Kidnapped nuns bond with al-Qa’ida captors: ‘We weren’t harassed at all. They were kind and sweet’

Thirteen nuns kidnapped by militants blamed for some of the worst atrocities in the Syrian civil war have been freed in a prisoner exchange. Far from being ill-treated, they describe their keepers as ‘kind and sweet’. Fenande van Tets reports

The 13 nuns and three maids crossed the border in the dark, in black cars, flying the black al-Qa’ida flag and driven by masked al-Qa’ida rebels that had held them captive for nearly three months.

Before they went on their way they exchanged pleasantries with the rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group that fights for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. One nun, who was too weak to walk, was carried to the car by a rebel fighter who covered his face with a black scarf.

The remarkable scene was played out in the early hours of Monday morning, as a deal brokered between extremist rebels and the Syrian government saw the release of 13 nuns captured in December in exchange for the release of 150 female prisoners and four children held by the government. Later, one of the nuns would give a brief account of their time with one of the most feared rebel groups in Syria: “They were kind and sweet.”

The release is the latest in a series of similar exchanges between government forces and rebel groups, despite the country’s brutal civil war continuing apace. The government is keen to portray itself as the protector of minorities in Syria – predominantly Christians and Alawites.

A video released by activists showed the nuns arriving in the town of Arsal in Lebanon in SUV’s with the black Salafi flag used by al-Qa’ida fluttering in the wind. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog based in the UK, declared Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, was behind the abduction.

The group has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the Syrian civil war – including the deliberate targeting of civilians. Human Rights Watch have accused the group of taking part in a massacre of civilians belonging to the Alawite sect, to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. The opposition has always claimed the nuns were being held as “guests” for their own safety as the regime was shelling the area. The regime claims foreign terrorists, its name for rebels, target minorities, such as Christians.

But according to the nuns, they were treated well by their captors. The rebel video shows the nuns having good rapport with their captors, smiling and exchanging blessings. An unseen rebel says: “I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely,” he adds as the nuns got into the car.

The Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids were taken on December 3 following a rebel offensive in the mostly Christian town of Maaloula, where Aramaic is still spoken. They were initially held in the monastery of Mar Thekla in Maaloula, but later moved to Yabroud, a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border. George Haswani, a local pro-government business man, confirmed they were held at his villa there.

Yabroud, is the last rebel stronghold in the middle of Syria and has been under fierce attack by the Syrian Army. Due to the fighting in the area, the nuns were taken first across the border to Lebanon, before being transported to the Jdaidet Yabous border crossing in the early hours of Monday. Senior regime figures, family members as well as Muslim and Christian clergy welcomed the nuns back in Syria. A reception was held on Monday at Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where the nuns will now be staying. Clergy in Syria said the advances made by the Syrian army were behind the release of the nuns. “What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process,” Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka Khoury.

Talking to assembled reporters at the border the nuns said they were treated well, with one nun even describing her captors as “ kind and sweet”. Mother Pelagia Sayaf, head of Mar Thekla monastery thanked the Syrian government, who she said worked with the Qatari government for their release.

“We weren’t harassed at all,” she said. “No one forced us to remove our crosses.” In a video released in December, in which the nuns had already indicated good treatment, they were seen without their religious symbols. It transpired yesterday that removing the crosses was a voluntary decision as it “seemed like the right thing to do”.

The deal almost fell through on Sunday, as the rebels tried to use last minute pressure to bargain. In return for the nun’s release a number of female prisoners were freed from Syrian jails. At the end of the rebel video one could see a throng of women heading towards the rebels, including two young children. They are suspected to be the children of known rebel commanders who had been taken along with their mothers.

The prisoner exchange is the latest reconciliatory gesture by the government, which relies on support from minority Alawites and Christians. Negotiations are ongoing to facilitate the release of two archbishops, taken in Aleppo last April, as well as the Italian Jesuit, Paolo dall Oglio, who disappeared last July.

In January, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem said the government was open to exchanging prisoners. However, exchanges have been rare and have mostly focused on foreigners. The first big prisoner exchange took place in January 2013, when 48 Iranians were released by rebels in return for 1,200 government prisoners. Last October, rebels released nine Lebanese hostages in exchange for dozens of female detainees. The conflict, which has seen 100,000 killed, will reach its third anniversary on Saturday.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker