On day 17 of my incarceration, two lawyers and a translator (hired by the Committee to Protect Journalists) visited me. “They really seem to think you’re a CIA agent,” the translator started. “This is hard to ask, but…do you have any ties to the CIA? The FBI? Mossad?”
I had to laugh. “No,” I said. “Never.”
“Ok,” he said. “Don’t worry. We have just started work on your case. We’ll go and talk to the judge.”
I asked if they had news about my husband.
The translator cast his eyes down. “Your husband was in Turkey. Well, he is in Turkey. The police went to your apartment and tore it apart. They took all of your electronics. And they arrested your husband.”
I could barely breathe. “What? Why?!”
“Because they found a few dollar bills in a piece of your furniture. I think he has probably been released by now, though…we’ll send news as soon as we get it,” the translator promised.
I was led back to my cell. After a couple of hours, four guards opened the door and stood in front of me. "You will get, um...total of your things. You are being moved to different prison," one said.
I threw my few possessions in a garbage bag and stood in the corridor with the guards.
“What are we waiting for?” I asked.
“Three women will be moving with you,” she said. A few minutes later, three women trudged toward me from the other side of the cellblock. They were the women staying in the cell directly across from mine. We avoided eye contact as we went through the tedious ordeal of being strip searched and processed out.
We were led to a small prisoner transport vehicle and hustled into the back. The women spoke Arabic to each other. When I heard one say “Reyhanli,” the name of a Turkish village directly on the border with Syria, my blood ran cold. I had a feeling I knew who these women were.
In early July, a couple of weeks before my ill-fated trip to Syria, there was an explosion in Reyhanli, Turkey. Two men had been constructing a bomb in their living room when it accidentally detonated, killing them both. The men were believed to be with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that kidnapped me. The story was big news in Turkey.
Two of the women sitting next to me were their wives, imprisoned because they were suspected of being al Qaeda members as well.
One of those women, whom we'll call Khadijah, spoke decent English. She was 25 and nine months pregnant. Another, whom we'll call Safa, was 23 and married to the other man and was seven months pregnant. The third woman, 46-year-old "Amina," was Khadijah's mother, and was only arrested because she was in Khadijah's home when it was searched.
"Why take my mother?” Khadijah said. “Us, ok, I understand. We are the wives. But my mother? She has an eight-year-old son. When we told the police this, they told us we could pick him up and bring him to the prison with us.”
The story of that day spilled out. Khadijah had been visiting her uncle in a different neighborhood. Her husband and Safa’s were in Safa’s home. Safa was cooking when she heard the explosion. She ran into the living room, where she found the men still and bloody. She ran into the street, screaming, and was quickly arrested by Turkish officials responding to the explosion.
“They questioned us for four days. But we don’t know anything. We told them this—we don’t know what our husbands were doing, or if they were with al Qaeda,” said Khadijah.
Having spent time with both men and women of al Qaeda while kidnapped in Syria, this rang true. There has been a great deal of coverage of the female brigades with the so-called Islamic State, women who essentially enforce Sharia law among female civilians, but Jabhat operates differently. Women are not a part of operations. While I was kidnapped, Jabhat had me blindfold myself because there were no women available to do so.
With these other detainees in Turkey, I arrived at a new prison in Antakya, where again we were strip searched, and after many hours of waiting in a locked storage closet, we were taken to a large, filthy cell. It had two floors, with a sleeping dormitory on the top level, and an eating area on the bottom level. There was a hole in the steel door the guards used to pass metal trays of food to us.
As we got our mattresses situated upstairs, I turned to Khadijah. “It's funny,” I said. “They think I’m a CIA agent, and I was just kidnapped by al Qaeda. They think you’re al Qaeda. Why would they put us in a cell together?”
Khadijah translated for the others and they all laughed.
“This is an important cell for them,” Khadijah said sarcastically. “Al Qaeda and the CIA!”
A few days after moving in, representatives of the American consulate paid another visit. I asked about my husband. “He’s not in custody,” one of the women said. “But he’s been placed on a travel ban, and he must report to the police weekly.”
“So he’s stuck in Turkey?” I asked. They nodded. “So now, the police have torn apart my apartment and arrested my husband for a few dollar bills. Do you still want to sit here and tell me that I’m sitting in prison because I crossed the border at a particular point?”
“We’re just here for a routine consular visit,” one of the women said. “We don’t have any information beyond this.” Again, I asked them to bring clothes and books.
As the meeting ended, one of the women from the consulate smiled at me and said, “At least we recovered you from Syria! We know where you are, and you are…relatively safe! You aren’t with al Qaeda!”
