'I Was Absolutely Terrified': American Sam Goodwin Describes Syrian Prison Time
Sam Goodwin's first day in captivity was one of his worst. "This was the point where I was incredibly terrified," he recalls about his ordeal. "I felt like I had committed suicide but I was still alive."
A few hours earlier, on May 25, 2019, Goodwin was detained at a Syrian army checkpoint in the northeast part of the country. "A truck pulled up and two armed men jumped out and told me to get inside. I did not have a choice," Goodwin says.
Goodwin, from St. Louis, was 30 when he was trapped in Syria's notoriously brutal prison system for 62 days. He's one of the few Americans who have been there and now, after his family and Lebanese intermediaries helped secure his release, he's telling his story.
On his first day, he says, he was shoved into a filthy jail cell, locked inside with nothing but regrets.
"My initial reaction was to reach for the reset button, like when you're playing 'Mario Kart' and you drive off a cliff, but it wasn't a game," he says about the first dark hours. "I will never forget my exact thought and it was: 'Is this where my story ends?'"
His fears were well founded; U.S. citizens have previously disappeared in Syria's prison system. The most high-profile case, freelance journalist Austin Tice, went missing in 2012 while covering the country's civil war. A U.S. psychotherapist, Majd Kamalmaz, was detained at a checkpoint in 2017. The Czech ambassador to Syria, an intermediary between the U.S. and the Syrian regime, initially confirmed that Kamalmaz was held in a Syrian prison, but the Syrian regime disputes the claim.
"I was in a dungeon"
This terrifying detour was not part of Goodwin's mission. He says he was on a quest to visit every country in the world. With only 13 to go, he decided to visit Syria.
Goodwin insists he is a careful traveler, with more than 180 countries under his belt. "I built an ice rink in Pakistan, I coached volleyball in Kabul," he says. "Tons of people are going to say, 'This guy is a total idiot.' But I think it would be good if just a little bit of context is provided."
He'd been to Somalia, North Korea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Syria was a tough security challenge, but he says he followed the guidelines carefully researched by journalists and aid workers. He secured permission from the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities who controlled areas in northeastern Syria. He traveled overland from Iraq, heading to the Syrian town of Qamishli, and checked into the Asia Hotel. What he didn't have was permission from the Syrian government.
Goodwin had scheduled a flight back to Missouri the following week. He walked out of the hotel to call his mother — when he took a wrong turn. He did not know there was a Syrian army checkpoint within walking distance of the hotel and he was detained.
Goodwin was quickly transferred to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and detained in Branch 215, run by the country's military intelligence services. This was a notorious prison, called the "branch of death" in a Human Rights Watch report, documenting torture and thousands of executions of inmates.
"I was in a dungeon, there were men with no shirts on mopping the floor, it smelled horrible, there were rats," says Goodwin. "I never saw another inmate, but the facility was not soundproof. The inmates, they would scream. Hearing this happen every day — of course, I won't ever forget the sound of that."
"Want me to hand you over to ISIS?"
After 23 days of solitary confinement, Goodwin says, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and marched to a room where his interrogator spoke perfect American English. For hours, he was asked the same question: "Why did you come to Syria, Sam?" Goodwin's answer, that he aimed to visit every country in the world, was not convincing.
"'Sam. You're a liar. You'd better start telling the truth. Or I will do a 180 with your life. Do you want me to hand you over to ISIS?" Goodwin remembers the interrogator say.
"I am handcuffed, blindfolded, I've spent the last three weeks in a cement box in a Syrian prison and now an interrogator is threatening to hand me over to ISIS? I was absolutely terrified," he says.
Syrian officials haven't responded to NPR's requests for comment on Goodwin's ordeal.
Family rescue efforts, a fateful call
But Goodwin's circumstances were about to change.
"We had very little information on where Sam might be held, or the conditions," says Luke Hartig, who was a counterterrorism specialist in the Obama White House. Then out of government, Hartig met with Goodwin's parents in Washington, D.C., soon after their son was detained.
The Goodwins also met with the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, led by the FBI and including staff from the State Department and the Pentagon. "They were pretty visibly distraught by the whole process," Hartig says of the parents.
The Goodwins worked closely with the U.S. government, but also charted a separate course to find and rescue their son. This Catholic family sent a letter to Pope Francis, and reached out to U.S. diplomats and journalists based in the region.
Looking back, Sam Goodwin says the turning point came when his younger sister, Stephanie McCue, made a call to her former college roommate, Stephanie Hajjar. He learned about the call after his release and describes the exchange.
"If there is anything I can do, just let me know," Hajjar said, according to Goodwin.
"Honestly, there's probably nothing you can do unless you know Assad," he says his sister replied, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad. "And the other Steph says, 'Wait a second. Let me call you back.'"
As it turns out, Hajjar's uncle in Connecticut was a former Lebanese military officer who remained friends with Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon's top security official.
"So, that's really how I got out — it was through this phone call," Goodwin says.
Hartig sees the liaising with a Lebanese security official as key as well. "We knew that Abbas Ibrahim was probably one of the best bets we were going to have to make anything happen, given the situation," he says.
Message smuggled in laundry
Ibrahim now had to convince Syrian authorities that Goodwin was an adventurous traveler — not a spy.
In the meantime, Goodwin was moved to Adra prison, northeast of the capital, where he shared a cell with 40 men, including a telecom executive, students, activists, laborers, even a couple of English teachers.
"They became friends. We cooked and we shared food together. On the prison basketball court, I taught some of them to play knockout. It was unquestionably an upgrade from where I had come from," Goodwin says.
They told him their stories about brutality and torture in prison. "He was just like us," says Mahmoud Hamoud, a fellow prisoner, arrested at 17, released seven years later, now living in exile in Paris with his parents.
Goodwin spent 34 days with these Syrian men. In that time, inmates helped him smuggle out messages to his family. His first note was carried in dirty laundry.
"I am safe and healthy but I need help," he wrote to his father. Goodwin also included personal details that only his family would recognize, he says, "I wrote: 'I am excited for my next salmon dinner at the Missouri Athletic Club.'"
Another inmate got a call out to his family and included a message from Goodwin. "I had a friend at Adra who called his sister in Syria and his sister then messaged my sister on Instagram," says Goodwin. He learned later that security professionals warned that these messages were likely a hoax.
"My faith was absolute"
Goodwin's family did not publicize his disappearance. They worked quietly with U.S. officials, but put their faith in Ibrahim, the security chief in Lebanon.
In Adra prison, Goodwin knew nothing about the negotiations. He met Ibrahim for the first time in an office in Damascus, when Goodwin finally realized he was going home.
"I said, 'You're from Lebanon.' And he looks at me and he says, 'Yeah, I'm going to take you there today — so you want to go?'" Goodwin recalls. "We drove out of Damascus at 100 miles an hour."
When the convoy stopped at the Lebanese border, an officer leaned over to whisper to Goodwin, "'Sam, you're in Lebanon, you are safe now.' Words I will never forget," he says.
He was reunited with his parents in Beirut. On July 26, 2019, they issued a statement confirming his release.
Goodwin now is enrolled in a master's in international affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. A devout Catholic, he is often invited to speak to religious groups about this time in a Syrian prison. "Everything was taken from me," he says about his detention, "my material possessions, my communications, my freedom. But I knew that no matter what, my faith was absolute. And that's what I had to hold on to when I had nothing else."
He also held on to his travel dream. "It was therapeutic," he says, "it helped me feel normal again post-captivity."
Brazil was Goodwin's last stop in his quest. On New Year's Eve he celebrated the end of 2019 on Copacabana Beach. Within months, the pandemic shut down international travel.
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