Freelance photographer Matthew Schrier spent the final weeks of 2012 in Aleppo, Syria, shooting the country’s civil war alongside the rebel group Free Syrian Army. On New Year’s Eve, he was being driven to Turkey, en route to returning home to the United States, when a silver Jeep Cherokee cut off his taxi. Three men equipped with AK-47s rushed the cab, pulled Schrier out and placed him inside the Jeep.
Schrier had become a hostage of one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Middle East.
In his new book, “The Dawn Prayer (Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison)” (BenBella Books), Schrier recounts his harrowing seven months as a prisoner of Jabhat al-Nusra, better known in the West as al Qaeda in Syria. He was imprisoned and tortured, lived in concrete cells infested with bedbugs, and developed contentious relationships with other prisoners before finally escaping.
After being taken, Schrier was brought blindfolded into a dark basement and interrogated by a bearded man who introduced himself as Gen. Mohammed.
Asked his background, Schrier said he was a Christian of German ancestry — in reality, he was Jewish and mostly of Russian descent. He then tried to win over his captor by making him laugh.
He asked if they were going to kill him. When Mohammed answered, “Nahhhh,” Schrier writes that he pretended to believe him. “ ‘Woohoo! Happy New Year!’ I yelled, one fist raised triumphantly over my head,” he writes. “I let out a slight laugh to show that I wasn’t scared and gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder. ‘You guys really had me worried there for a second!’ ”
Gen. Mohammed laughed. Score one for the hostage.
After spending several days in a cell alone, Schrier was moved to a cell with Muslim prisoners and developed a fast camaraderie, bonding with them over their love for American celebs such as Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears.
That respite was short lived. He was sent back to solidarity confinement before being paired with another freelance American journalist, Theo Padnos.
Schrier disliked him from the get-go, but Schrier’s description of their interactions makes it clear there was questionable behavior on both sides.
Schrier writes that the first time he saw Padnos, the journalist had already been held in solitary, and tortured, for three months.
“His face was a mask of terror as he jabbered at Mohammed, and the jihadis all laughed,” Schrier writes. “I had never seen someone so clearly traumatized in my life.”
Over the next six months, the two men were forced to live and sometimes plot together. According to Schrier, Padnos would do stupid, malicious things that would endanger their lives, such as carving a Star of David into the wall of their cell, even though he wasn’t Jewish.
Schrier describes a conversation the two had in their cell:
“Hey, Theo, what if they came in here with a pistol and one bullet and said, ‘Kill Matt and we’ll let you go? Would you do it?” Schrier recalls asking.
“ ‘Yes,’ he said without hesitation,” Schrier writes. “ ‘Really?’ I asked, taken aback.”
“Yeah, this is war,” Padnos replied. “You have to do what you have to do to survive.”
Syrian soldiers walk the front lines in Aleppo in 2012 in one of the few pictures by Schrier that survived his capture and imprisonment.Matthew Schrier
Over time, the pair discussed escaping, rarely agreeing on how to do it. As Schrier began carving away a piece of their front door hidden beneath a rectangular plate, Padnos cut a peephole in the door’s center, where it was clearly visible.
When Mohammed discovered it, he punched Schrier repeatedly, kicked him in the abdomen and smashed the back of his head with a piece of concrete. Padnos was next. Schrier writes that when Mohammed pointed a Glock at Padnos’ head, he begged Mohammed not to shoot him.
He didn’t, but Padnos was led away to be tortured, with Schrier hearing his screams from down the hall.
With a hat placed over his eyes, Schrier was then brought to a boiler room he describes as “dim and dirty, lit by a single bulb that made the shadows truly haunting, with the echo of a thousand screams in the air.”
He was approached by a man who appeared to be holding a nightstick, then put on the ground, crouching so his knees almost touched his chin. A tire was placed around his knees and a steel bar slid under his knees above the tire, locking his legs in place. He was flipped over so his feet were in the air, and he noticed that the nightstick was actually a thick cable.
Next, he felt the “whack” of the cable on the bottoms of his feet, then another and another. It felt, he writes, like “two sledgehammers being brought down on the centers of both feet simultaneously.” He screamed, “God, help me,” over and over, but no one did. Several men took turns beating him. He received 115 whacks in all.
Schrier and Padnos would be tortured many more times. To gain favor with his captors, Schrier eventually pretended to convert to Islam and also “confessed” to being a CIA agent.
Increasingly, he came to believe that he would never be released and that escape was his only hope. At one point, Schrier and Padnos were placed in a cell with windows overlooking an unguarded spot at the back of the building. Standing on Padnos’ back to see out, Schrier noticed a patchwork fence he could unfurl. After several attempts and much arguing, Schrier was able to untangle the fence and, standing on Padnos’ back, work his way out the window.
Schrier writes that he tried to pull Padnos through the window but that he wouldn’t fit, and that after several attempts, he promised Padnos he would send help, then took off.
Padnos, who spent another year in captivity before being released and was heavily tortured after Schrier’s escape, has disputed his account and compared Schrier during their captivity to “an abusive husband.”
“Hey, Theo, what if they came in here with a pistol and one bullet and said, ‘Kill Matt and we’ll let you go? Would you do it?”
Padnos tells The Post that the pair began brainstorming escape plans 10 days before Schrier got away and that at first, Schrier expected Padnos to help him flee without Schrier returning the favor.
“He wanted to go out and just be gone,” Padnos recalled. “I said, ‘I won’t help you get out unless you promise to wait for me.’ He said, ‘Why should I wait for you?’ I said, ‘Courtesy,’ and he said, ‘This isn’t a f- -king country club.’ ”
Eventually, Schrier promised to wait for him, saying they would escape together. The day of the escape, Padnos spent several minutes helping maneuver Schrier out the window. But Padnos says that once outside, Schrier, in a mix of excitement and panic, gave a perfunctory effort, trying to pull Padnos through the window for about 30 seconds before giving up and taking off, saying that he feared people were listening, and that he would send help.
“I don’t blame him for this,” Padnos said. “To me, this was a relatively trivial incident in the whole saga. He was really abusive to me during the previous seven months, [and] he was abusive to the other prisoners. I blame him for his behavior in his cell, but not what he did in this moment of panic. There could have been snipers on the rooftops — he didn’t know. It was like a combat situation.”
Schrier found assistance from friendly locals and made his way safely first to Turkey, then the US. Padnos was let go after the government of Qatar negotiated his release for what it said were humanitarian reasons.
Today, Schrier speaks to military groups about his ordeal and has maintained a sense of optimism about what comes next.
“At the end of my speech[es], there’s always a Q&A section,” he writes. “I usually get a lot of the same questions, and one that I hear almost every time is whether I get nightmares. My answer is always the same. ‘No,’ I tell them. ‘I have dreams.’ ”