I sneered at her. “The American government didn’t recover me. I escaped on my own. I got to the border on my own. I had my own safe way across the border, but I agreed to use America’s assistance to cross after they harassed me into doing so. The only thing America did for me was lead me directly into a Turkish prison.”
A week after we’d moved in, Khadijah was taken to the hospital to have her baby. Less than a day later, she returned to our squalid cell with a newborn and a slightly bruised face. She burst into tears the moment the cell door closed.
As Amina and Safa worked to get the baby situated upstairs, Khadijah sat down across from me. “I don’t want to upset my mother and Safa. Especially since Safa will go through this, too, when her baby is born…she is not as strong as me.”
Khadijah said she was taken to the hospital with four guards. They kept her handcuffed the entire time. Shortly after she’d gone into labor (induced with medication), one of the nurses punched her in the face as she writhed in pain. She was forced to have an episiotomy so that the baby would be born as quickly as possible and they could be returned to prison. Shortly after the baby was born, a different nurse told her, “That baby is Shaytan (satan). He should not have been born.”
Tears streamed down Khadijah’s face as she leaned back and stared straight ahead. “I will never forget this,” she said. “This will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The baby slept on a prison mattress. Safa gave up her pillow so he could be placed on top of it and wouldn’t roll off. The only clothing provided for the baby was a single outfit and a ratty towel.
The weeks passed. Some days, I was too depressed to eat. Thankfully, the women in my cell were incredibly caring and encouraged me.
One night, as Khadijah and I sat downstairs talking, our cell door opened. A guard pushed a girl in a niqab and abaya into our cell and shut the door. Ekin was 19 years old. She was Turkish. She’d been arrested a few days earlier after crossing the border from Syria, where she had been a member of ISIS.
I’ve met and interviewed several ISIS members in Syria and Tunisia, and never felt unsafe doing so. But the thought of sharing living quarters with one made me immensely uncomfortable.
Ekin spoke some Arabic (ISIS offered language lessons), so I was able to communicate with her using Khadijah as a translator. After learning I was American, she told Khadijah to tell me that September 11th was great, because they killed so many kafir (nonbelievers.)
I sublimated my rage at this remark, because I wanted to interview her. Prison or not, few journalists have had the opportunity to interview a female ISIS member. I spent days learning her story.
Ekin was Kurdish, from a village near Batman. She learned about “the jihad” in Syria on Facebook, and began regularly communicating with a man from her village who planned to take his wife to Raqqah to join ISIS. The man encouraged Ekin to accompany them, and after a couple of months, she agreed.
When she reached Raqqah, Ekin was separated from the couple and placed with other unmarried Turkish women. She began Sharia lessons. “They were supposed to be teaching us,” she said, “but they would ask us questions about the Quran, and about rules, and if we got one answer wrong, they told us they would kill us.” Luckily for her, she’d been raised a devout Muslim and knew all the answers.
She didn’t like what she saw in Raqqah. One day, she said, she was forced to watch the public execution of a 12-year-old boy, condemned simply because his older brother was a member of a Free Syrian Army faction.
This brutal act pushed her over the edge. She also got the sense that she’d soon be married off. “I didn’t want that…I’m too young,” she said. “So I decided to leave ISIS and go to Jabhat.”
She convinced one of the leaders in her area to let two ISIS women take her shopping, and while she was supposed to be trying clothes on, she slipped out of the store and ran to a smuggler’s home. The smuggler took her to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in the Western countryside of Aleppo…to the same neighborhood where I was first held prisoner.
Jabhat was kind to Ekin. They asked her if she wanted to marry, and when she declined, they didn’t press the issue. They gave her a home and a small stipend to live on.
After six months, Ekin realized that she really missed her family. She didn’t want to leave Jabhat, but she wanted to make a quick visit to them in Turkey. She got permission from the group to make a trip to Turkey, though they warned her the crossing would be dangerous. She went out near Bab al-Hawa, an official crossing point controlled on the Syrian side by Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist faction closely allied to Jabhat.
“I thought the mujahideen would help me,” she said. “But they didn’t. They held me and called the Turkish police. They arrested me as soon as I crossed.” I asked her if she regretted going to Syria. “No. It was for the jihad. For Allah,” she said.
After a 24-day stretch without visits or news, the American consulate personnel made what would be their final visit to me. They referenced comments made by a “spokesman” — someone unthinking at the consulate, I assumed — that the Turkish press was using against me in a slew of negative articles.
After the damaging remarks, the governor of Hatay held a press conference in which he said they were continuing to hold me because they didn’t know whether or not I was a spy.
Later that week, my lawyers came to see me. “You have to look at this from a Turkish person’s perspective,” they said. “If it was just you, crossing alone, a journalist…that would be one thing.”
