In 2012, VOA reporter Sirwan Kajjo met the American freelance journalist Austin Tice, who was planning a reporting trip to Syria. A few months later, Tice went missing at a Syrian checkpoint. His family believes he is alive and in captivity and have spent the past decade advocating for his return. Here, Kajjo reflects on Tice and interviews the journalist's family about the case.
Sitting at a table at a Dupont Circle bar in Washington, Austin Tice was impassioned as he spoke about the war in Syria.
“They don’t get it, man,” he said. “They don’t put this conflict into context. They don’t effectively show the voices of people impacted by this war.”
It was March 2012, and Tice, a Marine-turned journalist, had been following the conflict in Syria closely, with plans to go there to report.
We had met a few days earlier when Tice, then age 31, attended an event where I was speaking for a Washington think tank.
Later, over beer and chicken wings, we discussed the fast-changing dynamics of the conflict, which was already risky for reporters.
We parted ways and promised to stay in touch, exchanging messages when he left for Syria that May.
In our last exchange that July, I told him, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up and stay safe.”
One month later, Tice was taken captive at a checkpoint outside Damascus.
Beyond a short video shared five weeks later, showing Tice blindfolded and captive, his family and friends have heard nothing further.
Search for answers
Based on details including the location of the checkpoint where Tice was detained, and the IP address linked to the video, the journalist’s family and U.S. officials believe Tice is held in Syria.
No armed or extremist groups claimed to have Tice. And while the Assad government has not publicly acknowledged if he is in their custody, those familiar with the case say it has been willing to meet with officials about efforts to locate and return Tice.
Tice's family and supporters are operating under the assumption that he is still alive. With little to go on, they acknowledge advocating for Tice is a struggle.
His parents, Debra and Marc Tice, have worked through three U.S. presidencies and in 2014, Debra Tice spent 83 days in Damascus where her son was last seen.
She refuses to lose hope and even now supports her son’s decision to report from Syria at such a risky time.
“You know, my heart skipped a beat when he said that he wanted to go to Syria, but I knew that he felt called,” she said, when we met at the National Press Club in Washington in May. “That's been something I've had second thoughts about because I've encouraged all of the kids to find their path.”
Originally from Houston, Texas, Tice’s service in the Marines included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. When we met back in 2012, he spoke of how that experience shaped his world view and helped him understand the political and cultural contexts of faraway lands.
Tice later studied law at Georgetown University before deciding to report on Syria.
“He went there to tell the story of ordinary people impacted by the conflict in Syria,” his mother said.
Her son believed Western coverage of Syria wasn’t enough to help people understand the reality of the situation.
From May 2012, he covered the conflict for publications including the McClatchy media group and the Washington Post, earning awards presented in his absence.
But Tice’s interest in reporting came at a dangerous time for journalists in Syria.
In February 2012, Syrian forces killed veteran correspondent Marie Colvin, who was on assignment for Britain's The Sunday Times, and French freelancer Remi Ochlik. And that November, freelancers James Foley and John Cantlie were abducted.
The Islamic State later killed Foley and several other hostages, including journalists and aid workers from the U.S., Britain and Japan. Cantlie, a British journalist, was forced to appear in propaganda videos.
Like Tice, his fate is unknown.
Extremist groups weren’t the only ones to target the news media. Syria’s government detained several journalists during this period, including three in 2012 and 2013.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organization, says relatives and colleagues have heard nothing from any of the journalists since they were detained.
The Tice family are also in the dark. Their efforts to secure their son’s release have spanned three U.S. administrations.
“Every election is a turmoil, right, and things have to change over and we have to meet new people,” Debra Tice said.
The U.S. has tried to locate Tice. In 2020, two senior U.S. officials under former President Donald Trump traveled to Syria.
And in May 2022, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, met with Lebanon’s intelligence chief as part of efforts to renew negotiations with Syria over Tice’s case.
U.S. efforts to secure the release of other detained Americans renewed the Tice family’s hope.
When they met with Biden in May, the president cited the case of American Trevor Reed, a former Marine freed in April after nearly three years in prison in Russia.
“The things that [President Biden] said were hugely uplifting,” Debra Tice said. “But what Austin needs is action. And that’s the thing that’s been missing for so long.”
U.S. journalists and former colleagues have joined the Tice family in their efforts to advocate for Austin.
At the National Press Club in Washington, a clock counts every second that Tice has been captive. In a separate room, his belongings – a notebook, sneakers, awards – are on display.
Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, is dedicated to keeping the case alive in the news.
“We haven’t seen or heard from him in those 10 years,” he said. “There’s very little for us to go on, so we have to develop those things.”
Debra Tice also acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining momentum.
“The news cycle these days, it used to be a week when I was a little girl and now it's minutes or maybe even seconds,” she said.
August 14 will mark the 10th year since Austin’s family last heard from him. His mother holds out hope the family will be reunited.
“Austin has a lot of choices to make when he comes home, and I’m just seeing how he redefines his path, having been basically detained from all of his thirties effectively,” she said. “I'll support him in whatever it is that he decides to do.”