Six months ago next week, a Modesto family received some horrible news. Their loved ones were among the 250-plus Assyrian Christians captured when Islamic State fighters stormed their village in Syria.
The hostages included 59-year-old Hanna Amo, whose wife and daughter still live here as does his sister, Sharlet David and her husband, Romel David.
The family here feared the worst but prayed for the best, hoping the captors would be merciful. Early on, they learned Amo and the others were alive and well. Then, the months passed with no word. Earlier this week, though, the Islamic State group released 22 of the captives. Amo, son and daughter-in-law and their two children were not among them. But Sharlet David’s uncle, two aunts and some cousins were, Romel David told me this week.
“We’ll take that little bit of good news,” he said. “We’ve been praying for the Holy Spirit to touch (the Islamic State captors’) hearts. The ones they released are old and sick.”
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Family here spoke to Sharlet David’s uncle and aunts shortly after they were released. They confirmed Amo and the others have been treated well.
“They haven’t been harmed,” Romel David said. “But they live in constant fear. (The Islamic State group) is trying to force (all of the captives) to convert to Islam, but they won’t convert.”
Indeed, the uncle is in his mid-80s. The aunts both are in their early 80s one of the cousins in his 50s. They are not in good health. For most of the hostages, the Islamic State group demands a $100,000 ransom apiece. David doubts the ailing kin paid that.
“I don’t know of any Assyrians who have anywhere near that kind of money,” he said.
Regardless, it’s the first really good news they’ve received since February.
“It’s been like a dark cloud painted on our lives,” David said. “We don’t go to festive events because we think it’s in bad taste. We’ve just stayed away. But we have not given up hope. We pray that God will work miracles and that the people will be released and come to safety.”
It’s been a turbulent and emotional time for all involved. After my Feb. 29 column appeared along with photographs and a video by Modesto Bee photographer Andy Alfaro, David and his wife were besieged by media interview requests, including some from stations in England. They granted an interview with photographer Shawn Baldwin who had been captured while on assignment in the Middle East and could relate to what Amo and his family are experiencing in Syria. Baldwin produced a video on the plight of the family and of Assyrian Christians here who can only pray for the safety of their loved ones in the Middle East. Baldwin posted the video in the spring.
And last week, David addressed the Assyrian American Civic Club in Turlock at an event memorializing the Assyrian genocide of 1915. David told the crowd about what his family has endured worrying about their relatives, and that what the Islamic State group is doing to Christians is the same as what the Turks perpetrated a century ago.
“We should have the courage to call ISIL’s (the Islamic State group’s) barbaric acts – targeted specifically against Christians and other religious minorities – what they are,” he told the audience. “‘Genocide’ is not an overstatement. It is ‘acts committed with the deliberate intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.’ Protecting religious minorities against ISIL and facilitating the safe passage of those in the most precarious circumstances is a moral imperative. We can and must do more.”
It wasn’t until after his presentation that they learned the relatives had been released. Photos posted by relatives on a Facebook page titled “Assyrians around the world” show the uncle, the aunts and others and the conflicting emotions they must feel, being allowed to go while having to leave the others behind.
“They look like they’ve really aged throughout the ordeal,” he said. “It’s taken a toll on all of them.”
He doesn’t know whether they’ll return to their village in Syria’s Hassakeh province, though it’s probably not a great idea, David said.
“They (the Islamic State group) put so many mines and booby traps,” he said. “Ammonium nitrate that explodes when you open a door or refrigerator.”
He hopes they are able to reach a refugee camp in Lebanon, and possibly get an emergency visa to Canada, Norway or another country that might offer safety.
But what they are really hoping and praying for is another phone call, this one telling them that all the relatives are alive, well and no longer in the Islamic State group’s perilous grasp.