Imagine being forced to your knees, with a gun at your head or a knife at your throat, and being told by some really angry Islamic State insurgents to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam or be killed.
Imagine experiencing this virtually every day for six months, and finally telling your tormentors at one point, “Then just do it! Kill me and get it over with!”
Hanna Amo doesn’t need to imagine any of that. He did it, and lived to tell about it.
You might remember his story. Amo, 62, is an Assyrian Christian who came to the United States with his wife, Angie, and daughter Manar in 2009, moving to Modesto be near relatives including sister Sharlet David and her husband, Romel David. The Amos have permanent resident immigration status.
Son Martin, though, remained in Syria with his wife and their two young sons. Well along in the process to receive refugee visas to the U.S., they planned to join the family in Modesto as well.
But as ISIS rose in power through murder and intimidation, Amo returned to Syria late in 2014. He hoped to help Martin extract his family from the war-torn country and head to United States. Instead, ISIS forces swooped early one morning in February 2015, storming their village and taking 250 hostages including Hanna, Martin and other family members.
When that happened, brother-in-law Romel David talked to me about Hanna’s capture and the family’s angst back home in Modesto. Someone within ISIS, he said, apparently read the column because a few days after it posted online, machine gun-wielding ISIS goons burst into the barracks where they housed Amo and the others. They wanted to know who knew Romel David in America? He was looking for his family members, they said.
“(Hanna and Martin) said nothing,” David said. “They knew (ISIS) would hit me up for ransom, and if I couldn’t pay, they would kill them.”
For the next six months, Amo and the others experienced the terror of ISIS. Separated from Martin, Hanna Amo would hear that his son was being beaten and tortured. Every day, their ISIS captors would demand that all the captives renounce Christianity for Islam, and each day the captives refused.
“I don’t know why they didn’t kill me,” Amo said through his brother-in-law’s translation. “Part of it was a campaign of propaganda, of fear and tyranny.”
ISIS includes a mix of foreign nationals, from Arabs to Asians and Pakastanis. Some of the Saudis and Pakastanis, Amo said, scornfully shed their scarves and bared their faces.
“They didn’t care if they were recognized,” Amo said. But the ones from his village remain shielded. They were tormenting people they had known all their lives in some cases, and didn’t want to be identified.
“(Amo had) known their families,” David said. “He had broken bread with them.”
One day, the captors took six people out into the desert, blind-folding three them.
“They told them to ‘plead to your family and your God for help, and for money for ransom,’ ” Hanna Amo said. Then they executed them, bringing the remaining three back to tell the others the gruesome details. Except the three didn’t – not immediately, perhaps from pure fear and emotional trauma.
While Amo remained a captive in Syria, wife Angie could only pray in Modesto.
“A continuous, ongoing vigil,” she said. “I prayed for intercession from the saints. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Sharlet David, his sister, remained buoyed by the support of area churches and also her customers at Save Mart, who routinely asked for updates and to offer prayers. They were answered, in part.
In August 2015, ISIS suddenly released Amo and some of the others. He remained in Syria, and in the village where he lived and was a businessman before coming to United States. He couldn’t leave while ISIS still held Martin and family.
Four months later, they released them. No explanations, not that anyone demanded one. They reunited with Hanna Amo, and began working toward obtaining passports for Martin and his family. Hanna Amo’s passport expired while he was captured, but he was able to get new documents and flew to Germany a few weeks ago.
His son and family are in Lebanon, hoping President Trump’s travel ban won’t prevent them from coming to America and joining their extended family in Modesto.
Friday, Hanna Amo flew into San Francisco. When the plane touched down, he stood on American soil for the first time more than two years. How did it feel?
“Bittersweet,” Romel David translated. “He was elated with the joy of knowing his life would never be in danger again. But Martin and his family are still there (Lebanon).”
Standing in the comfort and safety of his sister’s living room, and standing alongside his wife, Amo told me he has no regrets that he returned to his homeland despite all that transpired. He would do it all over again – living under the threat of death – if necessary.
“Absolutely,” he said. “My son is there. I have grandchildren there. Yes. God willing, they will touch town here soon, too.”