"I Knew They Might Cut Off My Head on Camera"

German journalist Janina Findeisen was kidnapped by terrorists in Syria and held captive despite being pregnant. She was finally released in 2016. Here, she speaks of her months of captivity, during which she gave birth to her son – and alternated between fear and hope.

25 Minuten Lesezeit

Interview: Frederik Obermaier, Bastian Obermayer, Photos: Julia Sellman

You've been back in Germany now for two-and-a-half years. How often do you think about your kidnapping?

Every day. It'll probably be like that forever. It's like background noise. After all, it changed me as a person. I don't feel resentment when I think about that time, even though some of it was horrible. When I was there, I always hoped I would be able to come home. I thought that if I just make it home, everything would be alright. It wasn't quite that easy, but I made it. I got a second chance, which cannot be said for everyone who was kidnapped there.

Did you get help?

Yes, Reporters Without Borders put me in touch with a very good therapist who knows a lot about Syria. But the thing that had the most therapeutic effect was the book I wrote about my time as a hostage. Finally, I was no longer helpless – and I found new strength through writing.

Why did you travel to Syria in October 2015, even though the civil war was raging?

I was working on a documentary film together with an executive production company. WDR, NDR and BR (German public broadcasters), as well as the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW (a media funding foundation), had already guaranteed financing. The working title was “Paradiesvogel” (Bird of Paradise), and it was going to be about my schoolmate, who I will call Laura. Around 10 years ago, Laura dedicated her life to jihad and has been living in Syria with her three children for several years.

Why don't you use your former schoolmate's real name? It's well known to experts. Why do you want to protect a jihadi?

I'm not so much protecting her as her children and her family in Germany. The documentary film's aim was to get away from the clichés that surround this milieu – the propaganda worlds created by the Islamists themselves, or the terrorist stereotypes perpetuated by many media organizations. I thought I could tell the story of her journey differently, in a less cookie-cutter way. Laura and I used to have a very good relationship, and we've known each other since first grade. That's why I had hoped she would tell me more and be more honest about this world and what she had experienced since her emigration in 2009. The idea was to let her speak – but not just with the statements she had uttered in the propaganda videos she had appeared in.

Your former schoolmate has become one of Germany's foremost jihadis.

I well remember seeing her first video. She was sitting on a chair, fully veiled, wearing a holster and calling for jihad. She was the first woman to appear in a German-language propaganda video.

How did you plan this trip?

The trip was originally planned by Laura's mother. She hadn't seen her daughter for years and wanted to see her grandchildren – and she probably wanted to bring Laura and her children back to Germany. I heard about it, since I was in touch with Laura and her mother, and I decided to accompany her. From today's perspective, that may sound strange. But at the time, I thought it was feasible. I wanted to go in, interview her and get out. I also had a security guarantee.

A security guarantee?

From Laura and her group.

Did you know which group it was?

Not really. She had hinted that it was connected to the Nusra Front. That was it.

"It wasn't clear to me at the time that I was making the biggest mistake of my life."

The Al-Nusra Front was affiliated with al-Qaida for quite some time. What did your security guarantee look like?

It was an email. Laura wrote that nothing would happen to me and that I would be treated well. I could enter the country and leave again safely. It was of course a huge mistake that I trusted this guarantee, which likely no one else would have trusted.

You were seven months pregnant at the time. Do you understand those who say: How could Janina Findeisen have done such a thing?

Sure. I'm one of those people now, too. But things were different back then. I felt pressured – not least because of my pregnancy. I wanted to tell this story before having to wait until I could work again several months after the pregnancy. It wasn't clear to me at the time that I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

Two of your childhood friend's husbands had previously died in battle. One of them was a known German jihadi and wanted by the U.S. Your friend had called for a war against infidels – which included you. Did you still feel like the two of you were friends?

As I traveled to Syria, I no longer had the feeling that we were friends like we had been when we went to school together for 13 years. It was clear that we lived in worlds that had little to no overlap. Our relationship was also marred by mistrust – she was afraid I would betray her, and I was afraid she would betray me. Still, she was a point of access for me and a guarantor of my security. I thought this was something very special between us.

