German journalist Janina Findeisen was seven months pregnant when she traveled to Syria in 2015. She was kidnapped and held hostage for nearly a year, ultimately giving birth to her son while in captivity.
In the fall of 2015, journalist Janina Findeisen traveled to Syria in an effort to get in touch with her former classmate Laura. Ten years earlier, Laura had traveled to Pakistan to join jihadi fighters. Findeisen wanted Laura to help her shoot exclusive footage of jihadis who were fighting in Syria's civil war.
Together with Laura's mother, Findeisen, who was seven months pregnant at the time, boarded a plane to the Turkish city of Antakya, where both were met by people smugglers to help them cross into neighboring Syria. On the Turkish-Syrian border, the situation was chaotic, with border police beating refugees and bombs exploding nearby. Laura's mother changed her mind and decided to return to Germany. Findeisen, however, opted to ignore the travel warnings and continued her journey.
Findeisen says Laura assured her by email that she would be safe, though she admits that "in hindsight, putting all my trust in that assurance was naive."
A dangerous turn
With the help of the people smugglers, Findeisen managed to enter northern Syria unscathed, and finally met Laura. They spent eight days together and got along relatively well. "She was still my friend because we go way back," says Findeisen. "Of course a lot happened since our school days so things were different." Even so, she says, the two trusted each other. Findeisen spent time interviewing Laura and a commander of the Nusra Front, the terrorist organization of which Laura was a member.
Findeisen and Laura also traveled throughout the region. "We drove through northern Syria, through Idlib, and I shot footage from the car," Findeisen says. She witnessed checkpoints and bombed out suburbs. When she decided she had enough material for a full report, she bid farewell to Laura and got a taxi to the Turkish border. She was accompanied by a Nusra Front fighter.
Just before reaching the border, the taxi suddenly stopped. "I had a bad feeling during the entire trip because the taxi kept randomly speeding up and slowing down, and then we were suddenly stopped by several masked men brandishing Kalashnikovs," Findeisen remembers. "They pulled the taxi driver and the other guy from the car." Then, she says, one of the masked men got in and sat beside her. Findeisen says she was scared to death but remained completely calm, knowing there was nothing she could do.
Survival and motherhood
The kidnappers blindfolded Findeisen and set off in the taxi. They took her to an unknown location and continued moving her to new areas every couple of months. They always blindfolded her when she was being transported, so she would not know where she was being held.
Findeisen did everything her captors told her. She kept quiet, never screamed or tried escaping. They brought her food and clothing, but she was never allowed to leave her room. At some point, they let her have a small television set. And whenever there was electricity, she tuned into DW — her only way of finding out what was going on in the outside world.
As time wore on, Findeisen became increasingly concerned about how and where she would give birth to her child. She started simulating strong contractions, hoping her kidnappers would take her to the hospital, to no avail. "They brought a gynecologist from northern Syria to look after me," she says. "They had taken her husband hostage to force her to take care of me." The gynecologist told Findeisen they would kill her husband if anything happened to her or the baby.
Findeisen was understandably worried about what would happen to her and her child. She knew "the kidnappers were prepared to behead me in front of a rolling camera at any given moment." Nevertheless, she forced herself to remain optimistic.
How did Findeisen manage to cope with this immense pressure? "By watching DW," she says, smiling. "I tried to remember all the good things in my life, my childhood, my youth, the life I lived previously in safety and affluence." This, she says, is what she thought of every single day.
One day, after 11 months in captivity, she was suddenly rescued by masked men who stormed into the house where she was being held. They called her name and took her away. At that moment, she did not know what was happening. "I thought this was a different jihadi group taking over," Findeisen says. She feared she was the victim of yet another kidnapping.
Her rescuers removed Findeisen's blindfold and took her and her child to the Turkish border, where German security agents were waiting for them. Finally, they had reached safety.
Findeisen was later told that she had supposedly been freed by a different Nusra Front branch, which had vowed to honor the security assurance she had been given one year before.
Today, looking back, Findeisen admits she should not have traveled to a war zone while pregnant. She has now written a book about her ordeal. That "helped me come to terms with my experience," she says.