Parents of American kidnapped in Syria praise US efforts

Marc and Debra Tice, parents of US journalist Austin Tice, walk past a poster of their son after a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)
Updated 04 December 2018
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Parents of American kidnapped in Syria praise US efforts

  • Austin Tice was 31 when he disappeared in August 2012 near Damascus and his whereabouts remain a mystery
  • Tice’s parents say that Donald Trump’s recent success in securing the release of Americans detained abroad is a source of hope

BEIRUT: The parents of American journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted in Syria more than six years ago, said Tuesday they were encouraged by US efforts and new details about their son’s fate.
Tice was 31 when he disappeared in August 2012 near Damascus and his whereabouts remain a mystery.
But the US special envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien, said last month there was every reason to believe the journalist was alive and still detained in Syria.
His father, Marc Tice, who together with his wife Debra has relentlessly campaigned for his release, said Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s recent success in securing the release of Americans detained abroad was a source of hope.
“We’re very encouraged under this new administration,” he told reporters in the Lebanese capital Beirut, adding that it had “shown and developed a track record of bringing back Americans held overseas home.”
He cited the three Americans who were released by North Korea in May and the US pastor Turkey freed in October.
“We’re incredibly encouraged,” Marc Tice said.
Neither the Syrian government nor any other entity has confirmed holding Austin Tice, but his father said: “We do believe however that the Syria government is best placed to help us get Austin safely home.”
The journalist’s parents said they had not received any proof of life since a 2012 video but Marc Tice stressed that there was a “consensus among all those working on his case” that his son was alive.
The couple said people whom they could not name had come forward with information on their son.
“We have recently been contacted directly by credible individuals who have shared information about Austin,” Debra Tice said, without elaborating.
Austin Tice’s parents said that they had made some useful contacts among the millions of Syrians who fled their country since the conflict erupted in 2011.
“Time is an ally,” Marc Tice said, adding they were hoping for leads from “people that feel that their situation is secure and that they are free and less at risk in sharing that kind of information.”
They also said that the million-dollar reward offered by the FBI for information leading to Austin Tice’s safe return — which a coalition of media and other organizations recently announced they would match — was also a positive factor.


Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

Updated 38 min 30 sec ago
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Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

  • For many in Syria sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option
  • Eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife

DAMASCUS: Abu Anas Al-Hijazi scanned the stalls in the Syrian capital’s Bab Srija market but bought nothing. For the cash-strapped 45-year-old wedding singer, this Ramadan is a frugal one.
“We used to lay out a large spread and invite relatives and friends for a feast around six or seven times at least” during the Muslim holy month, he told AFP.
“But now, I invite them once or twice at most.”
Throughout Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours and sit down to a feast — known as iftar — once the sun goes down.
But for many in Syria, where eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife, sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option.
“We have swapped meat for chicken this year, and we have started to offer small meals, rather than large spreads,” said the performer who earns less during Ramadan — an unpopular month for weddings.
“Nothing is the same.”
Abu Anas is among the many Syrians whose standard of living has plummeted since the conflict started in 2011.
“Almost 80 percent of the households across the country are struggling to cope with the lack of food or money to buy it,” according to the World Food Programme.
For Rabbah Ammar, the economic slowdown means she must take measures to rein in the family’s Ramadan’s expenses.
The 52-year-old said she set aside some savings months ago to spend on food during the fasting month.
She said she buys most of her produce from the Bab Srija market because “prices here are lower than in others.”
She also chooses which dishes to prepare based on the price of the ingredients.
“When the price of green peas spiked, we replaced it with fava beans, which were cheaper,” said the resident of the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood outside Damascus.
“Today, since meat is expensive, we stuff courgettes with rice instead,” she clutching a bag of fruits and vegetables under arm.
Nearby, Abu Imad sprayed water on the plump tomatoes he had put on display, hoping to attract customers.
He said vegetable prices had dropped sharply this year. “The price of one kilo of cucumbers last year was 700 Syria pounds... and today it is about 200.”
Sitting near boxes of fresh vegetables, Talal Shawkal’s eyes flit back and forth, as potential customers walk past.

The produce is available and some is cheaper than in recent years but the price is still beyond the reach of many Syrians impoverished by the long years of war. (AFP)

He said prices had fallen because of an increase in supply, with produce now available from the farms of Eastern Ghouta, just oustide Damascus, after the government took the area from rebels last year.
Demand had not kept up, he said. “People don’t have enough money to buy.”
Mohammad Imad Kobeissi, a frail 60-year-old man, has for years earned a living carrying people’s shopping from the market to the taxi rank on the main road.
But “today, I have to wait for a long time before a customer requests my help,” he said.
With fewer sales, most people now only “fill one or two bags at most, which they can easily carry without my help.”
Arranging cucumbers and courgettes on a large wooden cart, Abu Ammar places the smaller pieces at the front, and the larger ones at the back.
He says demand is higher for the former, mainly because they are cheaper.
The 60-year-old, who has been working in the market for half a century, says the financial slowdown has altered people’s purchasing habits.
“This year is the first time I have customers asking to buy a single vegetable,” he said.
“This is not something we were used to in Syria,” he added.
The man, whose home in Eastern Ghouta was destroyed in the war, said he understands that times are difficult.
“I had to sell my car so I could afford everyday expenses.
“When I have customers who ask for three courgettes, I give it to them and ask for their prayers instead of money.”