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As Fighting Rages, A Prisoner Swap In Syria

The daily fighting in Syria included this gun battle Wednesday involving rebels in the northern city of Aleppo. Still, the rival sides recently worked out a prisoner swap in which two women were freed from state custody, while the rebels released seven pro-government fighters. (AFP/Getty Images)

The bitter fighting in Syria seems to grow worse by the day, yet the rebels and the government do occasionally manage to work out something that requires each side to trust the other: prisoner swaps.

In one recent exchange, two women held by the government were freed in exchange for seven men who were fighting on behalf President Bashar Assad's regime.

After being freed near the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, the two women traveled across the border to Antakya, Turkey, and agreed to be interviewed. The women and their negotiator squeezed together on a living room sofa to tell the story.

Alaa Moralli, 22, and Majida Mahmoud, 40, had documented anti-government protests in Latakia and were arrested and jailed by the Syrian government in June.

The negotiator, Haitham Tarboosh, a former real estate agent, is now a rebel commander wearing freshly pressed green fatigues.

When Moralli first heard that she might be released, she refused to believe it.

"I thought this was another game the regime was playing. I said, 'No, you are lying. I'm not going anywhere with you,' " she says.

Caught In A Propaganda War

There were reasons for her doubts. After her arrest, she says, she was forced to make a confession that was broadcast on Syrian state TV, and it was considered a propaganda coup for the government.

In this broadcast, she said that before her arrest she had sent fake news reports about the uprising in her home city to Arabic satellite channels.

Syrian officials routinely charge that Western and Arabic media broadcast fabricated stories about Syria as part of a Western-backed conspiracy.

Her televised statement was posted on Facebook by thousands of Syrians.

"I wasn't tortured," she says now. "They would just make me hear the sound of people being tortured. Before they recorded that video of me there was a 15-year-old boy being tortured. And I thought if I would just say [what the government wanted] they would release me."

Her release finally came when a rebel brigade called the Hawks of the Syrian Coast negotiated the exchange.

Tarboosh, the negotiator, says his brigade holds some 80 prisoners, a combination of security police and civilian militamen known as "shabiha," who were captured in battles around Latakia.

Prisoners Call Home

Tarboosh allowed the prisoners to call home. It was a gesture that shows some social customs still survive even in this brutal civil war.

"The prisoners would call their families from my phone," he says. "Every second day we would allow them to talk to their families."

And soon the families started calling Tarboosh.

"So, all the 80 families would talk to us — and they wanted their sons," he says.

The families, all supporters of the Assad regime, then pressed government officials to make a deal, says Tarboosh. But such negotiations require trust — trust that both sides will deliver and not set a trap.

"There is no trust between us. We don't trust this regime," Tarboosh says. "Deliver and you get a delivery is the rule."

The "delivery" was a remarkable success, with every step documented by the rebels.

In a video, two cars arrived on the highway outside of Latakia, where the prisoners from both sides walked to freedom. And when it was over, the rebels made another video of their own propaganda coup.

In this video, Alaa Moralli, just released from 65 days in prison, looks a little startled to be cradling an AK-47 rifle. Tarboosh, the negotiator, reads out a statement claiming a victory over the Assad regime.

But the larger message — the successful swap of prisoners — shows that even during a brutal war, families matter, as do old connections from before the war. And communication is sometimes still possible.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Syria, the civil war is turning more brutal and bloody, and any negotiation between the government and rebels seems impossible. But a rare prisoner exchange demonstrates that some channels of communication are open.

NPR's Deborah Amos has that story from Antakya, Turkey, near the Syrian border.

HAITHAM TARBOOSH: (Foreign language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Three Syrians, a man and two women, squeeze together on a living room sofa to tell the story of a prisoner swap. One was a college history major; another, a real estate agent; the third, a wedding photographer from Latakia, Syria's coastal city. But the revolution has profoundly changed their lives.

The two women, Alaa Moralli and Majida Mahmoud, documented anti-government protests. They were arrested and jailed by the Syrian government in June. The real estate agent, Haitham Tarboosh, is now a rebel commander in freshly-pressed green fatigues. He negotiated the trade of seven men captured in battle to get the two activists out. And at first, Moralli couldn't believe she would be released from jail.

ALAA MORALLI: (Through Translator) I refused in the beginning. I thought that this is another game that the regime was playing. I said no, you are lying and I'm not going anywhere with you.

AMOS: There were reasons for her doubts. Her arrest and confession broadcast on Syrian state TV was a propaganda coup for the government.

MORALLI: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: In this broadcast, she said she sent fake news reports about the uprising in her home city to Arabic satellite channels. Her televised statement was posted on Facebook by thousands of Syrians. It was a confession, she says, she was forced to make.

MORALLI: (Through Translator) I wasn't tortured; they would just make me hear the sound of people being tortured. Before they recorded that video in front of me, there was a 15-year-old boy being tortured. And I thought if I'll just say it they would finally release me.

AMOS: But her release finally came when a rebel brigade, called the Hawks of the Syrian Coast, negotiated the exchange. Haitham Tarboosh explains his brigade holds some 80 prisoners - regime men, security police and civilian militiamen known as Shabiha - captured in neighborhood battles around Latakia.

Tarboosh allowed the prisoners to call home. It was a gesture that shows some social customs still survive, even in this brutal civil war.

TARBOOSH: (Through Translator) The prisoners would call their families from my phone. So, from every second day, we would allow them to talk to their families.

AMOS: And soon, the families started calling Tarboosh.

TARBOOSH: (Through Translator) So all the 80 families would talk to us. They wanted their sons.

AMOS: The families, all supporters of the Assad regime, then pressed government officials to make a deal, says Tarboosh. But any negotiation require trust, trust that both sides will deliver and not set a trap. The negotiator, Tarboosh, says that's in short supply.

TARBOOSH: (Through Translator) There is no trust between us. We don't trust this regime. Deliver and you get a delivery is the rules.

(Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: The delivery as he calls it was a remarkable success with every step documented by the rebels. In this video, two cars arrived on the highway outside of Latakia where the prisoners from both sides walked to freedom. And when it was over, the rebels made another video, their own propaganda coup.

TARBOOSH: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Alaa Moralli, just released from 65 days in prison, looked a little startled to be cradling an AK-47. The negotiator, Tarboosh, read out a statement claiming a victory over the Assad regime. But the larger message, the successful swap, shows even during a brutal civil war, families matter. As do old connections from before the war and communication is sometimes still possible.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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