Shouldn't someone have stopped you?

Definitely. There would have been plenty of opportunities to do so. But in the end, it was my decision. And my mistake.

Who knew that you wanted to travel to Syria while pregnant?

The production company I was working with. They took out a health insurance policy for me that covered the time I planned to be in Syria.

When contacted by SZ-Magazin, the production company denied having known about your trip to Syria. They said only a trip to Turkey had been planned.

But the production company took out an insurance policy for me. On the document, it says: "War risk and terrorism coverage." And the only country the insurance policy was valid in was: "Syrian Arab Republic."

Had you ever been to a war zone before?

No, just once to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I was naive.

You said that the public broadcasters WDR, NDR and BR, as well as the Medienstiftung NRW, wanted to finance your film. Did these organizations know about your travel plans?

No, not as far as I know. BR, NDR and the Medienstiftung weren't really involved in the film, they had only agreed to finance it. For the production company, WDR was the point of contact. As far as I know, the broadcaster didn't know anything about the trip.

How did your family and friends react to your travel plans?

Almost no one knew except the father of my child, who was also supposed to be the co-director of the film.

SZ-Magazin spoke with him and he said he tried to stop you.

Not hard enough, unfortunately. He accompanied me to Antakya, Turkey, 40 kilometers from the Syrian border.

You had a security guarantee from your schoolmate. What other safety precautions did you take?

I had arranged with the father of my child to get in touch at regular intervals. I then sent him a message that I was OK. Unfortunately, there weren't any other safety precautions, even if hindsight indicates they would have been necessary. I didn't take a mobile phone or a GPS device with me, which could have revealed my location. It was unclear whether such devices would have put me in more danger had I met with high-ranking jihadis. If you're sitting next to an Islamist, you're providing the coordinates for a drone attack – and the target may be more important to someone than your own life.

How did you ultimately get to the war zone?

Laura organized everything. I flew with her mother to Turkey, and in Antakya we were supposed to meet a human trafficker who Laura had arranged for us.

But then your friend's mother didn't come along?

Right. At that time in Syria, the first Russian bombardments had just begun and the situation got too dangerous for her. She gave me a bag with things for Laura and her children – toys, a tablet, children's shampoo and sweets, halal Haribo and Raffaello, which Laura had asked for. And then she flew back to Germany.

And what about you?

I said goodbye to the father of my child in Antakya and met the trafficker at the agreed location. His name was Waleed and he was Syrian. I had to wait at his brother-in-law's apartment for three days. Then we left one evening and drove half an hour or 45 minutes toward the border. I had put on a niqab, so I was fully veiled and only my eyes were visible. Officially, my story was that I was the wife of the trafficker. We hoped that as a woman, I wouldn't be checked. Out of a kind of respect, women are often left alone. About 20 minutes before the border, we got out of the vehicle and began walking through olive fields. We then walked another half-hour or so until we reached the border. At that time, there was still a lot of border traffic in both directions and there were also a lot of commuters.

What did the Syrian-Turkish border look like at the time?

There was a fence in some places, but not everywhere. Some of it was just stacked sandbags. There were also ditches on both sides, but there was no insurmountably large wall with floodlights or anything. The section where we crossed was like a corridor – everyone crossed the border fence there. A few sentry towers stood nearby with Turkish soldiers in them.

Did you have to pay bribes?

Yes, but not large amounts. It worked like this: A group of people pooled their money to buy themselves a window of time, maybe 15 minutes, during which the border guards would turn a blind eye. After we climbed over the fence, we walked another 15 minutes until we came to a parking lot. There was a camp there too, where people were selling sweets, where money could be exchanged and where a bunch of taxis were waiting. We got into one of the taxis and drove for another few hours through the night. At around 5 a.m., we arrived in a small town where a sign read "Al-Dana." There, the trafficker brought us to a safehouse, a multi-story, concrete building.

Were you afraid that night? By then, you were completely at the mercy of terrorists.

