Missing journalists say they were kidnapped

Holli Chmela and Taylor Luck, the two American journalists who disappeared in Lebanon only to surface again in a Syrian prison, say they were kidnapped and taken to Syria against their will by a dishonest taxi driver.
Holli Chmela and Taylor Luck pose for a picture at Beirut's Pigeon Rocks. They are back in Jordan today. © Jordan Times

AMMAN, October 10, 2008 (JORDAN TIMES) – Taylor Luck and Holli Chmela, the two Jordan Times journalists who were released by Syrian authorities on Thursday after they were reported missing in Lebanon, say they entered Syria against their will.

The Syrian authorities accused the two Americans of illegally entering the country, but both insisted that they did not intend to break any law. They were kidnapped and taken by force into the Syrian territory, they said.

Luck, 23, and Chmela, 27, arrived back in Jordan in the early hours of Friday after the Syrian government handed them over to the US embassy in Damascus.

Taken for a ride

The two journalists arrived in Beirut on vacation September 29.

The pair said they were kidnapped by a taxi driver and an accomplice who were supposed to take them to the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing where they intended to obtain visas to complete their vacation in Syria before returning to Jordan by land.

"We had planned to take a bus from Tripoli to Homs, but the bus station was closed and a taxi driver offered to take us across the border, saying he was licensed to make such trips," they said.

"He took us with another driver and on the way went off the main road," Luck said. "I asked him where the border was but he did not answer. As he continued driving, he locked the car doors and asked us to hand over our money, but we refused to give him anything. At that moment, a military car showed up and pulled him over and without a word took our bags, passports and cellphones and took us into their vehicle."

"We did not know whether we were in Syria or Lebanon until we saw a sign for Al Hosn Castle after 20 minutes of driving. Then we knew we were in Syria," Luck said.

The journalists did not reveal their profession to authorities and said they were just tourists. The Syrian police told them they would take them to a bus station in Homs but their destination was in fact a prison, where they both were held for eight days.

"I found myself behind bars with more than 30 people, while Holli was locked up in another room. I refused to be separated from her and they finally put us in one room for one night before we were separated again," said Luck.

Accused of smuggling

The two stayed in this prison near Homs from Wednesday night, October 1, until late Wednesday, October 8.

Interrogators accused them of smuggling themselves into Syria to cause problems, Luck said.

“Most treated us well and some policemen even allowed me and Holli to meet late at night and talk. A lot of officers were more than understanding of our situation and showed several acts of random kindness," the two journalists said.

On Wednesday night the two were transferred from Homs to a Damascus prison.

"They were filing papers to transfer us to a military prison in Damascus and by coincidence, an officer saw Holli and recognized her from media footage.

"He asked us: 'Are you Americans? Are you journalists? Are you the two journalists?'"

The prison authorities canceled the transfer and reported the case to their superiors before they were finally transferred to the U.S. embassy in Damascus.

"We may have exercised poor judgment, but at the end of the day, we were victims," Luck said.

(This article was republished with permission from the Jordan Times.)