On New Year’s Eve of 2012 - an American photojournalist in Syria was kidnapped by terrorists. Matthew Schrier escaped after 7 months in their custody. He spoke to Lisa Fletcher about his new book “The Dawn Prayer: Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison.”
Matthew Schrier: I'm not dying here. I was just like, we're going to live. We'll live. I was always doing that to stay positive.
Matthew Schrier is free, 5 years after he became the first American to escape the Al Nusra front - a branch of Al Qaeda at the time. In Syria as a freelance photojournalist, Schrier was documenting the gritty civil war from the frontlines, when he says a cab driver set him up to be kidnapped - on New Year's Eve 2012.
Schrier: Took me by the arm, led me over to the jeep, put me in the backseat, got in after me, pulled my hat down, put the AK to my temple and a couple of seconds later we were moving.
Lisa: What was your emotional state like?
Schrier: I actually even checked my pulse - wasn't that bad because my hands were like this and I was just curious because I felt like I was, I felt calmer than I should have been.
Lisa: You talk about that in your book, how you use humor with your captors and with the other prisoners. How did that serve you?
Schrier: It’s served me well. I was like, are you going to kill me? He said nah, so I let a few minutes go by and then I just screamed out like happy new year. And I leaned over when I said it, I looked out and his reaction was positive. Like he smiled, he jumped back and then everyone in the room they all started to laugh. And I was like, all right, good job. You broke the ice to keep it going.
That favor wouldn't last. Schrier would be moved 6 times in the span of captivity, and would face hunger, sickness, and torture.
Schrier: They take a tire and they force it over your knees. And then you take a bar and they slip over the tire, but under your knees in the crook and it basically locks it into place so you can't move and you're cuffed. So then they flipped you over and you get your hands cuffed and your feet in the air and you take a cable that's about this thick and they just whacked the bottoms of your feet with it and it kills.
Desperate to get out, Schrier set sights on a wired window in his cell - and took his next move from a scene in Jurassic Park. Movie clip: “She had them all attacking the fences. The fences are electrified right? That’s right, but they never attack the same place twice. They’re testing the fences for weaknesses systematically.”
Schrier: And I thought of the characters - the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. And I remembered how the Australian guy said, every time they jumped up at the fence they hit a different spot that they were testing for flaws. So that's what I did, I started testing every wire. Three of them were welded on the left side and then I moved to the right side. All of them move. And that's when I figured it out. And I smiled and I said, my God, I was like, I got you. Ramadan is full swing. So basically the jihadis, they wake up super early, they pray, they eat, they pray and they go back to sleep because they have to fast all day. And every day I was studying the sky looking at the sky because we had to escape on the cover of darkness. But we couldn't get stuck walking around and it, because you can't walk in Aleppo at night - or then get shot or kidnapped again. So you have to go like 10 minutes before sunrise. So the time came and I went first, two arms, got stuck around my waist. I was half in, half out, Sun's coming up and it was my pants, so I reached out to tug on my pants, so I suck in my stomach, which was hard because it was such a narrow window and fumbled with the buttons and finally I got the button open and I just shot out my underwear and my pants around my ankles.
Lisa: Schrier escaped, but wandered the streets for nearly an hour - until he found men who'd direct him to the Free Syrian Army. They would help him get to the Turkish border, where he could arrange travel back to the US.
Schrier: They asked do you want to talk to your mother? And I'm like, yeah, so you put me on the phone with her and she's just crying. I couldn't even understand a word she was saying.
Lisa: A lot of times when I interview people who go through very traumatic situations in their life and they come through on the other end. They have this sense that things happen for a reason. Do you ever have that sense about this?
Matt: Yes, yes. For a lot of the different reasons. You know, there's what I do with the military. I had been doing speaking engagements for them ever since. And I tell the story in a perspective where if, God forbid, any of our soldiers ever get captured, they don't have to learn the hard way, the way I did, they go in there with tricks up their sleeve so they know certain things to do, certain things not to do. And I think it gives them a real advantage if, God forbid anyone gets captured. And it's the best feeling. I love it. It's, it's like my pride and joy.
The FBI told us the investigation into Schrier’s kidnapping is still open, and it’s working with international partners to gather intelligence - and assess the possibility of charges against those who victimized Schrier.