Of course I was afraid. But everything had basically gone off without a hitch until then. Only later did it hit me: Oh my God, I'm in Syria. But the next day, Laura came, and I felt relatively safe.

What was it like to see your friend for the first time after nearly 10 years?

Extremely intense. The fact that the meeting had taken place at all made me downright euphoric.

Did she come alone?

No, she had a driver with her and her three children.

How long did you stay?

I was there for eight days.

Why so long? You could have also said: a five-hour interview and then I'm off.

I wanted to be sure to give myself enough time for all the filming. I didn't want to just interview Laura, I wanted to interview a commander of her group. Laura and I spent nearly every minute together, even with her children. Most of the time we were inside and did things people normally do in Syrian apartments: We cooked, ate, played with the kids, watched videos. I did an interview with her as well and of course we talked a lot – about her life, about my life. We were both trying to figure out whether things were the same between us as they had been, or whether it was completely different.


It varied.

Is your former schoolmate a fanatic?

Of course. She's lived with her children in a war zone for 10 years and isn't prepared to return to Germany. She would of course face legal consequences here – her record isn't clean, after all. But in return, her children would have a safe life. As their mother, she's preventing that.

What's her stance on killing for her ideology?

She accepts it as necessary. She dedicated her life to this ideology, she sacrificed everything she had in Germany for it. She legitimizes violence through the lifestyle she has chosen – there's no such thing as pacifist jihadis. Of course, it does make a difference whether the group you belong to kills, or whether you take part in the killing yourself.

Has she killed?

I asked her, of course. She always denied it. She also denied ever having been involved in planning attacks.

Did you ask her whether she would blow herself up, like the jihadis from the Caucasus did after their husbands were killed?

Yes, because I was interested in learning how far she would go for her ideology. She said she had children who she needed to take care of and that she wouldn't do such a thing. I was very relieved because it showed that there were limits to what she would do.

What was your impression of her children?

They were lively and healthy. All three spoke German. Laura's daughter – she's the oldest – and the two boys rough-housed in their room, playing and laughing.

Did you think you would be able to take your schoolmate back to Germany with you?

I had hoped that my visit would have some effect. But when I left, it was clear that it was out of the question for her.

"But there were these men blocking the road. And they had Kalashnikovs."

Once your eight days were up, you made your way back to Turkey. But at the border, you turned back at the last minute. Why?

The atmosphere at the border was extremely heated. Turkish soldiers were beating up refugees, there was screaming, and then a few shots were fired. We were only a few meters away from the Turkish border when I decided it would be too dangerous to cross that night, in that situation – and there was also my pregnancy to consider.

So you and the trafficker drove back to Syria.

Yes, back to the house where I had met Laura, though she was already gone. The next evening, we headed back toward the border and wanted to try our luck at another crossing. But there were these men blocking the road. Their faces were covered, and they had Kalashnikovs. They raided our car and blindfolded me. When they took the blindfold off, I was in an empty room.

Did you realize what had happened? Or did you hope it was all just a big misunderstanding?

That first evening, I did in fact expect to be released immediately due to my friend's security guarantee. But I quickly realized that my hopes were for naught.

Did your kidnappers tell you what they wanted?

Yes, they told me they had no political goals and were only interested in money. The first night, I told the wife of one of the kidnappers that I was pregnant. I was crying, and she assured me that the men wouldn't harm me.

When did it become clear to you that you weren't going to be released after a few days?

Actually, in the first weeks and months, I held out real hope that I would soon be released. I thought: I'm German, I'm pregnant, there must be a way. The kidnappers also said that it would be over quickly.

How did your kidnappers treat you?

I was unbelievably lucky. We've all seen the news reports of mass rapes by Islamic State fighters. Thank God I was spared that. My kidnappers treated me with respect, insofar as you can say such a thing in such a situation. I was even allowed to write shopping lists for food and other things I needed.

You were never assaulted?

There were a few unpleasant situations, but I fared comparatively well. I was still fully aware that these weren't nice, humane guys. I knew they might cut off my head on camera.