I nodded and rolled my eyes. “Yes, I know. They sent two helicopters, so I must be a spy.” All three nodded vigorously. The translator cleared his throat.
“Those comments by John Kirby didn’t help,” he said, referring to the Department of Defense’s spokesman.
“Wait, what? John Kirby? That’s the ‘spokesman’ the consulate was referring to? I thought they meant, like, a spokesman for the Adana consulate! What did he say?”
“No, it was John Kirby. And a journalist at a press briefing asked him why you went to Syria. And he told them, basically, that he couldn’t say why you went to Syria.”
I laughed. At this point, it didn’t surprise me at all…but the subsequent response from the journalistic community did.
After Kirby’s remarks, outlets I’d worked with for years made statements like, “We haven’t worked with her in months, and we don’t know much about her.”
Even an outlet where I’d spent two years of 70-hour weeks and for which I made six trips to Syria, four trips to Iraq, and countless others to the Middle East and Africa acted as though I was radioactive.
Much of the journalistic community gossiped that maybe I really was a CIA agent.
In prison, closed off from the world, I imagined that fellow journalists were pushing for my release. I’m glad I didn’t learn the truth until I was released.
I should note, however, that I am eternally grateful to the few journalists who stood behind me.
My lawyers didn’t seem particularly optimistic.
“So look. We are still trying to get you out of here soon. But Turkey hasn’t finished their investigation, and they haven’t charged you yet. It could be three months before they do.”
I wasn’t surprised. At this point, nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors had been dismissed, suspected of being involved in the coup attempt. Many lawyers had been imprisoned. The justice system in Turkey was at a virtual standstill.
But later that night, to my total surprise, one of my lawyers returned to the prison and let me know that I would be released.
I returned to my cell and bade farewell to my cellmates. Khadijah, Safa, and Amina cried tears of joy for me. (At the time of my release, these women had been held for 90 days with no formal charges filed against them. I’ve contacted a family friend who says this is still the case.)
I was taken from the prison and placed in an immigration detention center. It was the worst part of my captivity by far. I spent almost a week in the center, largely populated by Iraqi refugees awaiting deportation. The center’s administration didn’t want to place me with them, so they put me in an empty office.
The staff had no trouble making their disdain for me and for the American government known. On my first night there, one of the staff members came into my room, sat down across from me, and physically demonstrated his belief that 9/11 was an inside job using prison pillows to illustrate his truther conviction. Then, he pulled out his phone to Google me.
“Why did John Kirby say these things about you?” was the first thing he asked, unsurprisingly.
This was about a month before election day in he U.S., and he asked me who I hoped would win. “I hope Trump wins,” he said. “Because then we can sit back and watch your country fall. I hate America. Like our president said…’The world is bigger than five,’” an allusion to the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
All night, every night, guards would sit near my room and loudly discuss Obama, America, and the CIA, in a clear attempt to intimidate me. Whenever I fell asleep, male guards would enter my room and take pictures of me.
No one in the center could tell me when they’d actually be deporting me, and I wasn’t allowed to speak with the consulate or my lawyers. After almost a week, I was told the American government booked me a flight for the following day. As a bonus, the Jandarma, the Turkish gendarmerie, returned the electronics they’d taken from me after arresting me at the border.
I went through the items and noticed something strange. In addition to my equipment, they’d given me six computer hard drives. Each bore a sticker with my name and case number on it. I told the staff at the center that they weren’t mine.
“Just take them,” one told me. “Gift from Turkey!”
I refused, assuming they were trying to plant evidence on me so that they could re-arrest me at the Istanbul airport.
I was finally deported on October 12. My case is technically ongoing, and I’ll be tried in Turkey in absentia. I’d lived in Istanbul prior to this nightmare, so when I was deported, I lost my home. I had many close Syrian friends in Turkey, and I’ll likely never see them again. My life has been completely gutted.
Working as a journalist in Syria, I always knew there was a chance I could be kidnapped. A violent coup attempt unfolding in Turkey while I was in Syria, and Turkey looking to blame said coup attempt on America, and being arrested and accused of being a CIA agent after managing to escape from al-Qaeda…these were unforeseen circumstances.
Despite everything, I am incredibly lucky; 145 journalists remain in prison in Turkey, more than in any other country. More than 37,000 people have been arrested in Turkey in the post-coup purge, and little progress has been made in the vast majority of their cases.
My husband remains in Istanbul, under a travel ban. Lawyers are afraid to take cases related to the coup attempt, and he called more than a hundred before he found one willing to take his case. We have no idea when he will be allowed to leave the country.