and black flag and militant-looking men looking toward the camera.

Syrian rebels held 48 Iranians hostage and exchanged them for rebel prisoners in January 2013

Increased kidnappings

For quite some time, the Syrian state has been unable to provide security for its own citizens, or for visitors to the country. In a report released this year, the International Red Cross stated that kidnappings and murder attempts against international volunteers had become worse than they had been in a long time. Germany's foreign ministry, which released a travel advisory for Syria, warns on its website: "The kidnapping of foreigners is on the increase."

While there are no official statistics for kidnappings, examples are numerous. This year alone, many German volunteers, foreign photographers, Syrian children, Christian missionaries and more than 20 UN soldiers were taken hostage.

In order to prevent situations in which kidnappers could attack, Florian Sander at Misereor adheres to a number of principles when traveling through crisis regions. He doesn't make appointments at night, since he doesn't want to be driving at that time. And he relies on the judgment of his local colleagues.

"We move on the ground with partner organizations, since they know the region," he said

'A dead hostage is worthless'

Hostage-takers, whether alone or in a group, have varying motives in places like Syria. There are kidnappers who make a lucrative business out of hostages. They extort ransom fees from relatives or from companies where the victim worked. And there are also kidnappers with political motives. In exchange for the release of hostages, they demand that their imprisoned cohorts and ideological brothers be freed.

A man with gray hair and a white beard looks off camera while he speaks
(Photo: Britta Pedersen / dpa)

Green Helmet Director Rupert Neudeck wants to protect his volunteers

One thing is for certain: as long as negotiations continue, there is room for hope."A dead hostage is worthless," says teacher Karl Kähler. "That means hostage-takers don't set out to kill people."

The case of 72-year-old Green Helmet volunteer Ziad Nouri, who himself had family roots in Syria, the issue was one of ransom money. His abductors demanded 25 million euros for his release. The German government was involved in negotiations that lasted months.

Crisis team

Germany's Federal Foreign Office established a crisis team after the kidnapping of the three volunteers. The experts worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the cellar of the Federal Foreign Office. In the case of kidnappings they negotiate with hostage-takers or supervise freed hostages.

Whether or not the German government would have offered ransom money in this or other kidnappings remains a mystery. The official position is: The government doesn't let itself be blackmailed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed it clearly in 2007: "Blackmail is not justifiable."

In the case of the Green Helmet trio, no money changed hands. The 72-year-old engineer managed to flee when his guards fell asleep. His two colleagues also managed to flee in early July. Kähler described that outcome as "lucky."

DW.DE