Do you know now who your kidnappers were?

They belonged to Laura's group. The commander I had interviewed was involved, as was the trafficker, most likely.

And your former schoolmate?

She was involved, of course, since the kidnapping was carried out by elements of her group. But when it comes down to it, I don't think it happened with her knowledge. I think she, too, was betrayed by the group.

But a man who later married your friend was involved?

Yes, a Tunisian who had lived in Germany for some time.

When Janina Findeisen looked out her window at night, the sky would often be lit up by the exploding bombs of the Syrian civil war. On her sweatshirt is a poet's ode to his Palestinian homeland.

How did you endure your captivity?

I counted the hours, the days, and tried to press on in small stages. After I made it through 10 days, I told myself: Now you can make it through another 10 days. On the hundredth day, I told myself: You can make it that long again. I also kept a journal, in miniscule handwriting, because paper was scarce and so was pen ink. When I ran out of paper, I used food packaging. At the same time, I also looked to see if there were any opportunities to escape or to establish contact with the outside world. Of course, I also tried to deceive my kidnappers.


You come up with the wildest plans for how you might be able to escape. You have a lot of time, after all. I could have, for instance, stolen a rifle from one of the guards when they weren't paying attention. But I didn't – I wouldn't have even known how to switch off the safety. I also tried to get the attention of the people in neighboring houses. I collected tools when I had the chance, though I was never able to use them.

Did you have anything to read?

My kidnappers brought me a book once, or, to be more precise, a ring binder. It was the first part of an annotated version of the Koran.

Did you ever consider converting as a way of getting on your kidnappers' good side?

I thought about it, yes. If it would have been advantageous for me, I would have converted. Or rather: I would have pretended to convert. But it was never demanded of me.

Did you have any idea where your kidnappers were keeping you?

Of course, I kept trying to figure it out. But it was difficult. Every few weeks, I was brought to a new location. In total, they kept me in nine different apartments or houses. I tried again and again to orient myself, to deduce where I was based on the landscape I could see from my window. One time I noticed that my kidnappers were using a Turkish cell phone network, which meant we were in northern Syria, near the border.

After your mother reported you missing, the German government set up a crisis team. Negotiations with your kidnappers are said to have taken place through secondary channels. When did you learn of this?

After a few months, I learned negotiations were taking place with some Qatari foundation. To this day, I still don't know which one it was. There may also have been negotiations with a Turkish foundation. After a few weeks, the kidnappers took a photo of me, allegedly for the German government. Another time, the kidnappers wanted to know what instrument I had played as a child. It was the saxophone. Someone was obviously looking for proof of life.

With every day in captivity, the birth of your child drew closer. Every birth, even in Germany, comes with inherent risks. But you were in Syria. How afraid were you?

Up until the very end, I thought I would be back in Germany for the birth. The idea of giving birth to my child in Syria was unimaginable. I ignored reality – until the moment when I no longer could.

When the contractions started?

Not quite. I had already pretended to be in pain a few times before. I had hoped they would take me to a hospital where I could escape or at least make contact with doctors or nurses.

How did they react?

They brought me medicine that I secretly threw away. After a few days, they brought a fully veiled person into my room. It was at night, it was pitch dark, and I didn't even know if it was a woman under the veil. Then she greeted me in English.

Who was this woman?

Her name was Noor, the Arabic word for light. She was a gynecologist.

She probably realized that you were only pretending to be in pain.

Yes, but she gave me hope. Just the fact that she lifted her veil once the kidnappers had left the room. That was a very special moment for me; it was the first time I had seen another person's face in months, since the kidnappers always wore balaclavas. I also quickly noticed that the doctor was at least as fearful of the kidnappers as I was.

She didn't belong to the Islamists?

No. She had a practice not far away and specialized in home births. I later learned that at first, she had refused my kidnappers when they asked her for help. Then one day when she came home, her husband was gone and there was a note on the table, the gist of which was: Do what you're told. She was blackmailed to help me.

