The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the latest organisation to deny claims by the Truth Collective SA (TCSA) that it had anything to do with negotiating the release of South African photojournalist Shiraaz Mohamed, kidnapped at gunpoint in Syria in January.
The revelation casts further doubt on an account by Truth Collective SA director Bakar al-Maharmeh that his NGO is in the process of negotiating Mohamed’s release after the journalist was captured by persons unknown in January.
Red Cross spokesperson Iolanda Jaquemet said: “I have checked with my colleagues, and the ICRC in Syria is not aware of this case.
“Generally speaking, if requested by all parties to a conflict, the ICRC can play a role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary during prisoners’ swaps, be it in Syria or elsewhere.”
When contacted, al-Maharmeh denied the ICRC’s claim, and said he was working with the Syrian Red Cross. When asked for evidence about community projects his organisation had completed, he referenced TCSA’s Facebook page which, while carrying news of aid to Syria by other – mainly Russian – organisations, showed no actual work by the Truth Collective.
“The truth will come out,” said Gift of the Givers director Dr Imtiaaz Sooliman, whose organisation has been working behind the scenes to locate Mohamed.
Gift of the Givers was implicated by al-Maharmeh on Friday in being involved with Mohamed’s capture, which Sooliman says isn’t true.
Department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) spokesperson Nelson Kgwete neither confirmed nor denied this, saying Dirco “…continues to work with Syrian authorities and other interested stakeholders, through its mission in Damascus, on efforts to free Mr Mohamed. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, we are unable to release details.”
Yusuf Abramjee of the Operation SA Foundation – which has delivered more than R14 million in donations to various aid organisations in and around Syria – said the fact that TCSA had used the name of the Red Cross, which didn’t know anything about them, said a lot.
“Also very, very, wrongly, he goes on a mission to attack the Gift of the Givers, which I think is completely wrong,” said Abramjee, who said al-Maharmeh’s motives were being questioned by members of the community.
Kgwete refused to say how Dirco and al-Maharmeh had initially become involved, and would not confirm if a trip for South African media and observers to Syria was being facilitated by al-Maharmeh, whose claims have now been denied by the Red Cross, local community aid organisations and, now, the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (Trac).
However, TCSA’s Facebook page does show the group has high-level political connections both in South Africa and Syria.
On November 18, it shows a photo of al-Maharmeh and others with Deputy Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation Nomaindiya Mfeketo, allegedly after having delivered a report on a 2015 fact-finding mission to Syria.
“She was very enthusiastic about the community interaction and assured us the meeting has opened a dialogue about Syria that will continue in future between her department and the community,” the post states.
The Trac director, a 14-year veteran of the former National Intelligence Agency, Jasmine Opperman, said she had spoken to people in Syria who were unaware of the group’s claimed activities.
“No one can claim control and it remains a high-risk visit – the [President Bashar] al-Assad government will most probably only take them to areas where they have control, which means the realities of Syria in a holistic manner will not be accessed,” said Opperman.
“I’m worried, because this group is making statements about negotiating with the rebels, and it comes out of nowhere,” said Opperman.
She opined that Mohamed had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was grabbed, and she did not believe claims surfacing on social media on Tuesday that he may have joined up with a rebel group.
“It just contradicts his personality, that is my concern,” said Opperman. “If I look at his past, and his passion for his work, and how he has captured humanitarian issues, it just totally contradicts the claim.
“Yes, radicalisation in Syria can take place at a very fast pace because of the humanitarian abuses, but I don’t believe Mohamed has joined anyone.”
Al-Maharmeh has claimed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was holding Mohamed, while Gift of the Givers has stated the same group has agreed to help it in tracking him down.
Yet while al-Maharmeh was doing the media rounds on Friday, all the jihadist groups had already banded together under one banner, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), making it an army of some 31 000 people strong.
This means, said Opperman, that while South Africa may claim to enjoy cordial bilateral relations with Syria, its government was seen as maintaining control no matter what the cost or how many human rights violations happened.
This meant the planned visit by a South African contingent would not be supported by rebel groups.
“And if Mohamed has been taken by these groups, rest assured this could be the end for him,” warned Opperman.