WASHINGTON - The parents of an American journalist who has been missing in Syria for the past seven years told VOA in an interview that they are convinced he is still alive and that the U.S. government should do what it can to reveal his whereabouts and ensure his safe return home.
The 38-year-old journalist, Austin Tice, went to Syria in May 2012 to cover the war as it was entering its second year. He was arrested three months later in August at a checkpoint in Darayya suburb, south of the capital Damascus, and has been missing since.
“In the event that Austin sees this interview, [we want him to know] that his mother and father love him very much and his siblings can’t wait to see him again,” Tice’s father, Marc Tice, told VOA. “We know he is strong and we know he will hang in there, and we can’t wait to hold him in our arms.”
Marc Tice said he and his wife, Debra Tice, believe their son is apprehended in Syria, most likely in areas currently under the Syrian government control. The couple have been trying relentlessly for years to secure the release of their son, albeit with no success.
“It doesn’t really matter who is holding him, the thing that really matters is who has the authority to secure his safe relief,” said his mother, Debra. “We know he is still alive; he is somewhere in Syria, most likely in Damascus or its whereabouts. He is staying alive because he wants to walk free.”
The parents have visited Lebanon several times hoping to get into Syria to appeal directly to the Syrian government. They were never granted a visa to enter the war-torn country.
Tice is a veteran Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A graduate of the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he worked as a freelance journalist, reporting for several outlets such as The Washington Post, CBS and the French news agency.
His reporting on Syria focused on the escalating conflict and its consequences on vulnerable people, particularly children.
In a photo he posted on Flickr, June 19, 2012, he wrote, “I have more pictures of beautiful Syrian kids than I could ever possibly use. It breaks my heart to see what is happening to them. No kid should even have to know that things like this happen in the world, much less be forced to live and sometimes die this way.”
He was detained less than two months later, on Aug. 14, 2012.
Nearly five weeks after his disappearance, a video surfaced on social media showing Tice blindfolded and in distress among a group of men leading him away in what observers believe to be a staged video, according to the Tice family. Concurrently, multiple pro-Syrian regime news outlets also reported him being “still alive” and accused him of being a spy for Israel.
The U.S. State Department has said it also believes Tice is still alive and it is actively working to bring him back. The FBI has allocated a $1 million reward for any information leading to his return.
His parents, however, say they believe more should be done to press the Syrian government for more information. The couple on Tice’s 38th birthday, Aug. 11, launched the “Ask About Austin” campaign to garner more popular support.
Organizations such as the National Press Club and Reporters Without Borders have also joined their efforts.
Last September, the National Press Club led teams of volunteers in a congressional outreach effort to inform congressional teams of Tice’s case. It lobbied U.S. lawmakers to sign a bipartisan letter to President Donald Trump urging “continued efforts to free Austin and return him to his family.”
The letter was sent to Trump after receiving 52 signatures from the Senate and 121 from the House of Representatives.
“We strongly urge you that you continue to use the full weight of your national security team — including dispatching the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs — to secure his release. Seven years is simply too long for Austin to be separated from his loved ones,” read the letter led by Representative Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The campaign came after the release two foreigners recently from their detention in Syria, American Sam Goodwin and Canadian Kristian Lee Baxter. Both were released through Lebanon’s mediation.
Dozens of Syrian and foreign journalists who went to Syria to document the war have been killed or injured over the years.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, Syria continues to be an “unbearable environment” for journalists, where the risk of arrest, abduction or death makes journalism “extremely dangerous” in the country.
The Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms said in its September report that since the Syrian uprising started in 2011, about 1,251 violations were committed against journalists. It claimed that half of these violations were committed by the Syrian government, while the Islamic State group seconded the regime in targeting journalists.