In order to keep you and your child safe in captivity, your kidnappers were willing to harm someone else.

For my kidnappers, I was nothing but an object of value. If I were to die, they would get nothing. In their calculus, Noor was a means of preserving my value. All she knew about me was that I was pregnant. When I told her that I had been kidnapped, she began to cry.

How did the birth proceed?

The men all left. We were alone, which created a special kind of intimacy. The doctor was well equipped, and I could tell she had a lot of experience. I felt like I was in good hands. Luckily, there were no complications, and in the end, my child was born, albeit in the wrong place. Suddenly, everything else seemed far, far away: the war, my kidnappers – it was just me and my son. He was so tiny and so fragile, but healthy.

"My kidnappers gave my son a stuffed polar bear."

Did your kidnappers congratulate you on the birth?

When a child is born in Syria, animals are slaughtered – especially when it's a boy. And then Kalashnikovs are fired into the air. They didn't go that far, but at least they brought me fried liver to help me gain back my strength.

Did having the baby change the way the kidnappers treated you?

Yes, it did. With a small child, I was even more helpless then before. When my son would wake up during the night and scream, they would ask the next morning what was wrong. They bought me chocolate and juice at the market along with baby food and diapers – the good ones – for the baby. In Syria, there are two kinds of diapers. The first kind are called "Assad diapers" and aren't good for much. And then there's Molfix, which are the premium diapers there. Those are the ones they brought me.

How long after the birth was the gynecologist available?

She left the day after the birth, but then she came back about a month later. I found it rather unsettling, but I was also lucky that my son never really got sick during that time.

Did you have any toys?

My kidnappers gave him a stuffed polar bear, a promotional giveaway from Coca-Cola – they probably got it from an aid delivery. I also made him a rattle using olive pits and a plastic bottle. When he was older, I fashioned an aquarium of sorts from a plastic bottle: The aquatic plants were made from green fabric and I cut the fish out of food packaging using nail clippers. When you shook the bottle, the fish would float through the water.

How do you intend to explain to him later why he was born in a war zone?

I will tell him exactly how it happened.

Aren't you afraid that he could be reproachful?

I've thought a lot about that. When the time comes, I will face up to his questions.

After about 10 months, you received two letters. What was that like?

One of them was from my family, the other was from the father of my child. Finally, I had contact with the outside world. On the other hand, it was also difficult: I was afraid that another 10 months would go by before I received another letter.

How did the letters even get to you?

I don't really know for sure. My mother gave them to the authorities. I still wonder to this day how they then found their way to me.

You were released before your son's first birthday. How did it happen?

At some point, I heard gunfire outside, but that wasn't all that unusual. Then the door opened and one of my guards came in and told me to pack my things and that we had to leave in a hurry. I was taken to the apartment next door. After a while, the guard who had stood watch over me more than any other appeared at the door. He had always worn a balaclava, but this time he wasn't wearing one – and he was surrounded by masked men armed with Kalashnikovs. They were calling out: "Janina, Janina! Freedom, freedom!"

Whenever Findeisen was taken to a new place, she had to wear a blindfold in addition to veils.

But it wasn't a German special forces unit. Rather yet another group of Islamists.

They took me out of the building without a blindfold. It was the first time that I could see where I was. I saw housing blocks, a mosque, a white van. The men had beaten my guard and stuffed him in the trunk. I climbed into the vehicle with my son and then we headed off. After some time, they took off their face masks and told me that I was on my way to Germany.

Yet it took another 12 days before you could leave Syria.

They first took me to Idlib. I had been liberated, but I wasn't free. It wasn't clear why I wasn't able to head to the border immediately. I was constantly told: Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. The men told me they first had to establish contact with the German government to make sure that someone would be on the other side to receive me, etc.

Ultimately, the group brought you to the Syrian-Turkish border, where several German officials were waiting for you. What was that like?

Following the initial friendly greetings, a BKA official (the reference is to Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office) patted me down from top to bottom. I can sort of understand why. They didn't know anything about me. I could just as well have been wearing a suicide belt and hoping to kill two or three Turkish soldiers along with three BKA agents. But then they gave me a big bag with water, cola and chocolate along with clothes, baby food and toys for my son.

The Kidnappers

It is currently believed that Janina Findeisen's kidnappers belonged to a splinter group of the Nusra Front. The Islamist organization, which at one point was believed to have roughly 7,000 members, was once aligned with al-Qaida. Experts have ascribed numerous attacks and massacres in Syria to the group. The United Nations, the U.S. and Russia have designated the Nusra Front as a terrorist group. In July 2016, the group broke away from al-Qaida and has since called itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or the Front for the Conquest of the Levant. Janina Findeisen's book, “Mein Zimmer im Haus des Kriegs: 351 Tage gefangen in Syrien” ("My Room in the House of War: 351 Days Trapped in Syria") will be published on April 2, 2019 by the German publishing house Piper-Verlag.

Around the same time, an Islamist group called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham posted online that it had been responsible for freeing you. A Shariah court had ordered your release.

Because of the security guarantee. The judge apparently ruled that it had been un-Islamic to kidnap me and that freeing me had re-established Islamic law.

One Islamist group frees you from the clutches of another Islamist group with whom they are supposedly allied? Do you believe that's really what happened?


Do you think a ransom might have been paid? At times during your captivity, it was said that your kidnappers were demanding 5 million euros.

I have no information whether ransom money was paid.

Why do you think the Islamists didn't free you sooner?

I don't know. They told me that they had known about my kidnapping but didn't know where I was being held or who exactly had kidnapped me.

Did you ask German officials if ransom money had been paid?

Yes. And they told me it hadn't.

What happened next?

I had to stay there for a few more days until the formalities were cleared up. Then I took a commercial flight to Cologne Bonn Airport.

Did you have to pay for anything?

My family paid for the return flight from Turkey – and for the things that were in the bag.

What was it like to be reunited with your family in Cologne?

I was incredibly relieved to have brought this endlessly long trip to a positive conclusion. And everything seemed so incredibly beautiful, Germany. More beautiful than I had ever experienced it before.

Would you go to Syria again?


To a different war zone?

Others are better at it than I am.

Did Germany change in the year you were away?

A lot. The country had shifted to the right. Suddenly, refugee hostels were burning and people with foreign roots were being attacked. I was totally surprised at how quickly the mood had changed.

Back to your former schoolmate. There are suspicions that your trip could have been a trap from the very beginning.

I don't believe it was, even if that's what Focus (a German newsmagazine) wrote. I know our email exchanges and it wasn't as if Laura had lured me in any way. At some point, there could have been efforts from her jihadi group to organize the trip. But the impetus came from me. I had the feeling that I had a novel storyline about terror and could present it in a different light.

Did you see your former schoolmate during your captivity?


Did you speak to her about it later?

Yes, we chatted through an encrypted messaging app.

What did she say? Was she sorry?

Yes, she was. I think that year had an effect on her, too.

Do you think that she is less radical than she was before?


Does she know about your book?


Did you let her read it prior to publication?

Yes, parts of it.

Why did you give someone who calls for jihad this privilege?

I understand your concerns, but it was merely to check facts.

Are there parts of your book that you changed at the request of your schoolmate?

I just modified a few superficial details that she pointed out. But the book is very much my view of events.

Do you think you will ever see her again?

I hope so, but if we do, it will be in Germany. If it's not already too late.

About Janina Findeisen

Findeisen also once worked together with the SZ-Magazin and has known one of the twojournalists who conducted this interview for some time. Together with Frederik Obermaier, she interviewed an Islamist from the southern-German region of Allgäu, using the alias Marie Delhaes to ensure her safety. The man raved about jihad and threatened to kill his own family if they tried to stop him. Following the interview, he was deported from Germany to Turkey before then traveling to Syria and joining an Islamist group. He died in summer 2016 during a skirmish in Syria's Latakia province. At the time, Findeisen was being held hostage, presumably somewhere in neighboring province of Idlib.

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